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Marilynne Robinson in UAE: "language needn’t matter"

[Click to Enlarge] Marilynne takes questions on writing (and writer's block) from students at United Arab Emirates University.
[Click to Enlarge] Marilynne takes questions on writing (and writer's block) from students at United Arab Emirates University.
"We learn from books, that's important; but we also participate in books, and that's as important."
 
-Marilynne Robinson, speaking with students at the American University in Dubai
 

Every year, IWP reading tours introduce American writers to new and distinct literary-cultural landscapes and connect them with writers and students in regions with a relatively sparse history of literary liaisons with the contemporary United States. On the docket this year: Iraq, Haiti, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Cuba.

[Click to Enlarge] Engaging with students at NYU Abu Dhabi.
[Click to Enlarge] Engaging with students at NYU Abu Dhabi.

In January, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson joined poet and translator, Christopher Merrill, director of the IWP, on reading tour in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a federation of seven emirates sandwiched between Oman and Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. It’s among the ten wealthiest nations in the world, the site of burgeoning economic growth and home to a diverse, cosmopolitan, and multicultural population, including a large number of migrant workers whose plight former Between the Lines counselor Ben Mauk explored in a recent New Yorker blog post. Amid this fast-paced development is a growing interest in literature and creative writing. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and the Sharjah International Book Fair bring writers and publishers from around the world to the UAE every year, making the country a hub of the Arab book trade and a point of reference for booksellers, publishers, and distributors in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region.

Lively audiences of high school and college students had plenty of questions to ask Robinson, whose novels, including Gilead, have been translated into Arabic. Students at NYU Abu Dhabi in the federation’s capital asked Robison’s advice on writer's block. "If you can't get through writing a piece of fiction, it means you've hit on something that you don't know...you need to give it time,” advised Robinson, who has long taught graduate-level writing workshops and seminars at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

[Click to Enlarge] A lively discussion with Emirati and Arab writers and publishers at Kuttab Cafe in Dubai.
[Click to Enlarge] A lively discussion with Emirati and Arab writers and publishers at Kuttab Cafe in Dubai.

Robinson and Merrill also led a workshop with English faculty at the American University of Sharjah and met with Emirati and Arab writers and publishers at Kuttab Cafe in Dubai, a favorite watering hole for the literary community.

At one point, Robinson sat down with student writers from “Voices in English,” a student-run magazine published twice a year by the United Arab Emirates University English department, to discuss writing and craft. Whether Emirati literature should be written in Arabic or English is the object of vigorous debate among the literary community in UAE.

[Click to Enlarge] Leading a workshop with English faculty at American University of Sharjah.
[Click to Enlarge] Leading a workshop with English faculty at American University of Sharjah.

 “I think there is an interest here in creating Emirati literature and recording the remarkable circumstances of Emirati people,” Robinson told Abu Dhabi’s The National “How do we identify ourselves as a culture and on the other hand as individuals within the culture? How do we receive and inherit and at the same time how do we make statements that assert the present and the identity we feel now? It reminds me of American literature and English literature when they began using their own literary language,” she says. “It is a cusp in human experience that always yields something interesting. It seems like people are poised for that moment and it is very exciting.”

 On the anxiety over preserving the Arabic language, Robinson mused: “It would be valuable to write in Arabic,” she says. “But it is sort of like when Americans were creating their literature, English was a relatively isolated language. French, German and Latin were exceeding it. But they took English as their model. I think the givenness of circumstances that you live in a culture that is cosmopolitan, that is the Emirati experience. Cultures are producing literature in English which is very much specific ethnic literature. If you are writing out of a deep feeling, the language needn’t matter.”

Check back soon for an update on the IWP reading tour currently in Haiti.

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