When he came into my office and said “Put it up here!” expecting a high-five, I knew sentiments about having a banned book in the Middle East had changed.
I gave my colleague a weak smile and turned back to the student sitting at my desk.
“I’m super excited for you,” he said, bouncing out into the hallway. “I’m going to read your book now.”
He was referring to the news story that had posted the night before, on the national blog. The same online daily that everyone in my my country of Qatar reads like the rest of the world peruses the Huffington Post. The breaking news was that my novel, the one without any sex, atheism or politics, had been banned for sale in the country in which it was set because it was about the country and her citizens.
Not everyone was as convinced as my enthusiastic colleague that the ban was a good idea. A quick scan of the comments section on the blog revealed a deep suspicion about the quality of the book and its author:
“The Author should thank the Ministry of Culture for the free publicity this book is receiving now. Otherwise it doesn’t really deserve any mention.”
I published Love Comes Later, the book in question, in the summer of 2012 as an e-book, funded as an independent author. American literary agents told me it was too foreign, too male, and therefore completely unsellable.
After two years of reaching out to book bloggers, 72 Amazon reviews, and several paperback editions, the Ministry of Culture in Qatar was telling me it was too racy to sell in public bookshops.
This was clearly a book without a home … a literary identity crisis.
“Virginia Commonwealth U. Professor’s Novel Is Banned in Qatar” read the headline in the “ticker” section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Only if you clicked on the link did you discover that said professor was on the Qatar branch campus of the university. Despite the mention of professor in the headline, the writer kept referring to me as “Ms.,” a title that conjured a version of me as a Harlequin romance writer, churning out bodice rippers at a desk in some moldy basement.
“But was this helping your sales?” Might be your question.
Well, that’s not a straightforward story either. The night that the news daily posted their piece, the Amazon ranking rose swiftly, climbing for about a week, peaking in the low 80s of top 100 paid listings for Family Sagas and Literary Fiction.
When I logged into my Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) sales report, however, I had yet another surprise. Yes, the notorious Love Comes Later, was selling steadily.
But also in equal measure was An Unlikely Goddess, a different novel that had nothing to do with Qatar. This was Sita’s story, an immigrant coming of age narrative about a South Asian girl growing up in the United States.
I’d done next to no publicity for this book, besides a small blog tour. Apparently a rising tide does lift all boats. Or in this case, some media attention does expose readers to all titles by an author.
I’m pleased not be in jail or to have lost my job due to the decision by authorities not to sell my book in the country where it was set. Both of these, and far worse, would have been the consequences – and still could be – in parts of the Middle East even five years ago. The congratulatory vibes from Arabs and Americans, the lowered voices asking where, by the way, can they get the book, are all indications of a changing ethos.
Leaving me with this odd cachet of having done something objectionable, but as an artist, which others find admirable. Whether or not this is enough to sustain interest in a story that was three years in the making, however, remains to be seen.
I would love to entertain your questions and comments in the comment section!