Kuwaiti author Mai al-Nakib's beautifully accomplished first collection of short stories, The Hidden Light of Objects, was published recently by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing. Al-Nakib, born in Kuwait in 1970, has a PhD in English Literature from Brown University in the USA. She lives in Kuwait where she teaches postcolonial studies and comparative literature at Kuwait University. Al-Nakib is currently writing her first novel.
Susannah Tarbush interviewed Mai Al-Nakib
Your collection gives a wonderfully cosmopolitan portrayal of the Kuwait in which the stories are set, and of links with other countries in the Arab world and beyond. Could you please say a bit more than there is in the book jacket about your family background?
Although I was born in Kuwait, I was just a few months old when I was whisked away to London, then Edinburgh, then St. Louis, Missouri, by my parents who, like many of their generation, were gaining knowledge and expertise abroad in order to return to help develop their young nation-state. We did not return to Kuwait until I was six, which meant that my first language was English. And once back in Kuwait, this did not change as much as you might imagine. My parents enrolled me in the American School of Kuwait (ASK)—this at a time when it was exceedingly rare, even slightly untoward, for girls whose parents were both Kuwaiti to attend international schools. But my mother staunchly believed in the benefits of an American system of education and so she insisted (not to my father, who was always on her side), but to concerned friends and family, that her girls would go to ASK, even if it was socially exceptional.
So English was and remains, quite literally, my mother tongue. In fact, it was my mother’s own first language too. Like many merchant families in Kuwait, her family had settled in India. Like me, my mother was born in Kuwait and was soon after relocated to India, where she attended a British mission school. She, like most of her family, was also fluent in Hindi, something she passed down to me and my sisters. My father’s side of the family traces its own intricate map across the region with points in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and, of course, Kuwait. His particular linguistic trail shifts from Arabic to German and Latin, followed by English. Between them, my parents configure a complicated constellation of places and languages, a cosmopolitan chart that has, needless to say, informed my perspective on the world.
Mai Al-Nakib signs copies of her collection at its Kuwait launch
But it is not a perspective unique to me. It is, I am convinced, a point of view common to many in Kuwait because of its historical cosmopolitanism. Both as a thriving commercial port town since the 1700s and as an emerging nation-state in the first half of the twentieth century, Kuwait and its population tended to be globally interactive, developing an outward-looking, generally tolerant sensibility. In the 1970s, it was a sensibility that still dominated my parents’ generation—taught as they were mainly by Palestinian teachers in Kuwait, then educated abroad, then, in their prime, back to build the country according to the exciting range of images collated along the way.
Furthermore, it was a sensibility passed on to their children, the generation of us coming of age in the 1980s. As evident on the streets of Salmiya or Hawalli or among the student body at ASK or even government schools, the texture of our community was decidedly varied and complex and, for the most part, harmonious. For example, up until 1990, Palestinians in Kuwait made up about eighteen percent of the population. This community, in Kuwait starting from at least the 1940s, played an indispensable role in helping to develop the country as a modern state and was well integrated early on. Their presence, as well as that of other nationalities from all over the world, contributed to Kuwait’s rich cosmopolitanism. Sadly, and for a variety of knotty reasons, I’d say this pluralistic perspective and way of life has been on the decline since the early 1980s.
Mai Al-Nakib at the Kuwait launch of The Hidden Light of Objects
The stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are written with a high degree of skill and have a distinctive poetic and economical style, and a touch that is light yet moving. When did you start writing short stories? Did you study creative writing during eg university studies, and do you teach it?
Although in one way or another I’ve been writing my whole life, it wasn’t until I completed my graduate work and started teaching at Kuwait University that my focus shifted to fiction. I studied English literature at Brown University, with a special focus on postcolonial studies and modernism. I did not study creative writing, nor do I teach it. I teach graduate and undergraduate courses mainly in postcolonial studies and comparative literature. I learned to write by being a voracious reader.
You write in a remarkably fresh way about the lives of young people and uninhibitedly depict their passions. When were these stories written and how do you find the experience of writing about children and young adults? How do you manage to recreate their world so effectively?
These stories were written long after my own experience of young adulthood! But the experience of childhood and adolescence is something that has always appealed to me, in books and, especially, in film. In his remarkable collection of vignettes, titled Berlin Childhood around 1900, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin revisits the world of his childhood at the turn of the last century by presenting to his readers a series of seemingly ordinary objects and experiences—from a sock and sewing box to a carousel ride and butterfly hunt. As Benjamin well recognized, the world of childhood is socially irretrievable—there is, in other words, no going back, not for the child, nor for the society into which that child happened to be born.
Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900
Paradoxically, remembering these ephemeral moments of childhood (whether in criticism, as Benjamin does, or in fiction or film) becomes a way to look forward. Recapturing the past—making it visible to those who may have experienced something similar and forgotten about it or even to those completely unfamiliar with a given era or locale—allows us to reconsider what the present might have been and what the future might still become.
For the Jewish Benjamin, whose present was dominated by the catastrophe of Hitler and World War II, the exigency of an alternative future to the one unfolding before him was no trivial matter. In the remnants of his childhood he hoped to decipher the possibility of a better future for Europe, if not for himself. In my own emphasis on childhood and adolescence in my stories, I attempt something similar in the context of the Middle East: to remember a version of the past different from the one offered up by the various orthodoxies dominating the region post 9/11 and to imagine a future other than the one being assumed.
I only had two stories published before The Hidden Light of Objects: “The Year of Selma” in The First Line and a slightly different version of “Chinese Apples” in Ninth Letter. Both literary journals are based in the US and are print rather than electronic. Publishing stories is no easy task—every accepted story is normally preceded by many rejections.
To be honest, because I work as a full-time professor, I didn’t have the time to keep sending work out systematically, which is what needs to be done. I decided instead to focus on completing what, after the third or fourth story, I knew would be a loosely linked collection. When I felt I had a finished draft, I submitted a query letter and sample to Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which I believed would be a good fit for me and which at the time was accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I think I made the decision to wait and submit a collection on some kind of odd faith, since I do believe it is harder for a book of short stories to get published than it is for a novel. Of course, this is not to say that short story collections don’t succeed with readers. Great writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, and Alice Munro, among others, provide evidence to the contrary.
Your collection made me feel that the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War are somehow remembered less by the wider world than say the 2003 invasion of Iraq. My memory was jogged by references in your stories to for example abductions, fatal lung disease, fish dying en masse. Yet the events of 1990/91 had profound consequences for those living through them, as is reflected in your stories. Do you see the events as having a continuing effect?
I think of the 1991 Gulf War as the forgotten war. Not only in the West or the region, but in Kuwait itself, where a generation born after the invasion remembers nothing first hand, of course, but are not taught much about it either. In some ways, I think this forgetting might not be a terrible thing since it softens the path toward normalization of relations with Iraq and with Iraqis—an extremely important thing.
In other ways, forgetting this event that was, at least in part, the culmination of ill-conceived decisions made over the course of the previous decade, the 1980s, makes it more likely that similar mistakes happen again. Forgetting also blots out a version of Kuwait that existed up until that point (before the late 1970s or early 1980s), the version I mentioned earlier: cosmopolitan, outward-looking, generally tolerant, with a population (significantly both Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti) eager to develop an egalitarian nation-state, less self-centered, less consumed by materialism. The consequences of the invasion and post-invasion period continue to haunt the present—socially, economically, ecologically, demographically. My stories trace some of the more overlooked or subtle of these effects.
It is interesting to see the way in which you have interspersed the stories with vignettes, printed in a different typeface, which are related to the stories in various ways. Could you say something about this technique and why you chose it?
The stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are loosely linked, through language, images, characters, the trope of objects, and the series of vignettes, narrated in the first person, which precede each story. I wrote the vignettes together and, at first, thought they might stand together as a story in their own right. But once the collection was almost complete, it seemed to make more sense to introduce each story through a vignette tangentially linked to it.
That link between the vignette and its story was quite accidental. I didn’t have to change any of the vignettes to make them fit with their respective story. In fact, the stories don’t actually need the vignettes; but I felt their addition could provide a window into a specific experience and period in Kuwait—coming of age in the 1980s—that does relate to each of the other stories, even those not set in the same period or location. Their placement creates a kind of contrapuntal resonance that interests me. I think of the vignettes as an invisible wire holding the stories together or, more organically, as the collection’s connective tissue.
You are now working on your first novel. Could you tell us something about it: eg where and when it is set? How do you find the experience of writing a novel compares with writing shorter fiction?
I can’t say much about my novel because I feel awkward discussing work in progress. What I can say is that it is set in the Middle East, India, and the United States, from the 1920s to the present. Writing a novel—despite the difficulty that always comes with writing regardless of form—is proving to be a great pleasure. I like its sprawl and openness, the feeling that there is time and space to develop geographies and characters, to live in its world for longer than the period allowed by the short story form. In some ways, poetry and short stories seem more unforgiving to me. Their concentration insists on a kind of perfection the novel does not necessarily demand. I like living in the novel’s tolerance of imperfection.