Taking part in the discussion were award-winning novelist Akhil Sharma, writer and researcher Mariam Al Zaabi and novelist and storyteller Huzama Habaib. Moderating the session was Faraj Al Dhafiri.
Kicking off the discussion was Habaib, who said that writing is a form of creative work that requires imagination. The point she made was that while imagination is definitely needed when creating a work of fiction, it is very much necessary when authors try to reinterpret some of their own life experiences for their books.
“When I write about a character, it’s a recreation of reality; it includes many feelings and passion, real and imagined. It’s a mixture. This helps to make a layered character, “ Habaib said.
“Imagination is developed to create a new reality,” she added.
To explain further this fusion of fact and fiction to create a fiction novel, Habaib reflected on a time when she was in Jordan.
“I was sleeping in my house in Jordan,” she explained. “It was raining. And when it rains, you can smell the grass and the soil and the trees. I had left the bedroom window open that night and I remember waking up and smelling this scent of rain.” Habaib quickly fell back asleep, only to wake and recall her dream. In her dream, she recalled the smell of the grass and then dreamt of a woman stuck in mud. She was crying.
“When I eventually woke up, I could smell the woman, I could picture the woman,” Habaib said. “This woman then became the main character in my novel Velvet.”
This, for Habaib, was a clear example of how imagination and reality can mix to create fiction. “No literary work can exist without a little imagination,” she concluded.
Sharma explained that for him books had always been a form of escapism. Not feeling he fit in as a child, he would often pick up a book in order to leave his reality and enter a world of make-believe.
Agreeing with Habaib, Sharma says that as an author you can write about things that are particular to you in a way that they are universally appealing and understood by all.
“When I write, I draw from my own experiences,” he said. “I write about things that are specific to me, things that have specifically happened to me. The more specific they are to me, the more universally appealing they can be for my readers; they can be universal for humanity,” he added.
Al Zaabi refers to history in her novels, so sees the relationship between fact and fiction to be an essential element in her work. “I studied history, so write novels that include various elements regarding past events,” she said.
When working on her last novel, Al Zaabi took just one character and applied all of the characteristics from a group of children in Iraq to just that one person, to produce a complex character. Like Habaib, Al Zaabi used to imagine the characters; imagined their scent, how they looked.
“The characters lived with me until I finished the novel,” she said. “Sometimes, the characters would stay with me for years after I had finished writing.”
So, while the panel agreed that real people and real-life events have very important roles to play in fiction, for Sharma the most important role is saved for the reader.
“The author only does a little bit of the work; it’s the reader that does the majority of the work,” Shrama said, “It’s the reader that breathes life into a story.”