Susannah Tarbush reviews Robin Yassin-Kassab's The Road to Damascus, and draws on the author's 'qunfuz' blog - and specifically a recent post about his wife's decision to wear the hijab - to draw parallels between the author and his main character. The article appeared in an edited version in Observer Woman magazine (and on the Guardian website) on November 02, 2008.
It's a small detail, perhaps -- a reviewer linking a perhaps common thought about a book (that it's timely, contemporary, that the author knows whereof he speaks) to a piece of the author's non-fiction autobiographical writing. But it's also a giant leap: a return to the idea of the living author, whose bodily, historical presence and experience might just have something to do with his or her writing. It's a thought that hardly comes as a shock to most readers -- after all, there are author bios on the flap of every book (and sometimes extended interviews and reading guides, often with biographical information, included at the end of the book), many authors also practice a lucrative sideline in op-ed or cultural journalism, and some are even gossiped-about celebrities (and some celebrities have become authors).
But the academy pronounced the author dead in the 1960s -- a profoundly liberating move for critical reading, releasing the critic from the burden of deciphering (the only possible) meaning as intended by the author. But as many feminist theorists have pointed out, that revelation happened at exactly the moment that people were starting to look critically at exactly who got to be an author, and realising that it was mainly white, upper- and middle-class, middle-aged men. As the end of colonialism, the spread of education, and new technological revolutions in publishing made the act of writing more available to the silent majority, untold stories both global and local began to translate -- for the first time -- into print, often closely hewn from the author's experience of a life that had not been described in fiction.
The internet has made publishing and storytelling even more immediate, with the proliferation of blogs (check out toot for a bewildering and wonderful range of Arabic blogging voices, and Anthony Loewenstein's excellent book The Blogging Revolution for an introduction to further voices, and a serious consideration of what this explosion in communications means for goverment, media and global culture). As well as increasing the number of voices, the internet increases the speed with which they can speak up, and with which readers can access them. In the past, readers might have waited much longer for a memoiristic piece by Yassin-Kassab that allowed them to make an incidental, but profound, connection between the events of his life while he was writing and the events of the novel he wrote.
On her blog the tanjara, starbush (who also reports on lots of author events where living, breathing authors meet their readers) is recognising what readers have always known: the author is palpably alive in the text. That doesn't mean we have to read the book as the writer wants us to, or read only for the things the writer tells us about him- or herself -- but it allows us to connect the book -- politically, emotionally, culturally -- to the moment in which we, too, are alive. It personalises the process of creating fiction, drawing us to look at our world, to think differently about aspects we may take for granted -- to think *inventively* about them, about their stories -- and that's part of the excitement (as well as political value and social justice, according to a recent University of Manchester/LSE study that showed novels can best communicate global dilemmas such as poverty) of reading fiction.
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