Zibby is joined by professor and author Mai Al-Nakib to discuss her debut novel, An Unlasting Home, an intergenerational story inspired by Kuwait’s short-lived attempt to charge blasphemy as a capital crime. The two talk about what Mai loves most about being a teacher, her unique educational history and journey to writing, and the women in her life who helped shape her. Mai also shares how she kept track of such a massive family tree as she wrote and what her typical writing process looks like.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mai. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, An Unlasting Home.

Mai Al-Nakib: Thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: Would you mind please telling listeners a little bit about what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Mai: An Unlasting Home is a multigenerational saga that traces the lives of five pretty formidable women spanning from the early twentieth century to 2013 and ranging across the Middle East from Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, to India and to the United States. The novel opens with the protagonist, Sara, who is a professor of philosophy at Kuwait University, is accused of blasphemy under a new rule designating it a capital crime. As she awaits trial, she begins to look back realizing that she has to reckon with her personal history, her personal past, her family’s past, but also the history of her country. She begins to untangle the generational lines of the women who’ve shaped her: her grandmothers, Yasmine and Lulwa; her mother, Noura; and her beloved ayah, Maria, who helped raise her. Through this process, Sara, it allows her to come to terms with why she’s been so stalled in her life, why she made the decision to return to Kuwait from the United States, and really helps her figure out who she wants to become. In many ways, it’s a novel about inherited trauma and migratory passage, loss, resilience, but also how women are able to overcome these burdens that are political, personal, historical in order to survive.

Zibby: That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard. Seriously, that’s fantastic. It has every element you would want to read in a book.

Mai: Yay, that’s good.

Zibby: You write with such vivid prose. It makes you feel like, there you are. When Sara goes to prison and she sees all the messages of the women that they’ve written all over as lifelines reaching out to each other and has to come to terms with the fact that she’s living, not unlike, by the way, what’s going on in the United States these days, but in a world where the rules have suddenly shifted, how do you make sense of that? How do you give a lecture in school and suddenly, it lands you in prison, and execution is on the table? It’s crazy.

Mai: Absolutely. You asked about the inspiration. When I finished my collection of short stories, when it was published, The Hidden Light of Objects, I had a sense that I wanted to write a novel. I knew I wanted to write something expansive and teeming. I wanted it to be about a family based in the Middle East. I wanted it to be, in many ways, a story of women, their relationships, their friendships, and so on. I didn’t really know exactly where I was going with it. I had already started writing these two characters, Lulwa and Yasmine. I wrote it back and forth moving between their stories. I didn’t write the full stories and then kind of — I didn’t know how they would connect. I just trusted that somehow, their stories would overlap. Then in 2013, the parliament of Kuwait passed this law making blasphemy a capital crime. This was just such a shock to me. Kuwait had been becoming increasingly conservative, socially and politically, after the liberation in 1991 and beyond, but this was really unprecedented.

It was just such a shock to me personally, but to many people. I remember literally collapsing on the couch not knowing, how is this going to affect me? I selfishly started thinking, what about the classes that I teach? Is there material in the classes that I teach at university that might be construed as blasphemous? Absolutely, a hundred percent, I just knew that there could be material that might be looked at that way. Then I also started thinking about the chilling effect this was going to have on journalists and on political activists. Really, it was the next day that I wrote a version of what would turn into the first chapter of the novel, the Sara chapter. It then came to me, this idea that these stories of the women that I was already writing that was set much earlier historically were going to somehow connect. Sara was going to be the pivot holding all of this together, all of these women’s stories together. That was really the beginning of the process for me.

Zibby: When you went back to teaching after the new law was in place, did you make substantive changes to your curriculum?

Mai: Not a thing. Not a thing because I don’t believe that as a teacher at university, one should be afraid. I feel like I should be able to — I know that we have to be careful and watch what we say, but I really don’t feel like the university space should be that kind of space. It should be a place where you can make mistakes, both as a professor and as a student. This is the place where you can experiment. You can challenge your students and even have your students challenge you and know that it’s a place where transformation is going to happen for these young students and then for yourself as well. I just figured if I’m going to get in trouble for something that I say, let it happen. I do feel that because my students have a sense that I’m out there with them on the edge experimenting with these ideas, that they trust the situation. Even if they don’t agree, I’ve never felt threatened. Knock on wood. It hasn’t happened yet. I didn’t. I didn’t change any of my syllabi or any of the ways that I presented myself or my ideas in the classroom.

Zibby: Did you have friends or colleagues or anybody who actually were entrapped by this new rule?

Mai: The rule was overturned very quickly by the ruler of the country, by the emir. That was really great. There are still penal codes, not — in Kuwait, capital punishment is exceedingly rare. It doesn’t happen often. It was, again, why it was such a shock to everybody. Luckily, that amendment was overturned, but there are very conservative, very rigid rules and codes and penal codes. A few years ago, a philosophy professor at Kuwait University was accused of blasphemy. It was kind of crazy. I knew her. I called her up. I said, “Look, I’m writing this novel. I’ve been writing it for many years, so it’s not going to be based on you. I can’t believe this is happening.” She said, “I know. This is absolutely crazy.” Somebody accused her. The prosecution took the case. They shouldn’t have. It was a very weak and illegitimate case. Eventually, it was thrown out. This professor had to really live with this worry for two to three months and has to defend herself and speak up. She was very political. She eventually even ran for parliament herself. She wasn’t afraid or nervous about it. It is nerve-racking. It is scary to have this kind of accusation made against you. Everything is becoming more conservative in general. Usually, it’s directed against women. We’ve had lots of things happen recently in the last few months. It’s obviously also going on in the US. I think what happens in the US reverberates in the rest of the world too. It gives people a kind of energy to pursue things that women would rather not happen.

Zibby: Great. Perfect. Love it. Take me back a little bit about growing up and where you grew up and how you became a teacher and a writer. Give me the “how we got here” part of your life.

Mai: I was born in Kuwait. I spent the first six years of my life out of Kuwait because my father was working on his medical residency. My mom, she got her bachelor’s degree. I spent most of my early childhood in the United States. We returned to Kuwait when I was six years old and then went to an American school in Kuwait because my mom believed in the American system of education. She wanted her daughters in the American school. That was very rare at the time. She really insisted, and so it happened. I went to school in Kuwait and grew up there. We would spend about three months of the year in the US, so I did have a foot in both places, it felt like. I went to Kuwait University and got my bachelor’s degree in literature and then completed my doctorate in the US at Brown University and spent many years in the States at that time.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I was a voracious reader. For me, the two were connected. I knew that was what I wanted to do. Growing up in Kuwait, I didn’t have a sense that that was an option. There wasn’t a creative writing program. That was just not a thing that I even knew existed. I always imagined, well, I have to have a career doing something and then write on the side. Literature seemed the closest thing to it, and so that’s what I did. The thing is, studying literature academically really takes you away from writing it. For a long time, I felt very bifurcated. Teaching took over my life. Doing all of that academic work took over. I really didn’t feel like I could write. It was only after I got my job at Kuwait University that I felt I could turn to writing fiction. I still dream of a time when I can do that full time because teaching does make it very difficult to carve out the time and space to be able to write, but that is my first love.

Zibby: At least you can maybe help develop the talent of your students. I feel like it’s so important when you’re in school and when you’re just getting going in writing, from a young age or in college or grad school or whatever. Just to have that vote of confidence from some sort of teacher I think puts you on a different track than if nobody notices your writing, right?

Mai: Absolutely. I get a lot back from my students. First of all, teaching literature is a delight. Teaching is hard work. Being able to teach the books that I love, putting together courses, and introducing things that I love to my students and having them engage with it for the first time, that’s all wonderful. Then the discussions in the classroom, it keeps you on your toes. All of that is really wonderful. It’s as good for me — I hope it’s a good experience for my students. I get lovely feedback from them. It is a wonderful thing to be part of, I really feel. Again, I love to teach. In some ways, what’s interesting is writing, there’s a similar kind of reciprocity in the sense that you’re writing alone for so many years. You’re working on this project all by yourself. At the end, the aim is that somebody reads it. It’s just such a wonderful thing to think that someone’s going to be reading the words that you put together. It’s such an intimate — it’s not a relationship, but it just feels so wonderful. I think there is a similar kind of reciprocity with the students, a back-and-forth that is really fulfilling.

Zibby: Your book spans multiple generations and different families. Even your family tree is four pages long. How did you keep it straight? Did you have massive outlines? Did you use notecards, whiteboard? How do you structure? Did you have the whole thing planned out before you started?

Mai: I didn’t, actually. I don’t write that way. When I begin a project — I think of the writing process as a kind of capture. I’m captured by something. It may be a place. It may be a person. It may be an event. It could be something very specific or something very ephemeral, a kind of mood or the slant of light. Something captures me. Then my mind begins to wander. I go down rabbit holes, some of which may be productive, some which may turn up nothing at all. The whole thing feels very open, very nebulous at the start of a project. Then as things begin to come together, they begin to gel. I begin to think about how things will be structured. Form becomes very important to me. What kind of form is going to hold all of this? With this story, I knew as I started writing and things started to accrue and it was getting thicker and thicker, I knew that I needed a form for it to hold together for me as I’m writing it.

The three parts, that helped me. The first part is Lulwa and Yasmine and Sara interspersed. Then the second part of Noura, her mother, and Maria, her caregiver, her caretaker. Then the third part would belong to Sara. There was this sense for me that there was a movement, Sara moving through their stories and then coming out at the end so that the reader would be moving along with her, as well, as she’s collecting these old stories and also coming to terms with her current situation. Then the maps, they build. The family trees, I would map it all out. The family tree that is in the book, my version of that has all the dates, all the events. I would just add, one by one, everything that happened to all the different characters. It was big. Then when you make a mistake or if you get something wrong — it helps to have it all there, but it is really crazy. You have to go back and make sure everything is aligned. I think of it as a map rather than a tree. The map, that really helped me keep it all together.

Zibby: Very impressive. Wow, oh, my gosh. What are your own relationships like with the women in your life, in your family and your family tree and generations before you?

Mai: My immediate connection to women are my three sisters. We’re very close. I was very close to both of my grandmothers, but I lost one of my grandmothers a bit earlier. I had more of a chance to get to know my grandmother on my father’s side. She was a storyteller, much like Yasmine, if we were to connect her. Some of the lines, there are things that you can trace between the stories in An Unlasting Home and my life, but they’re not the same people. Sara’s not me. Yasmine is not my grandmother. There are similarities in terms of just where they lived, where they were born, and so on. Then obviously, the characters took off and became their own people. I was very close to my mom, to my grandmothers. You somehow just collect those stories without thinking of them as such until you’re older. Then you realize how these layered stories that are repeated over the years have shaped you. In that, I share that a bit with Sara. Maybe I was a little bit more aware than Sara, collecting the stories, maybe because I was a writer or had a sense of myself as a writer. I really kept tabs on what people were saying.

Zibby: What do you like to read? What are you reading now?

Mai: Right here, Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia. I haven’t read that before. It’s fascinating. I love her writing. Gosh, this is always the question I dread.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Don’t answer it.

Mai: There’s so much. You’re like, oh, no. I’m going to say Kafka. Writers that are important to me, Kafka has always been important to me, Kundera, Coetzee. Anaïs Nin, growing up, she opened up a world that I didn’t know existed when I was maybe too young to know, but I did anyway. So many others.

Zibby: What now? Are you writing another book? More short stories? What’s coming next?

Mai: I’m just at the start of a new, what I’m hoping will be a novel. I’m at that capture stage where I’ve been captivated by this island in Kuwait called Failaka. It’s an island that has a history that goes back to the Bronze Age and is connected to the Dilmun dynasty. It’s old and ancient. There are remains from ancient Greek remains and ruins there, and pagan shrines. It’s a place that is very layered. It was inhabited by Kuwaitis until 1990. During the invasion, they were forced out. Then in 1991 after the liberation, they weren’t allowed to come back for security reasons. The government bought back their properties or bought their properties and compensated and just emptied the island out. Now when you go there, it’s an island of abandoned, destroyed buildings. It’s pretty empty. There’s some, I wouldn’t call it tourism, but there’s a small resort there. Really, you can wander this empty, abandoned island. It’s just got these buildings. You can go into the buildings. There are things that have been left for decades now. It’s just a stark, beautiful — it seems like a haunted place to me. I’m doing research around this place and its ancient history, but also what happened. It’s set on that island. I’m thinking it’s going to be set about ten years or so into the future. Something transpires on the mainland. One of the inhabitants, a woman in her fifties, will be forced to come back to the island. We’ll see what happens. I’m just working now on the research. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m just reading around the island.

Zibby: That sounds nice. Whisk me away. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Mai: I do. I would read widely. Read as much as you can. I would say read in translation. Read books in translation. Read books from the past. Read books that are not like the book you want to write. I think that it’s really helpful for writers to read outside their comfort zone. It can be inspiring. It can just open ways of thinking that you might not have registered. I think it can be humbling, which is not a bad thing either. That would be it.

Zibby: Mai, thank you so much. Thank you for talking about An Unlasting Home. Sorry I’m a little under the weather today. Usually, I’m a bit more animated. Thank you for coming on. The thing I’m mostly taking away is that even with, honestly, life-threatening rules, you’re so brave as to stay the course and teach what you want and share the information. It’s empowering and amazing. Then here you are writing this huge book, which is beautifully written and so in-depth. It’s really awesome.

Mai: Thank you so, so much. Thank you for those lovely words. I hope you feel better soon.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Mai: Thank you. Take care. Bye.



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