Conversations in the Author's Corner: Leila Rafei
About the Book: When the Arab Spring breaks out in 2011, Sami is busy finishing school in Cairo and hiding his relationship with an American woman from his conservative mother, Suad. It's a task that's becoming impossible as events take a catastrophic turn.
But Suad won't be fooled—her son has been distant and she knows it's not about politics. Far away in the Nile Delta, she spends her days tending obsessively to her lemon grove, which is quickly becoming her last vestige of control. The only child who remains by her side is her daughter, but as she, too, gets involved with the protests, Suad realizes it won't last for long.
There's one person who knows exactly what's going on in the family, and she wishes she didn't. The maid, Jamila, already has too much to worry about as a refugee who's lobbying for resettlement, expecting a baby, and looking for her missing husband. All she wants is stability, and that her dreams won't be thwarted by the unrest sweeping a city she doesn't belong to—a city that doesn't even want her there.
As the country revolts against the regime it has always known, Jamila, Sami, and Suad find themselves caught in the whirlwind as they examine their own life choices and, in some cases, deal with the inevitable heartbreak that follows when revolution is not always what it seems.
About the Author: Leila Rafei was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and now lives in New York. Spring is her first novel.
Kiera Wolfe: You mentioned at our November reading that you had read a much earlier draft of this project with us back in 2017. What did the novel-to-be look like then, and how did it become the work it is today?
Leila Rafei: The pages I read for that event ended up being pretty close [to the final product]. That was one of the very few parts of those early drafts that made it to the final manuscript relatively intact. Before that, I had already rewritten the manuscript so many times. I originally wrote it in first person, and completely from a different character’s perspective. It was the first long form piece that I had ever taken on and for me, writing in first person made it easier to put words on the page. But then once I saw it, I said no, no, no way. And I just rewrote the entire thing.
KW: So the first draft was from Suad’s perspective?
LR: No, actually, it was from Rose’s perspective. I hadn’t really fleshed out the character of Suad yet for that first draft, but as I continued writing, she ended up being my favorite character. I wasn’t expecting that because my own life experiences are obviously very different from hers, as well as Jamila. But as I wrote those early drafts, I found little parts of my own experience shining through in ways I wasn’t expecting. In the end it turned out more true to the story I wanted to tell, despite those differences.
KW: The novel follows three principal characters: Sami, the student, his mother, Suad, and his girlfriend’s maid, Jamila. Though Sami would seem to be the center, that isn’t how it feels, reading it. There’s a lot of texture to the story and especially the stories of the women in Sami’s life, that bring them to the foreground. How did you come to this “three story” structure, especially knowing that Sami’s girlfriend Rose was the start?
LR: They were the characters that grabbed me the most as I wrote those early drafts. Especially Suad and Jamila. They ended up being more central to the final book than I had originally planned. I never would have thought that would be the case when I started.
KW: Something that overwhelmed me in the novel is the pressure and violation of privacy. From the opening sequence about doormen to Suad’s secret drawer, Rose’s diary, the photographer, the stacks of sunflower seeds and stalking pushing Jamila out of her home. How do you think about the private vs public in this story?
LR: Amid this massive, collective expression of frustration and anger with the regime, each character’s perception of what’s going on politically reflects their own particular background and how they express themselves in their private lives So for Suad, who would never publicly acknowledge her frustrations with her marriage and overall family life, it’s natural that she’d be critical of the protests. Meanwhile, Sami gets sucked into the protests unwittingly, similar to how he winds up in certain situations in his relationship with his girlfriend. And then there are the non-Egyptians, Jamila and Rose, two outsiders who have very different perceptions of what’s going on based on their backgrounds as a refugee and an expat, respectively. Jamila just wants to get by and pursue her resettlement case, which is a challenge given all the unrest and the discrimination she faces as Black refugee. Rose, on the other hand, very much has an opinion and is strident in expressing it, which reflects her privilege as a white American who knows she won’t face serious repercussions for doing so.
KW: The entire novel takes place over 18 days, right at the start of the Arab Spring. How did you come to the timeline of the narrative, writing a piece of historical fiction?
LR: I had wanted to write a novel for so long, but I was always overwhelmed with the thought of chronology. Where do I start? Where do I end? How do I cover such a span of time? But I realized that the Arab Spring itself, in Egypt, gave me that chronological structure naturally. It really did take 18 days from the start of the protests to Mubarak ultimately stepping down as president. I remember a line spray-painted on the wall outside my school, which is right in Tahrir Square, that said, “ALL IT TOOK WAS 18 DAYS.” So I decided to contain the story within that time frame -- 18 chapters for the 18 days -- which allowed me to focus on the characters’ internal lives while also getting across how fast everything unfolded politically.
KW: It’s interesting to see such different perspectives. Suad in denial, her daughter running a revolutionary Facebook page from her bedroom, Sami swept up in his own ideas. Jamila feels the most distinct in a way. What inspired you to start writing her story?
LR: When I started, I didn’t have the confidence as a writer to approach a character whose experience was so different. Jamila, for example, is a survivor of sexual assault and war who faces discrimination as a Black woman and refugee. How could I even begin to imagine her experiences? It was something I was afraid of touching. But I was able to draw on my past experience as a volunteer with a resettlement organization in Cairo, where I met a lot of women with stories similar to Jamila’s -- stories about living as a refugee in Cairo, working as housekeepers, being stalked and harrassed. So I drew on bits and pieces of those stories while remaining extremely conscious of my limitations as someone who did not personally have those experiences.
KW: The resettlement center is such a distinct setting in the novel. Jamila is forced to bare her trauma again and again, and I love the image of the stack of paper records she holds to externalize her trauma into an object she can feel safe holding, her “ticket out.” Was that your experience at the center?
LR: Yes, it felt absurd. You have a short amount of time to sit down with somebody and ask them about extremely personal things, especially the women, who often have to talk about sexual assault. And then there’s the absurdity of the resettlement officer’s own role being in charge of someone else’s fate, whether they get resettled or not, knowing it’s a long shot, knowing it’s a such a small chance. The process can be so random, just a matter of their file being picked up by the right person at the right time. It was weird and jarring, and I tried to reflect that in the novel through Jamila’s story. The absurdity of holding everything she experienced on paper in her hands.
KW: Yes, I love the sequence where the boys are mocking her and she pulls out her camera to take their picture. It’s a powerful shift from danger to the reclamation of power. Thinking, “this is something to be documented, to be used as a ticket out of here.” It stands in contrast to the scene with Sami being photographed with Rose and being devastated. How do you think about the idea of documentation in this time of strife, and how it can mean such different things to each character?
LR: Documentation really differs based on who is wielding it. The person behind the camera has the power. Photos were a big thing I saw in the revolution as well. There were people sent to Tahrir Square to intimidate protestors by taking their picture. It’s interesting from an American perspective, knowing more about surveillance and such, it’s a sinister thing. But it was a new idea [at the time] to have somebody following you and photographing you. What are they going to do with that? What is the point? What are they trying to say? It was an experience drawn from real life and demonstrated a broader dynamic between the person on one side of the lens and the other that was central to the political themes. And then there are the documents Jamila needs to support her resettlement case, which she spends the entire novel trying to chase down. But ultimately, it’s not clear whether those documents actually matter, or whether it’s just a way to make her run around town and jump through impossible hoops.
KW: For our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Can you talk to us about your path to publication and experience with Black Stone?
LR: The path to publication is much longer and more complicated than you would expect. I thought that writing was the hard part -- that if I just finished the novel, it would be easy to get published. But it really took many rounds of revisions and many rejections before that actually happened. I remember the moment I found out I had an offer from Blackstone. I was on a subway platform on the way to work in the middle of January, and got the message from my agent at the time, Kristy Hunter, who was very excited. After that, I had a lot of exciting calls with Blackstone’s team on publicity and cover design, which was the best part. I also worked with a great editor, Jennifer Pooley, to hone the manuscript before publication.
*Interview edited for clarity and additional content in collaboration with the author
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.