An Interview with Layla AlAmmar, Author of Silence is a Sense

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Layla AlAmmar is a Kuwaiti-American author currently based in Lancaster where she is studying for a PhD in English Literature. Her first novel, The Pact We Made, which deals with the lives of young women in Kuwait, was published by The Borough Press in 2019. I spoke to Layla about her new book, Silence is a Sense, which will be published by The Borough Press in March 2021. The interview has been briefly edited for purposes of article publication.

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to do this interview and congratulations on the new book! Can you start off by telling us a bit about it?

Silence is a Sense deals with a Syrian refugee, a young woman who goes unnamed until the end of the novel, so I’m not going to reveal her name, I’ll just annoyingly call her the protagonist! She’s a Syrian refugee who fled the country when the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 quickly descended into civil war and she becomes one of these six million or so Syrians who have been forced to leave the country and seek asylum in neighbouring countries. So, she makes her way across Europe and winds up settled in an also unnamed English city. In this city, she struggles to come to terms with the things that happened, and her trauma, and where she fits in in this community, which is dealing with rising alt-right rhetoric, xenophobia, islamophobia. And so, she spends her time basically observing her neighbours and writing for an online magazine about her experiences as an immigrant or an asylum seeker in the UK system.

It has been described as ‘Rear Window meets Exit West’, what led you to focus on the setting of an apartment block and what did this enable you to explore?

That was one of the very first things that happened when I was drafting this novel because I don’t outline or plan my novels, it just happens spontaneously. In the summer of 2017, I was in Edinburgh and I was staying in an apartment building much like the one that I portray in the novel. One day, I was standing at the window and I was watching the people in their apartments across the way through their windows, just watching them live their lives, making tea, using their laptops, using their phones, ironing clothes, just normal everyday stuff. That’s when the voice of this character of the protagonist came to me and she was essentially narrating what we were seeing and commenting on it.

This led to that idea of why would she be doing that? And I thought, maybe it’s because she’s alone and she’s lacking that intimacy and windows provide a metaphorical and a real window into people’s lives. There’s an unintentional intimacy there where if you’re watching the same person every day, make tea and put out their washing and things like that, you in a way start to feel like you know them. In that way, she becomes embroiled in the lives of her neighbours she’s been watching through the windows and she unintentionally starts to form connections with them. Through this watching and connecting and interacting, it makes her feel more present. It grounds her in the actuality of her situation versus the hallucinations and flashbacks and PTSD related mental anguish that she’s suffering watching these ordinary lives – and in some cases, not ordinary lives.

Speaking of the character, how does the novel deal with the negative stereotype of the refugee that we often see in Western media?

This is an interesting question because there are so many different ways that the refugee has taken hold of the Western European psyche, or to a lesser extent the American psyche, because this refugee crisis that the novel talks about only really hit its peak in 2015 and it was really localised in Western Europe, to a lesser extent in the UK.

This figure of the refugee, they are portrayed in the media as either parasites who are coming here to take the resources, to leach away the resources (money, food, jobs and healthcare), so paradoxically they need to prove their worth in order to be here. When you see sometimes in the media ‘this refugee is weaving blankets, look how useful they are’ or ‘this refugee has opened a food stall, look at what they can bring to us’, there’s this subtext that they need to prove that they deserve to be here. That’s one way that they’ve been portrayed. Another is a figure of pity, as the quintessential victim who needs saving and charity, and that becomes the dominant lens through which they are portrayed. And then of course you have the xenophobic idea where they are very much a figure of fear. There’s this idea of them coming to the home country and somehow contaminating it by bringing in what are portrayed to be foreign elements or foreign ideologies or cultural behaviours.

The novel confronts and seeks to disrupt these images in various ways. At times, the protagonist falls into the trap of these images because she is writing these pieces for her editor. Portions of the articles that she writes are embedded in the novel, so you can see the way that she struggles with her interior monologue and the way that she thinks versus the her that she portrays in her articles. And there are some emails between her and her editor where she struggles with what they want her to present versus what she wants to present. There is some tension in the way that she confronts these images, where she worries that sometimes she’s falling into the trap of thinking that way herself, to prove that she can belong here or that she has added value.

Did you find it challenging writing the figure of the refugee and writing against the dominant narratives surrounding this figure?

It’s always difficult to put yourself into the headspace of a subject where you don’t share that positioning that they have. So, it was quite easy to get into her mind as an Arab and a Muslim, because I’m an Arab and a Muslim. Even though I’m not Syrian, there is a shared culture, a shared field of reference linguistically, in terms of our heritage, religiously, but to get into the headspace of a refugee was more difficult than I felt. I felt a struggle there, you always want to maintain a critical distance and not appropriate that positioning for yourself and so that’s something that the novel struggles with as well: this idea of identity and what is our identity made of. In a lot of ways, she is positioned in the novel by the people around her in certain identity markers. They see her as a Muslim or a refugee or as this or as that, and she herself struggles with these different labels within the novel and within her interior dialogue.

What is the role of trauma in this novel and is this a theme that inspires your writing in general?

Trauma is definitely the overriding theme of the novel in terms of her experiences, and I should say that when she arrives in England in the present day of the novel, she is mute, she doesn’t speak, and that’s the result of the catalogue of trauma that she’s endured in years leading up to her arrival there. So, pretty much for the entire novel, she doesn’t say anything and all you hear are her internal monologues because she is the narrator, and she narrates it in the first person.

She tries to interact with her neighbours, but she doesn’t speak. So, this idea of silence as a subversive tool is an overriding one as well. That directly links to the trauma because part of the issue that I was playing with here was that our understanding of trauma is very much Western-based, a single event-based incident that is bracketed in time, it happened and its then done, I was mugged and it’s over. This is very Western, and it’s also a very individualised idea as well, as in, this is something that happens to an individual. And this is where the talking cure comes from, if you can narrate what happened to you and you can pin it down into words then you can somehow get over it. This is not an understanding of the trauma that makes sense to my protagonist because she wrestles with this framework that is imposed upon her in her attempts to deal with this community that she’s found herself in and come to terms with what happened. So, the way she sees it, her silence is a legitimate coping mechanism when she’s been confronted with a loss and grief and trauma of this magnitude.

What kind of research did you do for this novel?

The underlying themes are issues that I’ve been interested in for a very long time, so there’s not really a research part of the novel. The novel was born out of things that had been brewing and percolating in me for the better part of a decade. As I said, I started writing this book in 2017 and I finished the first draft in about four months. But the underlying themes, the Arab Spring uprisings, the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis, are things that had been happening since 2011. Late 2010 is when the Arab Spring official kicked off, and that was something I had been following very closely, and the situation in Syrian was one that I had been following very closely so I was constantly reading articles and books about it. In 2013/2014 we started to see some first books come out that were talking about it. And, of course, the rise of nationalism and alt-right rhetoric, are things that had been happening for decades and they were also issues I had been reading about. When it came to the refugee portion specifically, I was reading books about the crisis, and then watching and reading interviews, documentaries and testimonials from asylum seekers and refugees.

It’s really funny because there was a bit of serendipity here. I started writing the book in late June/early July 2017 and I was in Edinburgh and then in August I randomly went down to London to meet a friend of mine and he said, ‘there’s this guy who’s based in Cambridge, but he’s coming down to London tomorrow and we’re going to hang out’ and it turned out that he was a Syrian refugee who had been living in Cambridge for the past year. And so, he came down to London the next day and we spent the whole day together and he’s since become a friend of mine. He is a refugee who came from Aleppo and made his way to the UK and is doing very well here. It was a stroke of luck that that just happened, and he was very honest and forthcoming about his experiences and his whole journey.

So, when you were reading testimonies and doing the research, did you find it quite difficult to do that? Because as you’ve said before, people have gone through so many horrific things just to get to safety. Was it quite traumatic in a way?

I would not use the word traumatic because the word trauma is a very heavy word for me now with all the reading I’ve done, so I would never describe my act of reading and being affected by what I read as traumatic. I put trauma on a much higher level than that, so I would never put that label on myself. But it is very heavy and disturbing to read those kinds of testimonials and to see the abhorrent treatment that they have to endure just to reach somewhere safe. When you’re thinking about the refugee camps in France and you’re reading about tear gas on the Macedonian border, it’s heartbreaking and it’s difficult to wrap your head around.

It’s really bad I guess in a way because a part of me wonders, did this issue hit me so hard because they’re Arab? Because they’re Syrian and so we have that shared language and frame of reference, and culture and sacred history, and cuisine and artistic references, is that why it touched me? I don’t like to think that that’s the reason, but a part of me wonders if what made this so real to me is the fact that by any stroke of luck or fate, that could have been me, or that could have been any one of my friends. I don’t like to think that that was the reason but, on another hand, I wonder if that’s what it is because when reading them or hearing their interviews and an Arabic word slips out, or a reference to Islam in some way or some turn of phrase comes out, that triggers something.

In terms of your writing process, were there any parts of the book that were particularly difficult to write? And which parts did you enjoy writing the most?

The parts where she flashes back to her journey through Europe, whether it’s the boat ride to cross into Greece or refugees smuggled in refrigerated trucks, things like that, you don’t want to put your head there. But, when it’s your protagonist and the narration is done in the first person, you have no choice but to get that close and to try and imagine what something like that would be like. Riding around Europe in the back of a refrigerated truck, how do you even begin to imagine something like that? You can’t. Or walking for days on end just to reach another border. Those parts were very difficult to write, and a lot of times the book blends into nightmares and flashbacks and hallucinations in order to remove the protagonist and to remove myself from it because I didn’t want to spend that much time imagining it.

She has a neighbour she gets close to called Adam, who lives across the way and he’s like this new activist type guy. He’s really into the ‘60s and he likes the whole Vietnam War protest aesthetic. He’s really into his Jimi Hendrix and Morrison, and he sort of becomes a friend to her even though she doesn’t really want a friend, but he gets in and they become very close. So, the scenes with him were really fun to write because I ended up really liking his character, but also because it was really fun to try and find ways for them to communicate even though she wasn’t speaking, and how would he respond to that, and how would he accommodate her, and how she would compromise to find ways of connecting with him. So, those were the fun parts.

With the other characters like the friends and the neighbours, did you intend to have them all in those roles of bringing out the voice of the character or do they fulfil different roles?

They fulfil different roles, some more positive than others. Some of those relationships are a bit toxic for her but she kind of falls into them. Adam is an interesting one because when I first wrote him, I thought he was just going to be this sleazy guy who lives across the way that she doesn’t really like, and she thinks he’s kind of silly, and he’s a bit of a womaniser, and she’s just like, ‘no, please get away from me!’. But weirdly, he kept popping up and he became someone else. This is why I say I don’t outline or plan my books because I always feel that if I’m not surprised as the writer, the reader is not going to be surprised in reading the book. So, I need to have a space where the characters can surprise me. Adam is really one that surprised me because I thought he was just going to maybe flit in and out as a moment of light-heartedness, or comedy, or someone that she looks down on from her position as having lived through the civil war, but he turned out to be much more complex and much more important to her and to the narrative. He becomes very critical to the story and to her development as a character.

How did publishing your first novel, The Pact We Made, change your writing process?

So, I wrote The Pact We Made in 2015 and that novel grew out of a short story I did for my master’s degree. In my master’s, we had to do portfolios of short stories, and one of them was a six-thousand-word short story and then the novel grew out of that. It took about seven months to write the first draft and then I was editing and drafting it all the way up until it was bought in the Summer of 2017.

I started writing the second book right when the first book was sold, so by the time the first book was actually on the shelf, we were many rounds into editing the second book, which my editor here in the UK said is exactly what she wanted to happen. She was telling me, ‘you need to finish your second book before the first one hits the shelf’. There wasn’t really anything that changed in terms of the actual process. I didn’t outline my first novel, I didn’t outline this one. Both of them were very heavy on character and on the character’s voice.

Lastly, what’s next? Are you working on anything new at the moment?

I’m always working on something. Right now, pretty much all of my mental and writing energy has been given over to my thesis. I’m always tinkering with novels and short stories, so there is one that I’m kind of gripped by at the moment and its quite different to anything I’ve done before, but it’s really early so I don’t really have anything to say about it aside from there’s a couple of voices here that might be interesting. 

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