Interview with Longlisted Author Salha Obeid


When did you begin writing Spice Circle and where did the inspiration for it come from?

The first seed of the novel was sown in April 2020, at the height of the lockdown. I was attracted to the idea of one’s senses not functioning due to illness. Attracted and terrified at the same time…and maybe that crept into my subconscious in some way, and the character of Shama was born, a descendant of a family of spice traders, with her exceptional ability to smell, which is both a blessing and a tragedy. Later I thought of Shirihan and the various types of noses, as well as what could be implied by the senses. What if smell were a mirror of the spirit? Step by step, I began to dig deeper, until I located the ground upon which I would make the characters move and events would happen. The very clear character of Shirihan came later, by pure chance, when a friend was talking about the body of a suicide victim which he was examining in a particular location due to his work at the time. For him, the story was part of his daily routine, but for me, it was an inspiration for the means by which Shirihan starts passionately investigating death through corpses and sneaking into cemeteries to see the dead.

Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?

It took nearly two years, including working on the characters, writing the chapters and re-arranging them. After five or six further months of editing and proof reading, I sent the novel to the publisher. I wrote the first half of it in the UAE, between Sharjah and Dubai, and worked on the second half during a creative writing residency in the USA, as part of an international writing programme at Iowa University, which is where the novel was completed.

Do you have writing rituals?

I can’t really say that I have permanent rituals which I stick to rigidly. But I prefer to write in the daytime. I don’t like the idea of writing after the sun has gone down, unless I have to. I also like – and this is a subconscious thing – to write sitting beside water, or in a city which has a body of water, a sea or river, even if I can’t see them directly. This isn’t directly related to writing; it is more about feeling comfortable in a place where I will be doing things I love, among them writing.

What is your next literary project after this novel?

I am currently working on a new creative project, a mixture of narrative and other forms of writing. This is with the support of the Emirati Ministry of Culture, as part of their special programme of grants. I am enjoying experimenting with writing, creating characters, and travelling to a number of countries to do research, as the work deals with the history of music and how it affects the body and its movements, in the Emirates and the surrounding countries. The support and funding are linked to the stages of research and writing for a year. Then there will be a further stage when the work is sent to a publisher, either in the Emirates or abroad.