Susan Abulhawa’s second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, a multigenerational saga set in Gaza, speaks of the heroism of the women of Palestine during times of war and loss. Abulhawa’s debut novel Mornings in Jenin was a bestseller and was published in more than 20 languages.
How is your latest novel The Blue Between Sky and Water different from your debut novel Mornings in Jenin?
I suppose it is inevitable that this story is viewed relative to my first novel. It seems inescapable, like ‘middle child syndrome’, where siblings are compared to the first (or youngest) one. Although there are similarities with Mornings in Jenin, I hope that The Blue Between Sky and Water can stand (or fall) on its own merits. It’s a multigenerational saga set in Palestine, specifically Gaza. The main characters are women, strong but flawed and vulnerable. Although the events of the novel are set against a dramatic historic context, the real drama in the fore is the relationships between these women. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters throughout the writing process, and I hope their lives will be seen independently of my first novel.
Have you incorporated autobiographical elements in this novel too?
Yes. In this book, Nur’s life in foster care somewhat mirrors my own experience as an adolescent.
The narrative structure of your second novel is quite different from your first one. Did you do this deliberately or was it an unconscious decision?
I made a conscious decision not to think of the first novel as I wrote this one. I also deliberately did not think of audience, readers, or publishers. It is always a conscious decision to make the lives of my characters central to my thoughts. My only loyalty is to tell their lives honestly and authentically. To be honest (as oddly as it sounds), your question is my first realisation that the narrative structure here is very different than the first.
Your previous novel has a couple of Jewish characters who which are portrayed in sympathetic light. This novel has none. Please comment.
Another seemingly inescapable ‘relativism’ in judging this novel (or any Palestinian novel) pertains to the presence and treatment/presentation of Israeli characters. I think that’s an unfair meter by which to analyse Palestinian narratives and it’s a bit frustrating because the truth is that our lives and our worth in reality are often measured relative to our attitudes towards Israelis. We are an ancient indigenous society with a history, culture, and profound essence that has nothing to do with recent colonial settlers who arrived from Europe and other parts of the world. Whether an Israeli character appears in my novels or not is immaterial. This is a Palestinian story. My first novel was set in Jenin, which is in the West Bank, where Palestinians might be exposed to various Israeli personalities. But in Gaza, what people have seen of Jewish Israelis has been cruelty, from soldiers, settlers, and faceless pilots who drop bombs on them. For one reviewer, a major criticism of this novel was the absence of sympathetic Jewish Israeli characters. My first thought was that of all the novels and films and plays I’ve seen about the Jewish holocaust, I’ve never heard or read a single criticism that their tormentors and jailers were not portrayed with more nuance and sympathy.
In its review, the Publishers Weekly indirectly says that your novel is anti Israeli. How do you respond to this allegation?
This novel is not pro or anti anything. It is an authentic human narrative set against a well-documented historic context. It is for readers to make their own conclusions and opinions about it, which are never wrong or right.
Are you planning to start your next novel?
I already have.