G. Willow Wilson - Woman of two worlds

G. Willow Wilson’s latest book describes herculture shock in Egypt and her romance withfellow teacher Omar, now her husband. — Pic byAmber FrenchG. Willow Wilson’s latest book describes herculture shock in Egypt and her romance withfellow teacher Omar, now her husband. — Pic byAmber French

G. Willow Wilson’s books show both beauty and hard truths of life in the Middle East.

WRITER G. Willow Wilson is used to standing out, whether as a white American in her adopted country Egypt, or as a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman in her Seattle home in America.

“I’m like a dual foreigner,” she says on the telephone, while putting the younger of her two daughters, three-month-old Safeya, to sleep.

Yet straddling two cultures has helped the 31-year-old bring out three critically acclaimed books in the same number of genres: a graphic novel Cairo, a memoir The Butterfly Mosque and last year’s Alif The Unseen, her first novel, which has been named one of the top books of 2012 by The New York Times and Washington Post.

“There are some days you want to look and be like everyone else. It’s less tiring, but it’s also wonderful as a writer to take one step back,” she says.

Wilson, who never uses her first name (Gwendolyn), has published several graphic novels with big names such as DC, Vertigo and Marvel, but first captured comics readers’ attention in 2008 with Cairo, an exquisite depiction of the clash of cultures in the Middle East. Published by Vertigo, it was nominated for an Eisner, the comics industry’s equivalent of an Oscar.

Two years later, Grove Press published The Butterfly Mosque, a lyrical memoir of the writer’s time in Egypt, where she worked as a high school teacher and occasional stringer for periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly from 2003 to 2007.

The book covers her culture shock in a city steeped in tradition but sans American supermarkets, and also follows her romance with fellow teacher Omar, now her husband.

However, what really won the rave reviews was her candid discussion of why she converted to Islam – a year before moving to Cairo, while doing an Islamic Studies course at Boston University – and how she tried to negotiate a space between the culture she came from and the life she adopted.

“The Middle East is a part of the world that Americans are very unfamiliar with and suspicious of,” says Wilson, who moved back to the United States with Omar in 2007 so as not to lose touch with her family and friends. “I thought this could be a book about the difficult things about being a convert and a Muslim in a post-9/11 world.”

The daughter of two atheists, she decided in her late teens that Islam fulfilled her need for a monotheistic faith. Her family was and is supportive – her father is an engineer, her mother is in finance and her younger sister is an epidemiologist – but she finds the wider American public less tolerant.

This negative perception is fuelled by the efforts of a few bad apples, whether terrorists or some of the regimes in the Middle East that suppress free speech and human rights. Wilson does not shy away from these issues and brings them up determinedly, especially in Alif The Unseen, a fantasy tale set in the reality of the Internet-fuelled Arab Spring (the book was reviewed in October in these pages).

Topical now, the novel was a hard sell back when she started writing it in 2010. As an eyewitness to the growing online community in the Middle East, she wanted to write about the development of “Blogistan”, where people could speak freely about political topics. However, she was unable to convince the editors of The Butterfly Mosque, who “didn’t understand how essential these communities were becoming”.

So she put it in fiction instead. “We open our minds in a way for fiction that we don’t for non-fiction,” she says.

The manuscript was sent to her agent in January 2011, as protesters occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a major step in removing the government of then president Hosni Mubarak. It was a tough time, as she and Omar worried about the family members he left behind, and also coped with becoming new parents – their first daughter Maryam was born in February.

Her in-laws stayed safe and with things more settled now, she is thinking of moving back to Cairo in a few years once the girls are older.

“I imagine we’ll be back full-time, probably in a couple of years. Obviously for my husband, there’s family and history, and for me, there are things I came to love about Egypt and North Africa.

“And it’s easier to be a foreigner in a foreign country than in your own,” adds the writer, who has navigated a steep re-learning curve in the past five years, figuring out the mechanics of adult life in the US – “tracking down health insurance, renting an apartment, buying cars”, among others.

“It was very strange for me to come back and have culture shock in my own country,” she says. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network