Ordinarily it’s tough enough to become a published author. Just convincing a publishing house to glance at a manuscript is the first in a long line of hard-to-jump hurdles. But it seems that having a book published is even harder for Dubai’s would-be literati – expats writing in English, at least.
As Isobel Abulhoul, a partner in local publisher Jerboa Books and managing director of Magrudy’s, admits: ‘We set up Jerboa because we were concerned that there aren’t enough opportunities for Emirati writers. The key focus is to publish them, particularly in Arabic.’
For Dedra Stevenson (pictured), a native of Alabama who has been resident in Dubai for 20 years, this isn’t good enough; so she decided to set up the Emirates Literary Group (ELG) in response. Stevenson, who moved to Dubai after marrying an Emirati and has UAE citizenship, blasts what she perceives as a lack of support for Dubai-based authors writing in English. She argues that the country’s English-speaking expats have a unique ability to write about the culture and lifestyle here to educate Western audiences. But she says local publishers all but ignore this potential.
‘We really don’t have the feeling that somebody is out there for us,’ she tells Time Out over a coffee. ‘For example, the literary festival [EAFL] doesn’t give a place to people like us. It brings everybody from outside the country. There’s an attitude that something imported is better than what you have before you. That’s a message I’d like to reverse through ELG. The group is an attempt for us to become stronger by joining forces.’
Stevenson, who self-published the first two books in her children’s fantasy trilogy, The Hakima’s Tale, and has had the third published by the US’s Eloquent Books, explains that the group is an opportunity for Dubai-based writers to share stories about their experiences of getting published, helping each other achieve that end. Around half of the group is already published.
Stevenson also suggests that more Emiratis should write in English. ‘It’s a huge goal of mine to persuade Emiratis to join our group,’ she says. ‘Arabic is a beautiful language and is very respected by me, but English is the international language of entertainment and if you want the rest of the world to know [the truth] about you, you have to write in English.’ She argues that most of the locals here know about US culture because of its TV shows and films, many of which are based on books. ‘If you don’t write about yourselves, someone else is going to write about you, and it won’t be something you like,’ she adds.
Contrary to what Stevenson says, Abulhoul – who is also festival director for EAFL – tells us that including local authors in the festival is a ‘huge achievement that we’re very proud of’. There were 30 Emirati writers out of a total of 106 authors that took part this year. While this suggests Emirati authors are given precedence (whether rightly or wrongly), that doesn’t mean expat authors have been banished. Julia Johnson, a local British-born author, featured in the fringe festival the first time round and made it to the festival proper this year. She’s been a published author since 1987. And while Jerboa Books does publish a majority of Emirati authors, there are exceptions, such as Linda Davies, another Brit who has enjoyed success here with her Djinn series of kids’ books. However, Davies had already been published in the UK long before she came to Dubai.
So it seems that the region’s aspiring expat authors are caught in a vicious circle. Certainly they need to prove themselves to be taken seriously and invited to take part in the literary festival. Quite rightly, there’s no automatic route in just because you live in the UAE – you need the talent to have been published and made sales. But how do you get published when local publishing houses are self-consciously looking elsewhere?
This is probably where ELG is most useful. Creating an opportunity to advise and support local writers shows the kind of initiative these people will need. Stevenson herself has a lot to teach – she is adept at
self-promotion. After all, if she weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading about her right now.
Emirates Literary Group meets once a month. To join, email email@example.com.