YA Novelist Sonia Nimr on Discovering and Reinventing the Treasure of Palestinian Folktales

I just felt: This is what I want to write. SN: Yes, both. I thought: If I want to write in rhyme, in colloquial, then I’m keeping the music and the magic. This doesn’t hold me back, it just gives me the opportunity to reform the story. just textbooks? It saddened me, actually. You began writing in an Israeli prison in the mid-1970s? SN: Not only Tamer Institute. You wouldn’t write a book for adults? Do you put a message into your book, or does it just come out that way? Tamer Institute? There’s no coffee shop for pirates. Then I thought, Ah! Children relate more to colloquial. Sonia Nimr has written more than a dozen books for young readers, including the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature-winning YA novel   Wondrous Explorations in Strange Nations*   (Rihlat Ajeeba fi al-Bilad al-Ghareeba):  
Dr. SN: Until I became a teenager, we did not have a bookshop or a library in my town. Do you have a favorite? But I don’t have a message to send. To let the children know there are other worlds. Dr. Think of it as part of the resistance. I still remember the first book, and I was five. For example, she [the narrator] has to go and meet pirates. SN: Actually, one thing I have to say for Tamer Institute is that they distribute children’s books to all schools, even to Gaza. Because we didn’t have libraries or bookshops, I read anything that I   could get my hands on: Hugo, Dickens, Mahfouz. What difference does it make, having real children’s literature in the schools, vs. Do prizes matter in developing more YA literature? In addition to her children’s and YA books in Arabic, Nimr has one full-length book in English,   Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories,   as well as a collaboration with UK author Elizabeth Laird. Later, when I was at   the British Museum, I wrote two stories in English, and both are based on Palestinian folktales. It gives you, as an author, feedback — usually honest feedback — from children. It’s not exactly a novel, nor is it a memoir. SN: No, not really. They were disappointed about the ending, but then they were satisfied because I told them there are three parts, and this is not the end. SN: Passion first. SN: In the past 10 years, [Palestinian] children have started to have book discussions, which is really nice. And, in your books, you use techniques that seem to come from the world of oral storytelling: repetition, patterning. It pops up every now and then, in books and otherwise. As I was growing up, Palestine changed, I changed. Not because they don’t like folktales. Some of them had   really good ideas. Also, courtesy of Ibby UK, you can watch Dr. And they don’t like schoolbooks, because they’re boring. How can Arabic children’s & YA literatures reach more audiences and become more accessible? I had a book discussion at the Aida Refugee Camp. And I thought, Yes! The old women who told stories never refrained from mentioning body parts, bodily functions. It’s storytelling rather than story-writing. Not because colloquial is better, but because standard Arabic, for some children, reminds them of…
School? Life is bleak in Palestine under occupation. So these kids were from a refugee camp, thirty of them. But then again it depends on the type of story I’m telling, because some of my books are not in colloquial but in standard Arabic. SN: This was a big argument back in Palestine. It’s not my job to put the wisdom of my life into a book, nor to give advice. At the same time, they’re not heavy colloquial. Why children? Nimr spoke at the festival, with author Kevin Crossley-Holland, about “Myth and Mythconception,” saying that she was born in the 1950s and raised by her mother, who raised her logically and “by the book.” Her mother took her from a young age to Nablus to buy books, but these were “never magical tales, never folktales.”
While her mother did nurture her imagination, Nimr said, it was only later that she thought about why the neighbor’s daughter knew   all these stories about djinn and that she   sought   the treasure that was all around her. “When I sought it,” she said, “it was like Alaa al-Deen going into his cave” in the   1,001 Nights. Palestinian historian, academic, and award-winning author Dr. You said, in a journal article, that Palestinian folktales and traditional storytelling suffered a setback in the refugee camps. There’s an edited version for the schools? SN: I didn’t know then. But you need to have fun and you need to be passionate. It’s not a happy life. If wanted to keep the story in its original form, I would put it in an anthropology book. In the book it says the worlds of the humans and the djinn should be kept separate. Can you say what they are? So these [folktales] were substituted by stories of how we left Palestine, the journey of suffering: how was it in our homeland, our homes, our gardens. It’s: How did I see Palestine as I was growing up? What about the problem of distribution? Are there red lines that hold you back? How do you feel your way through the relationship between fos7a (Modern Standard Arabic) and 3ameya (colloquial, spoken Arabic) when you’re writing books for children? I want to tell them something different. For the past 20 years or so, we’ve realized how important it is to give a different literature to children. So what I’m trying to do is to rewrite the folktales — I keep the spirit, the magic, but at the same time I rewrite it…to be approved by librarians. And they changed bar to a coffee shop, for example. While at the 2017 Emirates LitFest for a series of workshops and events. Oh. Well, it’s not like it’s my agenda to resist. So children’s writers try to make their stories not only vibrant, but also colorful, magical. Unfortunately, though,   not all countries have this. And that helps them understand that children matter and their opinions matter. So I agreed to it, although I don’t find the editing necessary. If I put a message, it becomes like a textbook. Both when you do children’s and young adult? For one reason: Folktales in Palestine were not told for children, they were told for adults. For me, this is what matters. Are you going to write about the world of the djinn? But on the other hand, I’m sure that somehow, even when I write for young adults, I come up somehow, one way or the other: commenting on things, making a joke here and there, which is my personality. I made this book for teenagers, which means you can’t not talk about love. SN: No, no, it just comes out. They were very excited to tell me what they thought of the book. My personal stories don’t matter, actually. SN: I’m not sure, actually. What are the books you read as a child, a teenager? I was 20 then. SN: I might, actually. But at least the main events are there, and I hope the girls will get the message that they can have the power to do anything once they set their mind to it. SN: They could be available. Why don’t you talk about the world of the djinn? And you’re bringing back folktales? If you don’t have fun while writing, nobody will have fun reading. But I’m sure meeting people and listening to their stories must have affected me one way or another, although I did not collect stories. Of course some of them had suggestions. But they can’t get hold of them. SN: After 1948, when people went to the camps, they needed different, realistic stories. And fun. I could write children’s books. Do you have advice for young writers? So when I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to Nablus, where she bought me books. And foremost. Children’s books are distributed well inside Palestine, but what about other countries? They have enough of that at school! They were not published [in English], so they were published in Arabic in 1996 by Tamer Institute. Forget about the adults, because the adults have their own weird, cynical ideas. Nimr’s   fun and funny oral storytelling in English and in Arabic on YouTube. SN: I had to weigh it: accept the editing or not have the book read by a large number of students. Most of my children’s books were written in colloquial. Not in the young adults, of course. Do you use your personal stories when writing for children? SN: I turned 62 yesterday, but I am 16. SN: Schoolbooks. As far as I’m concerned, I want to bring back folktales to the children in a new form. But with other ideas, some of them I’m going to use in my next book. SN: No. Also, the whole idea of discussing books means that your opinion matters. Because they wanted to revive the Palestine they lost. For example, if you have a bad wife or a bad stepmother, they want revenge. SN: Oh, I’ve been writing one; I haven’t finished it yet. You do wonderful live storytelling. When you read my books in Arabic, you’re listening to a story, actually. Having said that, the original ones are not always polite and they’re not always politically correct. SN: For example, one girl said: You used djinn in the book. She said, But you’re a writer, you can do both worlds. But somehow it’s in the background that we want to give the   children something different. SN: A writer is my favorite while I’m reading him or her. SN: It is a problem because, for example, I know this book won the Etisalat Prize (Rihlat Ajeeba fi al-Bilad al-Ghareeba), but I would to see people from Egypt, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia to read my books. What’s the relationship between you as a historian who has gathered oral histories, and you as an author of books for young people? It’s good enough for me if they enjoyed it. No, I have a story to tell. Sometimes, I feel the music in the story creates   more interest in the story. And you know now, why you chose to write for children? SN: I can’t pretend that I’m bringing them back, because there are academics who have studied them in proper anthropological books. SN: For example, last week, I was in Bethlehem. But definitely, rather than writing a story, I’m telling the story. Nimr also   answered a few questions for ArabLit. Now it’s more polite. Why is that? SN: In children’s books I try to keep rhyme. What kind of feedback do you get from kids? Sonia Nimr: I wrote two stories when I was in Israeli prison, but both were confiscated. I have a new book out called The Phoenix. I’m a professor at Birzeit University, and there again sometimes the child comes up in my lectures. For example, in the Emirates, the Ministry of Education bought the book, and they want to distribute it in schools, with some editing. I never tried to suppress the child inside me — I kept it always there. But young adults get the book the way you really want to say it. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Palestinian Children’s Literature in 6 New BooksCategories: Palestine, YA *The translation in use is   Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, if you’d like to look it up,   but I gave myself license   to capture the rhyme. SN: Oral history is my professional career. There are many Arabic children’s books with a message…
SN: And I hate that. So if she’s going to go and meet pirates, she has to go meet pirates in the pirates’ bar. Palestinian children’s and YA literature is a more vibrant space than literature for young people in most other Arab-majority countries. Since it was published two months ago, I’ve already had several meetings with children and young adults, at schools and libraries, to get their feedback and to discuss the book with them. Apart from that, everybody can learn. This is how I like to write. They’re closer to the standard Arabic — but they are in colloquial. After that, I developed a passion for reading. Would you ever take advice from child readers? SN: Some of them I can’t use. At the end of it, they must get something out of it.