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Photo Taken In Kuwait, Kuwait City

There’s a yathoom in my nightmares… and that’s the least of my worries

By and
Q&A | 6 minute read
Kuwaiti novelist Layla AlAmmar took some persuading to write about her home country. The result is a deeply affecting and timely debut about family, secrets and one woman’s search for a different life... with a scary, local interpretation of sleep paralysis

When you were growing up, did you always want to be a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer. I started reading when I was very young and that naturally led me to writing. I began when I was about ten or eleven. By fifteen I was trying my hand at short stories. By my early twenties I was working on novels. I’d always dreamed of having my work published, but it’s only been in the last six or seven years that I’ve seriously pursued it.

In your acknowledgements, you thank your tutors and fellow writers at the University of Edinburgh, where you studied creative writing, for ‘pushing me to write a story about Kuwait when I really didn’t want to’. Why didn’t you want to write about Kuwait?

I view writing the same way I do reading. For me, it’s an escapist activity. I do it to remove myself from my everyday context, to experience other lives and worlds. It’s a way to explore other perspectives and experiences, so it never made sense to write (or for that matter, read) about Kuwait since it was my everyday life. But my fellow writers kept asking for a story about Kuwait, and I became inspired to write one. It was very well received at university, and when I graduated, the story just kept expanding in my head until I had no choice but to write it down.

Can you name a debut novel that you love and say why?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake has always been a huge inspiration. It’s such a moving, accomplished study in character and family dynamics. It’s the first book I remember reading where I thought ‘I want to do that someday’.

Why is marriage such a big deal for Dahlia’s parents?

I think it’s to do with the familiar. In her parents’ day, a person went through certain milestones in their life: education, getting a job, getting married, having children, etc. And so, any deviation or delay in this plan is met with concern. There is also the idea of security which comes with marriage, the idea that they don’t need to worry about their daughter anymore because she has ‘technically’ gone into the care of someone else.

Dahlia faces the expectations of patriarchal Kuwaiti society and at the same time she’s living with trauma. Why did you decide to braid these two things together in her story?

Every society is patriarchal to a certain extent and women in every society deal with trauma, so I wouldn’t label it as Kuwaiti since I don’t think there’s anything unique about the idea of trauma in a patriarchal society, which is to say, a society. For me, it was more about examining the temporality of trauma, the way it creates these pauses in time, these decision forks, a line between ‘before’ and ‘after’. I wanted to explore the effects of such temporality on a character’s development, the way it can stunt growth or change someone’s personality. I especially wanted to examine it in light of unacknowledged trauma. Repressing trauma is something women all over the world are almost trained to do and can have hugely damaging effects on the psyche.

Dahlia’s dad is more sympathetic towards her than her mother manages to be. Why?

I wanted to delve into the complicity of women in their own submission to patriarchal ideas. Often it is the female relatives who maintain the status quo. Again, I think this mostly arises from fear of the unknown, fear of one’s daughter going down an unfamiliar path, one the mother doesn’t know and can’t advise on. A lot of it is also concern about the opinions of others and how the family is perceived to outsiders, since such things often have wide-ranging impacts.

‘Art is a hobby, not a career’, says Dahlia when her friends encourage her to pursue her drawing. Is this a view that you had to overcome on your path to becoming a novelist?

Yes, somewhat. To be honest though I never considered writing as a primary career, if only because it’s hard to make a living writing these days. So, I always knew I would do it on the side, while maintaining a more stable full time job, preferably in academia.

What is a ‘yathoom’ and what is its role in The Pact We Made?

The ‘yathoom’ is a creature of folklore who is said to come to you in the night and perch on your chest, making it difficult to breathe or move. Science now calls it Sleep Paralysis, but in the Arab world, we call it the ‘yathoom’. Its role in the book is as a kind of manifestation of Dahlia’s anxiety, which is a constant companion for her. It also serves to inspire her artwork since the first time she sees a representation of it is in Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, which depicts a very similar demon perched on a sleeping woman. When she sees this artwork, removed from her spatially and temporally, it makes her feel connected to something larger and broader than her own existence.

At 30, Dahlia has vague memories of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the first Gulf War that followed. What are your memories of these events?

I was seven when the Iraqi invasion happened in August 1990, and by chance, we were in the US visiting family. We ended up spending the year there, and so my memories are of my father huddled around the TV watching news updates, trying to call our family, and arranging to get back in the country. He ended up returning after the liberation, and the rest of us soon followed. I have stronger memories of the aftermath: the terrible weather due to the burning oil fields, where the sky was orange and speckled with black; wearing masks to school and helping to brighten up our classroom with pictures and paint; the sirens that continued to blare intermittently across the country for the next decade until the 2003 war brought down Saddam Hussein.

Have your Kuwaiti friends read The Pact We Made? What did they make of it and do you expect the book to be received differently by UK/ US readers?

It’s only natural that the book will be received differently depending on who and where the reader is. The act of reading is transactional – the reader takes in the text, but they also infuse the text with their own perceptions and background knowledge. This is how meaning is created for the reader. Naturally, a reader in Kuwait, who’s familiar with the language and culture and society will perceive the story in a very different way from someone who is less familiar with it. I tried to write the book in such a way that any reader would be able to find meaning in it, but what that meaning will be is out of my hands.

The people in or from Kuwait who’ve read the book have had positive responses (so far). They’re able to relate to the characters and see aspects of their own experiences and opinions within the text. I hope UK/ US readers will feel the same. I want them to see that Dahlia’s story could’ve taken place anywhere, that it’s a universal struggle for women to seek independence and choice in a world that often tries to take it away – whether it’s decisions about work or education or marriage or even how much control a woman has over her own body.

What are you working on now?

My second book is finished. It deals with the refugee crisis and the rise of xenophobic, alt-right rhetoric in Europe. I’m hoping to finish a third book in the next few months as I’m beginning a PhD in the fall at a UK university. My research will focus on Arab women’s fiction as trauma narratives, looking at modes of resistance and recovery in a contextual framework.

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar is published by HarperCollins, £12.99