Text by Hibaq, cover photo by Lyse Ishime
Hibaq: Let’s start of with Consequences of Love – maybe you could provide some context for us. Where were you mentally as a writer? What was the process like?
Sulaiman: Yeah, so I actually did the first draft of my first novel in a couple weeks. It was a very intense summer – I was just breathing and eating that book for 5 or 6 weeks. I produced a draft which was really bad, but at least I produced it. What happened was, the process between the two books I did have been really different because of this. I really loved [Consequences of Love] it was based on a true story. The whole note – I felt like I was doing something intimate, something personal – something almost like – I can’t even explain it. It felt like I was writing about my life at that time, or my friends at that time. It felt personal. So, I thought “okay, I need to get this right.” I felt like I had to invest myself and time into that book. I loved the fact that I produced it quick – when you write with intensity, the outcome is quite different.
Hibaq: My dad lived in Saudi for a while and it’s interesting to hear him talk about what Romance felt like there, especially for – I wonder what your own experience with romance in Saudi was like?
Sulaiman: So, there is this system that always tries to restrict people right? That’s why I always say, revolution is not about mass revolution – individuals carry out revolution on a day to day basis. Those quiet revolutions are as big as those big revolutions – but we don’t get to hear about these. For example, in Saudi Arabia, it’s gender segregated. The women have the advantage of seeing men – men don’t get that. So, it offers an opportunity for the women to drop notes at boys they see – that they like. And that’s a revolution, because that’s saying “I really like this boy, I may even love him but there is this system and obstacle between us – but I am going to start this step that’s going to bring me closer to this person I love” that’s what Consequences of Love does. It’s about taking the first step. It was a very bold move, what the girls do – without these acts, you wouldn’t see Love taking place.
Hibaq: Ah, that’s so profound! I agree. It’s funny because even though there are these systems put in place to prevent people from communicating – they still always find a way. So, moving onto your next novel now. Before we even get into anything, can we talk about your acknowledgements though!
Hibaq: No, seriously – I was so here for your acknowledgments! It reads “to my grandmother – Mebrat: thank you for bringing me up, for teaching me how to make zigni stew and for allowing me to be quiet when I didn’t want to talk as a child. You saw that silence was my mother tongue.” Could you tell us a little about why you wrote “allowing me to be quiet” – that’s a phrase you don’t hear too often – you usually hear “thanks for hearing me etc”
Sulaiman: Sure! You know, parenting is very interesting. I’m a parent myself and it can be a struggle. The beauty about my grandmother was her understanding of each child and knowing that each child had their own characteristics. She understood that I was a quiet child, that I needed silence. She also understood that I was quite wounded at the time because my mum had left and my dad was dead by then. So, she didn’t force me to talk – she just let me be. The reason why I used the term “allowed me” was because when I went to Saudi Arabia and some women saw how quiet I was – they would say “well, a man can’t be that quiet” and “a man’s voice must be head”
Hibaq: Yep, we’ve heard that story before. A man’s presence needs to be felt and all that (laughs)
Sulaiman: (laughing) exactly! They were like we need to take him to a doctor because to them it was totally abnormal. So, I was comparing how people perceive this silence to how my grandmother did. I think those years were really important for me to be quiet.
Hibaq: Yes, shout out to all the women in our life!
Hibaq: So, you mention that you are a parent now – I thought maybe we could talk a little about the line between re-imaging and fabrication? You know, sort of exaggeration. I think with a lot of diaspora there is this sort of crisis that’s like “ok, I didn’t go through these things my parents went through but I want to connect with them [parents]” So, I’m wondering how do you try to measure the truth within memory? How do you wish that memory translates for your children?
Sulaiman: Wow, that’s really interesting. That’s interesting because I honestly don’t think anyone can 100% recollect an event that’s happened to them. I think re-imagining is very important for the memory. For instance, I have vivid memories of certain events and my brother has memories of events that I don’t recall happening. So, sometimes we enter this argument of “wait, that didn’t even happen”
Hibaq: This is me with my older sister all the time! Constantly arguing about the validity of our memories!
Sulaiman: Yes, exactly! You go into this moment where you think “okay is my memory right?” or am I just re-imagining things from a different light – so, I’m very careful when I write about events. I always make sure my brother reads when I write non-fiction essays. There is always the tendency to over-exaggerate and also the older you grow, the further you are from a point that happened to you in the past. To what extent can you recall what happened to you in the past completely accurately? So, there is a bit of creative license. For instance, if your mum has beaten you up – you’ll remember that. But, you may not remember the dialogue completely. But, your question is very very important. I think I am made of memories – in the way that my body is made up of 70% of water. Memories are incredibly important to me. I lived without my family for such a long time, that memory binds me to people that I have lost, to the love I knew I could have had. I cherish memories, my mind’s is always active and that’s why I always have these vivid recollections because I try to not forget my family. I try not to forget those moments I have with them. That’s why the wound is bigger, the trauma is bigger – because you don’t want to let go of those memories, some of those are traumatic. My fear is always do I pass them onto my kids? Sometimes, I worry about that: second-hand trauma. Sometimes, if I am silent or I take my distance around them. How would your child read that? They wouldn’t be able to understand that. So they are going to try and formulate their own opinion on why you have taken that step. That’s where the gap of second-hand trauma comes in, so I try to make sure that I don’t impact my kids.
Hibaq: I think of my parents as you say this. My mother has had 3 sisters pass away, some of whom passed when she was extremely young. I always wonder what she still remembers about them – does she remember what their hair looked like for instance? Or the way they walked? My mother seems to remember all of that. So, it is interesting to think of her holding onto these memories as a sort of life-line to childhood memories.
Photography by Safari Ombeni
Illustration by Mosab Zkaria
Hibaq: I’m curious then, with recollecting memories being important to you personally – I wonder, what goes into contributing to the image of an exiled community? Or how it appears on the outside – we spoke before about the importance of accuracy, do you feel sort of conscious of this? Do you ever feel responsibility to ‘correct’ the way exiled communities look?
Sulaiman: When I write, I isolate myself totally. My community doesn’t even matter at that point. I try to be in a place where only my characters matter. I do that because otherwise you have all those voices around you and they become readers and how many readers can you satisfy? How many readers do you have to keep modifying a subject for their satisfaction? That’s why for me it’s important to have these two stages. During writing and after writing. During writing, I produce my work. After writing, it is really important to talk. For instance, there is a lot of discussions to have after writing. For instance, we have to talk about lack of diversity – why our voices are really important: it’s not just about black or white. A middle class nigerian or ethiopian isn’t the same as a somali refugee writer, we also need to pay attention to the gender diversity – how women are disadvantaged generally, we can’t just compare Amina Jama and me, just because we are both black. So, these two stages are completely different and I am really satisfied with how I have managed to exist with the two. Being in the isolation period of writing is good for me, no-one else matters in this stage. When I come out of this though, I want to be part of the society, part of the conversation and find ways that I can help. That’s why I founded the academy. I am a refugee, I came here seeking asylum, so I know the process and pain, but I also know the joy. So, sometimes I feel like yes, the community can be demanding of artists. To the point that artists give away art for the sake of satisfying the community.
Hibaq: I couldn’t agree more with that. I think that is happening a lot more recently – people producing work that is “trendy” as opposed to honest. But more recently, I’ve been thinking more critically about why this happens. We can’t just blame the artists. I wonder who has made them think that is all that they can write about in order to get an audience, you know?
Sulaiman: Exactly – so, we liked to be liked. It’s like on Twitter, you liked to be retweeted. It could be an egotistical thing, so one may think “I am able to write, therefore I can be the voice of the community” but to me, this is so wrong. Nobody is the voice for anyone – we all have the potential to be our own voices. We just need the support and for the system to be there for us.
Hibaq: It’s funny because I think even right now, as a black muslim woman – I’m often having conversations with editors/writers who want to hear my “difficult” expereince as a black muslim women, and it just sucks because we all have a different experience. There are so many layers to this. For me, I want to talk about my joy, all the love I experience. I love being a Black Muslim woman – it’s great! Not to dismiss the hardships, because we do have them. But do I want to talk about that every second I get? No. Would I, personally, prefer talking about the power I feel as a Black Muslim woman? Yes. My whole life isn’t defined by these trials. So, I think part of it is, yes – we like to be liked but we are also dealing with a group of people that are only giving us access to the mic when it suits their agenda, when it suits their story.
Sulaiman: I totally agree – that’s why you have to be prepared to walk your talk. One of the reasons why it took me 10 years to release this book is because I had agents constantly trying to censor me, trying to get me to suit western readers. So, I could do that and get a deal or I could do my own thing and just walk away and maybe suffer in the process – but art is suffering too right? The point is, you have to be truthful to the artist inside you.
Hibaq: Let’s talk a little about Saba and Hagos. The distinction between the two characters is striking – The Guardian called your novel “a feminist book” – would you say this is accurate?
Sulaiman: Both characters immediately started to develop as I started writing them and I just followed them. These characters are a reflection of what I’ve seen in my life. When I lived in a camp with my grandma, it was dominated by women. So, women were doing everything and it is beyond saying “women are strong”. That’s standard. It’s being truthful to the reality and as a realist writer, I am not imagining a woman like Saba. A woman like Saba exists in real life. With regards to Hagos, he deserves recognition.
Sulaiman: One thing I really wanted to say is that critics didn’t really get the setting in my first novel. For example, with Naser in the second section of the book – it was almost too sweet. My point was, that was what society makes out of men. Men are deprived of love, women almost become mystical figures in your life. You have to reimagine their existence as part of your life. So, the whole process your thinking changes along with your phrases. So your words change, you become like a poet – it becomes sweet. I wanted to look at how boys can behave in restrictive societies. In spaces where they want to make “men out of boys” instead it makes them men who are soft-spoken, soft hearts.
Photography by Safari Ombeni