Dima Wannous / “Contemporary Arabic literature is going through a new creative experience”

Dima Wanness discusses the fear of fear in her IPAF nominated novel The Frightened Ones

"Literature is the real history of countries and cities and nations," Dima Wannous. Photo: Supplied

by Maan Jalal / Translation: Ennis Jalal

Culture 24 April 2018

Dima Wannous’ novel, The Frightened Ones is set in contemporary Syria and follows the character of Suleima and her infatuation with the handsome Naseem. But before you make any quick judgments, this isn’t what we’d call a love story in the traditional sense.

When Naseem sends Suleima a pile of papers she reads every page and finds herself lost in a piece of literature –  an unfinished novel about a woman controlled by fear. And despite the daunting task, Suleima decides to finish the novel from her own perspective.

‘Fear is the main idea in this novel,’ Wannous told The Arab Edition, ‘That terrible sensation, not a small thing in a country like Syria. Millions of Syrians live this fear every moment of their lives. Even their dreams can’t escape it.’

The Frightened Ones has been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) and is currently being translated into seven languages. This is Wannous’ second novel and third work of fiction. Her short story collection Details was published in 2007 and her first novel, Chair, was published in 2008. She has also written for a number of newspapers including The Washington Post.

The importance of awards, the relationship between a writer and their characters and the importance of translating literature Wannous discusses these pressing issues in Arab literature and more with The Arab Edition.

How did the idea for The Frightened Ones come to you and how long did the first draft take?
Four years after the revolution in Syria, I decided to complete a novel I had started five years previously. I couldn’t separate myself from the events taking place in my country from devastation, ruin, killings, arrests, and suppression to demonstrations and initiatives in a peaceful city. I immersed myself in details and started to research daily life, as though I was recording the diary of brave friends, who decided to stay or didn’t have the opportunity to leave.  This allowed me to finish the novel I was writing decisively and to start The Frightened Ones. I wanted the writing to go deeper than daily events, to reveal what lies beneath for the last few decades, what made the Syrians move out into the streets, to not come back. Fear is the only sensation that binds all Syrians together in all their facets, their communities and their backgrounds socially culturally and religiously.

What have been the general reactions and responses from readers to the novel?
The responses have been positive generally speaking from friends and from critics, especially because the novel mimics the memory and daily lives of millions in any Arab country where fear lives.

The novel is being translated into English? What are you hoping a Western reader will learn or take away from your novel?
The novel is currently being translated into 7 foreign languages; English is only one of them. Literature is the real history of countries and cities and nations. Unfortunately, Syria today is all over the world’s newspapers as a savage country, with nothing in it except for military and religious tyrants. This horrific stereotype of cities and nations in the Middle East isn’t new. As translation from Arabic into foreign languages flourishes, especially the work that the younger generations is doing, there will be an opportunity for foreign readers to know and understand that our lives and our environment is far from the stereotypical, oriental view. 

The novel deals with this interesting idea of ending – be it literature or a love story. How do you deal with endings when you are finishing a novel? Do you find them harder then beginnings?
I think beginnings are much harder than endings, they require more thinking and hesitations and procrastination, mean while endings come to me in a much clearer way.  The writer, in my opinion, chooses beginnings whereas an ending supposes itself on the writer.

The character of Suleima is really interesting. How did she come to you and how do you feel about her? Do agree with the decisions she makes?
As I’ve said many times in other interviews, a writer cannot completely separate themselves from their writing, their characters are the same whether they are male or female. All the characters are plucked from the writers memory and experience and of their relationships with their surroundings and themselves. I like Sulaima as much as I like Naseem and Kameel and every character in the book.

Fear is the only sensation that binds all Syrians together in all their facets, their communities and their backgrounds socially culturally and religiously.

What was your reaction when you found out you were shortlisted for the IPAF?
It made me happy to know that the novel was shortlisted. In this day and age in the ruin we live in, we need moral support to allow us to be able to carry on and for any defender to allow us to wake in the morning and to a smile, even if it may be a fragile distraction.

Have you found that more people have read your novel since it’s been shortlisted for the IPAF?
From early on it was said that it would be read more now and as time goes on. The IPAF shortlist encourages people to read, especially because social media has stolen people away from physical books and has made it easier to choose and read six books as opposed to tens of books. It’s a sad situation because a lot of important and valuable books might not be nominated for literary prizes and deserve to be read more than books that have reached the long or short list in any prize, Arabic or international.

How important are awards such as the IPAF?
Their importance to the Arabic novel reflects on the writer and also the publishing house, in so much that it encourages and increases the amount that people read, generally speaking. In addition to that, they recognize the value of literature in the form of a novel and not the overall literary works of a writer. We also cannot deny its material value, where writers cannot make writing a profession for themselves especially in our region. Writers are forced to work in other professions on the side to make a living for themselves so that they can pursue their true love in life.

How would you describe the state of Arab literature at the moment?
Contemporary Arabic literature is going through a new creative experience. After the revolutions in the Arab world, a new generation of writers have been liberated from greater political social and religious issues, and have presented work, which has rejuvenated language, expression and story telling. The liberation from the bigger issue gives the writers imagination a wider and richer space to work within for experimentation.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a French book by the French Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui called I write to you from Tehran. In it, she talks about her experience in living in Tehran for ten years.

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