Fadi Zaghmout, Sussex alumnus and novelist: "I'm tired of reading the same patriarchal narrative."
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 13 May 2021
Fadi Zaghmout, a Sussex alumnus and novelist in Jordan, is a finalist for a British Council award that recognises graduates of UK universities who have made an exceptional contribution to creating positive social change and improving the lives of others in their countries and regions.
I am very happy and honoured to be one of the 21 finalists for the UK Study Alumni Global Awards. When I applied, I was thinking that most probably I will be selected for the country-level awards and was looking forward to that. But the global awards are on a different level. My application was selected from 1,500 applications – all UK graduates! The level of education UK universities offer empowers graduates for great achievements. To be one of the finalists is a big deal.
I am mostly interested in writing about social justice. Gender inequality, lack of sexual freedoms and body rights make our lives harder. I try to be creative and give representation to characters with alternative sexuality. I am tired of reading the same patriarchal narrative in Arabic literature and will keep thinking of stories that are different and new and real.
After publishing my first novel, The Bride of Amman [which looks at the intersecting lives of four women and one gay man in Jordan's historic capital], I received a Chevening Scholarship to continue my education in the UK. At the time, I wanted to learn how to write better, and opted to search for courses related to creative writing. Sussex’s MA in Creative and Critical Writing felt different to what other universities offer. It got me excited. Besides, Sussex has a very good reputation, is near to Brighton and not far from London. The choice wasn’t too hard to make! I graduated in 2013.
The way the course combines the critical with the creative helped me a lot in developing characters and plots of my books. For example, one of the themes in the ‘Psychoanalysis and Creative Writing’ module focused on how creating an uncanny feeling catches the attention of the reader, whether it is through a coincidence that can’t be explained, or using a double, or other tricks. I try to use such techniques in my writings and I feel it works.
For the ‘Utopia and Creative Writing’ module we read lots of utopian/dystopian fiction, which included one of my favourite books, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While at Sussex, I was working on my second novel, Heaven on Earth, a speculative fiction that tries to imagine a near future when science defeats ageing. I wanted my Heaven on Earth to be the Brave New World of this century. It wasn’t easy writing about the future, but I did it and the book had its own share of success. It was released in Arabic in 2014 by the prestigious Arabic Lebanese publishers Dar Al Adab and got translated and released in English in 2017 by Signal8Press.
Another great module in my MA was ‘Sexuality and Creative Writing’, where reading The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter inspired me to write radical feminist fiction. I felt that, in order to balance the growing domination of masculinity in Arab societies, we need to opt to radical feminism literature. I worked on Laila and the Lamb, which is about a woman trapped in a marriage with a man she finds physically revolting. It was released in Arabic by Egyptian publisher Kotob Khan in 2018 and in English as LAILA in 2020 by Signal8Press.
LAILA was banned in Jordan. Before that happened, I used to feel that we had a decent level of freedom of speech. When people asked me how The Bride of Amman passed censorship, I used to say, it just passed, there was no issue. But when LAILA got banned, I went to the publication department and talked to the head of department. He said it describes sexual intercourse, has foul language, and promoted foreign ideas! It is not about LAILA, or me, or my writings. It is the mentality of the censor, who applies his own moral code with a very narrow view on literature production. How is this even acceptable in a country that has been trying to build a creative economy? Fortunately, we have the internet and LAILA is easy to access as an ebook.
I believe that literature plays a big role in shaping the perception of societies. Stories have a powerful effect in showing complex situation and portraying ideas. I realized that writing my idea in a story format helps to explain it better. For many years, and due to high censorship, conservative discourse dominated the literature scene in Jordan. The internet changed things and opened the space for alternative voices. I seized the change and started blogging in 2006. But then I wanted such discourse to have its place in traditional media, so I worked on my first novel.
I come from a liberal home and had a liberal schooling. My father was pretty open-minded and he never tried to impose anything on us. My parents wanted to give us the best education and enrolled us in one of the best schools in Amman at the time. It has a liberal environment and there wasn’t any segregation based on sex, like most other schools in the country. I guess that helped me see things differently as I grew up and went to a public university. I did my bachelors at the University of Jordan and I could tell how my colleagues who came from segregated schools struggled in dealing with the opposite sex. I felt that there is something wrong, and that we have ruined the natural relationship between men and women. That built up through the years and pushed me to start writing on my blog.
The British Council’s recognition of my writing’s social impact is an honour. The nature of the award as a global award with the exposure it provides will surely help me reach a wider audience. Such recognition of my work gives me more strength and fuels me with more energy to keep going.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.