Five Questions with Novelist Eman Quotah
Her debut Bride of the Sea hit shelves last month
The book world is now learning what I’ve known for years — that Eman Quotah is a brilliant writer.
Eman is a colleague and a friend who recently published Bride of the Sea, a multigenerational novel spanning 40 years. In the book’s first chapters, Muneer and Saeedah, Saudi Arabian newlyweds, move to Cleveland to continue their studies. Shortly after the birth of their first child, Hanadi, the couple divorce. Saeedah, fearful Muneer will take their daughter back to Jiddah with him, absconds with Hanadi and spends more than a decade on the run. The rest of the book, which takes place in both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., explores the effect of the abduction on Muneer, Saeedah, Hanadi and their extended family.
I’m admittedly biased, but I loved Bride of the Sea. I’m not the only one. A Washington Post review hailed it as an “engrossing debut” that offers Americans “a more nuanced view of the Saudi kingdom through a cast of compelling characters and a sweeping plot that spans continents and decades.”
I talked with Eman about writing Bride of the Sea, building a Saudi American literary tradition and, of course, what she’s reading.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it like writing Bride of the Sea?
Growing up, I’d heard the story of a family friend whose daughter and ex-wife had disappeared. He didn’t know where she was. Many years later, my mom told me that he had found her, and it just really stuck with me. I started writing, and I didn’t get very far. Then I had an idea for another book, wrote that manuscript, and then came back to Bride of the Sea and started fresh. The second time I attempted to write the book, it took me about five years.
What kind of research did you do?
A lot of the book is based on my knowledge of certain places that I’m familiar with, but I researched a couple of things. One was family abduction. I read online accounts by people who had been abducted by family members as children, and those were really, really moving. There are a lot of misconceptions about family abduction. People think that because a family member has the child, they’re okay, but it can be a really traumatic experience for children and other family members. Often there’s abuse involved.
The other thing I researched was the post-9/11 detention of Arabs and Muslims. I read a book called Patriot Acts edited by Alia Malek. It collects stories of various people who were wrongly detained or, in some way, impacted by the way that the U.S. government addressed terrorism after 9/11. I really recommend that book to anyone who wants to understand how the Patriot Act and the war on terror adversely affected everyday Muslims, Arab Americans and Arabs in America.
You recently wrote an essay for LitHub about the lack of a Saudi American literary tradition. What’s it like having your book out in the world, knowing that tradition doesn’t really exist and that you’re creating it?
It’s wonderful to have a Saudi American book in the world when there aren’t a lot of them yet. But also, there’s pressure for it to be a Saudi American book and to speak to people in different ways.
There are probably a lot of different reasons why we don’t have that tradition yet. Saudis who come to America tend to go back to Saudi Arabia, they tend to come for temporary migrations, but there are Saudi Americans here. And I think we have faced some difficulty getting published and having our stories taken seriously when they veer from the already accepted narrative.
I have really enjoyed it when I hear from readers, who are not necessarily Saudi or Saudi American, who are moved by the book. I’m hoping that my book will find the right readers — the people who will really embrace the story.
I’m hopeful because I think that there are so many Arab American voices from different countries of origin that need to be heard. As more books get published, you get more of a mosaic of voices.
What should readers who love Bride of the Sea read next?
I love Persepolis. It’s a two-volume graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi about her childhood in Iran before, during, and after the revolution. The second volume goes into the time when she was in her teens and her parents send her to Europe to study. I’ve loved this book for a long time. The way it shows her as a girl in Iran and then the way things change when the revolution comes is really unique, and I always have related to it.
The Hidden Light of Objects is a story collection by a Kuwaiti writer, Mai Al-Nakib. When I read it, I hadn’t read a lot of, or any, fiction about Arabian Gulf countries, and this book by a Kuwaiti author takes place partly in London, partly in Kuwait. It really gets into some of the rich transnational cultural history of the region. There’s a character with an Indian grandmother, and that’s like my family. My dad’s family has roots in India, and in northern Yemen, as well as in some other parts of the Middle East.
Finally, I’m going to recommend a poetry collection, Deluge by Leila Chatti. I love the way that it brought in both references to the biblical Mary and the Quranic Maryam, and then intertwined them with the author’s own experiences with illness.
Any other books you want to recommend?
I recently read You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat. It’s a Palestinian queer novel, and it does a great job of intertwining the main character’s specific experiences as a Palestinian American with her experiences as a person who struggles with love addiction. The way that Arafat brings those two things together felt unique and new to me.
I also recently reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, and I forgot how much storytelling she packs into that book. So many characters’ stories get told even if they’re not the main characters. And just the way that the book is constructed, it’s like you can’t really figure out where the seams are, but you know that it fits together really well.
A book I read last year that I loved is A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It’s a family saga set in Uganda. It’s long, and it took me a while to read it, but I really love the way that she evokes the setting, the way that she talks about family, and the way that people in the book talk about gender and feminism. It presented possibilities of how you could tell feminist stories without trying to hide the fact or trying not to say out loud that this is a feminist story. Why not have your characters talk about the issues that matter for women?
You can follow Eman on Instagram and Twitter. A limited number of signed copies of Bride of the Sea are available at D.C.’s own Politics and Prose and unsigned copies are available where ever you get your books.
One programming note: Next week’s newsletter will go out on Tuesday instead of Monday due to Presidents’ Day. If you have a long weekend, enjoy it!
My next Q&A is with criminal justice writer Jessica S. Henry about her book Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened. In it, Henry tells the stories of innocent people convicted of crimes that simply never happened. If you have questions for Jessica, please send them my way, by replying to this email or leaving a comment below.
What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.
If you’re reading this on Substack or were forwarded this email, and you’d like to subscribe, click the button below.