Layla AlAmmar: Who Gets to Dictate How a Story Is Told?
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
This week on First Draft, Layla AlAmmar joins Mitzi to discuss her new novel, Silence Is a Sense, out now from Algonquin Books.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: One of the things the book investigates is that the main character, who is a refugee and a writer, is struggling because her editor wants the story in a certain way. It’s almost like refugee stories are a commodity, and they have to be shaped and presented a certain way.
Layla AlAmmar: Yeah, I think the central struggle between the protagonist and her editor is this idea of truth versus narrative. Josie, the editor, she wants a narrative. She’s an editor of this online magazine; her framework and her parameters for storytelling are quite specific. She wants the reader to click on the link and read the article. She knows what kind of assumptions readers have and what expectations they have, and her job is to cater to those expectations, because that’s how you run a successful magazine. You don’t run a successful media enterprise by challenging people’s expectations—you feed into them. That’s how it works. And so that’s where her motivation comes from. I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious, but that’s all she knows, and she expects the protagonist to be able to conform to that.
The protagonist doesn’t necessarily know the rules of this game. And that’s on the one hand, in order to convey her experiences, she’s not sure how to mold them into what Josie wants. And on the other hand, there’s a sense where she doesn’t even trust her own mind to make sense of these memories; she doesn’t trust the memories themselves. And so, she doesn’t trust her mind with being able to construct a narrative that is clean and tidy and has a beginning and a middle and an end, and a resolution to it that Josie and her readers can make sense of. The protagonist is trying to tell her truth, and truths are messy and complicated, and in many ways unresolvable.
So that’s the struggle there: who gets to dictate how a story is told? Is it the person giving the story, or the person who’s receiving it? The way that I wrote the protagonist is that I wanted her to be able to wrestle a little bit of that power away from Josie and to ask the reader, will you follow this protagonist? And will you let her tell her story the way she wants to tell it, versus the way you expect to receive it?
Layla AlAmmar is a writer and academic from Kuwait. She has an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. She was the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. Her debut novel, The Pact We Made, was longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, Silence Is a Sense, was published in Spring 2021. She has written for The Guardian, Lit Hub, and ArabLit Quarterly. She is currently pursuing a PhD on the intersection of Arab women’s fiction and literary trauma theory.