Research Notes · 02/26/2021

Bride of the Sea

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Eman Quotah writes about Bride of the Sea from Tin House Books.

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In my writing, I’m obsessed with history and how we remember it, how societies tell their histories and what gets elided.

A journal article about the city of my birth, Jidda, Saudi Arabia, led me to write a story that reimagined the origins and demise of a long-lost women’s tradition. I’d never heard or read about the carnival called al-Qays before I read the article. But I wanted that history for myself. The only way to claim it was to make the details up.

A line in Tommy Orange’s There There referred to news of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein commissioning a Qur’an written in his own blood. What the — ? Wanting to know if it was true, I threw myself down a rabbit hole of internet research. Did Saddam really force a calligrapher to create a holy book using blood for ink?

According to Western media accounts, the answer is yes. I’m still not completely convinced.

For years, I recalled someone in my dad’s family telling me, when I was a kid, about an Egyptian comedian who was regularly thrown in jail between performances for his criticism of the government. Recently, I tried to research who the performer was and came up empty. Maybe it was Adel Emam? Maybe not. Still, I wanted this story of a man’s resistance through jokes to be true. So, I wrote about a fictional comedian’s incarceration.

Research fills in the spaces of what we didn’t personally experience. Fiction fills in the spaces of what the archives don’t, or can’t, tell us.

In my new novel, Bride of the Sea, I create a family history that is full of blank spaces. Years go undocumented. Motivations remain hidden.

The book spans about 1970 to 2018. Sometimes the historical events in the book are things I remember. I remember watching news about international airline hijackings in the 1980s. What years? I’m not sure. In my book, I put a hijacking on the TV in the background in a chapter that takes place in 1987. An airplane sits on the tarmac for days. That was a detail that felt true to me for the time, regardless of the exact years when such hijackings happened.

I remember the first Gulf War. I was there for it, there meaning I was in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. While writing my book, I fact checked the details of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm because memory only works so hard.

The abduction of a family friend’s daughter inspired my book. That makes me a third-hand witness to a central experience for my characters. I read research articles about the impact of family abduction on children. And I read gripping and moving online accounts by former missing children. Their personal histories are often distorted or not completely knowable even to them, because their family members have lied to them or because people don’t understand the trauma they’ve experienced.

How do we remember shared events, as families, as nations? As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, a popular narrative is that the tragedy brought a nation together. The timeline of my book is bifurcated by 9/11, and it’s impossible, in my mind, to tell the story of an Arab-American family over the past 50 years, as I do in my novel, without a nod to the war on terror and how it singled out Arabs and Muslims. Patriot Acts, a collection of personal narratives edited by Alia Malek, tells the harrowing stories of people who were wrongly detained, blacklisted, harassed. This book informed my novel, and I believe it is essential reading for Americans.

There’s a scene in my novel, a scene in a dream, in which the characters are trying to dig a grave. They dig and dig, and the hole keeps filling up. Now that I think about it, that scene feels like a metaphor for fiction, for uncovering the right details — from life and from history — with which to tell the story.

We keep digging and digging. But we can never reveal the whole story. And we can never completely bury the past.

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Eman Quotah is the author of the novel Bride of the Sea. She grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and other publications. She lives with her family near Washington, DC.