Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Locust and The Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh and a "GIVEAWAY*

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages


Pub Date: August 25, 2009

Price: $28.95

Translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen

Having lived for years in the west I know that many people here don't "get" the concept of arranged marriages. For many of us, falling in love is the only reason one should get married. Having someone pick a match out for you is more like a business transaction....where's the romance, the passion, in something like that, right? But for many, arranged marriages are a way of life. Falling in love amounts to nothing, it carries no weight as Kamila, a beautiful and impetuous girl from a village in in South Lebanon was about to find out.

Although Kamila was in love with one Muhammad, her family decreed that she should marry her dead sister's aging husband
(the sister was bitten by a rabid rat) . Kamila was only 14 years old but was deemed a suitable match because she was strong enough to look after her husband's kids, cook his food and warm his bed. More importantly, her sister's widower was the patriarch of the family and it almost seemed as if Kamila was sacrificed to him for the sake of her extended family who lived under his roof. Kamila's husband, Abu- Hussein Muhammad, was pious and strict whereas Kamila was free-spirited and irreverent. She defied him every chance she got and no matter how hard the family tried, they were unable to tame her.

It wasn't long, however, when she managed to reconnect with the love-of-her-life, Muhammad and very soon the two were planning secret rendezvous in Muhammad's bedroom in the house he shared with his family or in darkened cinemas. I'd love to tell you what happens next, but I can't for fear of giving away the story.

Kamila's story is narrated to us in the first person but written by her daughter, well known Arabic writer, Hanan Al- Shaykh. Al Shaykh says that the first person narrative was a deliberate choice, she said, “My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.” I found this to be a tenderly-crafted memoir and even though the faults of our protagonist Kamila are quite glaring, you cannot help but fall under her spell, and that is a tribute to the writer who has made Kamila an utterly irresistible character.

Although the protagonist's personality towers over the book it doesn't dwarf it. I found myself thinking a lot about different issues that this book bring up, like "First Loves", are they really as special as they are made out to be or they over-romanticized? "Child Marriages", granted, this was Beirut in the 1930's but even they knew better than to allow a man to get his 15-year old wife pregnant? "Child Abandonment", at what point does a mother's happiness become more important to her than her children and how do you ever explain that to your children? "Illiteracy", what role it plays in establishing one's status in the hierarchy of life. Would Kamila's life have been any easier if she could read and write?
"Legacy", towards the end of her life Kamila was frantic about having her life recorded, how important is it to us to be remembered fondly and accurately?

The cover art is striking and, to me it looks like a vintage movie poster. Because Kamila could neither read nor write, going to the movies was her only entertainment and the reader will note that she gleaned everything she knew about love and life from the movies. Which brings us to the interesting question of how much does art influence life? You will ponder over all these issues and more in this beautiful memoir, so if you would like your own copy simply write me a line here and I will be happy to put your name in a hat for a draw that will take place in about two weeks from now.

**************WE HAVE A WINNER*************

DRUM ROLL PLEASE........................................

It's Apu of "Apu's World". Congratulations Apu, please send me your address and I would be delighted to put a copy of this book in the mail to you!

A Q & A session with the author:

What does the title, The Locust and the Bird, refer to?

The Locust and the Bird is a fable about a king who was taking a stroll in his gardens when a Locust flew into the wide sleeve of his robe. A bird, in hot pursuit, flew in after it. The king sewed up the sleeve, sat on his throne and asked his people: “What is up my sleeve?” No one knew the answer. But it so happened that a man named Bird, who was desperately in love with a woman called Locust, was standing in the crowd. He came forward, only the face of his beloved in his mind, and proclaimed to his king:

Wails and Tales.

My life story is one long revelation.

Only the Locust can capture the Bird.

This is a story my mother told me. The locust signifies famine, hunger, destruction and unhappiness. Birds signify spring, love, hope and song. All these states describe my mother’s life.

Why did you finally decide to write and share your mother’s amazing story? Did she read any parts of it before she died, and what did she think of it? Did you sit down with her on a couple occasions right before and while writing the book, or are most of these tales your recollections when she told them to you growing up?

My mother left me when I was seven years old. This was her way of telling me why. As she unburdened, her story became an epic tale.My mother was illiterate, so she couldn’t read or write. But when we knew the book was going to be published, she had second thoughts: she didn’t want people to know how poor she’d been. When she was a child, she had to comb the fields after the harvest to find corn to eat. But after I read her a couple of chapters over the phone, she gave me her blessing.Yes, we sat together many times so she could relate her story, and then we continued over the phone, between Beirut and London . She’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember something and ring me at four in the morning.

Movies play an interesting and pivotal role in the book. What do you think movies represented for your mother? Do you think books played the same role in your own life?

Movies educated my mother. She learned everything about life through movies; about history, wars, countries, love, human bondage and relationships. She mimicked the movies: dressing, walking and talking like the stars she saw on the screen. She even learnt that pearls are found in the sea, and not in the ground. She escaped her stifling world through movies, as I later, entered a magical world through books.

You are primarily a fiction writer, how was it writing a non-fiction book, and one so personal as the memoir of your mother? Was it easy or difficult to find her voice and put it on paper?

I never felt writing The Locust and the Bird, that I was writing non-fiction. I felt all along it was a novel, the only difference being, in that when you write a novel, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to end. In this book, I knew all along where I was heading. In my fiction I usually inherit the soul of my characters to such an extent that I inhabit them for a while, and the same thing happened when I was writing this, I stepped into her shoes. What made it easy, is that my mother had the spirit of a novelist, she was a natural storyteller, and she remembered small details, like the color of a stone. It didn’t come easily at first. I struggled with her voice at the beginning. I wrote the first chapters with myself as narrator, but that didn’t work, and then I tried writing in the third person, but it lacked immediacy. Then when I realised that my mother had been burdened all her life by her illiteracy, I realised I was her voice in the sense that I was simply a conduit, and I all I had to do was put the pen on the page, something she’d never been able to do.

Though The Locust and the Bird takes place in Lebanon , how is it a universal tale?

The Locust and the Bird is a universal story in the sense it’s about families, and everything that surrounds them: love, divorce, adultery, abandonment, poverty, injustice. But most importantly, for me, it’s a story about forgiveness.

There is a line in the book that your mother, “transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.” What did you mean by that line, and what does it say about your mother and her life?

My mother lied all her life, she was crafty and deceitful; but of course she did this to survive, and escape the confines of society and home. She used to be called a seductress, and I was worried, when I began the book, that she’d seduce me too, out of bravado, or to cover up the painful parts of her life. But in fact, she told me her story with an astonishing directness and honesty. And that’s when I got to know her for the first time.


mariag said...

This sounds like an amazing book. Please enter me to win.

apu said...

Lotus, as soon as I saw the word 'giveaway' I was hooked :) Please enter me too, though I don't know if you can send to India.

The book sounds interesting - the story itself and also the concept of an autobiography written by a second person.

I have nothing against arranged marriages itself, having seen many happy ones but I do think many times, parents, while telling themselves that they want to do the best for their children - are actually guided by other factors, esp "what will people say", rather than the happiness of the child.

Sowjanya Palepu said...

Seems to be a very interesting book. Love to read it.
Pl count me in..!!

ImageNations said...

interesting read. I loved the partial review and the interview too.

Unknown said...

This sounds fabulous!. I'm just your average anglo-saxon canadian white girl but I've always thought arranged marriages can make an awful lot of sense when you really think about it. Please drop my name in the hat!

Dana said...

Sounds interesting and in case I don't win it goes on my wishlist

Lotus Reads said...

Yes, sorry about the partial review. I'm always in a dilemma when I write a I reveal how the story unfolds or don't I? Personally, I hate knowing too much about a book (before I read it)...I just like to have a general synopsis and a little about the author's style of writing...

Zibilee said...

Great review. I think this book sounds really fascinating, and like something I would really like. I think the concept of arranged marriage is really very interesting, and I am always somewhat amazed when I read about a couple who started out in an arranged marriage and grow to love their spouses so completely that they end up thinking that the choice was perfect for them. Although I know that this is not really the case in this book, I think this would be a really engrossing read. Please enter me in this contest, and thanks for hosting it!

Anonymous said...

O, please enter me! I think the perspective in which the story is told sounds fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Sounds like an amazing book! I surely would want it :D

Sai said...

In the interview the author says that the mother was deceitful...however what choices did life give her. She had to use whatever weapons on hand to survive I guess.

I am waiting to read this book! As always a lovely review.

iselldreams said...

Would love to try my chance in another "give away" if you have the opportunity to put a name in the hat from a tooo farrr farrr awayyyy country :D

Tara said...

This sounds excellent; I'd like to be entered please!

Musings in KL said...

would love to read it. Lotus, I'm in for the draw (though not too sure if you'll be willing to post it to Malaysia)

Musings in KL said...

I liked what you said on arranged marriage - that its a part of life in some cultures. It indeed is & because people are so used to the idea from childhood, it doesn't evoke the horror that most westerners seem to have.
Having said that, I am still horrified to know that 14 year olds still get married to men twice, thrice their age; while its a "way of life in our culture" to the people who participate in it.
The book sounds like an interesting read because it doesn't promise that Kamila is lily-white - the story is that much more enthralling with real people -warts and all :)
I really hope I win this one :p

karmic said...

Hi Lotus! I have to say I loved this book review and your interview with the author, quite absorbing really!
Despite being from a culture where arranged marriages are quite common, I have never felt comfortable with the practice. Personal opinion though. I know it works for folks. But some of it does go against the notion of the freedom one should have in choosing your partner..but I digress.
I loved the free spirited Kamila, and while I understand that you don't want to give too much away, the author mentioned her mother leaving her when she was 7? Does that relate to your bringing up the issue of child abandonment?
Since Ms. Al-Shaykh, wrote this I am assuming she connected with her mother after these years?
Was it easy for her, would it have been the same without a memoir?
It is interesting how Kamila learned about the world thru the movies. While movies can and do educate us about the world, it depends what one is watching no?
Art can and does influence life, but only if one is open minded about interpreting art.
As for illiteracy, it does establish one's status in the hierarchy of life, but just as Kamila did not let is restrain her, I know of real life examples of people very close to me who have done the same.
I liked the book cover and would love to read the book, but my lack of time means it is not fair to put my name in the hat for it, so I won't.
Amazing how the title of the book came about and how it relates to Kamila's life too.
What I took from this was the irreducible complexity of human nature, Kamila exemplifies that.
I wonder if Kamila's telling the story of her life is an attempt to set the record straight? Was it her way of reconnecting with her daughter and other loved ones? Sorry if that is an obvious Q.
And I really loved the Qs you asked if the author, you should do this more often. You are excellent at it as are your reviews.
Enjoy the rest of the summer buddy.

Anonymous said...

Please include me in the list. If I don't win, I'd buy it:). you described it so well.


lulu said...

i want to read this book. i so love how you introduce your reader to such a wide variety of authours. please enter me for the lucky draw. i'm happy to pay for postage since you'll have to send all the way to bombay!

Juhi said...

Please enter me into the draw too :)

Sounds like an amazing book. I love the way you describe a book in terms of how it makes you think about life.

And yes, the cover looks like a beautiful vintage poster.

Unknown said...

I'm new to your blog, but subscribing via RSS. I would love to get the book. Your blog is wonderful: you read the kind of books I need to flavor my habit, and your reviews are very thoughtful. Write on.

Lotus Reads said...

It doesn't matter where you live, everyone who has commented here will be entered into the draw! I am just so grateful that you all stopped by and said hello!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanj ~ Yes, you made a good guess. I would say that in writing this memoir Kamila is definitely trying to set the record straight. This was 1930's Beirut, so yeah, if she felt compelled to leave her marital home, there is no way in hell they would allow the kids to go with her. But then again, most women in the '30's just learned to suck it up and very few had the guts to make changes in their lives. Kamila was a rare one and that is what makes her memoir such a pleasure to read.

I hope that when work settles down you have the opportunity to read it Sanj!

karmic said...

Thank you for the response Lotus, and telling me about the timeframe. I knew it was a while back but not the 30s.
I do wonder why people want to be remembered a certain way when they are gone. I mean is there a consciousness post passing?
Not sure if that makes any sense.
I hope I get some reading time too, bit it seems doubtful.
Take care!

Kohinoor said...

I'd love to have a copy. Please enter me in the giveaway!

Id it is said...

Arranged marriages in usually hears about those in India...I'd definitely put this one down.
Thanks for the heads up.

Michelle (su[shu]) said...

That sounds like a great book. Could I be in for the draw?

As for your question about how much art influences life, I am prone to think that it plays one of the most important roles in our lives. Of all our senses, we probably rely the most on our sight, and so imagery forms the biggest part of how we perceive our world. But imagery is only one part of art. So I tend to think that art and life are one and the same, almost.


And also, I came by to let you know that I've given you a blog award. Maybe you'd like to come by and check it out some time?

my email: mich_yms AT hotmail DOT com.

Mystica said...

I hope this is open for overseas readers as I would just love to win this book. If you enjoyed this book you may also like Minal Hajratwala's Leaving India which is also a beautiful story of an entire family's upheaval which is so reminiscent of so many immigrants today. Loved your review.


Anjum Poonawalla said...

I read this book over the winter break!!! Thanks for the recommandation and your review. I loved it!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Anjum!

So good of you to come here to let me know you enjoyed the book. Cannot wait to see what you pick to read next!