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“Good writers don’t reflect reality,” wrote Kuwaiti writer and performance poet Nada Faris. “They change it.”
It was in 2003, when she was 17, that Faris decided she wanted to be a professional writer. She realized, however, that she lacked what would be her most important tools: knowledge and language. Thus, she enrolled in the College of Arts to tap into a reservoir of information, part of a ten-year journey to hone her craft.
With unparalleled focus and determination, Faris put a plan in place with specific avenues towards reaching her goal: pursuing degrees in English and literature from Kuwait University to acquire the knowledge she sought, reading voraciously to enrich her vocabulary, experimenting with genres and literary forms to develop her writing voice, and working on her public speaking skills by hosting cultural events. She also helped organize and launch ‘English Day’, an annual event at Kuwait University that celebrated literature. She probed ideas and opinions, churning out hundreds of poems, articles and short stories. Several were published in print and online media.
Writings about Kuwait in English were not common, however, and existing literary terms did not accommodate Faris’ ideas, identity and experiences, which is why she coined the term ‘Anglowaiti’ to define herself. ‘Anglo’ refers to English, while the suffix ‘waiti’ comes from Kuwaiti. Carving out this term arose from a need to make the field of literature in the country more inclusive. Anglowaiti writers can often feel isolated due to their preferred language choice, and Anglowaiti literature offers them a sense of belonging, serving to encourage those – the expatriates as well as Kuwaitis who study in private schools and universities – who cannot participate in the conversation due to the language barrier imposed by a lingua franca.
Faris made the conscious decision to write in English to reach a global audience, and to avoid risking the nuances of her work getting lost in translation.
Writing for Change
Recognizing an urgent need to address the issues arising from a fragmented and multilayered society, Faris strives to bridge the divide created by racism and xenophobia by targeting different audiences – nationals, expatriates, students in public and private schools, children, adults etc. – through various mediums.
She strongly believes that art, especially writing, is a tool with which one can change reality and the course of history, if one only seized the opportunity to do so.
I believe in my power
And I will ensure that my role in the cosmic canopy
Will be a positive one.
– Excerpt from ‘Greater Than Me’, performed at TEDxShuwaikh, Kuwait, March 2016
In 2010, Faris was invited to participate in Kuwait’s first national slam poetry competition. Unfamiliar with this realm of poetry, she did her research and performed, terrified at the thought of being judged. She needn’t have worried; her performance won first place.
It was a defining moment in her life. Here was physical evidence that her writing had an impact; it was palpable from the cheering crowd, the gushing feedback and of course the win. It shifted her perspective on writing. It was no longer for herself, but a way to empower the audience with knowledge that would make them think, question and discuss.
Her award-winning poems include ‘Facebook Intellectuals’, which criticizes the superficiality of modern-day intellectuals who rail against the status quo on social media rather than taking up activism, and ‘Stasis is the Mark of the Dead’, a philosophical poem on identity.
As part of her strategy of first establishing herself as an Anglowaiti writer in Kuwait, she chose to self-publish Before Young Adult Fiction, a collection of short stories, poems and articles that reflected her community and helped her shape her writing voice. By weaving social themes, questions and messages into the book, Faris tackles socio-political issues rampant in the national narrative. For instance, in the short story A Melancholic Superhero she highlights glaring creases in the fabric of local society with themes of fear, paranoia and prejudice.
Her book Fame in the Adriatic, a young adult historical romance set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance, was serialized in City Pages in 2013. She chose the genre and historical context to disguise a social commentary on Kuwait.
2013 was a breakthrough year for Faris. On completing Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah’s creative writing programme, she was nominated to represent Kuwait at London’s Shubbak Festival. Later that year, she was once again selected to represent Kuwait at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP). The esteemed programme, also known as the United Nations of Writers, is a ten-week creative residency for internationally established and emerging writers, the alumni of which includes Kuwaiti writer Taleb al-Refai.
Faris continues to participate in slam poetry competitions and perform at cultural events. Some of her past performances were at the Kuwait Writing Club’s open mike featuring Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin and the Riyadh Writing Club, the Kuwait International Book Fair, Word of Mouth Kuwait’s poetry event, GUST‘s Poetry Night, The Divan’s Debate Tournament, as well as several local schools and universities.
Faris’ book Fountain of Youth is a semi-finalist in Vine Leaves 2016 Vignette Collection Award and will be published in 2017. Animal Instinct is a compilation of performance poems that will be published by The Operating System in 2017.
Shifting Cultural Climate
When Faris first decided to take writing seriously, cultural events and opportunities to grow in the arts were few and far between. But alongside her contribution to Kuwait’s literary scene, a simultaneous movement has developed in Kuwait over the past few years, revealing its thirst for the arts. Cultural centres are cropping up all over the country, along with several initiatives offering individuals the platform and environment to read, write, discuss or perform. An exciting development has been the AlMultaqa Prize. Launched by Kuwait’s Cultural Circle in partnership with the American University of Kuwait in 2015, it is the Arab world’s first international award for collections of short stories in Arabic. Faris is on the board of trustees.
“Art is borderless. It’s what we do with it that has the borders.”