Interview with longlisted author Shahla Ujayli
1 February 2016
When did you begin writing A Sky Close to Our House and where did the inspiration for it come from?
I started writing it at the end of 2013, after publishing my second novel Persian Carpet. Usually, the idea for a new novel comes while I am engrossed in writing the novel before it. I was inspired to write it by the difficult circumstances which my country Syria is going through at this point in its history. These have had a negative effect on Arabic life in general, with the rise in violence, terrorism, poverty and deprivation, and I was affected by all that on a personal level. My house in the city of Raqqa seemed suddenly very distant, since visiting it was all but impossible because of the war and political and ethnic conflict. I wanted to bring that place back to life, by describing what was happening in the world and the history of the Middle East through its most significant events, offering a fictional vision of the relationships between ordinary individuals, far from political statements and what is found in official history books. My characters are not hateful or horrible. Quite the contrary - they believe in love, but face cruel fates which cause their individual tragedies, and these seem harsher than the collective tragedy. I gathered the protagonists together in Amman, where they relate their family histories and tell their stories of identity and geography, influenced as they are by larger historical events beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, via the two world wars, until the present time.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
This is the longest of my three novels but it took less time to write. It needed about a year and a half before being ready to go to print. I wrote four chapters in Amman, where I live, and the fifth was written in the Liwa desert of Abu Dhabi, while I took part in the "nadwa" (writers' workshop) organised annually by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. I read out the chapter in one of the workshop sessions. Later, I finished the other chapters in Amman, but they took less time than the first chapters. I was enthusiastic after the workshop, at rest in myself, and full of inspiration from the many discussions about writing, techniques, readings, art and stories, and the experiences of others. Although I am a specialist in literature and criticism, I found that watching the birth of a piece of writing, then reading it directly to others was something different from theory, especially since I had not been used to reading my texts to anyone while in the process of writing.
How have readers and critics received it?
I can say that it has been significant. Ten days after it was published, the Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arabic Culture in London invited me to take part in a seminar about the new generation of Arab writers and I read an extract from the novel which was well received by the audience and important questions were asked about it and my writing experience. I think that readers have shown great interest in the novel. I have been a guest of book clubs in Jordan which are well known for their avid readers, and they have discussed the book at length. Then I found out from the television that it was among the bestsellers at the latest Sharjah Book Fair. The first edition is now sold out, and before the announcement of the longlist, the second edition was ready. It has also received some in-depth critical studies. Reputed academics and novelists and respected media people have written about it. Most of them had already read my previous work and agreed that the epic vision in this novel reminded them of classical, world novels, full of culture and history, and I thank them very much for their assessment.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I am working on a new novel, which doesn't have a name yet. From what I can see now, I don't think it will be long. Its narrative space is tranquil and there are few characters. It is entirely different from A Sky Close to Our House. Generally, I try and write classical-style novels with powerful stories. I think we are in need of them, to put some order into the chaos which has recently turned the world upside down. However, classical writing is actually harder than any wild experimentation. In a few days, a short story collection of mine will be published, called The Bed of the King's Daughter, as part of a series of pieces of Arab creative writing published by the Egyptian Institute for the Book in Cairo. God willing, it will be ready and available at the Cairo Book Fair at the end of this month.