At age 14, Mai Al-Nakib stole a book off her older sister’s shelf. That book was James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” a famously challenging modernist novel that her sister had been assigned at college.
“It wasn’t an easy read, no doubt,” Al-Nakib tells New Lines’ Lydia Wilson. “But it spoke to me. It really resonated.”
Now an award-winning novelist, she credits Joyce as a major influence on her as a budding writer.
“I was beginning to have a sense that writing was the thing I wanted to do,” she explains. “And here was an audacious young teenager coming into his own as a writer. And the text itself was incredibly experimental and it kind of pushed my sense of what I’d been reading my whole life.”
But it also resonated on a deeper level. In a piece published in New Lines’ summer print edition, she ponders how Joyce’s experiences as a young man growing up in colonized Ireland reflected her own as a young woman coming of age in 1970s and ’80s Kuwait, at the end of the country’s “golden age.”
“The second layer that really drew me to that novel was how critical Stephen [the protagonist] was of his environment, church, nation and family, and those ties resonated so much with me growing up in Kuwait,” she says. “Joyce’s Ireland appeals way beyond the borders and boundaries of Ireland. And so they spoke to me all the way to Kuwait when I was 14.”
“Joyce’s Ireland appeals way beyond the borders and boundaries of Ireland. And so they spoke to me all the way to Kuwait when I was 14.”
“The best stories, the ones that are immortal, are the ones where it doesn’t matter when they were written,” she adds. “It’s a bit of a cliche to say, but it’s true, you know. It should resonate all the way through time and we can pick it up and connect. And that I think is the special thing that fiction can do.”
In the years since the teenaged Mai Al-Nakib first picked up the book, Kuwaiti society has changed a lot.
“Kuwait at the time was very open and liberal,” she reflects. “So it isn’t the place that it would become, where, in some ways, I think Joyce’s words are even more applicable.”
Produced by Joshua Martin