Cairo's literary daughters

Egyptian authors

Cairo's literary daughters

Radwa has penned The Granada Trilogy and co-authored a two-volume work, Arab Women’s Writing: A Critical Reference Guide (1873-1999). Excerpts from an interview with the authors:

In both your works, the past and present coexist as it were. How does the past come into works of fiction?

Radwa: I think the past gets into fiction in several ways. Once you try to reconstruct a given experience of a given reality, this reality comes out in the way characters behave and respond to certain events. These events, in turn, have to do not just with their individual past but their collective past. Then there is the geography of a place. There are no places without history. Both of us are Egyptians, we are Cairenes, and Cairo is a place full of a multi-layered history. Every corner, every street here, has a story. 

But your conception of history as writers would be totally different from that of historians.

Ahdaf: Your aim as a writer of fiction is not in presenting historical information as such. It is about what history means for your characters, and their story. It is an accepted thing that writers do research. But at some point he or she would have to leave that research behind so that the story can come alive.

How has gender impacted your work?

R: Well, that’s who we are, women. So naturally we know more about women than we do about men and that helps us to create interesting women characters.  I think, ultimately, feminism for us is much more than ideas, it is a lived experience. 

A: I am not aware of highlighting women’s issues, although I suppose there are more women characters in my work, than there are men. Of course, we have inside information about what it means to be women! But ultimately you are making an imaginative attempt to get into your character, whoever he or she is. I suppose neither Radwa nor I have had problems about being women. In fact, being women has actually been quite useful for our work. But it is also true that issues that impact women have to do with issues that impact wider society. When society has problems, then they tend to be played out on women. When there is a recession, it is women who suffer the most. So the answer is to look at society as whole.

But can you, as privileged women, reflect the realities of ordinary Arab women?

R: It is always a challenge to write. So we wouldn’t like to confine ourselves to writing about women or writing about women’s issues. I always think one of the great things about literature is that it can transcend gender. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina and Flaubert created Madame Bovary. This is quite an achievement, which I would like to emulate!

What do you see are the commonalities between India and Egypt?

R: Most of us were very aware of India while when we were growing up — including, of course, learning about iconic people like Gandhi and Nehru.

A: Also, since both India and Egypt are very old countries, very diverse countries, they share a lot of problems — so many poor people are dependent on agriculture as a source of their livelihood, for instance. As Egyptians, we are also interested in Indian literature and culture. There is a common centrality of the mother figure in both our cultures. And, of course, there is also the love for romantic traditions and the dominance of the live story in both India and Egypt!


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