Interview with Dr. Shahd Alshammari, author of Notes on the Flesh (2017)
By Dr Shahd Alshammari, Lakshmi S. Bose and Rebecca Gordon
We are grateful that we have had the opportunity to interact with Dr Shahd Alshammari’s work and would like to note that this connection was formed firstly through communication on Twitter. It is really one of the positive outcomes of academic twitter and we are so pleased to have the ability to connect with scholars and engage with ideas that we would otherwise be quite unlikely to come across.
Dr Shahd Alshammari is Assistant Professor of English at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. She has authored an academic monograph, Literary Madness in British, Postcolonial and Bedouin Women’s Writing (2016). Her latest work is a collection of short stories Notes on the Flesh (2017), a biomythography that deals with gender, race and disability in Kuwait. As Dr Alshammari’s research is concerned with giving voice to minority groups and their representation in literary works, this most recent work is particularly powerful in exploring the representation of disabled heroines.
“My stories are written on the body, from the body, from the very point of resistance and simultaneous vulnerability of women who love, women who struggle with disability, men who feel lacking in their disability, and a society that excludes and marginalizes these voices.”
As we are interviewing from the perspective of The Politics of Representation, we were particularly interested in learning more about the unique approach to writing that underpinned Notes on the Flesh.
Why did you decide to write a biomythography, and how do you in particular understand this concept?
As this is my first book, I didn’t want to write a full-on autobiography or memoir. I wanted to invoke Audre Lorde’s concept of telling stories in different genres, including prose-poetry, vignettes, memories, and different narrative styles. There were many other stories (that were fictional or were composite characters) that I wanted to write. I struggled between the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. For my second novel, which I am working on now, I have the same issue. I think genres are too rigid and we are too preoccupied with classifications and clarity.
What challenges did you find in self-representation and in the representation of others in this book?
Self-representation was difficult because I hadn’t kept full diaries of my diagnosis, or what I actually felt at the time, what actually happened. I had to conjure very traumatic memories and re-live them, feel them again, recall what happened and what I felt. It was a difficult and lengthy process, and I didn’t know whether I would ever find anyone who wanted to read about my experiences with disability. Many times, I felt like an imposter, and at others, I felt like a narcissist. Many people (friends, colleagues) told me that writing about one’s own experiences with pain is self-indulgent. My own autoethnographic and disability studies research consoled me that this wasn’t the case. The tension between the two stances was difficult to work with.
At one point in the novel, you say, “In Egyptian, they say we have shared “aish and milh” meaning bread and salt, and once bread is split into two, we cannot pretend that we never shared that intimacy.” This is a very interesting idea for researchers, especially for those that engage in immersive fieldwork. Yet the culture of research often leads to detached or transient relationships that weaken over time between researcher and ‘participant’ — how do you reconcile this cultural concept with these institutional practices?
I think that what I was speaking of was actual life-sharing, moments, experiences. With the intention of welcoming someone into your home and being welcomed, feeling a sense of responsibility toward the other — this brings people closer. The sense of intimacy can’t be denied, but yes, in terms of researcher/participant it can be neglected, forgotten over time. I think if we as researchers engage with participants as part of our story of research, instead of us/them, we can look at our research as our story, our journey with others, our sense of research-building becomes story-building, sharing bread and salt becomes sharing stories. No one is the same after that, even after intimate and personal interviews. We are all changed, and we can’t deny that by claiming objectivity and partiality.
You refer to yourself as an “unreliable narrator” in the book — in your eyes, what is this unreliability premised on, and what is its converse?
For me, there is nothing reliable about my body, and in turn, nothing reliable about how I tell things/see them. They change, too. The stories we tell ourselves can be changed as time goes by, the way we listen to someone else’s story and then re-narrate it. Unreliable narrators don’t have to be ‘mad’ as in the 19th century short story sense, like Poe’s mad narrators. They can be attempting to construct the story as they saw it, vaguely recall it.
What do you think this means for the objectivity of research? What are the philosophical and practical limitations of representation in research?
I feel I can’t really speak on this as the book isn’t a research monograph.
Generally, I believe in autoethnography as a methodology and that objectivity in research is another myth. We are producing meaning and interpreting people’s experiences as it passed onto us. There is no way we can claim an unbiased approach. Representation involves a deep risk, a vulnerability that the researcher undertakes (in this case, the writer). We choose to risk and represent because we are looking at a greater picture, a sort of sense-making of the world. This knowledge is, I think, going to be culturally derived and historically situated. We also have our bodies which are part of our immediate experience of the world and even what types of research we can conduct or have access to. Whatever spaces we enter in order to come out from with a new ‘understanding’ to represent and interpret others’ experiences has a lot to do with our positionality: who we are, what we aim for in our research/creative work, and what bodies/spaces we occupy.
What do you think about the power in representing people in the way you see them, and in the way you think they see themselves?
I think it’s important for me to clearly say that in the book there are two parts. One is my part, a biomythography, and even that is a careful articulation of characters who have been in my life. In Voices of Lovers, the second part, I move to different bodies, different narrators, to allow them room to speak their own stories. So, a storyteller, hands their voice over to others who for some reason, cannot speak, or do not have access to speaking *telling their stories in written form*.
Why did you want to combine both of these approaches in one book, rather than taking on two different books?
I felt that my experience was just the starting point of exploring the boundary between myself/other (s). The book was an attempt at uncovering several voices in one character at times (Sara) and at other moments these experiences were seemingly different from mine (for example men’s disabled bodies and how that features in terms of gender roles). I was really seeking to explore difference and commonalities and toy with this idea of voice/voices.
What are the limitations and potentials of representing the ‘body’? By doing so, how are we be either implicitly tied to or freed from the prevalent ‘social boundaries’ of our time and contexts?
When you choose to write about the body, especially as a woman, and even more so an Arab woman, you get bogged down by so many limitations. You have to answer to “does this body represent the nation?” “are all Arab women going through this?” This idea of representation is problematic in the sense that sometimes it’s the individual story and not the collective — and yet the burden of representing a whole collective body/nation is still an issue. The body cannot be shoved into one book, one story, we need more stories from people living in these disabled bodies to tell their own story. And, we still need to be wary of applying on term to cover all these nuanced experiences.
After reading this book, what do you hope your audience will reflect on in terms of the diversity and potential of narrative representation?
It bothers me a lot that publishers and readers still ask “Is this fact or fiction? How truthful is it? How fictitious? Where do we place this book, on which shelf?” This takes away from the actual stories, from the emotion driving the narrative. Some of the stories are real, some are imagined, some are composite stories/characters. Stories are ours to tell and we can tell them in whichever way we (the storytellers) deem fit. It’s very difficult to be tied down to one genre, one form of representation. I want to break free from that and experiment with genre, too. I’m working on a second book and I am struggling with the same question: where does it fit? I want to move past this classification, and I hope publishers and readers can help us *storytellers* get there.