Published March 19, 2021

As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Susan Abulhawa (Against the Loveless World), Peace Adzo Medie (His Only Wife), and Diane Zinna (The All-Night Sun) discuss their new novels and the irrepressible women whose stories they tell, including a young Palestinian reflecting on her life while in solitary confinement, a young seamstress in Ghana seeking independence while navigating marriage and family, and an American teacher traveling in Sweden who is forced to finally come to grips with her buried grief. Moderated by Catalina Esguerra.

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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.

“In this moving and nuanced novel, Abulhawa takes a hard look at the inheritance of exile and the intersection of the political with the personal, as Nahr’s story reveals the complexity beneath the simple narratives told on both sides of a deep divide.”―Booklist

“A story that kept me tied to the page, told in masterful, seamless prose… Medie depicts a vivid and dazzling Accra, and it’s impossible not to root for Afi as she finds her footing within it.”—BuzzFeed

“Inventive and luminous…. Zinna’s intimate debut dazzles with original language, emotional sentience, and Swedish folklore as it plumbs the depths of grief, loss, and friendship [and] reaches an inspired emotional depth that, as the title signifies, never stops blazing.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review


SARAH LAWSON:  Hello, welcome to Writing Women, Writing Resilience, a program in the all virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of The Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, New Dimension Book Shop, please visit where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at

Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, Susan Abulhawa, author of Against the Loveless World, is a Palestinian-American writer and political activist. She is also the author of The Mornings in Jenin, and The Blue Between Sky and Water. Born to refugees in the Six-Day War of 1967, she moved to the United States as a teenager, and now lives in Pennsylvania.

Peace Adzo Medie, author of His Only Wife, is senior lecturer in gender and international politics at the University of Bristol. She is also the author of Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence Against Women in Africa. His Only Wife is her debut novel.

Diane Zinna, author of The All-Night Sun created AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, and taught creative writing for 10 years in the northern Virginia area. She won a 2020 ArtsFairfax Artist grant for her debut novel, The All-Night Sun, which was also long listed for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. And today’s moderator is Catalina Esguerra, the program’s manager for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. 

Thank you all for joining us today. Catalina, take it away.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you so much Sarah. Thanks to all of you for joining us today. I’m really excited about the conversation we’re going to have about your books, and more than that, I’m really excited about the topics that are put forth by today’s Writing Women, Writing Resilience. To start we’re going to have each of you read an excerpt of your book, and you’re welcome to contextualize that excerpt as you see fit. So we’ll get started with Peace Medie.

PEACE ADZO MEDIA:  Thank you, thank you all. I’m really excited to be here, and to be chatting with you all today. So, my book is titled His Only Wife, and it’s set in Ghana. It’s a story about a young woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage to a very wealthy man, Eli. And this marriage has been arranged by Eli’s mother, Aunty, because she doesn’t approve of Eli’s partner. And so on one level, it’s a story about a young woman who has been given this task to win over a man for his family, but on another level, it’s a story about a young woman’s path to finding her voice, into independence. So the book, on the first page, starts with the wedding, in which we find out that Eli, the groom, is absent. He doesn’t show up for his wedding. And Afi doesn’t meet her husband until several weeks after they’ve been married. So I’m going to read from their first meeting.

Eli came at 1:36 PM. I knew the exact time because I was sitting and staring at the analog clock on my phone when the doorbell rang. The sound startled me and I dropped the phone. I hadn’t heard the lift stop and open on my floor. My mother rushed out of her room and mouthed, “Go” while pointing to the door. I hesitated; for some silly reason, I wanted to fish my phone from under the chair before I answered the door. 

“Ah, open the door,” she said with sound this time. 

I stood up and smoothed my dress above my hips. My armpits were moist; it was a good thing that the fabric was light and patterned, so that my sweat stains would not be visible. My feet felt heavy so that I needed extra effort to lift them. I imagined that I looked like a marching soldier. The frown on my mother’s face told me that she was displeased. The bell rang a second time. She flashed her eyes as if they had the power to physically push me toward the door. My hand was so damp with sweat that it slipped off the round doorknob when I tried to turn it. I wiped my hands on my dress and tried again. This time I was successful.

Eli broke into a smile that reached his eyes when he saw me. He was leaning against the doorframe like someone who had been waiting for a long time to be let in. 

“Please, good afternoon.” I managed to say in a near whisper. Should I shake his hand, should I hug him, a kiss on the cheek? Last night I had imagined hugging him but now no greeting seemed right for this almost-stranger, who was also my husband. It didn’t help that he was jauntily leaning against the door frame and openly staring at me, his smile intact.

“Afternoon, Afi,” he said, his eyes never leaving my face. I lowered my eyes to look at my hands, and then my feet, anything to avoid the intensity of his gaze. 

“Please come in Fo Eli,” I heard my mother say from somewhere behind me. Only then did he look past me into the flat. I breathed a small sigh of relief and stepped aside to let him in.

Thank you.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you so much Peace. We look forward to discussing your book. Next we have Diane Zinna, with an excerpt from her book, The All-Night Sun.

DIANE ZINNA:  Thank you so much, and thank you Peace, that was fantastic. I’m going to be reading to you from the very beginning of The All-Night Sun, which is a story of a woman named Lauren, who is an adjunct professor, and she had long been grieving the deaths of her parents on her own. And into her life, into her classroom walks this really effervescent international student. And so we hear her in this excerpt talking about Siri.

Siri was a sprite. She was freckled, small and thin, with a pair of skinny jeans in every color of the rainbow. Little accent—she could have come from anywhere. She wore her blonde hair short, and sometimes dyed it to match her bright pants, but it seemed to me that the way she cared about people made her an old soul. Like she had come from somewhere with the authority to discern good people, and had decided that there was some in me. I don’t think people knew that I doubted that about myself. I think I appeared like I had it all together. I didn’t. 

Siri turned out to be a good writer, though mostly she didn’t understand the purpose of personal essays. None of them did. Often, if my students didn’t know a word in English, they would just write the word in their own language. Siri did it too, over and over. In one of her first essays, she used the word ensam for lonely, as though no English speakers had ever had to express that feeling. 

“It may mean the same thing technically,” she said. “But it seems to be missing something. Doesn’t it?”

We started to talk about that word like we were talking about something else. It was all the ways ensam had been defined for her in her lifetime, from her childhood with her family, and now in the United States without them. For people she had lost, she seemed to want an English word that bore ensam’s same lonesome sound, its own turning-in, serious-mouthed hum. I pulled out a thesaurus and read her every English synonym, but it was the sound of her word that she wanted, the right to use it, and keep it. She told me ensam was the loss of her mother, and that’s when I told her to leave it in. 

“How did your mother die?” I asked.

“Nobody knows for sure,” she said, with a wave of her hand, a smile again. I knew that gesture, that means of waving things away, that smile to put another person at ease. I nodded. She had found a word that held something for her. I could see why she was protective of it. Both of my parents died when I was eighteen. I was an only child without any other family, without language for it, I’d floated a long time. 

No, I’d white-knuckled it. And scrambled, and cried, and ruined my chances, and lost myself. But when I look back, it felt like floating, because before then, I’d been so rooted.

Siri didn’t seem to be floating. She seemed to know exactly who she was. Teaching gave me a sense of who I was supposed to be at twenty-eight. But there was something of Siri’s earnestness that was my should-have-been younger self, the person I might have been at eighteen. I remember thinking, looking at her, I could have worn my hair that way. 

Me at eighteen: I was too old to be an orphan. Old enough to drive. Too young to know I wouldn’t be able to make things work alone. Ensam. Loneliness.

I was too young to go through that alone. But I was old enough to balance a checkbook. Too young, perhaps, to anticipate the predatory instincts of some men. Old enough to know how to assuage a social worker’s fear. I learned to lie. The years passed. I stayed adrift. I floated. I turned inward, my whole life a serious-mouthed hum.  

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you so much Diane. Thank you. Last but not least we have Susan Abulhawa, who will be reading from her novel, Against the Loveless World.

SUSAN ABULHAWA:  Thank you and Diane and Peace, thank you for those beautiful readings. I’m going to read from my book, Against the Loveless World. This is a story of a woman with several names and she was the daughter of refugees, Palestinian refugees, who made their way to Kuwait before she was born. The chapter I’m going to read is in the early part of the book. Nahr becomes a sex worker and ultimately a freedom fighter. So this story just kind of chronicles her transformation as a woman.

Mama was pregnant with me when Israel made her a refugee for the second time. After fleeing Haifa in 1948 she had made a home with my father in Sitti Wasfiyeh’s ancestral village, Ein el-Sultan. Fleeing once more in June 1967 with only whatever they could carry they walked more than eight kilometers to cross the River of Jordan at the Allenby Bridge.

When they got there, the bridge was overwhelmed with bodies and collapsed just as Mama was about to cross. Some people fell and had to be rescued. Some people didn’t make it out. But people kept walking on the collapsed bridge, holding on to its cables and broken pieces as they waded through the water. Mama told me: “I just prayed to God as your father and I crossed, and I made a deal with the river. I said I’d name you after it if it didn’t swallow any of us.

But calling me Jordan would’ve been too strange. That’s how I got the name Nahr. River.”

My father made the dangerous journey back into Palestine after he got us to safety in Jordan. Palestinians learned the first time in 1948 that leaving to save your life meant that you would lose everything and could never go back. That’s why Baba stayed alone in our empty house for months under curfew after while Israel consolidated power over the whole of Palestine. To be alone in the eerie quiet of the emptied home, where he and his siblings had grown up amid the daily bustle of the large family, must have been painful. Still, he stayed and got a hawiyya; he could thenceforth remain in Palestine as a “foreign resident” in his own home. He said it better than being a refugee. 

Baba joined us as soon as he could. But his long absence had fractured our family, and by the time I was born, my parents had already made their way to Kuwait, where my father was f**king the first of many girlfriends. Her name was Yaqoot and that’s the name he recorded on my birth certificate—not Nahr—without consulting my mother. He was probably with Yaqoot the night Mama went into labor, probably a little drunk when he reached the hospital and still basking in the glow of a romantic evening when he impulsively named me after his new lover, perhaps underestimating Mama’s intuition and rage.

Yaqoot is an unusual name for Palestinians. One finds it more among Iraqis, which is why I figure my father’s lover was a daughter of Babylon. It means “ruby,” and everyone agrees it’s a rich and resionant Arabic name. But when Mama saw the birth certificate, she screamed and cried and hit my father. She smashed all the plates in our house, hurling a few at him as he ducked left and right. He let her vent, apologized, swore Mama was the only woman he loved, and promised he wouldn’t do it again. They probably made love afterward, had a good run together for a while, then the whole scenario was repeated again with another woman.

When she was pregnant the second time, Mama threatened to kill my father if he named the baby after one of his “whores,” but she didn’t have to worry when she birthed a boy. My father named him Wasfy, after his mother, Sitti Wasfiyeh, which was just as bad as Mama was concerned. Needless to say, Mama never used the names recorded on our birth certificates. She kept her promise to the river and called me Nahr. My brother Wasfy was Jehad, a name Mama chose, which became yet another point of contention between her and Sitti Wasfiyeh. 

Only my family and some administrators at my school knew my real name was Yaqoot, which had an element of fate to it because when the Americans ousted Saddam, Kuwaiti police asked about someone named Nahr, but my identification card said Yaqoot. My brother wasn’t so lucky. People called him by either name or both Wasfy Jehad. When Kuwaiti police went on the hunt for Palestinians to exact revenge because Yasser Arafat had sided with Saddam, they knew who they were looking for.

Jehad was only three years old when Baba died of a heart attack in the arms of another woman. Mama lied and said Baba was home when it happened. She made up an elaborate tale that shifted each time she told it. “He was wearing the red flannel pajamas I bought for him,” she would say one moment. The next, he’d be in the green pajamas or just his underwear. In that version, she had to dress him quickly before the ambulance came. Mama was a terrible liar, but the truth was too humiliating, even though everyone knew, and Mama knew they knew. The lie wasn’t just to protect us and her from shame. I think she wanted to protect Baba too. Despite everything Mama loved my father very much. And he loved her in his own way. 

Once, in the heat of a fight over money (it was usually about money), Sitti Wasfiyeh blamed Mama for the death of my father, her only son. “If you had been a better wife, he wouldn’t have had to go to other women,” Sitti Wasfiyeh had said casually as she ate the food Mama prepared. 

“If you’d raised a man who knew how to keep his dick in his pants and spent his money on his family instead of whores, we wouldn’t be having this argument,” Mama fired back. That night, I heard her on the balcony apologizing to my dead father for what she had said. “I forgive you my love. I miss you,” she spoke softly to the ether.


CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you so much Susan. If you’ve already read these novels or if you’re looking forward to it, as we can hear from our three authors. There’s so many beautiful relationships and tragic relationships to weave through. That’s kind of why I want to start this conversation. So, picking up this session’s topic of Writing Women, and Writing Resilience, in all three of the novels the relationships between and among women really probably transformed and shaped the plot and the characters. Would each of you be willing to comment on the some of the women slash female led relationships that scaffolded each of your novels? And why don’t we start, maybe, with Diane?

DIANE ZINNA:  All right so, my novel, which is actually based on something quite personal to me. I had a period of my own when I was going through deep grief, but it begins with Lauren putting this young woman, as you heard in the story, on a petal stool really. She sees her as doing nothing wrong. She’s going to be her savior, she’s going to show her a different way of living. When she invites Lauren back to Sweden to spend the summer with her family she says, “come back with me. Everything will be green, fresh and new and falling out. It feels like the ability to just shed off her grief and to go back and maybe reclaim some part of her adolescence, some part of her innocence.

And then when she gets there a different Siri starts to emerge. The sense of this young woman was going to be in the person who changed everything for her. There was going to be a before story and the after story starts to fall away and we see her as a real person. And Lauren has to contend with the idea that this is a real person that I’m with here and she has her faults and the whole novel goes through the sense of yes. She has these faults. She’s not perfect, but she’s worthy of love. I’m worthy of love and they come deeper friends for it.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you so much. I love what you shared Diane about that, sort of, transformation of perception that happens in the novel and this idea that how the reality of Siri at first is a shock, but then becomes this way to enrich in the love, the affection, and you know I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but there’s this kind of intimacy that can’t be in many ways described by words. And I love that you start your reading with a word that can’t be described in another language. So, yeah. I would like to turn, maybe, to Susan. Can we talk a little bit about those female-led relationships in the novel?

SUSAN ABULHAWA:  Yes, most of my novels are … The most significant relationships are among women, whether it’s mother and daughter, friends, aunties, but in this book, the relationship that was the most meaningful and most significant for me as writer was the relationship between Nahr and her procuress. The woman who basically prostituted her.

It’s … I really enjoyed writing this character because she’s initially intended to be a rather minor character, but she’s one of those characters that kind of has really big presence initially and she just ended up sort of suffusing the entire book. Even though her role in Nahr’s life is ostensibly ends early on in Nahr’s life, but the … Initially, of course, Nahr hates her and there’s … and I suspect the reader does as well, but they … There’s also a love between them that develops. A real, sort of, sisterhood that’s born from being forced to live on the margins of society in some ways and understanding each other in that way. And in fact, it turns out this is one of the most significant friendships in Nahr’s whole life that will transcend. That will span her entire life. It spans the whole book. And without having any spoilers, but her name is Um Buraq, and she does come back into the picture in a significant way.

So that was really wonderful relationship to write about because it was deeply complicated. It was full of … I don’t know what that is there. It’s like some … I’m going to turn that off, but it’s a complicated relationship. It’s replete with hatred, initially, jealously, love, dependence, codependency.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Yeah, you’re totally right that that relationship sort of upends readers expectations. Right? When we conceive of that exploitive extractive dynamic that might arise between these two roles of a procuress and somebody who is engaged in sex work that can often be the shape it takes, but here it sort of weaves a different story and offers, I think, a complexity and a real pushing in to the evolution that we see in Nahr. So, I appreciate that.

Peace, let’s turn to your novel. Talk to me a little bit about those female-led relationships in your novel.

PEACE ADZO MEDIA:  Yeah, so Afi is in the center of my novel, but a big part of the book is about her relationships with people around her, especially women. So, it’s a mother-in-law who orchestrates the entire marriage in the absence of the groom. There’s Afi’s mother, there’s Afi’s cousin, and there’s, of course, a few, very good friend Evelyn, who she meets when she moves to the big city to start her new life.

And one thing was when I was writing this book I wanted to write about how the people around us, or the people around women shape women’s lives. And this came out of my own research, my own work on violence against women in post conflict societies. And I would do interviews with people and repeatedly people would say, “Well, I wanted to leave this abusive relationship, but my mother discouraged me or a friend discouraged me.” And that really got me thinking about how the people around us kind of determine the things that we do within our very intimate relationships, but I dint want to write about violence. I wanted to study these things with a completely new lens. So, relationships, especially with other women are very important in the story and as Afi goes through this marriage and meeting a new husband, a lot of her growth comes also from interaction with other women. When she learns and begins to question some of what she’s been told because of the conversations she’s having with other women.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Yeah, one of the things I think is so probable in your novel is this sort of power sphere that women wield in spaces where they’re disenfranchised, whether that be relationally through marriage, through a matriarchy in which an Auntie is determining one’s path. There’s still wielding relational power amongst themselves to enfranchise, ways of strategizing those relationships and those ways in which they might be marginalized. So, thank you.

I’m going to also now turn to place. So, each of you, in each of your responses, but in your descriptions of the book place is a big marker for these three novels. Whether it be in the case of living as a diasporic citizen, like in the case of Nahr, relocating and finding home in a shockingly different place, like what we have in Accra for our character Afi, in your novel, Peace. Or transported physically, or and otherwise as we see with Lauren in her time in Sweden and what that place comes to mean and symbolizes for her. So, how would you describe the role that place takes in your novel and the power that it has to shape the characters?

Why don’t we start this time with Peace? I’ll go back to you.

PEACE ADZO MEDIA:  Well, thank you that. Place is so very important. On the personal level. So, part of the book is set in Ho. Ho is small town in Ghana. I guess no longer small, but it was small back when I lived in Ho, and it’s my home town. I really wanted to write about my home town. I grew up somehow never reading a book set in my home town, so place is very important for me as a writer.

But place also in the novel shows Afi’s growth because Afi is in Ho and she’s very much a small town girl. She’s ambitious, but even ambitious and constrained by the town and by those around her and then she moves to Accra and she sees all these sophisticated people and her eyes open in ways that she just changes so much once she moves to this big city. It’s almost as if she becomes more confident. She gains a voice. So, place in many ways, the way in which I write the book, it’s almost as if it charts Afi’s journey, her growth. As she moves from one place to another she changes as a person.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you. Let’s turn to Susan. Tell us a little bit about how place. What the role place plays in your novel.

SUSAN ABULHAWA:  So actually, place is really important in my novel and at times it acts as a character itself. The different countries, as a matter of fact, the book is divided into sections that are based on the geographic location of the main character Nahr. I mean as a Palestinian living in exile, physical landscape it’s kind of a core identity now as a displaced person. Early in Nahr’s life her early life takes place in Kuwait and she’s very much shaped like Kuwait. She’s shaped by the culture of that place. Of that geographic location and when she becomes a refugee as her parents had been refugees before here. How she develops and grows as a woman, a person, as a thinker, is many ways contextualized by the space that she’s in. So, when she’s a refugee in Jordan, she can’t bare that place for various reasons that are explained in the book, which she moves to Palestine and there is a emotional shift, I think, in the book, as well as in Nahr, every time she’s in a new place.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you Susan. Let’s turn to you Diane.

DIANE ZINNA:  Yeah so, when Lauren goes to Sweden she has brought with her from the United States this deep grief that she’s been carrying for years and she thought she would get better and it would just evaporate, but that’s far from the truth. And it was so wonderful for me to be able to write this dark, dark grief splashed against a backdrop of unending nights. She’s there during summer, it’s midsummer. The sun is never going down. It’s a time of frivolity. There’s light heartedness to everyone around her and she’s carrying this grief and so the contrast was really, really interesting to write, but also the folklore of Sweden was really wonderful for me to be able to get into the mindset of Lauren. In the book Siri started to just kind of tell her this story of making this monster who plays this fiddle out in the middle of streams and lakes. Young maidens can’t help but want to come toward him because of his song and then he lures them out, brings them down to the bottom of the water to make them live with him forever as their wives. Right?

That story, Siri just shrugs through it like, “Oh, yeah it’s something we sort of grew up sharing,” but for Lauren as a teacher and a writer she is fascinated by this and she’s fascinated too when Siri’s brother asks her, “Are you the beautiful Skogsrå?”  Which is this mythological creature who exists in the forest and her body is made of bark and she entices men to come in and make love to her and then she kills them. And then there’s the story of Santa Lucia, which seems to just haunt her as she goes through her time in Sweden. The patron saint of the blind, and so she’s casting herself against the backdrop of all this mythology and folklore.

Is she the maiden who’s helpless to her grief as with Näcken? That’s someone who is manipulative and getting by by luring men and tricking people into being her friend or her lover? Is she blind of something? You know, it was so fun to be able to really deep dive into all of that and use that as a way to explore Lauren’s character.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Yeah, I mean, in all three of your works it’s clear that place in some cases you’ve related. You even take the shape of a character, but it’s clearly interwoven into the search that your female narrators have for themselves. As they reconcile who they are, where they want to go and not only that, but how to make sense of their present in relationship to the spaces that they’re occupying. Two of you … All of you at some point have talked a little bit about the role of language and whether it be in terms of a different language. In the case of Lauren, she’s going to a place where she doesn’t speak the language. And in the case of your book, Susan, there are many points where you offer this insight into other language and it’s a critical part of your novel. Again, don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it and I know that there’s so much that, in terms of seeing languages code, Peace, Afi’s learning as she’s in Accra.

So, I would love to hear each of you talk a little bit about the place that language had as you were writing and how you balanced the code switching and other worldness of language for an English-speaking audience. We’ll start this time with Diane.

DIANE ZINNA:  I don’t have a lot of that in my book. I mean I do, I have certain phrases that Siri shares. They trade language, favorite words in each other’s language, but I think where it comes most into play is when she’s trying to convince her friends and people around her to speak in English. They know the language and she wants them to speak in English around Lauren. And Lauren can feel that as a separateness because they don’t want to. Whether they know it or they’re just not comfortable, or they don’t want to let her in. There’s this sense of there’s a wall between us and they are making that wall.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  When you share that it’s clear that that’s so cultural, especially given the intimacy that’s been cultivated in that revealing of all these layers of Siri that Lauren begins to see as she’s in her home town versus being where Lauren calls home.

Peace, let’s hear a little bit about the role of language or code in your novel.

PEACE ADZO MEDIA:  Language very important. Afi grows up in a community that mostly speaks Ewe. Ewe is a Ghanaian language. However, she’s a reader and so she’s also fluent in English, but she’s very much aware that her English doesn’t sound like the middle-class Ghanaian English or the English that the Ghanaian who live in America and Europe, the kind of English that we speak. So, of course, when she moves Accra she’s very sensitive about this.

In the book, there’s quite a few words that are in Ewe or in other Ghanaian languages, but I did not focus on translating into English for English readers. I tried to write in such a way that the context is enough to get you to understand what I’m trying to say. I guess some people might think it’s important to translate for example, but I also think that sometimes you underestimate the reader. I remember being 10 years old reading books set in California, and in Moscow, and in London and places I never visited in my life, but I could understand. I could identify with the characters. In the same way I trust my readers that I’m not going to translate everything and explain everything, but I trust that you will understand based on the context.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Well, I also love the role visually that seeing another language side by side on a page can have on a reader. To offer a reader something visually distinct about novels that are playing in two languages, even if the reader might have to search for context clue around what those words mean. It is an introduction into something visually exciting on the page. So, yeah.

Susan, let’s hear a little bit about the role of language in your novel.

SUSAN ABULHAWA:  Actually language plays a huge role in my novel and like Peace, there’s a lot of our big words and terms that I just don’t translate and I leave them. I transliterate them, they’re written in English obviously, but I did provide a glossary and there’s 12 pages of glossary in the book as a courtesy. Also, because Arabic is somethings that can’t be translated. Arabic is a language that’s made of calls and responses in a way and sometimes it’s very poetically charged and translating it doesn’t feel good to me.

There are other areas where I translated, but I kept it in the Arabic context. For example, when Arabic’s greet each other, like good morning or something, we’ll say morning or goodness, morning of jasmine. Something like that. Rather than good morning, I kept it. I translated exactly, which was morning of goodness or morning of roses. There’s a million of different ways to say good morning in Arabic. Likewise, thank you. This is a big thing for me. In Arabic, gratitude is an infinite language into itself in Arabic. Even for me personally, I’ve always felt inadequate just saying thank you, but Arabs have a way of … Bless the hands that cooked this meal for me, or may your eyes always see beauty. It’s sort of this prayerful, infinite of gratitude.

Another thing about language in my book has to do with the character herself. It’s a way of defiance. The book opens and all the sections are divided by location, but they all open with a chapter from this place called The Cube. It’s an isolation cell. An Israelian prison cell where is narrating her life story. Even when she has learned to speak English over her life, when visitors come in to speak to her, she sometimes will insist that they translate into Arabic, even though she can speak English and she can understand them, but it’s a source of power and it’s a source of maintaining her identity. It’s kind of like if you want to talk to me, come talk on my terms. You have so little control in this prison cell and language is a way for her to have these small triumphs in a world that has been literally inhospitable to her.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you Susan. Your conversation around the role, especially in that last illustration you painted for us about language, sort of brings me full circle to considering that this is about Writing Women, Writing Resilience. In each of your novels, it is so clear that resilience is the drum beat of what you’re writing, whether it be an inner resilience, whether it be in the case of Nahr. Somebody who becomes politically resilient and becomes resistant. Maybe to close this out today, I would like for each of you to tell me what resilience means to you when you consider these particular works that we have in front of us today.

We’ll start with Susan. What does resilience mean to you in the case of The Loveless World?

SUSAN ABULHAWA:  I think that word sometimes is overused like the word strong. Strong women, or resilient women. It’s redundant. I think regardless of what society we come from, women have been … Not every society. I there’s a lot of matriarchal indeciduous societies who got it right, but most the world has put women in positions of powerlessness. That has, I think, over time given us in the same way that it has given us generational trauma, it’s given us generational coping mechanisms, and generational resilience, if you will. In a way that, I think, is not unique to women, but there is a quality in women everywhere that comes from having to navigate your life, create spaces of power when your meant to be powerless. I think all … You can call it resilience if you want. I think that word is overused, but we’ll go with that.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you Susan. Peace?

PEACE ADZO MEDIA:  His Only Wife is about Afi mainly, and her efforts and ability to withstand and to cope with the pressures that she’s facing from all these people around her. She’s just one person that’s the center and everyone is telling her what she needs to do. And everyone is saying, well most people are saying, “You owe it to us to do these things.” For me, I think resilience is being under that kind of pressure, but at the same time getting to a place where you can say, “No, this is what I want to do.”

Take a step back. I’m really interested in how … Because as a researcher, a lot of my work is on women. I mostly work in Africa and a lot of the scholarship focus is on women who do like really incredible things. Right? So, currently I have a research project on women traditional leaders. There are women chiefs all across Africa. Historically, there are these great women chiefs who have fought wars, who have led kingdoms, and I just love that, but I also think that something that’s equally powerful is how women and girls in their day to day lives, just the little things that they do. Things that no one is going to write about in cultural studies books or academic books, just little things. Saying no, saying this is what I like, this is what I don’t like. I think that is so very powerful and I think that is political.

When we think about politics, we have this idea that’s far removed from the home, from the tiny little victories that come out of our lives, but that, to me, is extremely exciting and extremely important and that is what this book is about. Tiny victories, little victories. Sometimes just saying no I don’t like this. That in itself, to me, is very powerful, and I think that’s resilience.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Really connects to what Susan is sharing about resilient women feels redundant because as a result of resisting in the every day there’s something uniquely resilient about being one. We’ll let you have the last word, Diane.

DIANE ZINNA:  Thank you. When I think about the storyline I think about my journey in getting this book done, both published and writing it. When I sat down to write it, I decided I was going to write a portrait of grief as I had known it. A particular way of grieving that I had experienced. I was in it. A lot of people didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fulfill a lot of the expectations of people about what it means to grieve. And as I was trying to get this book out into the world, I remember the editor saying, “I love this story, but it goes back and forth in time and what if we told it linearly?” I was really wanting this book in the world. I did it. I pulled it out, I Frankensteined it back together into this linear story. And I acknowledged to myself, that this is not the way grief felt like to me. Grief was a back and forth. There was no linear climbing the rungs like the seven stages of grief and suddenly I won. Right? It really was like being thrust against rocks and going back and forth.

It was claiming that and saying this is the story that write and in the way that I need to write it. It was part of me trusting that there were doing to be readers out there who had experienced grief in the same matter that I did. In some ways that’s Lauren’s story too. She goes through life feeling like there’s no one who’s going to accept her except Siri and then we get to the end of the book. She’s around people who knew Siri, who loved her, and she realizes that just being around other people who loved a person that you loved. Sometimes that can be enough. She’s realizing that she’s had her in her all along, the ability to not be blind to the people around her trying to help. That helps her to understand the strength that she’s always had.

CATALINA ESGUERRA:  Thank you Diane. Thank you to all three of you. It’s time for us to wrap things up. And thank you to everyone who is watching. Please consider buying these amazing featured books from our local independent book sellers here, or using the link provided today at You can also check out all the other virtual events in the all virtual Virginia Festival of the Book at

Thank you, Peace. Thank you, Diane, and thank you Susan.

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