Please join us in welcoming guest Maha Gargash  to Writer Unboxed. An Emirati born in Dubai to a prominent business family, Maha studied abroad in Washington, D.C., and London. With a degree in Radio/Television, she joined Dubai Television to pursue her interest in documentaries. Through directing television programs, which dealt mainly with traditional Arab societies, she became involved in research and scriptwriting. Her first novel, The Sand Fish , was an international best seller. Her second novel, That Other Me , is out on January 26 via Harper Collins.
“I’m writing for a Western audience.” It’s a thought that sits quietly in the back of my mind as I write. Sometimes I’m aware of it; other times, I’m not. Always, I find myself adjusting the narrative—whether it’s to do with structure or flow—in order for the story to be absorbed more readily by a Western reader. Recently, I’ve been wondering why this was so and felt the need to examine the matter more closely—culminating in this article.
Connect with Maha on Facebook  and through comments to this post—but please note she will be responding from her home in Dubai and because of the 15-hour time difference from the U.S. there may be a delay in her replies.
Writing for a Western Audience
It’s easy to understand why Western readers might be interested in a novel coming out of the Arab world. No longer is the region as remote as it once was. With the ease of travel and increased integration through the interchange of views, products, and ideas, Western readers seem keen to take a peak through a window that remains largely opaque.
And here comes the challenge. Yes, there are many novels from the Arab World that tackle all the familiar themes, whether these be the Palestinian struggle for a homeland or the effects on children growing up in war torn countries. But not all are written with the Western reader in mind.
It’s not only that the Arabic language is complex and poetic, a reservoir of beautiful words. To the Western mind, Arabic thought also renders a complexity and contrariness hard to digest. To add to that, not all Arabs think the same, or express themselves the same way, or even dress the same way. This is hardly surprising for it is a vast region expanding from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Gulf waters in the east.
Although I always keep in mind the readers of my stories, rarely do I think of them as being wholly Western or Eastern in thinking. Instead, I concentrate on producing a story well told that presents a different reality. Ultimately, it’s the conflict within the story and the interaction of the characters that keep the pages turning.
Still, there are bound to be concepts that might alienate a Western reader. The test is in telling the story without allowing it to get bogged down by over explaining things: customs, traditions, and a people’s outlook. I am often obliged to explain various details that might be perceived as odd, and end up putting in extra effort to make sure this is done in a way that does not disturb the stream of the narrative. (The men’s majlis comes to mind, which is a place usually attached to the main house where only men meet—a concept that many Westerners find puzzling.)
When it comes to setting, I strive to create a world that Western readers feel comfortable in. Fundamentally it is a world with different rules, unlike the one they live in, and I find it’s important that this is done very early in the novel. In The Sand Fish, the reader is transported to the 1950s of what is today the UAE and Oman right from the first chapter: the extreme heat, the arid landscape, the poverty, the tribal customs, the garments worn, and the sharply defined roles of men and women. How to include so much so early? A strong first chapter that gets you interested in what happens next.
Both my novels delve into the workings of the local Emirati society, specifically Dubai. And yet, although the lifestyle may be different from what a Westerner is used to, it is mixed with universal feelings and understandings of love, jealousy, friendship, and survival. It’s a tiny slice of life and how big it looms in my characters’ minds. In The Sand Fish, my protagonist is a third wife stuck in a household of schemes. In That Other Me, my second novel out this week, my main characters struggle to define who they really are. They are three members of a family tugging in different directions within the confines of what is expected of them by society. They act in accordance with what is called for or pull away, and end up adopting more than one persona in order to cope with the demands of their surroundings.
Having said all that, the questions remain: Will Western readers get absorbed in a story based in such a different setting and mindset? Will they want to read on? Will they sympathize with my characters? What if not? Then again, these are questions that plague any writer at different stages of the writing. The challenge for any writer, I think, is getting the reader, any reader, immersed into that world so that any action, no matter how bizarre, makes sense.
As a writer, what challenges do you face trying to get readers immersed into one of your writing worlds? Have you read stories set in the Arab world—were they written with the Western reader in mind?