Kuwait: Like so many others, Layla Al Ammar’s book will probably be banned in Kuwait.
This according to the author herself, whose debut novel, The Pact We Made, is slated for release by Borough Press, a literary fiction imprint of Harper Collins, on March 7, 2019.
Al Ammar’s story is about Dahlia, a young Kuwaiti woman who happens to lead two distinct lives.
In one, she balances a successful career with an active social life, while in the other she is troubled by deep-set anxiety over a secret she can never reveal because of the shame it would bring to her family.
Her 30th birthday is fast approaching, and the pressure she faces from her mother to accept a marriage proposal begins to escalate, leading Dahlia to think of only one thing: escape.
Duality is one of the central themes of the book, and like her protagonist, the author has spent most of her life straddling two worlds.
Born in Kuwait to an American mother and a Kuwaiti father, Al Ammar studied at an all-girls Arabic school, her father having decided his daughter would learn English at home.
And despite an early love affair with books, she was encouraged to pursue economics instead of English at university.
Literature, Al Ammar was taught, is something you like, not something you do.
But Al Ammar insists her education came mostly from books.
She recalls classics from her childhood like The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows, novels whose prose inspired her to start writing as a pre-teen, and which, she describes on her personal website, as “…friends, lovingly read over and over again.”
Al Ammar adjusts the two-tone scarf that breaks in pattern with her mostly black attire; a David Bowie t-shirt peeps out from behind.
“A good novel,” she says confidently, “starts with questions and ends with questions.”
The Pact We Made certainly asks a lot of questions, especially about marriage, family, making choices, and, more importantly, the pursuit of self-hood in a society that encourages conformity.
“It’s finally happening! I’m pregnant!” the author gushed on Twitter earlier this year.
“My partner, Borough Press, and I are expecting our first book baby in March 2019!!”
Today, however, Al Ammar admits that the ‘book baby’ was actually an accident: born from a short story about Kuwait that she never intended to write while pursuing her master’s at the University of Edinburgh.
Al Ammar’s classmates insisted, despite her protests about writing anything to do with her home country (for her, writing is a form of escapism) and thus Dahlia was born.
Multiple drafts of the book were written in the years following her return from Scotland; essentially, what was just a fleeting thought that had whizzed through Al Ammar’s mind from a throwaway line she heard at a wedding had coalesced into a fully-formed plot.
Dahlia began to take shape, artists like Francisco Goya and Henry Fuseli started to feature heavily in her story, and the manuscript was edited, shelved, and edited again.
And then Donald Trump was elected president.
In early 2017, President Trump made his first attempt to issue an executive order that would restrict entry into the United States from seven Middle Eastern countries: what became notoriously known as the ‘Muslim Ban’.
Literary agents across the publishing industry responded by issuing an open call for submissions by Muslim writers.
Al Ammar was the first such writer to secure an agent, and subsequently, a publishing deal.
“You’re in the Harper Collins building, down by the Shard, and you can see all of London,” the author says, still stunned as she recalls her first visit to the publishing giant many months earlier.
“Everyone’s running around talking about J.K. Rowling’s books and all I can think is, what am I doing here?’
Al Ammar is definitely in a sweet spot. Her short stories have been published in a variety of international publications, and, more recently, she was selected by the British Council in England to participate as the International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the UK.
She’s also aware that she has joined a small, perhaps even exclusive, minority of Kuwaiti authors who write in English.
Because of this, Al Ammar cautions non-Arab readers not to fall into a trap and assume that The Pact We Made is meant to be emblematic of Kuwaiti society as a whole.
You can’t write one book that would summarise all of Kuwait, she says emphatically.
And while the last year has witnessed several milestones for the first-time author, 2019 is looking to be just as promising.
In addition to her novel’s upcoming release, come September, Al Ammar will commence her PhD in England, where she’ll spend four years researching Arab women in literature.
Putting together an 80,000-word thesis would be enough to keep anyone in check, but when it comes to writing, Al Ammar can’t seem to get enough.
“My second book is already with my editor,” she says, grinning.
“It’s about a Syrian refugee living in the UK. I got the idea for the story while staying at a hotel in Edinburgh, just staring out the window.”
-Khalid is a freelance journalist based in Kuwait