Anbara Salam: an Emerging Voice on the Historical Fiction Horizon

Anbara Salam, author of two historical novels, Things Bright and Beautiful (Penguin, 2018) and Belladonna (Berkley, 2020), was born to a Scottish mother and a Palestinian father. She was named after her great-grandmother, Anbara Salam Khalidi, a celebrated Lebanese feminist and writer. Salam cherishes the old family photographs with her great-grandmother. She thinks that this relationship might have set the achievements’ bar high. But she is soaring over it admirably, having earned a PhD in Theology, a Research Associateship at Oxford, and currently working on her third novel.

Although her father is a Muslim, Salam studied Christian theology for her PhD research, and no doubt, her academic interest has influenced her writing, as seen in both her novels. She is fascinated by all kinds of religious expression, but especially the intersection between grand ideology and personal decision-making. Salam believes that, “Although somewhat difficult, if not impossible, to study history without considering how religion has affected both public and private life, as a novelist, I feel it’s essential to reflect religiosity and its integration into people’s lived experiences.” This she does admirably in her writing.

Salam’s first novel, Things Bright and Beautiful, is set on a remote Pacific island, where a young woman, Bea, and her preacher husband must endure the hardships of life in an impoverished and inhospitable island. There are rumors of evil spirits haunting the island, devil chasers, and nightly noises from the church. Amidst these, Bea contends with the growing fever of her husband’s insanity and an irritating uninvited house guest. Bea has to fight for her existence. This gripping novel was made possible by Salam’s personal experience of spending six months working in one of Vanuatu’s islands in the South Pacific.

Salam set her next novel, Belladonna, in a Catholic high school with teenage characters in the 1950s in a small Connecticut, U.S.A., town, and in Italy at an academy on the grounds of a silent convent. While she “confesses” that she did not travel to the locations, she has spent a lot of time in Switzerland, so she drew inspiration from the natural beauty of that part of the world. She says, “I did a great deal of research for the novel, including watching old home movies on YouTube and reading local newspapers through online archives.” Salam had initially wanted to write about the Connecticut flood of 1955 and spent months researching it, but in the end, “It did not fit the timeline, and so the whole section had to be removed!” Yet Salam, in the novel, has captured remarkably well the life and mannerisms of Americans, particularly Catholic high school teenagers, in the 1950s in a small North American town.

The two main characters in Belladonna, teenagers Bridget and Isabella, are students at a Connecticut Catholic high school. Bridget is smitten with pretty Isabella and goes to some length to gain Isabella’s confidence and gets close to her. While Bridget and her Egyptian mother are mostly ignored in the small town, Isabella helps Bridget mingle with the in-crowd. Yet the other socialites remain aloof, and include Bridget in games, if at all, as a timekeeper. They even call her, to her astonishment, an “oriental pearl.” Nevertheless, Bridget is thrilled when, upon graduation, both Isabella and she are selected to study art history at a prestigious academy in Italy, for she would then have Isabella to herself. Isabella makes other friends, particularly a nun of Italian-African parentage. Bridget feels disheartened upon realizing that Isabella has been keeping secrets from her. Other events occur that will impact the lives of the best friends.

Initially, Salam says, “I wanted to write about longing and the anguish of unrequited love. When I explored ideas for the story, what struck me was the entitlement of unrequited love – the sense that someone is ‘owed’ affection just through the force of their longing. As my ideas progressed, I wanted to consider this entitlement further by exploring racial prejudice and the exploitation of white-passing privilege.”

It would seem Salam loves to travel, for she has visited many interesting areas of this world. Once, she rode alone on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Mongolia! She mentions, “I found it was an incredible trip! I was working in Japan and decided that at the end of my contract, I would take the ‘long way round’ to come back to the U.K. So, I flew to Beijing and then took the train through China to Russia including a week of hiking in Mongolia. At one point, I had four continuous days on a train, and I used it as a chance to read about the history of the route, in particular, To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway, by Christian Wolmar.” Salam found it to be a fascinating read about a remarkable feat of engineering and social history. She says, “Although I was initially nervous about undertaking the trip alone, I would do it again in a heartbeat, although this time I wouldn’t book the first leg of the journey in a third-class cabin, as it was not for the faint of heart.”

For her next offering, Salam’s work-in-progress is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1920s. She says, “I have found it challenging to write fiction based in a real city that I know since there is a tricky balance to strike between accuracy and artistic license.”

Anbara Salam is undoubtedly an up-and-coming novelist with fresh ideas and varied views, and one certainly to watch for in the literary prize lists. I would agree wholeheartedly with what she once wrote, “My family is now big and blended – with four siblings and in-laws and step-parents and step-siblings – we’re Muslim and Christian and Jewish and noisy and baffling, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.1” This thought should blend into all our ways of life.

 

  1. Ref: 10 Things I’d Like My Readers To Know About Me by Anbara Salam (https://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/anbara-salam-things-bright-and-beautiful-1148494.html)

 

About the contributor: Waheed Rabbani is a resident of Ontario, Canada, a historical fiction novelist, and a member of the HNR review team.

 


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