Interview with Dr. Shahd Alshammari

Interview with Dr. Shahd Alshammari

Dr. Shahd Alshammari is a Kuwaiti-Palestinian academic and author. She is a leading voice in disability advocacy and intersectional feminism in the Gulf and internationally. Dr. Alshammari has established herself as a bold writer who is unafraid of peering into herself, pulling her readers to look along as well. What can we learn about our bodies, stories, and lives from reading about those of others? These are only some of the questions that are asked in her latest book, HEAD ABOVE WATER, which was shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize for Literature. She has written a wealth of work, which will be linked at the bottom of this interview. Dr. Alshammari generously joined me for an hour of conversation, which has been transcribed below.

 I read your book, ‘HEAD ABOVE WATER’ just last week, and had finished your other book, NOTES ON THE FLESH a couple weeks prior. I really enjoyed hearing the movement of your voice between these two texts. I thought that they paralleled each other quite beautifully. They very much compliment and seemingly echo each other. How was it to write HEAD ABOVE WATER after NOTES ON THE FLESH? Did NOTES ON THE FLESH set up a precedent for writing HEAD ABOVE WATER? Were they two separate projects, extensions of each other?

Notes on the Flesh was fiction. And it’s specifically what we call a biomythography — it’s termed by Audre Lorde where it’s a combination of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. And so you take, you know, history and refashion it into poetry or into a different genre. And [in regards to] how it was received — it was published by a very small independent press. And yeah, that’s kind of what affects, you know, critical reviews. It affects who gets to read it, and it was my first collection of stories. So, completely different from Head Above Water in the sense that it was picked up by two independent presses, but both in the UK and the US, and both very popular.

I would look at Notes on the Flesh as, sort of grounding me as an author and what my themes are, what I’m interested in; that would be gender and stability in the Gulf region — and more specifically in Kuwait. So that was kind of the bridge between my current work and previous work because I started with poetry — and then I changed genres to fiction and then I changed to non-fiction.

This actually leads me into another question — You move between genre and convention with incredible ease. You bend a lot of rules and move through walls in much of your work — does writing in a particular mode create a difference in your writing practice? When you find yourself in different genres, does it uncover different themes or topics in your writing?

Nobody’s ever actually paid attention to the fact that genres that I work with still always revolve around the same themes. So whether it’s poetry or blogging — and I initially started out with a blog — or fiction or non-fiction — even in academia and research — I tend to focus on the body — specifically about disability and illness.  And when it comes to women’s bodies, and how we navigate the changes that happen to us, whether through illness, age or disability. I really believe in defying these conventions of genres.

I’m a professor of literature and words and you know — I teach how to stick with genres and how to follow a certain chronological order. But it is my personal belief that life is already quite fragmented, and memory is very fragmented.  There’s a lot of experience and experiments taking place as we live. So I really believe that we should play with genre — that’s the experimentation that I work with in all of my writing. So even with the poetry — my poetry would always also tell a story. There’s always a narrative. With the fiction, there were also a lot of elements of non-fiction. A lot of Notes on the Flesh is based on myself — there’s an alter ego in the narrative. So again, playing with genre, I think really reflects how I feel about life and the body. How it’s very much experimental, it always changes. One day you have a healthy body, and then the next day you don’t — one day you’re very fit, the next day you put on a lot of weight, and you’re unable to be you again. You see greys in the mirror — and it’s still you inside. All of these changes are what I’m trying to capture in breaking these rules and conventions, in all these genres.

In reading your work, I found that you have such a marvelous voice. To hear the eloquence within your writing, it very much reflects the poetic in your work as something constant. You mentioned, in HEAD ABOVE WATER, that your father was your first primary introduction with oral poetry. Do you have any poems that you remember your father favoring or reciting and have any of them stuck with you? How did the tradition of orality make its way throughout your work?

So, actually, the tradition of oral poetry wasn’t my father, it was my grandmother on my father’s side. You know, being a bedouin woman, illiterate, unable to write, they would always memorize, you know, a person to person’s poetry. The poems would often be [especially] dealing with grief or loss — like, for example, losing a son to war, or you know, losing a son or daughter to a sudden death. There’s always grieving going on. So, the way they would express their grief, especially women, was through poetry. And they would just recite poetry — it would just come to them. So you’d be sitting with her, and then she’d, you know — spill out a verse or two and recite somebody from hundreds of years ago. And none of this stuff was documented anywhere. So what I noticed very early on in life is that they would tell stories through poetry — oral poetry. And for these women — that was their outlet. This is how they would express their grief, or even desire. They would use vague metaphors and sometimes, it wouldn’t be clear, but this was them expressing themselves.

So your mother, you speak of her being your anchor in both NOTES ON THE FLESH and HEAD ABOVE WATER. You speak of your mother introducing writing and reading to you, and really curating and maintaining this passion that you have. Were there any books or texts in particular that you associate with her?

Things that she had suggested earlier on?

Not necessarily — things that you read and it makes you think of her, or things you might have read together — or her favorite books, even.

So actually, very early on in life, she introduced me to all these strong female figures. Although she wasn’t reading any English books, at the time, I was only reading English books. So anything with a strong title or strong female lead, she would pick it up and say, “How about this one?”

There was something called, I think, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and it was about this woman. And I remember being so fascinated with that and thinking, “Oh, yeah, you know, I’m the next Dr. Quinn!” I must have been 10 or 11 — so very, very young. But I remember constantly talking about that book with my mother and her saying, “Well, you know, see, she managed and it was a very closed environment.” If I’m not mistaken, it was very hard for a woman to kind of, form legacy. And I think that really stayed with me for a long time.

We had a ritual, where anything that I would read we would discuss it together. That’s when I realized it wasn’t just a personal, private act. Most people tend to think of reading as a very personal, private act. But there’s a whole other side to it when you do have someone to talk to about what you’ve read. That’s when you start reflecting on how this can affect you, or where you see yourself in that fictional story.

In your last few chapters of HEAD ABOVE WATER, you speak a lot about your experience working as a professor and the opportunities you had to dispel these barriers for education — to make accessibility something more common and everyday. Are there any developments happening within Kuwait, or the Gulf, in regards to the writing, the art, or both scenes that make you excited or that you’re looking forward to? Have you seen any shifts or trends in the literary community, and if so, do you think you could speak to that a little bit more?

So in the literary community, I haven’t. I think it’s quite disappointing, that we’re still talking about disability as a, you know, as a tragedy or as a metaphor. Including in Arabic literature, you find non-disabled authors trying to write about disability. They’ll give a character a bit of a limp, and then that’ll be the villain in the narrative. So whether it’s mental or physical health, it’s still not being, I think, appropriately and correctly addressed. It tends to be appropriated for the benefit of either the non-disabled audience or the non-disabled writer, and that is still a bit of a problem. We’re still not getting to hear from poets or writers with mental or physical illnesses and disabilities. We don’t get to see that yet. So while, you know, there’s a lot of legal rights, and there’s a lot of accessibility in terms of architecture, in terms of places and spaces. We’re using the correct terminology — the UAE is ahead with that. They use “people of determination.” There’s quite a lot of laws that are taking place that are beneficial. But when society and the literary circle and the stigma still surrounding how we talk about, especially women, and women living with disabilities — this conversation is one that is still not happening.

In your interview with AFIKRA and Mikey Muhanna you were asked “If you knew at 13 that you would be interested in disability studies, what would [you] have said?” In your response, you mentioned that you wouldn’t have known anything about disability, and spoke at length about how these topics should be introduced in middle school, when gender starts being addressed with students. Then, in HEAD ABOVE WATER, in one of the later chapters where you are teaching a Shakespeare course to your students, you mentioned how overwhelming it was to teach to groups of only men at times, because of the limited overlap that happens between gender and perspective. You were very careful to try to advocate that everyone hears the other’s voices, even when not present in the classroom. What do you think needs to happen when it comes to discussing disability and how to work around these conventions that might make it difficult? Are there ways that these mentalities can be combated, on a level outside of just the individual?

Absolutely. I wish I could see more advertisements on television normalizing, not just mental health, but also physical disabilities, invisible disabilities. You know, we still use the wheelchair sign everywhere. So, maybe a bit more on social media, on television. There’s already a few in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, all over the GCC. Even so, you don’t get to see these narratives. We’re talking about feminism, but we’re not including what that means for women with disabilities. It’s just left out of the conversation.

So definitely in the classroom, but I also wish to see more just everywhere you look. So if you go to the restaurant — the menu would be available in Braille. That hardly ever happens — if you’re blind, you won’t be able to read the menu, as simple as that. If you go to an ATM machine, you won’t be able to access it. So in terms of accessibility, but also in terms of what we see on television, and what we see in social media, I think that would be great to see us focusing not just on gender and sexism, but also on what we mean by ableism. Even the term ableism, we haven’t caught up with it.

How does it feel to know that you are one of the first voices to start shifting the landscape of writers in the Gulf, for both disabled folk and women, and that intersectionality that had yet to be introduced or spoken about on such a grand scale?

So I feel very happy, and you know, and sort of still very surprised that I’ve managed to do it. There’s always this element of surprise that people are finally listening. I’ve now established myself as a voice in the West and the East, both, if we’re going to talk about Western scholars and scholars over here. It’s such a shock to me that I’ve managed to get publications out there, to get people to reflect and to listen. I’m very excited to see what happens after, you know, future generations of younger scholars. I was very much lonely when I was a young scholar looking for disability [in literature] in the Arab world or about disability in the Gulf. There was nothing out there. And now I know that, you know, somebody who’s on the same journey could do a quick search, and they would be able to find my name, and to me, that is such an honor. It’s so exciting to know it’ll change what happens over the next 20, 30, 40 years. That’s the legacy I was really kind of working for, through academia but also through creative writing. I really hope to see more — I think it has started something for sure.

If there are other young writers or artists or people who are out there who stumble upon you, and want to walk in your footsteps, what would you recommend? 

Well, for any young writers out there, I believe that being a writer is also being a reader. I think they’re very interconnected. So I would say first keep reading, but second, you need a sense of a writing community as well. So you do need like-minded individuals. I think that’s what’s so great about the UAE in general, you get to find like-minded individuals — people who are bilingual, people who are writing in different languages. Especially now, with what Dr. Shatha is doing — it’s beautiful and I think she’s about to start a safe space for a lot of people; so I would definitely go to writing workshops, I would go to reading circles, I would try to follow the right people on social media. Not just be inspired by them, but also learn tips from them on how to start your journey as well.

[Here is when Dr. Shahd takes a break to show me her beautiful dog, who laying by the window, patiently waiting for our interview to wrap up.]

So, we just spoke about the safe space that Kutubna Cultural Center will soon be able to look towards, and in HEAD ABOVE WATER, you spoke a lot about narrative writing and the construction that it offers as a form of sanctuary or safety — I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit more?

So, definitely, narrative writing is therapeutic, and that’s sort of what I’m trying to work with. This idea of how do I write my life? How do I reflect on my life, my past, my present, my future? With narrative writing, we reclaim a sense of our lives, a sense of our past. There’s many times that we’re unheard, again, especially as young people, as women, as people living with pain — you tend to just be overlooked and ignored many times by the medical community, by society.

So with narrative writing, you get to retell your story, you get to kind of reflect what you felt at the time — I really enjoy that in all my work, in all of my writing. I believe in documenting things as we go, and journaling, and blogging. All of that is quite therapeutic, and research has shown it to be very beneficial, to one’s immune system, one’s health, and of course, for you to be able to look at your life creatively, as a life-story, instead of just, you know, this is my life. At the end of the day, it is a story. It does have conflict. It does have themes. And so then — what are the themes in your life? What are you looking for? What are you looking to recreate, even from pain and suffering?

I really enjoyed in HEAD ABOVE WATER that you relied on the structure of Yasmeen going through your journals and then the chapters unfolded from there. How did it feel to edit your journal and construction? While you were writing and editing, were there other memoirs or non-fiction books that you looked to for guidance, or to keep close to your heart while you were writing? 

Absolutely. So one of my favorite books is called The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur Frank. The entire book is sort of my inspiration into writing as a wounded storyteller. And we’re all wounded storytellers at the end of the day. So writing a memoir, in general, differs from writing an illness narrative. HEAD ABOVE WATER is more an illness narrative, which is narrative about illness and about how we either recover or how we learn to live with the illness. And so, as I was writing that, I was constantly influenced by all of these scholars and especially by The Wounded Storyteller and how the book doesn’t have to have a clear, happy ending. It doesn’t have to come to a conclusion where the illness just magically goes away or there’s a sense of recovery. That gave me courage to tell the story as it is, instead of following genre conventions and making sure that the story does have a happy ending for the audience. 

In an interview with Tint Journal and Ibrahim Fawzy, you mentioned your writing and reading practices — about making sure you have time to write and read. In HEAD ABOVE WATER, you mention practices to come back to yourself. Where do these two things meet — what do you read to relax, and is it different from what you read to further your goals for work or writing? What might those titles be?

So, I read a lot. I read all the time, actually. I read while I’m waiting for my turn and wherever I am, I’m constantly on my phone. I’m reading e-books all the time. They tend to be things that actually have themes of health and wellness — they tend to be non-fiction and memoirs. And that really keeps me going, I feel very connected to the genre. I’m also currently leading a book club in Kuwait — we read the same books that Oprah’s book club reads, and we read them as they go along. So it’s very refreshing to be able to read fiction that’s also a bestseller, and this is what has affected and influenced a lot of people. It also helps kind of ground you and connect you to what other genres are influencing people. Fiction has its own audience, and of course, its own power. So I’m constantly kind of alternating between the two genres, fiction and non-fiction. Right now, we are reading Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. All of her books are great, but I would definitely recommend Hello Beautiful. It just came out in 2023 and it’s really about the power of forgiveness. 

So I believe in the same interview with Tint Journal, you mentioned that your next book is going to be on gender. How has that writing process been? Has it been different from HEAD ABOVE WATER or previous projects?

I’ve decided to return to essay writing and personal narrative. So the work I’m currently working on actually looks at disability and gender through a collection of essays, but they’re all very personal essays. Again, it’s looking at the same themes, because I really feel like with HEAD ABOVE WATER there was a shift, not just in my work, but with readers' perceptions. Readers who read HEAD ABOVE WATER are now really interested in hearing more about disability and how it affects women in the Gulf. I guess these personal narratives — I wish to continue to write and document them, so that is what I’m currently working on. 

You can find Dr. Shahd Alshammari’s books here, along with her other writing, and interviews.

She is on Instagram at @drshahdals and on Twitter at @ShahdAlshammari.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


This interview was conducted by sara h. hammami (she/her), a multi-disciplinary artist & sprouting translator. She is always thinking & dreaming of life underwater. You can find her poems with Dear Poetry Journal, and Grist.  




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