In the world of literary fiction, it is sometimes said that there is no absolutely original work; an author can only bring their unique approach to a pre-existing tale. If this is the case, TU Creative Writing professor Keija Parssinen is certainly using a unique piece of inspiration. Her upcoming work of fiction, “I Sing of You”, builds upon the story of “Majnun Layla”, an Arabic poem cycle about “the madness of obsessive love.”
“I Sing of You” uses a contemporary setting to discuss the ‘special relationship’ that has long existed between Saudi Arabia and America, following two families’ involvement in the American Oil Company from the 1950s oil boom all the way through to a counterfactual attack in the 21st century.
The narrative is comprised of three interwoven threads. The first is that of “The Lover,” Ada Hale, a young American newlywed returning to Dhahran, the Aramco compound where she grew up. The second thread is “The Executive,” Ghassan Al Shamsi, an Aramco executive whose declining health prompts him to request that a popular Arabic radio program recount his story of two star crossed lovers. The third thread then is “The Poet,” the broadcasted story told in the style of “Majnun Layla,” translated as “Layla and the Madman”.
It is a story about many things: “the insistent human desire to connect across cultures and what happens when that desire threatens cultural norms, the lasting impact of American imperialism in the Gulf and Saudi influence abroad and finally, the internal conflict created when professional and political ambitions supersede personal relationships.”
Professor Parssinen, despite having been born in and living her pre-teen years in Saudi Arabia, first became familiar with the story of “Majnun Layla” after attending a writing retreat that piqued her interest towards books “in conversation with works that have come before.” In the same vein as Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”, a retelling of “Mrs. Dalloway”, or Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”, which sets the Odysseus tale against the backdrop of the Civil War, Parssinen looked to Arabic language epochs for inspiration. The “Majnun Layla” story, she explained, falls under the category of ‘Virgin Poetry’, telling the story of two lovers whose love is thwarted and thus never consummated.
The translation she read, by Qassim Haddad, adapts the story into a fleshed-out love story, literally. Professor Parssinen said that this translation not only adapted the story in a more “realistic, contemporary” manner, but that the the liberties taken by Haddad in translating the story in both verse and prose gave her the freedom to use prose poetry in her own retelling. This prose poetry, offers a “lyrical quality to language,” but that the difficulty falls in making that language “tight and evocative.”
Professor Parssinen elaborated on the joys of having an omniscient storyteller, and yet an unreliable one. An example of the storyteller’s speech included, “I learned this from the birds and the rats, but also from this old man who lives in Seven Oaks outside of London.” The “storyteller knows everything, but you’re not quite so sure about what he’s telling you.”
Of the three narrative threads, Parssinen explained that Ada’s was the one she was struggling the most with. Ada’s story has to “carry the action. A lot of scenes have to be rendered, a lot of information given.” Her story is essentially linear, taking place in the two weeks after the counter-factual attack, necessitating tight dialogue and action. The executive, by comparison, is proving much simpler. His sections are told like a memoir, granting Parssinen the much-coveted freedom of retrospection in his musings.
Professor Parssinen, when asked how the experience of writing her previous novels affected her approach to “I Sing Of You”, said that her past novels gave her a “good grasp on what good storytelling requires.” With this knowledge she felt like she could take more risks with form and structure.
When it comes to what “sets great writers apart from good writers,” Parssinen cited the desire to “always push yourself to do something new.” In her own quest to be the best writer possible, the Creative Writing professor and award-winning author hopes that the risks she’s taken in “I Sing Of You” will pay off.