Layla AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait where she found solace in books. Her childhood passion turned into a career. AlAmmar has an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and is working on a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.
Her book, Silence is a Sense, is her American debut, but she previously published The Pact We Made, which is available in many countries outside of America. She’s also has work published in Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, the St Andrews University Prose Journal, and in the collection Underground: Tales for London.
I spoke with AlAmmar via email where I asked questions about her life, work, and very broad questions about literature in the Middle East.
While Silence is a Sense is your first book published in America, you previously published The Pact We Made. How does that book pair with Silence? Can readers expect similar themes or tone in Pact?
The books are very different in terms of the themes they tackle. The Pact We Made is set in my home country of Kuwait and explores personal trauma, and in particular the unacknowledged nature of trauma in societies which are shackled by notions of shame, and which result in a wide range of exceedingly detrimental effects, particularly for women. It deals with the ways in which young women attempt to navigate modern society while still being beholden (to a certain extent) to traditions.
On the other hand, Silence is a Sense has a broader scope as it addresses personal and political trauma in addition to a sense of collective grief in the wake of failed revolutions, such as those we have seen over the past decade across the Arab world. The overlapping nature of these traumas produce devastating effects on the protagonist which she struggles to process and work through in a number of ways.
You grew up in Kuwait, where you say you found solace in books. What books helped you when you were younger?
My reading tastes at the time were largely driven by my American mother. As such, I read books from the US or England, like The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, and The Wind in the Willows. As I grew older, I turned to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, and the Brontes. It was in my early-20s that I turned towards Arab literature and began reading the work of Ahdaf Soueif, Ghada Samman, Mahmoud Darwish, and others.
Silence is about a woman who left Syria for England. How did this story come to be?
The issues that Silence is a Sense addresses — the Arab Spring uprisings, the refugee crisis, alt-right rhetoric and Islamophobia — were things I’d been deeply absorbed in from early 2011 (when the Arab Spring began). I had followed developments closely — whether it was reading books about the civil war in Syria or the refugee crisis, watching documentaries and interviews, reading human rights reports and testimonials — and had done so without consciously thinking I would put it into a novel.
Then, early in the summer of 2017, I was compelled by the voice of my protagonist, and her experiences and character came to me. I started writing down the thoughts and feelings I felt she would express, and this novel came into being.
Much of American media about Syria is strictly about war. I don’t think I’ve consumed much about the everyday people, unfortunately. How important was it for you to tell a story like this?
It was very important. It’s easy to think about issues affecting people halfway around the world in abstract terms. The mind has trouble comprehending the notion of six to seven million Syrian refugees (according to UNHCR) fleeing the violence, or a further six million displaced within the country, or half a million casualties from the war. These figures are too large and the mind has trouble reconciling them with actual, flesh and blood people. I hope Silence is a Sense can dispel these abstractions and ground large themes by focalising them from the perspective of a young woman who endures a complex array of traumas and then tries to connect with the new community in England that she finds herself in.
Speaking of American coverage of the Middle East, and I know this is a very broad question, but what do we get the most wrong from your experience?
This is a very broad subject, and I can’t hope to do it justice here. The job of the media is to provide uncomplicated narratives which are easy to consume. The media isn’t interested in complexities, nuances, or attempting to provide a comprehensive picture. The form is simply not set up for that. And when it comes to Arabs and Muslims, the media has found a set of very simple stories that won’t unsettle their viewers or complicate their sense of the world.
In practice, this means that any acts of violence committed by Muslims (whether religiously motivated or not) are overhyped in the media while acts of violence by others are swept under the rug or classified as “mental health issues”. It means that Arab and Muslim men are written in very specific ways for film and TV — as terrorists, as oppressors and abusers of females, for example — while Muslim women are written as passive victims in need of saving. These are uncomplicated stereotypes that don’t speak to the diversity of Arab and Muslim communities in America, let alone around the world.
Literature can help break these patterns. The form of the novel or short stories allows for complexity and nuance. Through characters which embody different perspectives and experiences, a richer picture begins to emerge.
You’re currently studying the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory. Have you always been on this trajectory or did your interest in this come later in life?
I’ve always been interested in the psychology of trauma and recovery: how do we process trauma? how do we speak of it? how do we represent it in art and literature? I’m interested in the function of such representations, how traumatic memory is transmitted across and through generations, as well as how it manifests itself on an individual and a collective level and with personal and political intersections. It seemed natural to me to apply this to Arab women’s fiction as a multiplicity of trauma often forms the bedrock of these narratives.
As a result, my scholarly and creative work has begun to overlap in interesting ways. My scholarship hasn’t yet directly influenced my creative writing since I wrote both novels before beginning my PhD program, but I can see how my academic work is sharpening the way I look at certain issues.
Earlier I asked about books you found solace in when you were younger. I’m curious what fiction you recommend for readers who find and enjoy your books?
I like short novels that pack a punch. So, I find inspiration in the work of Han Kang (The Vegetarian, Human Acts), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake). Palestinian author Adania Shibli (Touch, We Are All Equally Far From Love, Minor Detail) has been producing innovative and complex fiction for the last two decades, and the recent English translations have been garnering a lot of (much-deserved) praise.
How about non-fiction? How can we learn more about Kuwait or Syria in a non-biased way?
There are a number of books set in Kuwait that English-speaking readers can access, including the work of Saud Alsanousi (Mama Hessa’s Mice, The Bamboo Stalk), Bothayna Al-Essa (All that I want to Forget), Mai Al-Nakib (The Hidden Light of Objects), and Shahd Alshammari (Notes on the Flesh).
Many books have come out in recent years that provide multiple lenses through which to learn about the events in Syria, in particular. These include, Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by Alia Malek, and A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek.