Born in 1979 to a Palestinian-Lebanese mother and an Iraqi-German father, Rayyan Al-Shawaf lived in the UAE, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Lebanon, and the US. These days, he makes his home in Malta. Rayyan is a book critic whose reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and other publications. He recently traveled to the United States, to visit with friends in Florida and to promote his first novel, When All Else Fails. His protagonist a Chaldean, I was delighted that he stopped at Michigan to be on my show and visit our home where we engaged in the most fascinating conversations about religion, politics, Europe and the Middle East. I’m currently reading his book and enjoying it.
What was the inspiration for When All Else Fails?
The realization, ironic and disheartening, that too often the only way for you to parry discrimination or bullying based on the illogical notion of guilt by association is by playing on its equally spurious flipside, virtue by association! As I mentioned on your show, we’re basically talking about hitching your sorry ass to someone else’s shooting star – and hoping that this serves to burnish your image in the eyes of your tormentors.
How has your background and upbringing influenced your writing career?
Well, I suppose much of my fascination with communal identity and belonging stems from my status as an outsider wherever I go. As for my concern with non-Muslims’ increasingly precarious status in several predominantly Muslim countries, I think it owes much to the liberal and secular household in which I was raised.
How did being a book critic help / hinder your writing?
It helped by making me aware (often, not always) of vague or imprecise formulations as well as excess verbiage, meaning that I might need no prompting to remedy the situation. It may also, however, have restrained any impulse on my part to take off on creative flights.
Why did you choose your main protagonist to be Chaldean rather than other minority groups, such as Assyrians? What type of research went into this process?
Well, let me first tell you why I made him Christian. Hunayn is convinced that, were Iraq free of Saddam’s tyranny, it would come into its own as a democratic and secular country. This, of course, allows me to set him up for disappointment. Hunayn doesn’t seem to realize that the rot goes deeper than Saddam, whose ouster is a good thing in and of itself but is followed by the rise of Muslim supremacist parties and militias. Making Hunayn Christian meant that the upsurge in anti-Christian violence on the part of these groups would strike his very core.
Once I had decided that Hunayn would be Christian, the main reason behind my making him Chaldean had to do with a sociopolitical orientation. My thinking went thus: Hunayn’s affinity for the modern state of Iraq (i.e., not simply the Mesopotamia of a bygone era), as well as his solidarity with Arabs and Muslims who suffer discrimination in post-9/11 America, would both flow forth easily were he Chaldean. After all, Chaldeans (and Syriacs) have had a far less fraught relationship with both the modern Iraqi state and with ethnic Arabs than have Assyrians.
You emphasize that the novel is not autobiographical. Why do you think so many people assume that the protagonist, Hunayn, is you?
Some of it surely derives from the fact that the story is written in the first person. And, ironically, due to real parallels between Hunayn’s life and mine (for the most part in terms of where we’ve lived and when), people who know me and therefore recognize these limited commonalities may prove more inclined than others to view the story as autobiographical! They might well extrapolate that everything else about Hunayn goes for me, too.
What are you currently working on?
I’m about to begin a second novel, one in which a young Palestinian man whom the Nakba turns into a refugee devises what he considers an ingenious plan in the early 1950s; he will make his way back to his homeland – which is now Israel, and which is blocking the return of Palestinian refugees – via Iraq. Naturally, complications ensue!
Why have you chosen to live in Malta?
Why, because of all the Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians here, naturally! Just kidding. I took a job almost one year ago as an editor with a startup university keen on righting its course following a rocky start; I’m the in-house editor at the American University of Malta (AUM).
You have an interesting background and lifestyle and multifaceted views. Do you think you’ll one day write a nonfiction book, and if so, what would you like it to be about?
It’d probably be a collection of essays – which would mean that I’d have a devil of a time finding a publisher! The subject would most likely have something to do with the way that, for many of us, historical contextualization is not simply a means to better understand the motivations animating our national or religious forebears, but an instrument by which we redeem those of them who committed actions we would otherwise consider morally questionable.
What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?
Allocate some time to reading outside the fiction genres and nonfiction disciplines that intrigue you – not simply to learn new stuff, but to expose yourself to different writing styles, elements of which you may wish to incorporate into your own material. Also, read fiction from other cultures (whether in the original language or in translation), as well as from various eras.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
If you’re attempting to create something tightly structured, the elements in question are the musculature of the plot and the sinuousness of its trajectory. If, on the other hand, you’re fashioning a character study (in which case you can opt for an episodic approach when it comes to structure), the emotional arc of your protagonist/s is in my view paramount. In either case, try to leaven the story with humor!