BackStory: Six Questions with Riham Adly
Author of Why I Left You That Day in a Pawnshop
What inspired you to write ‘Why I Left You That Day in a Pawnshop’?
There is a deep-rooted longing in me to the past my late grandfather used to tell me about. We’d sit for hours together, him recalling the golden days while I listened enviously, wishing I lived in the magical times he described. The Egypt I live in today has sadly changed a lot. I have a historical novel in the works set in the 1930’s and I’m launching a blog about the historical landmarks in Egypt.
What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? Who are your favourite longform historical fiction writers and why?
My favourite pieces are “Frau Roentgen’s Left Hand” by Anita Goveas and “Siren” by Fiona J.Mackintosh; both stories have that immersive quality in their narration, the kind that allows me to dive deep into the psyche of the characters, their emotional vulnerability and their strengths. I am in awe of how both writers have captured the historical era without ever resorting to specific dates like I usually do in my own fiction, but a great deal of this historical is universal knowledge. Not many are aware of Egypt’s rich history during and after the British occupation and monarchy rule.
My absolute favourite is author Ahdaf Souief, a fellow Egyptian national. Ahdaf has that knack I so much envy which is her ability to write about love and displacement regardless of the era. Her short stories which were mostly auto-biographical and her novel The Map of Love a finalist for the Booker Prize back in 1999 was what made me fall in love with historical fiction, especially that set in Egypt. My other all-time favourite is Australian author Kate Morton with her rich, double timelines.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece? How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Writing a historical piece in 500 words is no easy feat. I had to cut most of the narrative, but looking back on the final product, I think it’s tighter and reads a whole lot better.
The piece mostly focuses on the narrator’s longing and guilt. Downtown Alexandria is a favourite of mine, a lot of the landmarks I mentioned in the piece no longer exist. I visit every summer make it a point to ask the locals about every place I visit, but I had to look up everything to double-check, the Baudrout Café I mentioned — which had been a famous tea-room frequented by Alexandrians and Foreigners alike — no longer exists, and in its place stands a bank. Tram-lines still exit, Ramleh Station still exists and so does the infamous Nebi Daniel Mosque where Alexander the Great is allegedly buried under, but most of these now are non-functional or of limited use due to neglect.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
I usually write when a character calls out to me; have you heard of calling thoughts? Sometimes I wonder if the world I live in is dream, or perhaps a nightmare to be precise. Characters call on to me, they chose me to pen down their fears, regrets, and confessions.
This piece was a response to a writing prompt. The moment I read the word “Pawnshop” I heard the voice of my nameless narrator. I seldom write pieces from the point of view of men, but could not ignore this one. This is in a way my favourite and my least favourite part of the writing process, sometimes narrators I don’t want to talk to keep nagging and persisting. A couple of months ago I had an episodic flash piece “Why My Mother Loves the Color Black” published. A murder story about family honour. For months I dreaded writing this piece, a narrator first whispered in my ears in June, I kept resisting and postponing till October. Some stories just want to come out to the light regardless of what we want. I hope I’m not sounding like a mad witch of sorts.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
I’d love to live in the 1930s but I’d have to be an aristocratic girl to receive any proper education, but a lot of Egypt’s female artists hailed from this period.
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
I’m someone who carries a lot of guilt inside me, guilt, fear and the lack of forgiveness, it’s probably why I’m sick most of the time and why I attract guilty narrators.
Riham Adly is an Egyptian blogger/short story writer/translator. Her fiction has appeared in Afreada Magazine, Flash Frontier, Bending Genres, Connotation Press, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Arablit Quarterly and Vestal Review among others. In 2018 she was short-listed in the Arab-Lit Translation Prize.
Photograph of a vintage postcard of the Baudrot Café from a postcard, sourced with help from Zahraa Adel Awad.