In Traffic with Saleem Haddad
One of my favorite exercises while at Miami University’s Creative Writing program was studying first lines from novels. “The morning begins with shame” is a new contender that will surely make its way into the canon of best first lines. It comes from Guapa, the debut novel by Saleem Haddad. Set over the course of 24 hours, it follows the coming-of-age story of Rasa, a twenty-something gay Arab man living through the 2011 Arab revolutions in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.
I remember picking up the book just after leaving my job and being unable to put it down. When I finally finished, and as life would have it, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi announced a private reading in Dubai. Spaces filled fast, and I simply could not resist booking a ticket on the spot.
Besides being a pleasurable read, what I loved most about it was Saleem’s ability to seamlessly zero in on the Arab world’s widespread eib (عيب; shame) culture and how it both impacted and complicated the lives of Guapa’s characters.
At the intimate gathering’s Q&A, Saleem was asked how much his target audience influenced the writing, if at all. “During the final edits, I remember speaking to my publisher and saying ‘I’m not sure if this will work because of the audience’” he said. “And she said ‘screw the audience!’ I’m not sure if publishers should really say that but it was great advice.”
The book fittingly received critical acclaim from The Guardian among many others. Saleem toured widely for the book, which was also translated into Italian and German.
I was excited to sit down with him the day after the reading and chat about his creative journey in traffic.
How was it that you came into writing?
I always used to write but I was focusing a lot more on nonfiction. There was a big writing component in my job with Médecins Sans Frontières and especially during times of crisis. I was doing that but I wasn't reading much fiction because it’s a really draining job. They throw you in a war zone for weeks. So much of it felt immediate and real. I got really tired around 2010. When you work in that industry for a while you get very burnt out, so I left.
I really didn't know what I was going to do with my life but I just felt there was a lot of anger. I was trying to process everything I had seen over the past few years and I had just thought Let me just take a short creative writing course in London. Like a six weeks’ course. Nothing major. I didn't know why, it's almost like something drew me to that. I loved writing but I never thought that I would have space as a writer.
Was there a particular moment when you thought “I'm a writer now”?
It was probably before the book came out. I applied for a residency in New York one winter and that was really the first time I felt like a writer. You're basically invited to stay in this beautiful mansion with other artists and you spend all day working by yourself. And that's where I felt like this is a job, whereas before I would work a lot on it but I was doing it around other commitments.
What’s been a major obstacle you experienced while writing this book?
There are a lot of internal obstacles when it comes to writing where you have to break through this barrier of articulating a certain truth. Often I find that I'd be writing and writing and writing and then I'll stop. I'd look at it and I'll see I'm just talking around the subject. That was a mental hurdle that I needed to get through. A lot of it is about exposing yourself, making yourself vulnerable and opening yourself up in your writing. And that's very scary.
But there are other hurdles too. I think it's quiet hard sharing stuff and getting feedback from people, especially as it can be quite negative and destructive. That can really set you back. I definitely had situations where I would share my writing with friends, frienemies or whoever and they would basically say this is not good. I think that's the reality of a writer, you need to kind of accept that people are going to say it is crap.
Do you think that going through that experience with Guapa made you better able to approach the second novel you’re working on?
I think every novel is very different. It has its own routine, its own world, and its own unique set of troubles you're trying to deal with. For it to be good it needs to come from that specific part inside of you that is very vulnerable, and that can be very exhausting. When I finished Guapa and I was done with the editing and got the book deal, I was constantly sick physically from beginning of December to late February. I think it was a reaction of finally letting go. I even told myself I am not going to write another book.
Why do you think that was and what made you start working on another one?
Because it was very emotional and very tiring. Guapa was my priority, and it was just me. No one else was going to carry it and no one else was going to take it to where it needed to be other than me.
It all falls on you. If you're not going to write it and if you're not going to fight for your book no one else is going to do it for you. It is very exhausting.
So what made you decide to go through that again?
I enjoy it! I was really happy doing it. The happiest I was was when I was writing Guapa. But Guapa came from a place where I really had these things that I wanted to explore. Now I'm starting to think about new topics and slowly getting myself to new ideas and new questions that I have about the world. That takes time to develop but once the questions start then it almost feels inevitable.
How did Guapa come about?
I started Guapa initially in September 2011. I remember very clearly because I was in Morocco with a friend of mine who has a beach house. He’s a writer as well and we spent a week there writing. I say that but we weren't really writing as much as we were smoking weed and reading!
To some people that's writing.
But I also didn't tell anyone for a long time that I was writing a book. A couple of my close friends knew that I was writing something.
Why do you think you kept it away?
Because I just didn't want the pressure. I didn't want the identity of a writer and the expectations that would come with that. And it was just cliché: this writer that was just struggling and everyone is waiting for him to finish this book. I didn't want that.
So how did you weed out the noise around you and focus on where you needed to go?
I just disconnected from the world. I went off the grid completely. I wasn't seeing anyone. I didn't have the time. I would wake up really early in the morning and I would write, and then I go into work and come home so exhausted that I would just go to bed. It just became a compulsion. I just said okay, I am going to write a novel and here's what I need to cut out of my life. It's something I'm really struggling with at the moment as well.
So no more smoking Morocco?
Exactly! And writing the book really did become my priority. Work was something afterwards I was just going to in order to make some money.
Do you think you're going to have to do these things again (disconnecting, prioritizing, etc.) and would you be ready to do so?
That's part of a bigger question that I have around what a writer's role is, especially in the current environment that we're living in. I feel like it's so important to be politically engaged with what's happening, not just in the Middle East, but in the US and the UK where I live.
As someone who writes and who has a bit of a voice, am I best placed to be engaging with what's happening with the world, or do I just cut myself off and kind of jump back into this solitude? And I don't have the answer to that yet to be honest.
Is this something you want to do or a sort of obligation that you feel?
What I would like to do is to disconnect again. That's what I want, but I just feel there is an obligation not to. But then I wonder, what is the point? There's only so many Facebook exchanges you can have before you realize this is not changing anyone's mind.
Have you ever experienced failure?
I think there is no writer who hasn't experienced some level of rejection. I don't know if failure is a word that I like because it's so subjective. In terms of rejection and really down moments I think, yeah, of course. Sometimes you're working on something for years and you see other writers doing stuff that feels so effortless and you're thinking I'm constantly going to be here scraping through this manuscript that no one is going to read. You have a lot of questions around voice, the validity of your voice and the authenticity of your voice.
What I told myself during the first draft of Guapa and what I'm telling myself now while I'm writing the first draft of the next project is to write a terrible story. And I had to tell myself Every time you get up and want to delete something or thought you shouldn't write today because what you produce is terrible, to just say “Well, if it’s terrible, it’s terrible. Just write it anyway. What else are you going to do, sleep for an extra hour?” Accept the self-criticism and the oh-my-voice-is-shit.
On a lighter note, what is success to you?
I don't believe in success either! I think part of my anxiety before the book came out was having to let go of ideas of failure and success and disassociate myself from any of the feedback that comes out of the book world. I have a very holistic view of my life as someone who is not just a writer, but is also a husband, a brother, someone who is a family member, a friend. I just see it all connected in a way that success of writing is just one avenue of my life.
Creative courage, the idea of putting yourself out there with what your produce, is resurfacing in the creative field, especially in response to the rise of social media and the fine line it creates between courage and ego. How did you find that creative courage for yourself?
I do think you do need to have an ego to be a writer. Even if it is wrapped in layers and layers of self-loathing! You have to have an ego to spend all this time thinking that you have something important to say. You need ego for that.
I like the idea of creative courage though. The ability to be vulnerable in your writing is very important, and I think that’s creative courage. Every day when I am in front of the computer and writing is a battle of creative courage. You have to battle all of these ideas of eib, that this is embarrassing, it’s very stupid, and what are people going to say about this? You need to fight through that and actually talk about what it is you want to talk about.
What is next for you?
I am working on a new project about Iraq, about the environment, about our bodies. These are the questions I am exploring.
You can find Saleem Haddad on Facebook here, and he is @sysh on Twitter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All photos courtesy of Saleem Haddad.