The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh

On Monday, June 6th we discussed The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story by Hanan Al-Shaykh. A slight departure for Kutub’s specifically fiction repertoire, here Al-Shaykh, a Lebanese journalist and author of six novels (including Story of Zahra), recounts the life story of her mother Kamila. The result falls somewhere between memoir and biography as she recreates her mother’s history and the author’s journalistic talent reveals itself in her ability to get past her own abandonment to paint Kamila as a vivid, willful girl who lived as though she were the heroine of a great film.

About the book:

This book is written as a first person account, but is actually the work of her own daughter struggling to come to grips with her mother’s difficult story even as it becomes her own later on. Hanan al-Shaykh discusses the life of her mother and presents her book The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story (2009). She was a woman who broke all the rules of a strict Arab society and fought fiercely for her independence and choice. Al-Shaykh describes how her mother was forced into marriage with her brother-in-law, but found solace in a passionate affair with a young student, living two separate lives. The inevitable scandal of this affair is just one of the tumultuous events of this woman’s life, that was set against the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War.

Kamila and her brother grow up in poverty, estranged from their father, until their mother moves them to Beirut to live with their older siblings from her first marriage in the 1930s. Soon, one of their sisters dies of rabies and the family marries 14-year-old Kamila unwillingly to the widower, Abu-Hussein, 18 years her elder. Kamila torments her husband to show her displeasure, but bears him two children by the age of 17. Her starry-eyed love of the cinema is all that assuages her unhappiness but also fuels her affair with a man her own age, Muhammed. After the 10-year affair has shamed both their families, she is granted a divorce from Abu-Hussein but must leave her two daughters behind, including the author, Hanan. Kamila has five more children with Muhammed.

In the author’s words:

My mother was a phenomenon to all those who knew her. She lived her hard life in a peculiar comic way. My mother lied, stole, betrayed, abandoned her children. Loved, hated and said no to her family, to her society. She was also beaten, cursed, starved and adored. She lived in Beirut. Her flat was like a hotel lobby, a psychiatrist’s couch, a stage. Young and old gathered around her as if they were in the presence of a comic guru. She took anti-depressants: “the only way to cope with her popularity,” she told me once. I knew that she first took them to help ease her guilt for abandoning my sister and me.

Though I never blamed her for leaving me at the age of 6, and for not being interested in me, nonetheless, I found myself building a wall between us. Throughout the years she never stopped explaining to me the reason for leaving my father to marry her lover. When I eventually listened to her story I found myself, as a novelist, face to face with a treasure wrapped in a tissue paper. –Hanan Al-Shaykh

Click here for a clip of the author speaking about the book from Intelligence Squared . com

Main points of our discussion:

One of the most fascinating things we noticed upon discussing the book together was the difference in ‘voice’ between the English and the Arabic.  In English, the book begins with a personal Prologue from the voice of the author herself, in which her previous bitter feelings towards her mother are directly vocalized. It then continues into the bulk of the book in Kamila’s voice, until the chapter after her death, when the book shifts back into Hanan’s voice “my mother left in an ambulance surrounded by garlands of roses…”  This is then followed by an Epilogue in Hanan’s voice.  In Arabic however, the book is completely in Kamila’s voice. She is the one who explains at the beginning that this is “my story, as I have described to my daughter” and it is in her voice that we hear of her final moments after her death: “I left the hospital in an ambulance surrounded by garlands of roses, my son by my side…”

We discussed this affect that this change of voice had on the experience story – as well the impact that the framing of Hanan’s Prologue had on the overall tone of the book throughout.

Other key points were: the relationship between mothers and daughers, the difference in perspective in characters from the eyes of Kamila the child bride vs Hanan the daughter, and the difference between fictional story and memoir – and whether this distinction was necessary to determine one way or the other, or if the book could be experienced between the two realms.

Reviews:

  • Review from August 25, 2009 by Laurel Maury in the LA Times
  • Review from Saturday 11 July 2009 by Joan Bakewell in Guardian
  • Review by Shannon Luders-Manuel for bookreporter.com
  • Amazon Exclusive Review from Marjane Satrapi (author of the internationally bestselling and award-winning Persepolis): While I was reading Hanan Al Shaykh’s new book, The Locust and the Bird, my regret as an author was not to have known Kamila, Hanan’s mother, the extravagant narrator of this book. What a woman! What a storyteller! She reminds me of my beloved grandmother (who is in many of my books), and many other women of her generation that I knew, who were manipulative in order to survive, who lied in order to establish the truth, and, most of all, so full of life and passion. When I finished the book I had one major thought: this book needs to be made into a movie, but this is the kind of story one needs to be a real Lebanese in order to turn it into a movie. That was my other regret as a movie maker. But most of all I felt extremely lucky to spend time with someone so intelligent, full of humor and love.

Other works by the author:

  • Suicide of a Dead Man, 1970 (انتحار رجل ميت)
  • The Devil’s Horse, 1975
  • The Story of Zahra, 1980 (حكاية زهراء) (Translated to English in 1994)
  • The Persian Carpet in Arabic Short Stories, 1983
  • Scent of a Gazelle, 1988 (مسك الغزال)
  • Mail from Beirut, 1992 (بريد من بيروت)
  • I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops, 1994 (Translated to English in 2002)
  • Women of Sand and Myrrh (Translated to English in 1992)
  • Beirut Blues (Translated to English in 1992)
  • Only in London (Translated to English in 2001)

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