Today, we’re excited to share this interview with our 2021 Summer Short Story Award Winner, Sherine Elbanhawy! Elbanhawy’s “Night Stencils” was selected by Kristen Arnett, and published on The Masters Review in March. Read the story, and then sit down with the author below:
With a context-specific piece, we can’t help but wonder about the author’s background—what aspects of “Night Stencils” border on autobiographical, or at least, have you spent much time in Egypt?
Although I was living in Egypt during the Revolution, this story isn’t autobiographical. I’m bearing witness to the many men and women in Egypt and abroad who believed in the Egyptian Revolution. Many of them lost their lives, were imprisoned, or have been forced into exile. Egyptians of all ages and classes were at the forefront of the protests, believing in a better future, believing that their voices mattered and that they could create change. I want to tell their stories.
One aspect that lends depth to Hoda as a third-person narrator is her grasp of history and context. What sort of research did you have to do, if any, to help us see the world through Hoda’s eyes?
I know Tahrir and the surrounding area well; I can close my eyes and navigate the streets with Hoda. Having said that, my process always involves a lot of research, and I always have much more material than I need. So although I’ve lived in Egypt and walked the streets a thousand times, I still like to prop up my memory with facts. For this story, I always carried a map of downtown Cairo with me. While writing, I surrounded myself with books like Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution; The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz; Samia Mehrez’s The Literary Life of Cairo/The Literary Atlas of Cairo; and many books on the monuments and history of Cairo. These are all works that would quite probably be on the bookshelves of a historian like Hoda. Surrounding myself with books while I write—not the first draft, but the revisions—nudges me forward. I open a page here, take a break, read a passage, then I return to my story with a better grasp of the details I want to include. I become wholly immersed in the characters and their lives… I know every moment, every incident and reaction, but I choose to include only the elements that enrich the story.
The first iteration of this story was written in the first person, and although it’s Hoda’s very personal narrative, I feel that the third-person perspective allowed the story of Cairo to exist in parallel to Hoda’s. It’s very much a story of place, too, and how the city transformed and embodied the change that people were experiencing.
The tension between a person and place is a dominant theme in many of my stories, how characters live incongruously or in line with a place, and how it affects every aspect of their existence.
I also explore how time changes in relation to space and how it morphs with memory and political occurrences. When does time stand still for a city or a person, and when does it rush by and not allow for grief to settle, or mourning to occur? For many Egyptians, the page of the Egyptian Revolution/Arab Spring was turned/overturned too quickly, and the expectation was to move on without pause. All these changes affected our lives.
I love the tension between this almost-classic “art vs more prolific professions” that occurs at the family level here and the greater story of how that tension shows up on levels far outside the family. What value do you see in including Hoda’s family storyline here?
Hoda’s family story is a common one in many Egyptian households. There is a deep-rooted belief that livelihood and economic independence can only be achieved through traditional professions. There is so much pressure on the young to succeed academically and become employable. Only recently have parents started to accept the possibility that alternative careers can be rewarding as well. Still, the class divide means that often the only path to social ascent is through professions that offer stable or lucrative jobs.
My favorite part of “Night Stencils” is that it’s this serious literature combined with a really cool contemporary bit: graffiti. Hoda is just badass, but that’s not even all of it; what she’s doing has huge ramifications. Tell us about the relationship between art and social meaning in both this story and your own work as an author.
Graffiti was one of the most significant forms of expression during the Revolution; people took over the walls of Cairo to express their feelings and produced beautiful artwork, memorials to martyrs, and daring statements.
This feeling that the streets belonged to the people, not the State, was empowering and inspirational; it also led to a lot of social activism and community participation: cleaning the streets, painting the sidewalks, colouring steps/benches/satellite dishes … all different ways of repossessing public space.
There’s always a sense of a gated existence under the State. All these manifestations during the Revolution spoke to this idea of occupying space, having access, and becoming a part of the country’s political fabric. It also spoke to the youth, who make up the majority of the population but don’t see themselves reflected in any of the high-ranking government officials.
As a westerner, I feel like somewhat of a voyeur while reading this story. How much of “Night Stencils” treads in the everyday world of Cairo society, and how much does it differentiate itself from even non-western readers? In other words, how much of a rebel is Hoda?
As the great Toni Morrison said, “The function of freedom is to free someone else,” Egyptian women of all classes have a long history of community leadership, activism, and resistance to oppression. For example, one hundred years ago, women of all classes resisted British colonialism which led to the 1919 revolution. Those before us, not just in Egypt, paved the way for where we are today. Hoda is one story; there are many more; she is one of the many courageous women that lives amongst us. Her grief forced her to become more of a rebel, but she is one of many.
Is there any way to read this her fear as a non-political piece? It’s characters and world are so rich and nuanced, and yet you can’t ignore the political threads without the whole piece coming undone. Tell us about your relationship to writing and politics.
I don’t think I can untangle politics from writing… every story has a political motivation. Like many writers, I believe in writing as a form of resistance, of occupying space, of changing the narrative. Like Elif Shafak says, “If you are a writer from Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Egypt, you don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. You can’t say, ‘That’s politics. I’m just doing my work.’”
In Egypt and many similar places around the world, the reality is that those in power are the ones who are writing—or rewriting—history; the people need to write their stories, too, so that other narratives find a voice. People need to document how they remembered, experienced, believed, lost, and grieved.
This story is further complicated by the fact that Hoda’s night work is informed by her keeping Ali’s memory alive. How do you think grief informs our passions or risk-taking behaviour? Does this theme show up in any of your other work?
Grief is a difficult monster and manifests itself differently depending on the person and the moment. I think Hoda felt compelled to grieve in the way she did; there were no alternatives for her. The mother whose son is martyred has a deep-seated place in the Egyptian psyche; it is a state of being that has many religious connotations/storylines and even goes back to ancient Egypt with the story of Horus and Isis.
What—if any—media ancestors does “Night Stencils” have? What kind of literary influences inform it, and what legacies is it tapping into? And/or in what respects is it doing its own thing?
Egyptian literature is part of a tradition of post-colonial literature created in resistance to the many forms of colonial oppression and injustice. Contemporary narrative has been dominated by the struggle between the people and the State, reflecting the various political ideologies of nationalists, leftists, secularists, and Islamists. After 9/11, capitalism and neoliberalism became the dominant force in a world inundated with Islamophobic narratives. All these shifting ideologies have changed people and place in Egypt and have affected all Muslim majority nations, especially in the SWANA region by justifying military expansionism. The stories of the people are lost beneath the tide of slogans. The evolution and transformation of the city—historically, artistically, and physically—becomes diluted and diminished, like a newspaper headline relegated to a bottom corner in an ineligible small font.
I read eclectically from all over the world. So many writers have inspired me and raised the bar like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who always puts words to my thoughts before I even know I had them; her values and stories align in so many ways with the stories I would like to tell, I love her sense of humour too, “I like politics and history and am happiest when having a good argument about ideas.” For each revision of “Night Stencils,” I turned not only to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but also to Akhil Sharma, Elif Shafak, Colm Tóibín, and Yiyun Li, not just for inspiration but for lessons in craft, tone, and lyricism.
You have to come up with a soundtrack for the “Night Stencils” movie adaption. What songs or type of music is on it?
Definitely Um Kulthum’s patriotic songs from the 1960s and ‘70s but also music from an Arabic production of Les Misérables that was staged during the Egyptian Revolution. It was very moving, and when I listen to the soundtrack, I definitely see Hoda roaming the dark, oppressive streets of those Cairo nights, painting her stencils and mourning her son.
Have you written more of Hoda, and if so, when do we get to read it?
Hoda is one of the main characters in my first novel and one of my most beloved. In the novel, we meet an older Hoda, one whose perspective has shifted a little with the passage of time. I put a lot of effort into my characters, even the secondary or peripheral ones, and many have outgrown the novel and, like Hoda, have continued their lives outside of it, splintering off into their own storylines, too limited by the novel and the complex life of its main protagonist. I’m currently revising the manuscript, and I hope to start sending it to publishers after the summer.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw