Keija Parssinen: Intercultural Affairs

Article published on February 14, 2012.

Keija Parssinen draws on personal experience – an expat childhood and a family friend’s story – to portray the differences between very different cultures, as she explains in this Q & A…

At the start of your novel, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband has taken a second wife. You have said that this was inspired by the experience of a family friend when you were growing up – could you say more about this?

When I was about fifteen, my mother got a phone call from a long-time family friend, an American woman she’d known since she was in college, when she and my mother were dating Saudi brothers. The woman was distraught because her husband – also an old family friend – had taken a second wife. At first, my parents were utterly shocked by the news. I think it was one of those clarifying moments when you realize you can only ever know another human being – even your husband, even one of your good friends – so well, and that we all do things that are inherently mysterious and sometimes shocking to the people around us.

As people, we operate according to our own opaque internal logic, which is formed in part by our gender, our culture, our nation, but also by our distinct personal longings. As a teenager just beginning to understand my own sexuality and filled to the brim with all manner of inchoate longing for a single being to love with every last bit of my uninitiated heart, I was instantly drawn into the soap opera of it. Of course, I was also a nascent feminist, so I was indignant about it, strident in my condemnation of it. Only years later did I start to ask myself questions about the man’s motivations – why did he choose to disrupt his comfortable family unit in such a way? Why would anyone risk the fury of a spouse they still wanted to be with? How did his family react? His community? Also, I became fascinated by the logistics of it – the terminology for the two women, the schedule he kept. Because I couldn’t ask these questions of him, I started making up answers, and in that moment, I knew I had a character for a novel.

Abdullah is not my parents’ friend, but he was created out of my desire to understand my parents’ friend. I view writing as an empathetic endeavour, and so as I wrote Abdullah’s story, I found myself reconsidering my initial stridency about my parent’s friend’s choice. The heart wants what it wants, and because of that, people all over the world disrupt their lives in thousands of different ways. Where love is involved, I learned (and Rosalie learns), you will not receive a satisfactory answer to the question “why.”

Like Rosalie, you spent your childhood as an expat in Saudi Arabia before moving back to America when you were twelve. How much did you draw on your own memories to write this book?

Like Rosalie when she left the Kingdom as a child, I felt that Saudi Arabia was irrevocably in me and yet inaccessible due to strict visa laws that made it nearly impossible to return. One of the gifts this book gave me was the chance to revisit the country of my childhood through memory and imagination. Conjuring the landscape for the book was an intensely affecting experience. I often found myself swimming in nostalgia, unable to reawaken to the present world around me. So return through memory was a gift, but it was also a melancholy act – I had to tap back into the deepest remembrances of my childhood to evoke the setting for the book, and of course, our childhoods are forever lost to us, as Saudi Arabia was for me. In that way, writing the book felt like both a cathartic undertaking and a masochistic one.

Eleven years after we left the Kingdom, my father got another job in Saudi Arabia, and so in January 2008, I was able to secure a visa and visit him. During my three-week stay, I refreshed my memories of the landscape – the way the cities looked, the way the air smelled, the color of the January sky, the Arabian Sea at dusk, the people moving in the mall. But I also saw how much the country had changed – there were Italian coffee shops, chic seaside bistros, yacht clubs with Spanish-style villas for purchase. That visit was crucial for this book, since the story is set in 2005, long after my departure from Arabia.

And of course, much of the book emerges from research that I did, which, in essence, shattered my romantic notions of my childhood home and resurrected it in my mind as the complicated, contradictory, fascinating place that it is. My research made Saudi Arabia a whole and true country in my mind, with a country’s peculiarities and troubles. Before I started learning more about my birthplace, it was merely figments and shadows, built of all the unreliable stuff of memory and the inevitable nostalgia you feel for the place you spend your childhood.

There has been so much change and turmoil recently in the Middle East. What is the political situation like in Saudi Arabia at the moment? Do you think it could experience unrest or even revolution like we’re seeing elsewhere?

Citizens in Saudi Arabia did plan to have a “Day of Rage” similar to those that cropped up across the region, but it fizzled. Some bloggers and journalists complained that it failed because the government tried to paint it as a day of Shi’ite unrest that didn’t represent the desires of the majority of the country, which is Sunni. The al-Saud family is canny in its abilities to divide and conquer, so it sounds like a tactic they would employ to quash protests.

The general consensus right now is that the Saudi government is safe because they can throw money at the problem and make it go away, at least for the time being. Like many other wealthy Gulf states, Saudi Arabia increased subsidies to citizens during the worst of the protests in Egypt and Yemen and elsewhere. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I would say that, until the money runs out, the al-Saud are safe from the uprisings that have ousted Mubarak and Ben Ali. And judging by their response to peaceful protests in Bahrain, which they helped the al-Khalifa royal family crush violently, they would not be opposed to Qaddafi-like violence against their own citizens, should such a movement arise on Saudi soil. In fact, during a brief Shi’ite uprising in the Eastern Province in 1979, they did open fire and kill or wound many young men, including one of my father’s students. At the time, my father was a professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, just a short drive away from the violence.

Mariam, the teenage daughter, has a blog called Confessions of a Saudi Teen, which plays a crucial part in the plot. Are there similar blogs out there? Are there any blogs that you read regularly?

In researching the book, I started reading several blogs written by Saudis or Americans living in Saudi Arabia. On the blog American Bedu, an American woman married to a Saudi man and living in Riyadh raises interesting questions about intercultural marriage and seeks to educate American women who are considering marrying a Saudi. She often does Q & A posts in which she interviews (usually anonymous) Saudis and Americans about their marriages. In several posts, she asks readers about the practice of plural marriage in Saudi Arabia, and their experiences with it. Reading these posts and responses helped me get a sense of the issue in the Kingdom, since there are no hard census statistics about plural marriage.

There’s also a great blog written by a Saudi graduate student called Saudi Jeans. In his posts, journalist Ahmed al-Omran discusses social and political issues in the Kingdom, with a specific focus on human rights and women’s rights.

I also enjoyed reading a blog called Saudi Woman, which offers a glimpse into the country from Eman al-Nafjan’s perspective. She’s a mother and post-graduate student in Riyadh, and as she tells you on her “About” page, through her blog, you can get opinions about Saudi Arabia “right from the source,” instead of relying on non-Saudis and non-Arabs.

Finally, I found the blog Crossroads Arabia, written by a former U.S. foreign service officer, to be informative and even-handed in its assessment of issues unfolding in the Kingdom.

You were a poet before you started writing fiction. Do you still write poetry? What prompted the switch?

I’m afraid the fiction-writing lobe of my brain has all but squashed the poetry lobe at this stage, though I do still write the occasional poem. I miss how attuned I was to the smallest details when I was in poetry-writing mode. In my experience, poems alight on my shoulders like beautiful little butterflies, whereas stories and especially books have to be beaten out of me viciously and over many months and years.

I started writing fiction because I had an idea that couldn’t fit into a poem. Fiction is large, expansive, offers the writer an opportunity to explore ideas in depth. Poetry is oblique and shadowy, elliptical and elusive. It’s the cat of the literary world and lives quite happily ignoring its master, which of course makes fiction the dog, racing around, entangling itself in plot, trying to please the master and reader. I love them both.

Who are some of your favourite writers and/or books?

I have so many literary heroes and heroines: Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Cunningham, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Scott Spencer, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Anne Michaels, David Mitchell, Marilynne Robinson, Ian McEwan, James Salter, Yiyun Li, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Colette, Charles Wright, Philip Larkin, Eliot, Wordsworth, Blake.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of wonderful contemporary fiction. I loved The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart, The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey, Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel. The most astonishing book I’ve read in the last year was Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer – particularly the Varanasi half of the book. It unsettled me. By the end of the book, I felt as if someone had taken me apart and put me back together inside-out. Dyer is courageous and so light in his touch.

What are you working on now?

I got two hundred pages into one book before putting that project on hold to start my current project. My husband thought I was nuts, but I knew the other book would still be there if and when I finished this one, and I was a woman possessed. I had to tell this story. I’ve been following the Arab Spring closely, looking at the hundreds of photographs that the New York Times puts up on its website, and reading article after article. Part of this new book focuses on the revolution against Qaddafi through the eyes of a young Libyan-American man, Yusef, who has joined the rebel ranks with his father, and part of the story focuses on a young woman in Texas, Mina, whose mother has just died, and who finds herself caught in a corruption scandal at work. The two are best friends and correspond daily, and the book tells the story of their singular friendship and how it sustains them during times of hardship.

I’m fascinated by dictators, especially those who appear to be mad as March hares yet who manage to stay in power for decades, and I’m utterly inspired by people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom from tyranny – who are brave enough to fight for what is right even when it puts them in danger. Yusef and Mina both find themselves fighting the good fight, but in vastly different ways.

– Keija Parssinen was interviewed by Faber’s Sarah Savitt.

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