Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Interview in ADIBF Newsletter (March 2014)

At the Abu Dhabi International Book fair, I was interviewed by Chip Rossetti (via skype - who did not let on, at that time, that he spoke Arabic.)

The original interview is on this link ADIBF Newsletter, on Page 4.

And the text is here:

24th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair
30 April - 5 May 2014
by Chip Rossetti.

For Emirati author Noura Al Noman, seeing Star Wars in 1977 was a defining moment in her life as a reader: “Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on science fiction. I read science fiction and fantasy almost exclusively until I was about 28.” Born and raised in Sharjah, where she still lives, Al Noman studied English literature at UAE University, and holds a Masters in Translation Studies from the American University of Sharjah. 

Her lifetime reading served in her good stead when she took up writing recently. In 2010, she published two children’s picture books, al-Quttah Qitnah (Cotton the Kitten) and al-Qunfuth Kiwi (Kiwi the Hedgehog), with the publishing house Kalimat. But from there, she turned to writing Y.A. science fiction novels—a change partly prompted by the reading habits of her own adolescent children. “My kids started borrowing English books from the library,” she says. “It was very difficult to find books in Arabic that would interest them. I thought to myself, ‘This is shameful: they should be reading in Arabic.’ So I thought, let me try my hand at writing.” She naturally turned the genre she knew best, science fiction. 

Her first novel, Ajwan, was published by the Egyptian publisher, Nahdet Misr, in 2012: at 420 pages, it is much longer than most other published Arabic science fiction. The novel’s protagonist, Ajwan (she has an Arabic name, meaning “bays” or “inlets”), is a 19-year-old girl who lives in an underwater society, which allows her to breathe both water and air. Her story is one of a young character expanding her horizons, as Al Noman describes it: “With Ajwan, one of the things I’ve used in the book is the repeated phrase, ‘Her eyes opened.’ Like all of us, she lives in her familiar world, her comfort zone. But then she has to encounter a world beyond that.” Ajwan is the first book in what may end up a four- or five-book series, taking Ajwan through different phases of her life. Book Two of the series, Mandan, was published in January of this year, and she is currently writing the third installment, well aware that the pressure is on to live up to readers’ expectations: “Mandan was very intense, according to those who have read it, so obviously, I can’t write a lukewarm Book Three!” 

In Mandan, Ajwan’s son is abducted by the henchmen of an antagonist with the ability to manipulate people’s minds. To counter them, Ajwan has her own superpower: empathy. For Al Noman, her villain hopefully offers a lesson to her readers: “My aim is to teach young readers that they need to
think before they do things that people tell them to do.”

Her own science fiction and fantasy reading has mostly been in English, and she cites prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, Robert Jordan, and Melanie Rawn as influences. At the same time, she is aware that science fiction is still an emerging genre in Arabic: “I haven’t read much Arabic science fiction, other than [Egyptian writer] Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia. There hasn’t been a complete novel of science fiction, only novellas.” While English-language readers of science fiction are used to long books, some readers criticized her for the length of Ajwan: “The Arab world isn’t used to such long science fiction novels, unless it’s a translation. They like shorter books.”

While she acknowledges pioneers such as Egyptian author Nihad Sharif and Syrian authors Zuheir Ghanim and Talib ‘Umran, she found earlier Arabic science fiction lacking—with less complicated plots and shallower characterization—something she wanted to change in her own fiction. But in the past two years, she says, there has been a sea change, since “Arabic science fiction writers are now doing ‘world building’ in their fiction.” First coined by science fiction authors in 1970s, “world-building” refers to an author constructing a coherent background—biological, historical, economic, and political—for an imagined society in a novel. The result can be a more complex fictional universe, where science and technology do not serve merely as gadgetry, but form coherent elements in the plot.

Arabic readers are starting to look at science fiction in a new way as well, Al Noman points out, since “people no longer think that science fiction is just for kids.” Far from being a frivolous genre, it can have positive effects on younger readers: “A child who reads science fiction is likely to be interested in science growing up. Budgets for science research in Arabic world are miniscule. But if kids are interested in science fiction It might stimulate their interest in science later on in life, and encourage them to consider it as a career.”
The publishing house Nahdet Misr took an interest in her Ajwan series in part because it had experience

publishing fantasy novels in translation, including the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books. Even so, it was her presence on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) that clinched the deal for them. Her online presence (as well as her blog, “My Parallel Universes”) persuaded her (and her publisher) to make her books available as e-books, too. “With the youth, they may not be picking up books, but they are always on their laptops and mobiles, That’s how we get access to them, to get them to read.”

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