Monday Musings: Not Black, White or Arab

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By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

 

bannedI was less thrilled but potential readers kept assuring me the news was the best kind a writer could hope for.

“I wish I could get my book banned,” an independent author said when the news reached her.

“Your book’s been banned? Congratulations! Now I want to read it. Must be really good,” someone posted on the Facebook wall of our local writers’ group.

Their reactions were celebratory and meant to be supportive.

I, however, was busy writing to everyone on my Facebook author page who had been photographed, smiling, holding a copy of said banned book.

You should know the book has been banned for sale in Qatar. I hoped the email struck the right note of informative without alarming. If you would like me to remove your photo I will.

No one asked me to; rather in their replies, they cheered me on. One among them, a woman with a legal background did ask: what personal liability does holding a copy of the book in a photograph present?

I don’t know, I replied honestly. A few days later, I still don’t.

But the ban didn’t stop someone else from sending her driver over, with cash, to purchase three copies. Nor did it hinder a colleague from asking me to set aside three paperbacks for her.

Another friend suggested I raise the price.

“I’m paying 35 riyals for this cup of coffee,” she said (about ten dollars). “You should definitely charge more than $14.”

Love Comes Later. I sat across a 4 foot table from women of various ages, who nodded their heads at my 30 second elevator pitch at writers’ conference in New York City.

Abdulla’s grandfather is dying and his family wants him to produce a child for Jassim to hold. No one knows his unborn child died with his wife. He never wants to marry again. They’re drawing up the marriage contract to his cousin.

One 12 hour flight back to Doha, and several emails to agents later, the pragmatic rejections trickled back to my inbox.

Your writing is lovely but this isn’t for me, another wrote, giving me the literary backhand of having a nice personality.

Overseas setting? Male main character? I don’t know how to sell something like this. Consider changing the point of view said another.

Declinations by night while during the day, working at an international publisher who had set up shop in Doha, ostensibly to give a platform to new voices.

As far as they and their backers were concerned, I had another problem, far worse than point of view or setting. I wasn’t writing in Arabic. Or even Arab. Not even half.

Growing up in America, I was familiar with being the wrong color. I wasn’t white but I wasn’t black. Brown was not a category people understood in North Florida in the 1980s.

As a writer living in the Middle East, I’m still the wrong color. I’m not white but I’m not Arab either.

Perhaps it makes complete sense that my book features no Anglo characters, another limitation a freelance editor pointed out in passing.

And maybe this book was destined to be banned in Qatar, the very country that inspires the setting, culture, and characters. Because its writer has never completely belonged anywhere either.  

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