This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, starting with Fatin Abbas!
Fatin Abbas was born in Sudan, grew up in New York, and attended university in the UK and US. She is a graduate of the Hunter College (CUNY) MFA in Creative Writing Program, winning during her time there the Bernard Cohen Short Story Prize and the Miriam Weinberg Richter Award. Her fiction has appeared in Freeman’s, The Warwick Review, and Friction, and her non-fiction and review essays have appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation, Africa is a Country, and openDemocracy.net. She is a recipient of the Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholarship, and is at work on her first novel, The Interventionists.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I found out about the Retreat through the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio. Spending a week in Iceland writing and engaging with such renowned authors seemed like an amazing opportunity, and I applied immediately. I’m really grateful for the chance to connect with a community of writers in such a beautiful country.
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?
No, I haven’t participated in a retreat before, so I’m really excited to be taking part in this one!
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
I think what the Iceland Writers Retreat offers is this wonderful combination of location, contact with stellar authors, and community. The combination of location and literary community is especially appealing to me. I really look forward to meeting Icelandic authors and learning more about the country through its writers and its literature.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
In terms of my own writing, there are different streams of inspiration. 19th century novelists — Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Fyodor Dostoevsky — were my gateway into the novel. Postcolonial authors, from Chinua Achebe to Tayeb Salih to Jean Rhys and Arundhati Roy, are very important to me, in the way that they reflect my own relation to the world. Then there are the writers whom I’ve had the privilege to know and learn from: Peter Carey, Colum McCann and Claire Messud, whom I studied with, are all hugely inspiring both as writers and as people. But before all of these writers came along there were my parents. Both are big readers, and they passed on their love of books to me.
How has writing influenced your life?
Writing is the medium through which I’ve always made sense of myself and of the world around me. I became really involved with writing as a child, around the age of nine, when my family first moved from Sudan to the United States. I think it’s no coincidence that I became involved with writing then, because my family was going through so much upheaval. Writing provided a space through which I could make sense of all these changes: new country, new culture, new challenges. As an adult writing continues to play that role in my life. There’s a phrase that Colum McCann, by way of John Berger, uses to describe himself: ‘I’m a patriot of elsewhere.’ That phrase is very apt in terms of capturing my own experience as someone who exists between places and cultures. Writing for me is about figuring out what that ‘elsewhere’ is, what it means to be a citizen or a patriot of that place which is no place and every place. I think it’s the task of writers to think about it, especially given the current political environment, in which there is this buckling down on nationalism and on borders, and when the privileges of citizenship and belonging are distributed so unequally. I like to think of that ‘elsewhere’ as another alternative, a more inclusive, open and equal one, and writing is my way of exploring that place.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
Time is a big challenge, I think it always is for writers. Writing is a slow process, and we live in a world of hurry. You need time to read, think, write, re-write, revise, to grow into your own wisdom as a person and as a writer. It can be challenging to slow down, to take your time for the benefit of the work, when everyone and everything around you is speeding by. But I think this is also why I value writing: for the way that it forces me to confront my own limitations, the limitations that time imposes on me, and to work through them. Writing is humbling, but at the same time it opens me up to my fullest possibilities.
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
Only a quotation from E.L. Doctorow, another writer I love, which has kept me going through my first novel, and which some of the first-time novelists out there may find encouraging: ‘[Writing a novel is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’