As a passionate writer and voracious reader, Nevien Shaabneh knew the literary landscape she grew up with was missing something – diversity. It seemed that no matter where she looked, every shelf with “the greats” contained books penned by men, with a striking lack of multicultural perspectives. Shaabneh decided it was enough of that, and made her own contribution to the literary world: Secrets under the Olive Tree.
Written by Shaabneh, Secrets Under the Olive Tree is set in Palestine. It tells the story of female protagonist, Layla, as she uncovers her family’s secrets amidst the backdrop of her beautiful homeland. Through her novel, Shaabneh aims to bring light to some of the trials families face and expose her readers to real-world problems, including violence and misogyny.
Nevien Shaabneh shared with us her motivation behind writing Secrets Under the Olive Tree and paying homage to her homeland.
The Tempest: What’s your advice for young Arab women or women of color looking to getting into literature?
Nevien Shaabneh: Be honest, be authentic, because you won’t please everyone. For minority women or women of color, we’re sometimes held to different standards. I think Chimamanda Adichie puts it best when she warns about the danger of the single story. The danger for minority writers is our characters are somehow skewed to be representatives of culture or race rather than characters. Our fiction is analyzed for its ability to represent or failure to represent instead of the focus being on the story. We are not given the same opportunities to just tell stories; we are tied to societal expectations, and we inadvertently become spokespeople.
I embrace this role in my speaking engagements and accept it as a part of my job, but not every author may be ready for this role. In my storytelling, I remain authentic to the craft, unfettered by fear, and encouraged by the lives I have touched. I encourage other writers to do as well. Tell the story, create authentic characters, and keep your voice no matter what.
The protagonist of your novel is a Palestinian woman. What do you want the world to know about Palestinian women?
Palestinian women have grit! I have been around Palestinian women my whole life, and regardless of the background or education, one attribute I see time and time again is grit. There is a sense of striving and working that has served as an integral thread in Palestinian upbringing. Maybe it is because the Palestinian struggle entails holding onto our identities, worrying about the safety of our children, and fighting to keep our homes. Women are born with a sense of grit that unfortunately gets dulled due to society or a patriarchal upbringing.
I think for Palestinian women (especially ones living in Palestine) the future of Palestine depends on their ambition and resilience.
[bctt tweet=”Women are born with a sense of grit that unfortunately gets dulled due to society or a patriarchal upbringing.”]
Do you see yourself as a role model for other Palestinian women? What would you like to tell them?
I am humbled to be considered a role model for Palestinian women. I want to tell Palestinian women (really all minority women) that the future of our sons and daughters depends on us. Our voices (regardless whether or not we agree with everything said) need to be heard. Let us not buy into the “one voice” campaign that lumps us into a monolithic brand. Let us celebrate our voices, our differences, and our achievements (however big or small). I want us to lift each other up. It is not a competition; it is a collaboration of our talents. I want to tell them that I am rooting for them. That I want them to succeed. That when I hear about their accomplishments, I am proud and grateful for all of our opportunities.
As an author, you’ve made yourself accessible through social media. How does social media fit into your writing life?
When I reflect on having over 16,000 fans on Facebook, it astounds me. Social media has been such a great tool to connect to readers and people who are interested in my work. It has been an excellent outlet for discussion and for people to reach out to me. It gets overwhelming keeping up with it at times.
The greatest benefit to having social media is connecting with readers from all around the world whether in Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, the U.K. or Canada (to name a few). It has proven to be an eye-opening experience to hear from readers about what the novel means to them. I encourage readers to reach out!
[bctt tweet=”I want my words to help people feel, because as along as we can feel for others, we are more willing to accept and help one another. “]
Tell us something nobody would guess about you.
I love working out and lifting weights. I work out several times a week and push myself to increase the weights. I will not tell you how much I bench, but it can sum up to a whole person. For my size, I think it surprises people, and I have seen some raised brows at the gym. I love it.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished the memoir When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Wonderful book!
This interview has been edited for lightly for clarity and length.