What Fiction Do You Recommend About Saudi Arabia?
I get asked this question a lot. Sometimes people qualify it, asking for something written by Saudis. I have some stock answers, but I am also trying to answer the question. What else is out there?
I wrote my novels with a specific aesthetic: I wanted to fight the annoying stereotypes we see so much of: the princess narratives, the he-stole-my-daughter narratives, the religious-guy-is-always-a-terrorist narratives. I don’t want to read any more of that stuff. I also wrote my novels with a desire to open a window into the regular-life aspects of living in Jeddah. As a reader, I enjoy novels that give me a sense of place and that engage my interest in the characters.
I’m sorry to say that in ten years, there isn’t much new stuff out there about Saudi. Not what I’d like to see in English anyway. It seems our publishing scene still weighs heavily toward non-fiction, and there is still a huge visibility of princess stories and the sort of sensational abuse stories that keep making the rounds: my husband beats me, my nursing job was hell, my brother threw acid on my face.
I had very high hopes for a novel called The Dove's Necklace by Raja Alem. She is an acclaimed Saudi writer and the novel was about a crime in Mecca. I was electrified by this. Crime? Mecca? Written by a Saudi? Amazing! You don’t see many novels set in Mecca, and this one had a kind of magic-realist vibe that appealed to me (I grew up adoring Amy Tan and Isabel Allende). But the novel itself is strangely difficult to get through, and it loses its way. It’s a certain type of literary fiction that is more like a fever dream than a coherent story.
One of the few books to really stick with me from the past ten years is Tanaz Bhathena’s A Girl Like That. Bhathena was raised in Saudi and her novel has everything I love—a sense of place, suspense, compelling characters and thought-provoking problems.
Driving by Starlight by Anat Deracine also stuck with me. It’s the story of two young women “delighting in small rebellions against the Saudi culture police.” I’m quoting that phrase from the book description just because it makes me so happy.
I also really liked The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour, which is based on the movie Wadjda, about a young girl in Riyadh who wants to break free and who finds riding a bicycle the ultimate way to do it. The book is fantastic.
What strikes me is that these novels are all of a type: teenage women navigating the complexities of a patriarchal culture and rebelling against it in various ways. I wonder if they were all, in some way, part of a path that was carved out by the success of Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea—another excellent book. I could see it being the ur-mother here.
But what if you’re not into reading about teenagers? What about adults in Saudi? And what, if you’re like me, you want to hear from women?
Sorry, you're on your own.
If you read Arabic, however, check out this list.
I think American publishers are negligent here. When I was first trying to get published, a number of editors turned my novel down. Their reasoning was often along the lines of “Americans don’t want to read about Arabs.” Maybe that was true in the Jurassic era of fiction, but today? I don’t think so.
If you're interested in Arabic literature in general, and not just in Saudi Arabia, here's a handy list of what's coming out in English this year.