Speech for International Women’s Day, American University of Kuwait, March 8, 2015.
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How and When I Decided to Become an Anglowaiti Writer
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The path to equality is not a monolith.
We do need to shed light on the heroes and heroines of our struggles. We need institutions that centralize expertise. We need to fund campaigns that distribute aid to the needy. We also need protests, marches, and sit-ins to pressure elected officials and to remind them that they answer to the public.
Nonetheless, consider the words of the Syrian poet, Muhammed al-Maghut, who wrote in 1984:
“To become a great writer – regardless of which Arab country one is in – one must be truthful; to be truthful, one must be free; and to be free, one must be alive; yet to be alive, one must hold one’s tongue!”
If this is the conundrum faced by the Arab writer today—the choice between dying before getting the chance to tell the truth or living without telling the truth—is it really surprising that a large segment of the literature we produce today has low standards, and that which is “good” is hidden, circulated among a few?
Is there no other way for change to take place outside the spectacular, media-driven, large edifice making and life-threatening scenarios we so love and admire? Is change only possible in a unilateral trajectory—a one-way street of grand designs and organizations?
Alternatively, is the path perhaps multiple, diverse, and intersectional? Could it be that the cause is the motive that keeps us going, and our personal strategies determine where we go, when we cross the paths of others, how we collaborate with one another when we do, and how we carry on with our own journeys after?
The desire to reshape the world by using justice and fairness does not belong to a specific organization, a certain class of people, or even intellectuals. The need to make the world a better place is innate in every one of us. It belongs to every living being, from the most ordinary to the most accomplished.
It is only as a fellow human, a female, and a poet that I stand in front of you today to share my journey and hopefully, to inspire you to embark on your own. Today, I’d like to talk about three things:
- the importance of language,
- the importance of personal strategies, and
- the importance of human connections.
/the importance of language
I write what I call Anglowaiti literature. It is literature in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing genres, styles, and topics. The prefix Anglo—a word that indicates a relation to England—refers to the language of the text. The suffix waiti is from Kuwaiti and refers to the subject of the text.
Anglowaiti literature is created by an Anglowaiti for an Anglowaiti audience. Even when presented abroad, the aim is to depict the Anglowaiti experience with all its complexity and nuances. I do not write Oriental literature for an international audience. In coming up with the term and all that it implies, I had in mind the words of the founder of black power, Stokely Carmichael:
“We have to fight for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms have to be accepted. This is the first need of a free people.”
I find our current discussions on identity limiting and even dangerous. In fact, a great number of people born and living on our soil lack even nominal recognition. In using a global language that is acknowledged nationally, taught with great vigor in schools, workshops, and universities; disseminated culturally in cinemas and national radio stations; used in official announcements, and so on, I aspire to decenter the focus available in our national identity today.
In Anglowaiti literature, I do not mean “giving voice to the voiceless”; rather, I mean inventing the terms with which we can define ourselves anew. It provides the means that will allow more than 60% of the population—currently invisible due to the language barrier and the limiting aspect of our present understanding of national identity—to tell us their own stories in a shared global language.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes, “Words are never ‘only words’: they matter because they define the contours of what we do.”
This is precisely why I write poetry, articles, and fiction about Kuwait in English. I aspire to rewrite our future with a tolerant quill.
/the importance of personal strategies
To an outsider, I look as though I’m a naïve woman, wasting my energy on diverse projects when I should be focusing on a specific style (writing memoirs, for instance) or cultivating a commercially viable audience. I sully the good work that I do by writing across genres and ages.
It’s understandable for people to think that way because contemporary notions about art have become so flat, as if the world were only two-dimensional (i.e., you’re either commercial or literary). Many people simply do not expect to see someone working on a personal strategy that is undeclared or unenforced by established institutions. One that is multilayered, and composed of phases. A strategy that will only bear fruit over a long period.
However, I am a strategist, and there really is a method to my madness. In fact, when I decided to become a professional writer, I was 17 years old. I wrote a 10-year plan to improve my language skills and knowledge, as well as to discover myself and the world that I occupy.
Therefore, when I write for children, I do not teach them what is good or bad. I do not tell children what to think, what to say, or how to act. I only show them that I was also in their shoes. I was lost, too. I was angry, sad, and confused. I show them how social expectations damage their sense of self. More importantly, I show them how they can maintain their youthful exuberance, will, and playfulness, even after becoming adults.
When I write for an older crowd, I try to give them access to knowledge that is often hidden from view due to market standards (tastes, genres, and age range), academic or intellectual standards, or even sociopolitical ones.
I expose my adult readers to all sorts of styles, subjects, and stories. I force them to question their own mental compartments and evaluative systems. Then I engage them with questions, issues, and scandals. I explore new technologies to experiment with social networking devices that allow a person to transcend borders and divisions, to reach audiences that would otherwise be invisible or with whom it would have been difficult to communicate.
For instance, for my self-published book The Elephant in the Room: Stories and Articles from Anglophone Kuwait, I interviewed one Kuwaiti woman about adoption and another about the state of social workers in Kuwait. Some of the stories in the collection discuss the lives of an interracial family, a feminist who participated in the Blue Revolution of 2003, and the lives of the members of a Shia family in the 1980s, told from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl.
I have developed my own personal strategy because although I disagree with many of President Barack Obama’s policies, I do believe in his initial message:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
/finally, the importance of human connections
I want to emphasize that if the endpoint is creating a better, more inclusive, and more tolerant future, one that safeguards dignity and encourages creativity and critical thinking, we need to prioritize human connections.
Because people no longer even assume that some of us might have strategies, they tend to think in either superficial or commercial terms. For them, success is defined in terms of profits, recognition, fame, power, or social elevation. Hence, people often ask, “How many books have you sold?” “How many awards have you won?” “How large is your fan base?”
For writers with material goals, I suppose these things are important, but for someone trying to change Kuwait, one poem, one article, or one story at a time, these elements are trivial. I do not judge the success of my work in these terms. Rather, I premise the entire value system of my work on the strength of human connections.
I will give you an example before I conclude. I receive emails from readers who tell me that my writing has transformed them. I hear the same phrases after performances, face to face, when at the end, people shake my hand. Recently, I experienced an even more fulfilling situation.
In 2009, when science fiction writers Dani and Eytan Kollin published The Unincorporated Man, I asked to interview them for the Kuwait Times newspaper. Their book won The Prometheus Award for Best Novel of the Year and became a series. At the end of the series, Tor, one of the largest publishing houses for science fiction and fantasy, sent me the final installment, and I reviewed it on my blog.
That was in 2012. A few months ago, on Instagram, I was contacted by a Kuwaiti woman, who informed me that the review I wrote had had a significant impact on her life. It made her question the state of education in Kuwait and the future of her children. She then took the initiative to pull out her children from school and embark on homeschooling—not a technically available option in Kuwait. In other words, she has now developed her own personal strategy. Her biography on various social networks reads:
“I’m a Kuwaiti homeschooler and have been homeschooling in secret since pulling my kids out of school in 2012. I finally decided this was too precious of an experience to keep it to myself and so [I’m] here to share the joy and the goodness that I’ve found in homeschooling.”
She reminded me of a quote by another US president, John F. Kennedy:
“Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
I certainly do not take credit for the Kuwaiti woman’s efforts. In fact, she should take credit for mine because empowering people to create their own visions and personal strategies is the reason why I keep writing. After all, I believe wholeheartedly in Carol Becker’s definition of art:
“We need to see art as it is—a sociological phenomenon.”
As such, it can genuinely change the world.