Not many had been familiar with Iraqi novelist Shahad Al Rawi's name prior to her nomination for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for her debut novel, The Baghdad Clock. The book was the runner up for that award, and won the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, at the same time this year.
The Baghdad Clock follows the friendship of two girls, and reveals the realities of growing up in a war-torn city and a way of life that's slowly disappearing. The National caught up with Al Rawi for her first exclusive interview since winning the book award to find out where the young novelist plans to go from here.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Since my first year of studies, I loved writing, and it took me countless attempts to search for the writer within me. I tried writing in many literary genres, and whenever I failed at a genre, I kept looking for another one – one that could give me the freedom to express myself. I did not fear failure and I did not hesitate to try various forms of literature.
When did you start jotting the first lines of ‘The Baghdad Clock’?
In the spring of 2015, I had finished reading a collection of novels written in English, most of them were by women from different countries and cultures. I was struck by their direct approach that is devoid of literary exaggerations. I told myself then that I had an important story and I had to tell it. I sat down in front of the computer and discovered that the first sentence just did not want to come together. I left the table in an almost defeated state. I asked myself: 'How would I write a novel and I do not even know how to begin?' After several attempts, the opening sentence came to me. A year and a half later, the novel was completed and was ready to be sent to the publisher. Those were the best days of my life. The process of writing is a beautiful time, in fact it is extremely beautiful.
How did you get nominated for the Edinburgh book award?
After the translation of the novel into English, it got published by British publishing house Oneworld and I received an invitation to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but I did not know that my book had entered the novel contest this year. I only found out during my presence at the exhibition. I then went on to the festival website and found out that The Baghdad Clock was competing with 49 English novels, some of which were nominated for the long list of the well-known Man Booker Prize. I did not expect to win yet at the same time I had a slight hope of doing so. When I received the letter from the festival's president, I could not believe myself and kept reading it over and over again. It really was phenomenal happiness.
‘The Baghdad Clock’ won the award at Edinburgh but came as a runner up at the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Why do you think that was?
This is my first novel and it competed with 124 other Arabic novels, and it has reached its eighth edition in Arabic as so many readers fell in love with it. Westerners loved it equally, because it is a story written from the heart, a “local” novel written with real human feelings. We love books from different cultures not because they tell real stories about their culture, but because they belong to our planet and share the same feelings – sadness, joy, love, are emotions that belong to human beings wherever they are. This novel belongs to everyone living in our world.
What did the award mean to you and what impact will it have on your future?
It is a representation of success, and I do not think there is a single writer in the world who does not seek success. The Edinburgh Book Festival award will remain an important milestone in my journey. I will now have more responsibility for my upcoming novel. There is more pressure on me as I am directly under the spotlight.
Do you think that long years of wars have shaped the subject matter of Iraqi literature as it is an integral part of Iraq’s reality, and has this limited the scope of Iraqi writers?
We have lived through different kinds of wars and our personalities were formed from within them. I have tried to escape the language of war, I had only one sentence (the fall of Baghdad), but it is beyond me that the war goes in line with stories of love, songs and mass exodus. This is not something that belongs to Iraqi writers alone. The literature of war is well known in the experiences of world literature.
The state of war is supposed to be an exception to a peaceful life, but in my country, the opposite is true. Peace was achieved only in the form of a short stroll waiting for a new war. I do not think that the Iraqi novel or that Iraqi literature in general will get rid of the sound of explosions in the foreseeable future, even if God blesses us with the peace we wish. War has unfortunately become an ‘obnoxious friend’ that we have to live with.
Has the success of 'The Baghdad Clock' affected your next book release?
I started months ago with my new novel, but the Arab Booker [International Prize for Arabic Fiction] and participating in world festivals in Edinburgh, Berlin and soon in India kept me out of the fold. I really feel guilty about the characters because I left them hanging at the beginning of the events. As I said earlier, I want to return to my solitude with the laptop outside of the "prison" that The Baghdad Clock has entrapped me within; I need to be liberated as soon as possible so that I can build a real relationship with the new novel.
The Baghdad Clock is published by Oneworld