Shahad Al Rawi - Egypt Today.
CAIRO - 19 January 2019: Shahad Al Rawi a runner up in the Arab Booker award for her debut novel, The Baghdad Clock and winner of the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is a young Iraqi author who has been the focus of the international press and Egypt Today caught up with her for an exclusive interview.
Q1: Much has been written about Shahd Al Rawi, how would you describe her?
I am not sure that much has been written about me, perhaps about my novel there has been many opinions and reviews. Shahd is a human being who found herself in this life, and strives to give this existence a meaning, at the age of thirty she discovered that the novel is the closest way to that sense. I do not wish to be anything more than to be myself and to express it in writing.
Q2: At what stage of your life did you think that you want to be a writer
From my first year of studies, I loved writing, and it took me countless attempts to search for the writer within me. I tried writing in many literary genres, and whenever I failed at each one, I kept looking for another genre, one that can give me the freedom to fit my expressive ability. I wrote in spoken and phonetic language and I have attempts in poetry but it is not worthy of publishing. I did not fear failure and I did not hesitate to try various form of literature.
Q3: When did you start jotting the first lines of The Baghdad Clock? Describe to us the journey of its completion and who/what inspired you to write it?
In the spring of 2015 I had finished reading a collection of novels written in English, most of them were by women from different countries and cultures. I was struck by their direct approach that is devoid of literary exaggerations. I told myself then, that I had an important story and I had to tell it, I sat down in front of the computer and discovered that the first sentence just did not want to come together. I left the table in an almost defeated state. I asked myself 'how would I write a novel and I do not even know how to begin? After several attempts, the opening sentence came as follows: ("Before she finished her story, I cut her off and got up from my seat, I went over to my mother and asked... ) After this sentence by a year and a half , the novel was completed and ready to be sent to the publisher. These were the best days of my life, the process of writing is a beautiful time, in fact it is extremely beautiful.. During this period there were short interruptions as I was travelling back and forth to see my parents in Iraq's Kurdistan but the book's events were living with me more than 24 hours a day.
Q4: How did you get nominated for the Edinburgh book award?
After the translation of the novel into English, it got published by the British publishing house 'One World' and I received an invitation to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival but I did not know that my novel entered the first novel contest this year, I only found out through my presence at the exhibition. I then went on to the festival website and found that 'The Baghdad Clock' was competing with 49 English novels, some of which were nominated for the long list of the well-known Man Booker Awards. I did not expect to win yet at the same time I had a slight hope of doing so. When I received the letter from the festival' president I could not believe myself and kept reading it over and over again. It really was a phenomenal happiness.
Q5: The Baghdad Clock won The Edinburgh Book award but came as a runner up in the Arab booker prize, in your opinion what are the reasons and could western audience be more receptive to the novel?
This is my first novel and competed with 124 Arabic novels, and the novel has reached its eighth edition in Arabic as so many readers fell in love with it. The Westerners loved it equally, because it is a story written from the heart, 'a local' novel written with real human feelings. We love books from different cultures not because they tell real stories about their culture, but because they belong to our planet who share the same feelings with us; Sadness, joy, love..etc are things that belong to human beings wherever they are. This novel belongs to everyone living in our world,
Q6: What did the award mean to you or what did it represent? And what impact will it have on your future work and personal life?
It is a representation of success, and I do not think there is a single writer in the world who does not seek success. The Edinburgh Festival Award will remain an important milestone in my journey. I will now have an additional responsibility for my upcoming novel. I know that my freedom has become restricted to certain extent. There is more pressure on me as I am directly under the spotlight. I do not want to be known or restricted by my first novel. I will try to take a few steps at least. Talking about this is easy, but when you sit at a table to write things are different.
Q7: As an Iraqi author do you think that long years of wars have shaped the subject matter of Iraqi literature as it is an integral part of Iraq's reality, and has this limited the scope of Iraqi writers or opened new horizons for them?
Certainly, wars and sanctions that have spanned almost 40 years will not leave the Iraqi writers free to overcome these things. We have lived through different kinds of wars and our personalities were formed from within them. I have tried to escape from the language of war, I had only one sentence (the fall of Baghdad) but it is beyond me that the war goes in line with stories of love, songs and mass exodus. This is not something that belongs to the Iraqi writers alone. The literature of war is well known in the experiences of world literature.
The state of war is supposed to be an exception to a peaceful life, but in my country the opposite is true. Peace was achieved only in the form of a short stroll waiting for a new war. I do not think that the Iraqi novel or the Iraqi literature in general will get rid of the sound of explosions in the foreseeable future even if God bless us with the peace we wish. War has unfortunately become an 'obnoxious friend' that we have to live with.
Q8: what does Shahad like to do on a daily basis? Hobbies, interests, activities? Favourite Iraqi food, writer, type of music that you listen to etc
I live a normal life, read it a lot, go to the gym sporadically, I love the kitchen but I'm not a good cook, I listen to old Iraq songs; the ones that I loved in the nineties when I was a teenager, sometimes I hear some classical music and I like Wagner and Vivaldi. I have a very limited number of friends, rarely meet them. In the past two years I have been busy preparing my doctoral thesis. I am always searching for resources that help me in this field and I have difficulty in doing so. Apart from these things, I go to the cinema at irregular times.
Q9: Can you envisage The Baghdad Clock being made into a film or TV series and if so who would play the two friends?
I'm not so enthusiastic about it, and I have not been offered such a thing. Writing novels is the most important thing that drives my passion.
Q 10: Has The Baghdad Clock success affected your next book release.
I started months ago with my new novel, but The Arab Booker and participating in world festivals in Edinburgh, Berlin and soon in India kept me out of the fold. I really feel guilty about the characters because I left them hanging at the beginning of the events. As I said earlier, I want to return to my solitude with the laptop outside of the ''prison'' that "The Baghdad Clock" has entrapped me within, I need to be liberated as soon as possible so then I can build a real relationship with the new novel.