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With Fresh Eyes in Gaza: Ayesha Kajee Talks to Susan Abulhawa about Her Latest Novel The Blue Between Sky and Water

By Ayesha Kajee for the Sunday Times

The Blue Between Sky and WaterThe Blue Between Sky and Water
Susan Abulhawa (Bloomsbury)

“When it comes to women of colour, and women in struggle, society has categories for all of us, and when we step out of them, it’s so uncomfortable that they do everything in their power to put us back in those boxes.”

It’s strangely apt that Susan Abulhawa ended our interview with these words, since the previous week had seen South Africans hotly debating the presentations of the 2015 Ruth First fellows, two young Black women who are unapologetically critical of race and gender privilege.

Abulhawa’s second novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, is a lyrical and haunting portrait of a family of strong women, spanning four generations and several wars and inspired by people the author has met over the years.

“On the surface they were these Hajjes, and of course they prayed and were religious, but they also had this side that was just very human and funny and gossipy … and strong – my grandmother was illiterate, she became a widow and a refugee, but she managed to raise her kids [by becoming] a maid for a wealthy Kuwaiti woman.”

Set primarily in Gaza – often described as the world’s largest open-air prison – the novel examines themes of exile and alienation, loss and rebirth, and the fluid nature of time. The character Khaled, based on a press report of a traumatised adolescent with Locked-in Syndrome, has retreated “into that blue between sky and water, where all time is now”. Khaled, who can read the colour of peoples’ auras, becomes the inter-generational bridge between the Baraka women. Colour is an important narrative thread, with Abulhawa challenging prevailing norms. “The idea that white is always good and black is bad is reversed in the novel.”

Reminiscent of both Ben Okri and Toni Morrison, Abulhawa’s use of magical realism underlines the sense of predestination that permeates the book. It offsets the agonies her characters endure, and links members of this family who are separated by geography, circumstance and chronological time.

There is a delightful South African link in the person of Nzinga, a social worker who underlines the “natural connections between various Black struggles and the Palestinian struggle”. (Abulhawa describes her visit a few years ago to Durban’s Time of the Writer Festival as memorable and meaningful.)

Having spent time in institutional care, Abulhawa’s personal history also informs her writing. “I was privileged to have this really fucked up life, because it exposed me to people at their truest. I also have this treasure of experiences of people – both good and bad – that I am able to draw on.“

An author who is also an activist, she resists any imputation that her writing is an extension of her activism, fiercely declaring that her only loyalty is to her characters. Abulhawa did not set out to criticise Zionism in either of her books, for example, but merely tried to be “loyal to the characters, loyal to history and loyal to the reality.” Acknowledging that she has been criticised for having no Israeli characters in The Blue Between Sky and Water, she maintains that while it was feasible to do so in her debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, which was set in the West Bank, in Gaza a sympathetic Israeli character would be “unreal, inauthentic and gratuitous”.

“Being an activist means that I feel a personal and passionate sense of responsibility toward truth and justice, and while that most certainly informs the content of my character and my art, it defines neither the totality of me nor my craft.”

Follow Ayesha Kajee on Twitter @ayeshakajee

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