‘Questions of Ultimate Concern’ by Layla AlAmmar

About the author

Layla AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel The Pact We Made will be published in March 2019 by the Borough Press and her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, and Aesthetica Magazine where her story ‘The Lagoon’ was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award 2015. She currently works as an English Instructor at a private college in Kuwait.

She was Charleston’s 2018 Small Wonder festival writer in residence, wanting to show how a new generation of Arab-Anglophone writers are working to claim their own voice, their own ‘space’, and to bring their experiences and truths to a western audience.

 

In my debut novel, The Pact We Made, the main character, Dahlia, is saddled with a demon, a malevolent creature of Arabian folklore. He comes in the night—a weight on your chest, a vise on your lungs, a pressure on your heart. Hooking sharp talons between your ribs, he squeezes you like an accordion. He is a profound terror, a black hole, a certainty of impending death. Science calls the experience Sleep Paralysis, but we in the Arab world know him as the yathoom.

Dahlia suffers from one, as I have off and on for years. And like others in such situations, she thinks she’s alone in her suffering until one day standing in a museum she comes face to face with Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. Here, Dahlia, for the first time, comes to a realization one would hope all people would come to, which is that we are all connected. In the book, she feels…

“… for the first time, the unbroken thread of history. For the first time, I felt like I was more than a collection of matter floating in empty space. I felt part of something larger, my experiences no longer my own, but shared with others. I remember staring at it for hours: the woman stretched out on her back, in that position which the yathoom finds so inviting; the wide-eyed incubus, that demon, mounted on her ribs; her hand droops, lifeless, to the floor. He’s killing her. Every night, he kills her.”

It was a case of Creative Writing 101, a case of write what you know. Not much in the novel, despite what people will think, is drawn from my own life, but how Dahlia’s anxiety manifests itself does have some correlation with my experiences. I put her in a museum, but my own moment of realization was much more mundane. I’d gone down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole of art one day—I often find myself going down internet rabbit-holes—and came across Fuseli’s work. Seeing The Nightmare, I was thrown into an uneasy quiet. Here was this Anglo-Swiss, an ordained priest, from the late 18th century (which is about as far away as one could get from my reality as a half Arab/half American woman living in modern-day Kuwait), and he’d managed to capture, in one image, what I had felt on more nights than I can remember. The uncaring weight on the chest, the featureless eyes in the dark, the draping of oneself at the wrong end of the bed (in what can be nothing but an effort to confound the demon), it was all there. It was a message from 1781, one that had traveled 237 years to tell me I wasn’t alone.

I came to Charleston looking for connections.

It’s what writers (artists, in general) do, search out those elements that bind us to one another. We look for ways into a new perspective, a crack to wedge ourselves into, something to break apart and put back together. That’s what life is, after all, a breaking apart and putting back together of things—careers, relationships, selves. Our concerns center around such inquiries as: How did we come to be? Why are we here? How are we meant to be with each other? What is it all for?

We bear witness to what it means to be human. We are observers first: of people and places, of cultures and rituals, of days and nights and minutes and hours. We see the woman on the bus contemplating the non-identity of motherhood or the lovers kissing noisily in their seats. We hear the drunken men laughing at their own stupid jokes outside the pub. We sit with the old woman on the bench while she spins out the story of her life like yarn on a loom. We learn the enduring sadness and ecstatic highs of what it means to be human.

We also learn what it means to be inhuman.

Six-year-olds shot in their classrooms. Jailed writers and murdered journalists. Men locking up girls in sheds for untold years. The legislation of identities and bodies. The desperate turned back at borders, arrested at borders, shot at and spat on at borders. Children in cages. Black people shot for the crime of being black. Animals hunted as though we had a surplus of them. Proxy wars where the number of dead has crossed a threshold after which the mind can no longer conceive of them as real people.
To quote Libyan poet, Khaled Mattawa, from Fifty April Years, it is,

as if the world had stopped calling,
as if we had emerged
from the whirlpool of its demands
with a wild mixture of cowardice
and courage to say unto others
“I wish you did not exist.”

We are a mystery to ourselves.

Humans spend their lives delineating themselves and the world around them, forging identities and religions and nations, constructing imaginary borders, building and tearing down walls—where do you end and I begin?—as though the world were nothing more than a set of neatly-labeled pigeonholes for us to slot ourselves into.

The world is a frightening place. Smaller now, and perhaps all the more frightening for it. The internet, social media, ease of travel, they’ve all made it so that it feels as though we are occupying a tighter and tighter area on this little rock hurtling through space. Yes, it’s great that I can find some obscure artist in Brazil at the click of a few keys, and I can stream a Beck concert as it’s happening, and I can follow my favorite writers and see what they’re thinking every day. But it also sometimes feels as though we’re trapped in this tiny room with screens on every wall screaming the world’s tragedies at us all the time. We become desensitized to it, feel powerless against it, scroll past it to the next story.

I channel it into fiction. Frustrated by the limitations and hypocrisies of my society, I attempted to work through them in The Pact We Made. Heartbroken by the war in Syria, disgusted by the rise of Islamophobic/xenophobic rhetoric, and horrified by the refugee crisis, these elements form the central axis around which the second book I wrote pivots. In fiction I can find some resolution to seemingly insurmountable problems. I can address issues no longer (or never) spoken of.

It’s the purview of fiction, to hold a mirror up to society, to the world, showing its failures and realities. It provides the means to view all the fragmented intricacies of life from a multitude of angles. It creates in the mind the capacity to hold opposing thoughts while retaining, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to function. It is, in short, a conduit of, and for, empathy.

I came to Charleston looking for an eradication.

Home and haunt of key members of the Bloomsbury set, Duncan Grant, Clive and Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) settled here to escape society and the war. I came for an escape of my own, to walk their gardens, breathe their air, and see the world through their windows. This is where they lived and loved and wrote and painted and threw themselves into as many shapes as they could conceive of—all of it done without malice, without judgment, without fear.

What I found was a place distinctly unbordered, a place with no lines in the sand, a place unstuck in time and space—where Orlando, ninety-years-old now, still gamboled across the downs like some Shakespearean sprite, where Zanele Muholi’s series of Faces and Phases of black LGBTQIA+ lives in South Africa could sit comfortably beside Bell and Grant’s 1932 collection of dinner plates depicting notable women, from the Queen of Sheba to Emily Brontë. Here, Sylvia Plath could, for one night, return from the dead to let a hushed audience in on an unhappy marriage. It is a place for writers, artists, poets, and great minds to sit around a kitchen table discussing narrative and publishing and censorship and the frustrations of academia, and where I, a Kuwaiti author, could trudge across yellowed fields (with only a map to guide me) to a tiny village where the largest concern revolves around a newly-installed and deeply unpopular traffic light.

It’s a place of magic, whose ethos I wish I could bottle and export.

In lieu of that we could construct little Charlestons of the mind. Little rooms of our own where we approach the world through lenses of plurality, tolerance, and humanity. In Kuwait, already, there are pockets of Charleston, private spaces where there is freedom to be and think. But I’m reminded always that it’s not enough. It’s not enough until the 4,500-plus books that have been banned in Kuwait in the last five years are unbanned. It’s not enough until everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality or religious affiliation, enjoys civil liberties. It’s not enough until we can say what we want without the prickle of fear that maybe we’ve crossed a line we never knew existed. We have a moral obligation to fight suppression, to resist assaults on our intellectual freedom, to live and breathe our principles so as not to be dragged into battles that have already been fought.

I carry Charleston with me. It’s a part of me now—a dream, a comfort, an answer.

 

SMALL WONDER FESTIVAL 2018: PROGRAMME REVEALED

The line-up for the 15th Small Wonder Festival, the UK’s only festival dedicated to short stories, is announced today. Running from 28 – 30 September in the bucolic landscape of Charleston in Sussex, the festival features a mix of home-grown and international authors, poets and artists. Small Wonder is a part of Charleston’s burgeoning programme of exhibitions, events and festivals. The ideas and radicalism of the artists, writers and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group will be at the heart of Charleston’s new line-up, which will interrogate the contemporary relevance of those who lived and worked at Charleston over 100 years ago.

This year’s Small Wonder hinges on the idea of transformation. Reflecting this theme, the Festival will be housed in Charleston’s newly restored 18th century Hay Barn, opposite a brand new suite of galleries. Highlights include recent works which resonate with dualities and transitions by short story writers Sarah Hall, Eley Williams and Lucy Wood, plus playwright, director and author Neil Bartlett.

In the year we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A biography, writer Olivia Laing (author of Crudo) and performance artist La JohnJoseph will read Laing’s Small Wonder commissioned composition, The Something-Nothings, a passionate dialogue with Woolf’s seductive, shape-shifting text. This will be followed by a conversation, together with artist Sarah Wood, about how the gender-defiant novel still crackles with radical possibilities nearly a century on.

Charleston is giving audiences a sneak peek of The Something-Nothings. From 8 – 23 September Olivia Laing and Sarah Wood’s collaborative installation ‘An Artist’s Bed’ will be on display in the Hay Barn. The installation, based on Duncan Grant’s bed in the farmhouse, encourages immersive interaction. Visitors can lie back and enjoy whisperings of The Something-Nothings recited by poets and performers. Above them, projected from the ceiling will be a film created by Sarah Wood.

Olivia Laing

Seventy years since the arrival of Empire Windrush, author and historian of Caribbean Studies Colin Grant presents a session looking at writing from the perspective of migration. Grant is joined by poets Daljit Nagra and Kate Clanchy. On Saturday, Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri explores the power of poetry as a vehicle of protest and will read from and discuss the impact of his compilation ‘Rise Like Lions: Poetry for the Many’

Ben Okri Small Wonder 2018

Ben Okri

On Sunday the focus shifts; author and former journalist Tom Rachman’s latest short story collection provides an early literary look at Trump-era America. He is joined by author and journalist Lionel Shriver who will be discussing her first collection of short stories – Property, which examines both senses of the word: real estate and material belongings. 

Lionel Shriver

Chiming with the unique Charleston history and the anniversary of the first steps towards women’s suffrage, we celebrate a diverse troupe of women’s voices. Imogen Hermes Gowar presents her gender-charged parable of Georgian London, AL Kennedy performs a dramatic female voiced monologue in partnership with champion of women’s writing MsLexia. We commemorate our glorious female forebears, Muriel Spark in her 100th year and Sylvia Plath as the second volume of her Letters hits the press. Kicking off the Festival, author Kate Mosse discusses the new anthology I am Heathcliff, her curation of 16 short stories examining the romance and pain of the infamous literary anti-hero. Mosse is joined by contributors Juno Dawson (activist and author of seven novels including current bestseller Clean) and Louise Doughty (Black Water and number-one bestseller Apple Tree Yard).

I am Heathcliff panel – Juno Dawson, Kate Mosse and Louise Doughty

    

The BBC National Short Story Award, the UK’s most prestigious short story award, returns to Small Wonder with exclusive readings from previous winners and some of this year’s shortlisted authors plus insights from former judges into how prize juries really make their decisions.

For the fourth year running, Charleston and the British Council are welcoming an international writer to soak up the inspiration and respond to Small Wonder. This year Layla AlAmmar from Kuwait, whose debut novel The Pact We Made will be published in March 2019, will be joining events and responding to the festival in writing. Layla AlAmmar said: “I’m thrilled and honoured to have been chosen as the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at Small Wonder. The world will never stop needing stories, and Small Wonder consistently brings together some of the most scintillating storytellers of our time. I’m eager to share and learn with my fellow writers and readers.”

The Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction.

Charleston is delighted to announce the distinguished author AS Byatt as recipient of the 2018 Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction. Now in its sixth year, the award celebrates writers with a strong track record in publishing short stories of outstanding quality, previous recipients being William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Jane Gardam, Ali Smith and Penelope Lively. On hearing the news, AS Byatt said, “I am very happy to be about to receive the Charleston-Bede’s Award for Short Stories. I have always had a great admiration for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival and it is wonderful to be honoured by it. Thank you all very much.”

Diana Reich, artist director of Small Wonder said: As Small Wonder celebrates its 15th birthday, we rejoice in the fact that the short story form is receiving far greater recognition from writers, publishers and readers than when the festival was launched. In order to draw attention to the long-standing creativity of the form, we launched what is now the Charleston-Bede’s Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction to mark Small Wonder’s 10th anniversary. We are delighted that this year’s recipient is the internationally renowned author Dame Antonia Byatt, whose short stories exemplify the vigour of the form. We are proud that Small Wonder has been in the vanguard of stimulating renewed interest in the history and contemporary impact of the short story.”

AS Byatt

Small Wonder Fringe

The Festival runs a wide programme of workshops and events supporting new generations of writers. Activities for 2018 include; creative writing workshops with BBC National Short Story Award winner KJ Orr; BBC Producer Liz Allard on Writing for audio; acclaimed novelist Benjamin Markovits leading a creative workshop focused on structure. The Small Wonder SLAM and Reading Group returns for 2018. New for this year are the Courtyard Readings, a chance for writers to read their own short fiction aloud to the friendly festival crowd.

 

Tickets go on sale on Thursday 19 July. See the full line-up here.