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Story | Education
12 January 2020

In her own words: My stories are like children that leave the nest to become books

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Award-winning author Lilas Taha – whose books are published by QF member HBKU Press – has found success as a storyteller. Here, she tells her own.

Throughout my school years, I always wrote thoughts and short stories in Arabic. I had vital support from my parents and teachers, who encouraged me to read compositions over the school broadcasting system at times, which boosted my confidence in my writing ability at that critical time of development.

Looking back at those early years, I cannot stress how important that form of support was for me: the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother growing up within Kuwait’s public schools.

After I pursued a career in engineering, my focus shifted to English technical writing. Then I migrated to America because of the Gulf War, earned a Master’s degree in engineering, started a family, and volunteered to advocate on behalf of domestic abuse victims. All the while, creative writing remained my escape tool, and I continued to write reflections in private.

When unrest started in Syria in 2011 and spiraled into violence, I felt helpless as I watched terrible events affect my family, both from my mother’s side as citizens of a country I love, and from my father’s side as Palestinian refugees in Syria. So I started writing a story out of frustration, but I used English for the first time.

With the nudging of my husband and a friend, I joined a writers’ guild and received tremendous encouragement and constructive critique from professional writers. I really had no intention of publishing; I didn’t even know how to go about it. But they suggested I attend a writers’ conference, and there I met with a New York based publishing acquirer who offered me a five-year contract for my debut novel, Shadows of Damascus. It was published in 2014 and went on to be a finalist in the 2015 Colorado Award of Excellence competition, for the Mainstream with Romanic Elements category.

Meanwhile, my parents, who had relocated to Jordan after the war, came to visit me in the US, and, for the first time, I noticed something new in my father’s eyes; a dimming of luster that was always present. Faced with the avalanche of disappointments and political setbacks in Palestine, my father - the professor and teacher of generations - had lost hope of ever seeing his beloved homeland. The realization bothered me so much, as I grew up with him relating stories of climbing fig and orange trees and basking in the beauty of a land I could only imagine.

So I started writing about a world he could connect with to draw him out of this state. I invented characters he could relate to and wrote about what happened to his generation before and after their exile from Palestine. I would write at night and read to him in the morning. Over coffee, we talked, argued, and discussed events of the time as he and his friends experienced them, not necessarily as history books recorded them. Those are some of the most treasured moments of my life, and that is how my second novel, Bitter Almonds was born.

Living in the US and raising two wonderful children, I wanted to write a story that captures their generation’s striving to hold onto roots while integrating into the cultural melting pot of American life. That was how I developed my third novel, Lost in Thyme.

A publishing family

A reader of my first novel was attending an event for another writer, mentioned my book to the publisher’s representative, and I received an email from HBKU Press inviting me to submit if I was writing another story about the Middle East. I had just finished writing Bitter Almonds, so I took a chance and attached the manuscript to my response. I was so happy to receive a publishing contract for it.

But weeks before I signed, my father passed away. He never knew I got the story out, although I like to think he would have been pleased and hope he would have been proud. HBKU Press published Bitter Almonds in 2016, and it won the 2017 International Books Award for the Multicultural Fiction category in the US.

The attention and support I received from the HBKU Press team was amazing. I felt, and still feel, as if they’ve adopted me into their family of professionals. The enthusiasm they have for my book matches mine; they involved me in most details of producing a book, cover to cover, and guided me through publishing aspects that were completely unknown to me. Publishing the Arabic translation of Bitter Almonds opened doors to reach Arabic readers, and facilitating the Norwegian translation of the novel takes me across more borders.

I tend to think of my stories as children that have to leave the nest to become books. Feeling they are safe in the hands of the HBKU Press team encouraged me to sign off Lost in Thyme, the first in a series of two books. It won the 2019 Best Book Awards at the American Book Fest in the Inspirational Fiction category, and knowing HBKU Press are supportive of my work, I feel enthusiastic about working on the sequel, Found in Thyme.

I never imagined I could write a whole novel in English, never mind having it published, and then another – and win awards for each. Writing stories came somewhat naturally for me as I’ve been doing it since childhood, but eloquently expressing myself using a language I wasn’t totally comfortable with gave me lots of misgivings. I doubted each word and every sentence structure. I know being a good storyteller is different to being a good writer, and it turns out that I am capable of utilizing the English language to convey my creative side.

Winning awards for Bitter Almonds and Lost in Thyme gave me the validation I need as a writer. It tells me my stories were well-received by critics and readers alike, for what is a storyteller without an audience? Reaching the hearts and minds of different readers helps build bridges, and I hope to bring clarity on, and proper appreciation of, the culture of Palestine, Syria, and the Middle East in general - a goal I set my mind to achieve at the beginning of this journey.

Literary exposure

I’m fortunate to be selected for the Art Omi Writers Residency for the fall of 2020, and honored to be sponsored by HBKU Press. For a writer like me, it is a chance of a lifetime.

Art Omi hosts authors and translators from around the world for residencies, and its strong international emphasis provides exposure for global literary voices and reflects the spirit of cultural exchange that is essential to its mission. About 10 writers at a time gather to live and work in a rural setting overlooking the Catskill Mountains in the US. During my residency, I plan to finish working on Found in Thyme, and hope to connect with fellow authors from around the world, share my experience, and learn from the trove of knowledge they can offer.

If sharing my journey could help others and inspire would-be writers, I would be extremely happy, and I am forever grateful to all who helped me along the way.

Creating characters

I could say frustration with current world affairs has been the main driver of my writing so far. But it’s not the only source of inspiration. When I set out to write a story, I don’t think where it would lead or how it would end, or map out a plot plan as most writers do, where they know what goes in each chapter ahead of time. My method is more time-consuming and somewhat risky.

I concentrate on creating the characters I want to write about, with all their intricate details, then put them together on paper. Their interactions drive my stories from one chapter to the next, and sometimes they take me to places I hadn’t thought of and situations I hadn’t considered. Of course, there’s always the main theme in the back of my head, monitoring from a distance as I manipulate the circumstances of my characters.

My inspiration comes from the people around me. I strive to capture so much of their rich culture, interesting history, and glorious humanity, and to bring my Middle Eastern background and my professional interests together in the stories I write.

Writing with freedom

My advice for aspiring young writers is: write, every chance you get, everywhere you can put pen to paper or type on a keyboard. Don’t keep your ideas in your head and say ‘I have a story’. If it can’t be read, it can’t be shared.

And when you write, don’t do it with the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder. Write freely, with no restraints or conditions. Don’t worry about plot flow, grammar, and spelling at first; just get the creative ideas out.

But before you start this crazy and exhausting journey, do your homework. Read all the work of your favorite authors, and then read outside your comfort zone. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the genre or category you think your work may fall into, but just as important to know what else is out there.

Write what’s in your heart. It’s said that writers write what they know. I disagree with this approach. I believe that writers should also attempt what’s unknown to them. If you plan to write fiction, completely abandon the truth; create your world and characters with all their details and run with them. But if your story is also rooted in history, it’s important to stick to the facts of your world.

A writer who wishes to improve should not cling to an ego. Join a writers group, and share your work to get critiqued by professionals in your field. It’s important to listen and understand how vital constructive criticism is for a writer developing their work. Having a thin skin will make you reject feedback that could be crucial..

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And be patient. The publishing industry moves in slow motion, and those who lack patience will suffer. Believing in yourself, and having strong support from other writers and professionals as well as family and friends, are the keys that open locked doors. Send your work out and don’t be deterred.

It’s so rewarding to read favorable reviews from other writers about my books, and so much more rewarding to hear from readers who tell me how they connected with my characters and why. I signed a copy of my book for a reader at one of my events by including a specific comment linked to what she said about the book. Two years later, she sent me a photo of my signature and said my novel and comment encouraged her to take special positive steps. I was so elated to know that my words can have an impact on a person that way.

Sharing my stories with people I’ve never met makes me feel connected to others, like roots of distant trees intertwining to be part of a whole pulsing entity. How thirsty I am – how thirsty we all are - for the world to function as such.

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