Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Interview With Jo Chumas, Author of The Hidden

Hi Jo, I'm glad to have you here today and tomorrow to find out more about you and your book The Hidden. First, let's talk about your book.

Tell us about the cover of THE HIDDEN and how it came about.

The cover was designed by the amazing team at Thomas & Mercer in Seattle. I have Alison Dasho and Terry Goodman, Senior Editors at Thomas & Mercer to thank for it. I love the cover, and was in awe of their professionalism when they sent it through. It shows the old, leathery notebook – Hezba’s diary – which she wrote in 1919.  Hezba’s diary is crucial to the unfolding of the novel. It holds all her secrets. It provides a detailed context for all that is happening to her daughter, Aimee, 21 years later. Hezba was 17 when she wrote her journal, desperately unhappy in the palace of her father in Cairo, Egypt during the Nationalist riots of 1919, and in love with a rebel activist, Alexandre Anton. But she was married, and as a Muslim woman she had already defied her religion by speaking out and taking a lover. According to Islam she was ‘Satan’ incarnate, but this didn’t stop her from tearing down the walls that caged her. She saw the freedom and emancipation of women as far more important than adhering to a religion that she had no respect for. She refused to wear hijab, escaped her harem apartments whenever she could and lived to free Egypt from British rule. Alison, Terry and their team really got the story and their team’s graphic image of an old leathery notebook against a dusty background works beautifully.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I started writing as soon as I could hold a pen. I wrote a diary from the age of six (I still have it and it’s very funny). From then on I continued writing diaries, notes, short stories and bare-bone novellas which needed work. At school, apart from learning languages nothing else really mattered. It was writing stories, that was it. There was never any decision to become a writer. I have always been one. Writing stories helped me understand the world when I was little. I was often confused by situations, people and events. I was shy, but I was determined and motivated and always questioned the things I was told. I wrote stories to understand everything that I saw. I was never really good at 

anything at school, but I used to get good marks for my stories. I remembered feeling so proud that a teacher had liked my story enough to give me an ‘A’ – in the UK, that’s the top mark because, as I said, I wasn’t really good at much else and I never liked school. It sounds quite sad now, looking back, but reading and writing were my sanctuaries as I was growing up. When things were tough I survived by creating new worlds I could control, within my head. I think that rule still applies in my life.

How did your experiences in traveling and living around the world influence your writing?

When people ask me my nationality I always pause before I answer. I like to say I am European but in the past few years saying this has become problematic. I think this is because nationalism has raised its ugly head again lately. I wrote about nationalism in THE HIDDEN but I think nationalism has a very dark, evil side. It’s fine to be patriotic but I hate racism and narrow-minded jingoistic thinking more than anything. Nationalism gets ugly when the global economy is in a bad way. This pattern has reoccurred throughout history.

The Nationalists in THE HIDDEN were fighting for their lives, though. I made them real; humans who I grew to love as I wrote their characters. I did not blame them for their terrorist activities. I wanted to understand them, that’s why I created them.
I’m profoundly fascinated by politics; the underworld of different countries; cultural norms and cultural anti-norms; societies; the culture of humanitarian oppression; women’s rights; children’s rights; and history. But if I had to choose one passion – apart from writing and apart from my kids – it would be women’s rights! THE HIDDEN is a passionately pro-women’s rights novel.

 In what way?

Women throughout history have been ‘contained’ from the moment of their birth by an existence defined by men; from the clothes we buy, to the products sold to us, to the religion we follow, the education we receive, the environments we live in, everything is controlled by cultural patriarchy. 

I hate the way the word ‘feminism’ has been stolen by men to mean ‘an aggressive woman’ – again, it’s the power of language. Young girls growing up now have no idea who the powerful female role models of history were; women such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. That’s tragic and needs to change.

A huge part of my research for THE HIDDEN was reading as much as I could about Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi. I dedicated the novel to her memory. I got great comfort from reading about the life of Ms. Shaarawi when my own life was full of question marks.

What inspired you to start writing THE HIDDEN?

I believe in the sanctity of ‘moments’ and that everything happens for a reason. The idea for THE HIDDEN was my ‘moment’ of reprieve.

At that point in my life, I was in a geographic, psychological and emotional jail. I was bringing up two small children in a country far away and I felt very alone and very trapped. I was a single mother, working as a freelance journalist and money was very tight. For the first time in my life, in terms of nationality I felt as though I did not belong. I was dealing with cultural issues, identity issues. I had no family around me, I had no support. It was an absolutely terrifying situation to be in.

But that ‘reprieve’ moment, the moment that saved me from total meltdown, was the discovery in a bookshop of a beautiful coffee-table style book, printed to perfection with rich illustrations, photographs and artwork. It was on the history of harem girls in the Ottoman Empire. My heart started beating wildly with this book in my hand. I flicked through it and knew I was at the door to a secret world I knew nothing about but wanted to know everything about.

I bought the book. This marked the first moment on a research journey that lasted two years and saw me acquire hundreds of non-fiction and fiction books on Egyptian politics, history, culture and language, dating from the 18th through to the mid-20th century. I was hooked and threw myself into research. I would read everything I could after the children had gone to bed. It helped take my mind off my sadness at feeling so alone, so far away and it helped me grieve – up to a point – the passing of my dear father.

How would you sum up THE HIDDEN?

If I could sum up THE HIDDEN in a sentence I would say that it’s a political thriller with themes of female empowerment and the dangers of organized religion. It’s about breaking down the walls that culture, society, patriarchy, nationality, gender, history, religion and family put in our way.

These are issues I have struggled with personally all my life. I wrote the novel at a time of life when I was caged by many of these walls, living in Australia, the mother of two young children, feeling trapped geographically, emotionally and physically.

The character of Hezba was me at that time. I identified with her so much and I wrote THE HIDDEN in a state of white heat. Hezba became my best friend. All the ugliness I was experiencing at the time – the break-up of my relationship, my single-parenthood - was reflected in her own experiences. My search for identity was reflected through Aimee, her daughter, who I have a great affection for as a character. My love of my own father, who died while I was writing the novel, came through in Hezba’s love of her father, the Sultan of Egypt.

Taha Farouk, one of the leading male characters, is also based on my father. As much as Farouk is a ruthless terrorist he is also a man I loved and do love. He showed Aimee the tenderness she had never experienced in her life before. Aimee was bought up by Catholic nuns and she had no tenderness in her life before her marriage to Ibrahim. So when he died and Farouk turned up, Aimee was almost paralysed by the lack of tenderness in her life. It was natural, then, that she was intrigued by him.

So in writing THE HIDDEN I was exorcising all the unanswered questions in my life when it came to culture, politics, identity, language, families, geography, gender and oppression.

Why set the book in Egypt?

Egypt is a country I love very much. I feel as though I know it intimately but I only visited it after I had written the novel. I visited every suburb of Cairo I wrote about in THE HIDDEN, and I am confident – based on my trip there – that I got it right. I wanted accuracy. That was very important to me.

As a young girl I had been to other North African countries with my parents but not to Egypt. I only finally got there in 2006. Through my research I came to love Egyptian people and their history. I identified with them as a nation and as a culture. I did a lot of research on Islam and Islam’s stranglehold of women. I also read a lot of books which advocated the segregation of women in Islam, written by women. I still struggle to understand this point of view and I don’t.

Egyptian people are warm, intelligent, friendly, cultured, erudite and wonderful. Their country’s history is deeply fascinating. What is happening there at the moment is a tragedy beyond belief, but they have been in this place before and they will survive. This is what attracted me to this country; the fact that they survived through the most terrible political turmoil and they continue to be creative, entrepreneurial and passionate about their futures. I was looking for inspiration for my own life.

I also adore the writings of Naguib Mahfouz. I have ready many of his novels and treasure them, because I bought my editions in Cairo and they are beautifully designed and printed. There is a sensuality about his writing which defies the image Westerners are sold of life in this region. His writing is pure poetry and thrilling to read.

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