British-Palestinian fiction writer Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel Out of It, newly published in the UK by Bloomsbury Publishing, was launched at the Mosaic Rooms in central London last Thursday with a discussion between Dabbagh and the distinguished British novelist Maggie Gee, followed by a book signing.
Out of It is an inter-generational Palestinian novel set in Gaza, England and the Gulf. The novel’s main characters are 27-year-old twins Rashid and Iman, their parents, and their older brother Sabri. Confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs in an explosion that killed wife and son, Sabri is writing a book on Palestinian history.
As the novel opens Gaza is under bombardment. Unemployed Rashid, who has been awake through the night smoking marijuana and watching the onslaught, is offered an escape route in the form of a scholarship to London. His twin Iman, a teacher who is uncomfortably aware she is seen as a Swiss-educated outsider and returnee, is trying with difficulty to find a role as an activist. On her way home from a night-long women’s committee meeting she finds she is being watched by an armed fighter in a green jacket. The plot of Out of It includes family secrets, love stories, factionalism, and betrayals.
Following its UK publication, the novel (published as a trade format paperback) is set to make an international splash, with Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) publishing it in on 19 December for sale in the Middle East and worldwide. Publication in the USA by Bloomsbury USA is scheduled for June 2012. (BQFP has world rights in all languages, and has licensed rights to Bloomsbury London to sell their edition in the UK: the US office is distributing the Bloomsbury UK edition in North America).
BQFP will publish an Arabic translation in December 2012. The translator is the poet and novelist Samer Abu Hawwash, born in Lebanon in 1972 to a Palestinian refugee family. Abu Hawwash is one of the ‘Beirut 39’ authors – the 39 Arab authors aged less than 40 selected by a panel of judges in 2009 for the superior quality of their work.
Although Out of It is Dabbagh’s first published novel, the London-based author has won acclaim for her Palestine-oriented short stories in the past few years. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies, including those published by Granta and International PEN, and have been nominated for several prizes including the International PEN David TK Wong Award and the Pushcart Prize.
At the London launch Maggie Gee said she had first come across Dabbagh’s writing five years ago when she was co-editing an anthology for the British Council. The anthology NW15: The Anthology of New Writing, vol 15 (Granta, 2007) was co-edited by Gee and Bernadine Evaristo.
“There were commissioned pieces and around 800 unsolicited pieces,” Gee recalled. “Two short stories by Selma Dabbagh – this writer whose name we didn’t know at all – floated straight to the top of the pile. We were very torn over which one to include.” She and Evaristo finally chose the story "Down the Market". “It was one of the pieces of writing we were proudest of having in the anthology,” Gee says.
The Guardian newspaper’s reviewer of the anthology Caroline McGinn was enthusiastic about the story. She wrote: “The first-timers range further afield, with wildly varying degrees of accomplishment. Among the best in prose are Selma Dabbagh, who makes nail-biting narrative out of the plight of the Palestinians...”
Another of Dabbagh’s stories, “Me (the Bitch) and Bustanji”, was well-received when it appeared in Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women edited by Jo Glanville (Telegram Books 2006). Suzanne Joinson described the story in Al Ahram Weekly as “entertaining and moving”.
Out of It carries on its cover praise from the British-Egyptian fiction writer and essayist Ahdaf Soueif, founder of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). Soueif writes: “An original and vivid voice. Full of energy, this is a new and welcome take on the Palestinian story.’ Soueif also chose it as one of her books of the year in the Guardian Review.
Edited excerpts from the discussion between Maggie Gee and Selma Dabbagh:
Maggie Gee: Your first novel, Out of It, is just coming out. It’s being published here and in the United States and in Arabic translation, I believe you have interviews lined up in the press, and Ahdaf Soueif has chosen it as her book of the year ... so I’m wondering how you’re feeling.
Selma Dabbagh: I’m feeling great – a bit nervous, but it’s very gratifying to have a physical object and get it published - a physical object which manifests a dream in a way, something I’ve been working on for a very long time.
Maggie Gee: I think the heart of this book – like the heart, in a way, of most great novels – is a family. And it’s a divided family – divided between generations, divided between the children, and also geographically divided. It’s an archetypal modern familyn if you liken and it’s a Palestinian family – but at heart it is just family, this great subject for novels. And you make us understand them all, even if we don’t always like them. Was that your aim?
Selma Dabbagh: Yes, definitely. I mean I don’t think I’ve got any perfectly nice characters: they all have aspects to them which are awkward, and particularly with each other, so there’s quite a lot of fractiousness. But in the broader Palestinian context I was quite keen to have a family which showed between the generations different eras of struggle. So each generation represents a different phase or wave of Palestinian resistance within this one family. The main division is between the twin brother and sister – one of whom, the sister, wants to engage more politically whereas the brother just wants to opt out. But in the current political climate it seems to be very difficult either to engage meaningfully or to actually get out from the pressures of people wanting you to be politicised.
Maggie Gee: you say you poke fun at them but actually I think you inhabit them very fully as well. We see the world through their eyes and that’s one of the things I admire most of all. Iman and Rashid are 27-year-old twins and they are the educated young: maybe in some respects life is easier for them but they have the weight of the older generation, the expectations of the older generation, the things the older generation have done in that different era of struggle, always on their backs in a way. Jibril is the father and Jihan the mother, and I believe you’re going to read something to us about Jibril in exile.
Selma Dabbagh: I’ve just got one very short reading today. The father of the two main characters is actually separated from the mother and he lives in the Gulf. Part of Palestinian existence is this fragmentation over geography. He was active within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) but has left it. He’s waiting in this unidentified Gulf state for his daughter Iman to arrive from Gaza. He’s sitting in somewhere like Starbucks and he’s found out that the man behind the counter who’s got a sign [name badge] saying ‘Ernesto’ is actually a Palestinian from his village and they are from interrelated families. He’s got very excited about this – the whole thing has kind of come alive to him again, so he’s sort of meditating ... Ernesto comes from a family called the Abu Wazirs and Jibril is from a family called the Mujaheds.
[Selma reads from Chapter 24 of Out of It]
Maggie Gee: This is one of those books where the title runs through the book like a watermark; all good literary books do that. In Out of It people are always longing to be out of it, but they are always pulled back. In that passage I think it’s great the way Jibril is in this kind of globalised limbo and he’s suddenly hijacked by ... the name, the village, and suddenly he’s back again. In all your characters there’s that terrific tension – certainly in the young, they so want to get out. Rashid is desperate to get out, but when he gets out he doesn’t fit, and then he’s longing for a home which isn’t home. So it’s a book about exile and restlessness I suppose.
One of the things that is terrific about this book is that while a lot of good literary novels are by old people about old people, this is a novel about what it is to be in your twenties. And with these two 27-year-old twins I think you are deeply in touch with that feeling of frustration, and hopefulness. Could you say something about the twins and about that youthfulness?
Selma Dabbagh: I partly chose them because I wanted that energy, because I think Palestine is a subject that has got very deadened – it’s overdone in the media, it’s connected with politics, it’s connected with perennial continuing problems. It’s somewhere people don’t really want to go, it’s not very accessible. So I wanted something new and fresh and to have that energy and that frustration. Half the population of Gaza is under 16, it’s a very young population that you’re dealing with. The novel for me started with an image, which was this boy leaping on a roof, this idea of someone defying the bomber ahead of him, what did that mean.
Maggie Gee: Also it’s a touching picture of brother and sister, there’s a sort of playfulness and tenderness. You are taking on a very difficult subject, the life of young Palestinians in Gaza and in exile and the relationship to their country and their parents. I say it’s difficult – it shouldn’t be difficult, but because effectively Palestine’s a war zone and people have very strong feelings about it your book is going to be read politically and this sometimes may make for rather less nuanced readings, or maybe for stupid readings. I’m wondering if your own awareness that this would happen made the writing more difficult.
Selma Dabbagh: Incredibly difficult. I was really anxious, particularly in the beginning when I first started writing it, about getting the representation right. I don’t think that that’s something which would affect you if you are writing on other subjects, but when you feel maybe a subject matter or a people have been misrepresented, I think that the onus on you is much greater.
Maggie Gee: All I can say is I’m sure it was more difficult but it doesn’t come out in any way as deadened or PC (politically correct). I think how you do it is by plural voices, by showing lots and lots of points of view coming in and fighting. It’s a very frank book and it says a lot of unsayable things, which is great...
I think you really enjoy dialogue. I felt a little uncomfortable reading this book as a British reader because [it makes] you see yourself from the outside and you see yourself as you might be seen by people coming to this country from any Arab culture really. It’s that sense of what we sound like, what our food is like, and particularly I think there’s some fantastic dialogue. I love satire ... and there’s a particular I think supper where some middle class people are talking – it’s so recognisable and it’s wince-making. You recognise yourself in a way and it’s very funny and it’s very accurate and I think it’s great .. Did you enjoy the wit?
Selma Dabbagh: I think some of the other things I’ve written have been funnier. I had a bit of a sense of humour failure on the subject matter sometimes – it’s quite hard to sort of crack jokes in Gaza for example –but I wanted to keep it light and I’m glad that comes through.
Maggie Gee: I think it does. It’s not necessarily what people expect from a book about Palestine. I suffer from this myself: if you write books about serious subjects people just can’t quite believe you’re joking. And they’re sort of – ‘is she being funny?’ But it is a very funny book.
I want to talk about metaphor. One of the things that makes this a very good literary book, as well as a book that has got terrific pace, is that it’s full of metaphors. But they are not the kind of metaphors that I think sometimes make our school of writers quite difficult ... because sometimes there’s a sense there of an effort being made, of yet another good metaphor being invented. Whereas with Selma there’s a sense it’s all organic, that this is the way she sees the world - it’s the energy of the writing I think. There are so many examples and these are just ones I came across at random: tents that are temporary habitations are sprouting limbs and blanket corners in the morning where they don’t quite fit. There is a plump man, a sad lip of fat pouted over his belt, I love that. Charles Denham’s skin smells like “wet potato peel”. And I wanted to ask you ... do you just write? I got the feeling that’s exactly the way you experience.
Selma Dabbagh: Sometimes you mull over a particular scene for quite a while, if you want to add something to it.
Maggie Gee: And I loved it when Rashid opens his window and he hears "the blunder of lorries, clouds of birds..." It’s a beautifully written book. The last thing I want to say – there’s a lot to praise about this book – is I want to praise something that I think is very important and that I think a lot of literary novels miss out on: this novel has a very strong sense of plot and structure, pulling us on towards the end. I was reading very carefully and I got within three pages of the end and I still did not know how it was going to end. I was desperate to know and I genuinely didn’t know. This is very rare in a literary book. And when the ending comes, of course I mustn’t give it away, it works at a plot level and it’s also a perfect metaphor for what happens to – well let’s say it’s about the gap between the lucky and the unlucky and it’s a superb metaphorical ending. I think why this is an important book as well as a terrific read, because the future depends on how we negotiate the difference between the lucky and the unlucky.
After the discussion Alexandra Pringle, editor in chief of Bloomsbury Adult Books, gave the audience some background on Bloomsbury’s interest in Palestine-related books:
"About three or four years ago Ahdaf Soueif asked me to go on the Palestine Festival of Literature. I went with 20 or so writers through Palestine and it was the most profoundly moving, upsetting and revealing experience I would say of my life. And I will never forget a moment when one of the band of us, the writer and ex-publisher Carmen Callil – who had been my rather frightening boss many years before – turned to me and said darling, we writers, it’s hard for us to do anything but you publishers can, you have to publish. And that stayed with me so forcefully. Since then we’ve published Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I Shall Not Hate and now Selma’s really wonderful novel that I think tells you more than any work of non-fiction or journalism what the living breathing experience is of being young and alive and from Gaza. And for that we have to thank her profoundly, and hope for huge success for this book."
Pringle and Dabbagh will be in conversation at 2pm on 22 January at an event entitled Publishing a First Novel being held as part of the First Fictions launch weekend - a festival in Brighton to celebrate and champion first novels, past and present.
report by Susannah Tarbush