I started writing Secrets Under the Olive Tree to tell a story about a woman whose life could resonate with millions. It developed in my mind for a number of years before I put pen to paper - because a story of courage demands courage from the writer.
At a central and metaphoric level, it is about a woman's struggles due in part to being Arab, female, and American. However, Layla Anwar's life goes beyond demographics. Her endeavors as an Arab and her bicultural American struggles delineate truths that are arguably more relevant today than during any other time in history.
Layla's Arab-American family is not meant to illustrate the typical Arab family nor are they meant to represent Muslims. The characters have their demons and flaws. Some make egregious mistakes while others struggle to accept the consequences of not only their actions but also the actions of others. Their stories capture the vulnerability of life and our intrinsic yearnings for validation and redemption. Ultimately, hope and resilience carry them through tides of obstacles. The same emotions we rely on to navigate our lives.
I am often asked about the male characters in the book. Some are brutal even unforgivable to many. These figures do not represent Muslim or Arab men. Rather, they are personas meant to shed light on issues such as domestic violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse. No ethnicity or culture is immune to these problems. Sadly, the most common victims of domestic violence are women and children.
Many fictional stories have male characters as the "villains." Think of Iago from Othello, Fred from The Handmaid's Tale, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, or Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter to just name a few. No one expects these characters to be authentic representations of a culture, ethnicity, or religion. They are appropriately labeled as fictional, even if their depictions are believable.
The essence of storytelling resides in the magical nature of the imagination. The story is not always pretty, but the emotional journey can be beautiful. Novels reach people in the comfort of their homes no matter where they reside. They enliven the heart, moisten the eyes, and bring to light different ideas and perspectives. Common universal emotions and beliefs are explored such as life is always good even when people are not.
Readers from all over the world shared with me not only their reactions but also their personal journeys. The idea that my words could reach so far and touch so many is truly humbling. There is no better compliment to a writer than a reader who cares deeply about her story. I am so grateful for the amount of love and support I have received from my readers. As much as my words have touched their lives, their words of love and support have touched mine.
For these reasons, I continue to write.
- Nevien Shaabneh