Interview with Shereen Malherbe, author of The Land Beneath the Light
1. What is the relationship between The Land Beneath the Light and Palestine?
The Land Beneath the Light is all about the exploration of life under occupation in Palestine. It was the key motivation for me in creating this novel. Life and history under occupation are being erased at an increasing rate and therefore my aim for this novel was to capture a snapshot of the Palestine that I see.
When I came to research the novel, the village that it is set in was erased from most satellite maps. That in itself was a sign for me that this is where I wanted my novel set. I stayed in this village, where my family still live and yet for outsiders it is like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist and there is life there.
2. How does your novel highlight the occupation of the Palestinian people?
The novel allows outsiders to witness and be emotionally connected to life in Palestine in a way that many will rarely get to experience. Even visitors to the country would not experience what life is like for Palestinians and this is another reason why I felt a narrative of Palestine in this way was essential.
3. Is Khadija, the main character in the novel, a fictional character or is she based on a real person?
Khadija is a fictional character. She isn’t based on one single person but is more of a representation of one young life and the struggles to come of age in a country under occupation and what complexities and hopes are involved in that.
4. Are all your novels somewhat connected?
I would say that yes they are. I tend to focus on empathy and creating a memorable connection with characters, and also to include different perspectives.
5. Is your writing somewhat therapeutic for the readers?
It could possibly be! I don’t impose how a reader should feel but instead try to create opportunities for their own interpretation.
6. What was the most difficult part of your writing this novel, knowing the horrible condition that the Palestinians are experiencing under the apartheid Israel?
I have spoken to journalists about this and the phrase I feel sums it up the most is that I wrote it furiously. It was during lockdown, when we were distanced from our family and loved ones and we lost my Tata. This emotional trigger and all her history and stories really encouraged me to write, literally night and day, to capture what I witness and what needs saving from Palestine and that for me was the catalyst, an urgency to capture it and to shine a spotlight on living under a current modern day occupation.
7. Does your novel, including The Land Beneath the Light, have messages for the Ummah?
The novel is steeped in Islamic theology because the strength of those living in Palestine can be deeply rooted in their faith. Therefore, this element is woven through the book and the characters’ lives in a way that Islam is woven through the lives of the Ummah.
8. If The Land Beneath the Light is read by Palestinian children, what do you want them to take from this novel?
That is an interesting question. What I would say to Palestinians and their children is we see you and the strength it takes to be Palestinian.
9. What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?
I believe you have to have passion first and foremost. If you aren’t passionate about what you are writing about, then it will be hard for anyone else to be. The second would be to read, study creative writing and write often to develop your voice, style and to increase your technical ability.
10. What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
Characters come first. I am moved by emotion and the intricacies if life. Plot comes next…
11. How do you develop your plot and characters?
I begin with a character’s main desire in the world and build around that. When I know my character well, I create the plot as their ultimate test!
12. What would you say to current trends on Palestine and how they’re viewed in social media.
I would echo that resistance is not a trend. All too often we see an uptake in people wanting to know about Palestine but often in ways that don’t engage with Palestinians. Empathy, equality and justice should always be at the forefront of our conscience and there is no better way to understand it than to be connected with those who are experiencing it.
You can find out more about Shereen Malherbe at www.shereenmalherbe.com and follow her on Instagram shereenmalherbe