Recently, I discovered a nugget of a book, Stoning the Devil, by novelist and creative writing professor, Garry Craig Powell.
Like my own novel, Bloody Flies, it is set in the United Arab Emirates and features a series of interconnected stories that highlight the disparate and sometimes desperate lifestyles of people living in the gulf.
Last week I caught up with Powell and asked him a few questions.
How autobiographical is Stoning the Devil: Are you an actor with Bob Dylan hair?
It's probably not autobiographical as you think, but maybe more than I'd like to admit. It's funny that you picked on details from "Unveiled", which is the most purely autobiographical of the stories. But even if I did once have Bob Dylan hair, there are lots of differences between me and Colin. I've never had a Palestinian wife, for example, or (believe it or not) slept with a prostitute. I've never taught literature. Certainly Colin has aspects of his personality that are close to mine, but he's more of a projection of my worst tendencies than me, I hope.
My own book, Bloody Flies, focuses on western expat life in the UAE, whilst Stoning the Devil has a broader canvas, which puts various ethnicities, particularly Arab, under the microscope. How difficult was it for you to put yourself in Palestinian and Emirati shoes?
I have a strong imagination and am very empathic. So it wasn't that hard. Of course I was worried that I might not have got it right--especially as many of my characters are not just Arabs, but women too--but I've had some Arab readers who have told me that I got it right. And women have told me that I have remarkable insight into women's psychology. I think this is one of the strengths of my writing. Just as George Cukor was known as a great director of women in his films, I think that if I ever became well-known, it could be as a good writer about women and other ethnicities.
Your episodes feature child abuse and sexual violence. How did you approach the creation of these scenes?
Again, basically through the imagination. You just imagine how you would feel if it happened to you. I didn't read up all the psychological research. And yet I've been told by readers who have suffered this kind of abuse that I was dead on, that my accounts of what it feels like are very convincing. It's painful to write, but I felt that it was necessary in the book.
Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write but you have successfully taken on a few. How was the sex whilst making tea scene for you?
Thank you! I'm happy that you're noticing the book's strengths rather than its weaknesses! The scene you refer to, in "Kamila's Price" is probably the most straight-up, detailed sex scene, and certainly the most erotic of them. Yet it's not pornography, I hope, because it's not meant to get the reader aroused. Notice there's quite a bit of humour in it--the continual interruptions, Kamila's gaucheness and innocence--and more than that, I think it reveals a lot about the character of each. I think a good sex scene does that. Nowhere does a person's true character come out more than in the bedroom, and this scene shows a lot about Kamila's aspirations for herself, as well as Colin's more jaded attitude, and his compassion. Although they're having a one-night stand, they both come across as romantics, searching for love, but unfortunately finding little more than lust. I think that's emblematic of love and sex in the UAE. But to answer your question in the jocular vein in which it was intended--I think--it was quite good for me. I enjoyed writing it.
One of the episodes that most impressed me was Sentence, where you describe an execution in Al Ain. I found this story very affecting and realistic. Did you witness an event like this during your time in the Emirates?
The execution actually happened when I was living in Al Ain. I didn't go to watch it in reality, although it was a public event. I just read about it in the newspaper. Apart from the basic facts, the rest is my imagination. It's funny because everyone who reads that story says I must have witnessed it, it's so vivid. By the way, the one truly terrible review I've received so far--on Goodreads--insists that this didn't happen. But it did.
Titanic 2 is set in a women's university in Al Ain and bubbles with haram activity. How true to life do you think this story is?
I worked on the women's campus of UAE University for five years, and this is very true to life. I'm not suggesting that all the female students wear provocative clothes in the hostels, have affairs with male workers and each other--but these things do go on. I've seen pictures of the girls in their hostels, and they look as if they're about to go clubbing in London or New York. Amazing. There's quite a bit of lesbian love, and some of the students have boyfriends. They have crushes on their male instructors too--some of this was from personal experience--and make their feelings very clear. They're young women, with the same hormones that British women that age have. Of course this kind of thing happens.
There are a number of references to Joseph Conrad in the novel, for example Lord Jim's Pub. Can you expand on how Conrad influences your work?
It wasn't really a deliberate strategy to be postmodern, to employ intertextuality or anything like that. Of course I'm an admirer of Conrad--who isn't?--and anyone writing about a colonial or postcolonial situation can't help being reminded of his work. He's really the colossus who shows how much colonialism not only shatters the colonised societies, but also ends up corrupting the colonists too. I became more and more aware of this, the longer I lived in the UAE. And since leaving, I've become more conscious of some of the ironies, as Colin is, that most of the westerners are self-proclaimed liberals who would shudder if anyone accused them of racism, and yet their feelings are often ambivalent, as even Lawrence of Arabia's were. Understanding this predicament is one of the keys to understanding the whole political situation in the Middle East. We want it to be pure exoticsm, pure romance: the desert, hawking, the robes, the dhows. But in fact of course the westerners are there for the oil.
As far as I know, Stoning the Devil and Bloody Flies are the only two extant literary novels about the UAE by western novelists. Both are episodic in nature. Why did you take the decision to write an episodic novel?
It wasn't a completely conscious decision. I knew I had a lot of good stories to tell about the UAE, so I started writing them as stand-alone short stories. Then it just came to me that if I wove them together, if I had characters recurring from one story to another, I might be able to fashion something whose whole was more than the sum of its parts. Incidentally, my agent persuaded me to turn it into a conventional novel, which I did--but I liked the linked sequence, or novel-in-stories as I prefer to call it, better. So in the end it was this version that I submitted to my publisher, Skylight Press.
Have you considered marketing your novel to readers in the UAE, or do you think some of the content is a little too sensitive for some readers in the Emirates?
I would love to market it to readers in the UAE! I just don't know where to start. Any suggestions? Obviously some of the content is going to disturb some readers, but that's the function of art, isn't it? It's supposed to shake out us out of our complacency. It's supposed to make us think in new ways, to make us see the world in new ways. In her blurb for the book, Naomi Shihab Nye admitted that it would offend some readers and make them mad. But she also said that the reader wouldn't be able to put it down. I don't think it's a bad thing to hold up a mirror to a society and show its faults. I don't claim I'm showing the whole of life in the UAE. Just a part of it--and mostly the darker, seamier side of it. I think expats particularly will find the book interesting if they read it.
Now that Stoning the Devil has been released, what's next for Garry Craig Powell? What new projects are you working on?
I'm working on a historical novel about the Italian poet, playboy and war hero, Gabriele D'Annunzio, who played a prominent part in public life a hundred years ago. It's set in Italy and Croatia.
Thanks Garry, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
Stoning the Devil is published by Skylight Press and is available from Amazon and other reputable retailers.
Find out more at www.garrycraigpowell.com .
Andrew J Keir
Scottish novelist and short story writer based in Abu Dhabi.