Charlotte S. Gray, the author of “Fatima’s Room” (June 2017, Arc Light Books), was in Sudan teaching girls from 1991-1993. This was a period in that country’s history leading up to civil war. Sudanese optimism of post-colonial rule was giving way to religious extremism. And it’s a setting that inspired “Fatima’s Room,” Gray’s first work of fiction.
I spent a little time on the phone with Gray last month. Below is a condensed version of our conversation. And in case you missed it, here’s my review of “Fatima’s Room”.
Interview with Charlotte S. Gray
Q: Why did you write “Fatima’s Room”? And why now?
A: “It (‘Fatima’s Room’) has a long history. I couldn’t find the right form. It just took this long before I came around to writing this fictional story where it worked for me. First, I was more the academic person. I thought that I was doing some documentary or documenting, but then I decided it’s better to write it as a fiction story. And then use all the material I had. Which I have managed, I think, to put a lot into the novel. But, you know, there’s a fine line to thread there. You don’t want to put too much stuff about a culture. The story has to move along, too, so you have to find a balancing way.”
Q: How did you balance between story and giving readers a sense of the culture and religion of Fatima and her family?
A: “I have a sense that a story must move on. I will tell the story, and I will feel how much I can put in without slowing it down too much. I mean like the female genital mutilation. How much could I tell about it? Well, I think I managed to tell quite a bit, but you can’t slow down the story too much. If the thing you’re telling helps shape who she (Fatima) became, then it belongs in the story. Otherwise not.”
A: “I think this room thing had a lot of advantages. I think you can say that it was a metaphor and that she was trapped. But it also had other advantages. In fact, she was quite happy there. She finally had a little peace to herself and could think her own thoughts and wasn’t being chased up to do house chores. This was her chance also to find out more about herself. I had no idea I was going to talk anything about sexual discovery. In a way, that just came from Fatima, from describing her being in that room and suddenly it seemed completely natural and that it had to be there. And, actually, it’s a very important subject, so I’m glad it came to me. Because I think for a woman like that, part of finding out who she is is to move into her own body and discover her sexuality. And then she understood suddenly better how she had been repressed.”
Q: Fatima is visited by various women, all who seem to have different opinions about a woman’s role in Sudanese culture. Did you intend to show Fatima being pulled in different directions by the women in her life?
A: “It’s just a realistic picture of how it is and how women function differently. So I’m just trying to give different kinds of characters to different women because these are different ways with how you cope with where you are and the various oppressions. And that’s how it was. And these women, of course, are very clever. You always have to be more clever if you’re the suppressed one because you have to figure out how to deal with the suppressor.”
A: “I knew this particular girl, and she told me about her family life and how the parents always screamed at her, ‘We’ll kill you! We’ll kill you!’ And all the way back I had this idea of the female rebel. And the ultimate thing you could rebel against as a female would be the patriarch.”
Q: The book takes place in a period of Sudanese history when things are getting worse for people, not better. But through Fatima’s grandmother’s recollections, we get a sense of how optimistic the Sudanese had been when the country first emerged from British colonial rule.
A: “I guess that is not an uncommon experience with a country that gains its independence and has such high hopes and, of course, especially for the women. Everything was going to get better. Women were going to be able to leave their homes, go out and work. And, of course, it went the other way.”
Q: What was that experience like for you as a teacher, witnessing the growing oppression of the young women you were teaching?
A: “I was an outsider and I could leave and thereby my experience is very different. That brings us to that whole discussion of whether I’m an insider or an outsider and whether I really have the right to write a book like this. Who are we to say something? That is one reason I’m careful to put it in the feminist context and that’s where it belongs. And where I talk out of solidarity.
Some people will argue, ‘Well, you shouldn’t even be writing about that because, you know, you just came and saw and left again.’ But I don’t accept that argument because after all, I think it’s a writer’s right and privilege and up to his or her skill to be able to enter the mind of people who are different or from somewhere else or from another time or another gender. I don’t agree that you can only write about people who are exactly from your own worldview or where you come from.”