Interview with longlisted author Ahmed Zein
When did you begin writing Fruit for the Crows and where did the inspiration for it come from?
At the end of 2013, as I was putting the finishing touches to my novel Steamer Point before publication, I realised that I was not finished with Aden, a city which has always been a refuge for all sorts of people from different religions. It has been a pioneer in many initiatives in the region, and it still resists comprehension. To me, it’s an enigma rather than a city, rich and mysterious, and the writer’s imagination struggles to keep pace with it.
Steamer Point describes Aden under English occupation and ends on the final day of colonial rule, before the rebels come to power. At this point, the idea came to write another novel about Aden, which would not be a sequel, but an entirely new book, as if I had not previously written about the city. The novel would be set during the period of independence, when the political left were in power and the country became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a political experience the first of its kind in the Arab world.
After independence, the situation in Aden was extremely complex. There was a struggle, but not an obvious one, as in the days of English occupation. Violence was prevalent, but the violence was also unlike that of colonial days. It was an unfettered violence, in which sectarian, ideological and tribal issues were intertwined. Despite this, until the last moment of the left-wing period, Aden remained a refuge for communists and those fleeing from their countries, searching for a place with more freedom. At this time, the political scene was obscure, unsettled, full of slogans and promises of heaven on earth, but nothing of that was achieved. Instead, conflicts intensified more than they had under colonial rule. Under the leftists, Aden became a heaven for communists from all over the world, but this heaven very soon turned into a hell. The idea of writing a novel about all that seemed not just attractive, but extremely important, as it was a period full of secrets shrouded in obscurity.
Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?
The search for a vision for the novel and new perspectives from which to view events, along with research into the material, gathering it together and bringing it to life, and starting to write regularly, all took about four years and a few months. But when I write, I am calm and unhurried, as there is nothing pressing me to finish the book in a rush. This might seem like rather a long time. Of course, during the writing I would visit Aden whenever I went to Yemen.
How have readers and critics received it?
I would describe the reception by readers and critics as very good. More than eleven reviews about it have been published on important Arab platforms, paper and online, written by prominent literary critics. They have examined the novel from different points of view, focusing on matters crucial to me when I write, such as the subject matter and aesthetics of the novel.
What is your next literary project after this novel?
I have an idea and the vision for the novel is beginning to crystalise. For a year, I’ve been collecting material. I need time to start writing. However, it’s still much too early to reveal the outlines of this project.