Readers, what’s one book that’s made you want to learn more about another culture?
While one can never know the true depth of a culture from reading just one novel, Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah offers a rarely seen intimate portrait of life in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of her characters, Muneer, Saeedah, and Hanadi, over 40 years.
Quotah tackles heavy topics, such as parental abduction, women’s rights in patriarchal societies, how one can lose their identity when separated from their culture, and the mental toll of being estranged from family by choice and through force. The richness of Quotah’s writing, her attention to Jidda’s setting, and the detailing of the messiness of her characters’ life drew me in as a reader. However, I couldn’t help feeling as if there was a considerable chunk of Saeedah’s story missing and a lack of a climax when I turned the final pages of Bride of the Sea that kept me from truly loving this book.
The fact that Quotah’s story was an #OwnVoices narrative was apparent in how much attention to detail was paid in scenes where the author shows the transplanting of Muneer and Saeedah from their lives in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to Cleveland, Ohio. For example, I loved the scene where the young couple is trying to learn to cook and spend “a month’s rent on phone calls to their mothers” to get cooking tutorials.
These scenes were relatable and drew me in since they reminded me of learning to cook family recipes over the phone from my parents doing my college and graduate school days. The same is true of Quotah’s attention to the mental strain put on Hanadi as she forms her identity and works through the trauma of being abducted and becoming a mother and reunited with her father. This deep dive into the characters’ emotions is where Quotah shines where Muneer and Hanadi are concerned.
Saeedah’s character, though, never feels fully formed compared to Muneer and Hanadi. As honest and plausible as these two’s actions feel, Quotah seems to skirt around what motivates Saeedah to abduct Hanadi and keep her away from her family for over seventeen years. There are moments when readers are given glimpses of Saeedah’s erratic behavior. But, the lack of a first-person perspective for this character leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and keeps the story from ever climaxing.
For instance, when Muneer is in Jidda looking for Saeedah and Hanadi, I was invested in his quest because I was shown why he wanted to reunite with his family. Even Hanadi’s choice to reunite with Muneer in Jidda and the subsequent fallout in her life makes sense because I heard her reasoning in her own voice. Saeedah’s choices, on the other hand, are a mystery to me because she’s never given a chapter to explain herself, and her inner dialogue is shielded from readers. Everything we know about this character comes to us filtered through other characters’ perspectives of her.
After finishing this book, I was curious about this writing decision and researched Quotah’s process for developing her characters. In her author interviews, she pointed out that she was never really clear about Saeedah’s motivation for abducting Hanadi when writing her novel. This gave me pause since I was always under the impression that an author needed to understand their character’s intentions to help bring about the actions of their novel to life. While the motivation for Hanadi’s anger is obvious, hearing how Saeedah felt in this moment would have added another layer to Bride of the Sea. It also would have let out the tension in the narrative to give closure to Quotah’s story, in my opinion.
Overall, I am appreciative of how much care Eman Quotah took in writing Bride of the Sea. This is one of those rare novels where a reader comes to understand that every book is not meant to have a nice, neat ending. Yet, the lack of closure to Saeedah’s narrative and omission of her point of view from the novel left me thinking, “is that it?”
If I could suggest one novel that compliments Bride of the Sea, it would have to be Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni tells the story of three generations of women in a family: Sabitri, the matriarch of a family who grew up poor in rural Bengal and dreamed of going to school; Her daughter, Bela, who flees to America with her husband, who is a political refugee causing strain on her relationship with her mother; and Tara, Bela’s daughter, who feels the weight of the other two women’s choices as she tries to forge her own path.
Like, Quotah, Divakaruni explores mother-daughter relationships perceptively as she relays each woman’s story. However, where Quotah relied so heavily on others to tell Saeedah’s story, Divakaruni allows each woman to speak for herself within Before We Visit the Goddess. This balances out the narrative and allows readers to understand the frustrations each woman has with their mother.
A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!
What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?
AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home.
Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work.
A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.
A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible.
A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act.
Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”
This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?
AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears. As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me.
A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta. Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”
AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed.
A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:
“It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.”
In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one.
Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?
AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.
A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?
AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption.
A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?
AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers?
A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!
Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019). Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.