November 4th, 2021 (Sharjah, UAE): It was a 1906 Russian novel about revolutionary factory workers that first opened critically acclaimed Taleb Al Refai’s eyes to the world of other people’s lives and cultures.
During an interactive session on the opening day of the 40th Sharjah International Book Fair on Wednesday, November 3, the Kuwaiti novelist and ‘Cultural Personality of the Year’ of SIBF 2021, revealed how Maxim Gorky’s novel Motherforced him to think beyond the immediate world he was growing up in.
“I see another world through Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother. It was an eyeopener. It shook my boat on the river of life. It made me realise that there are other lives and other cultures too,” Al Refai said while reflecting on his literary career and the schools of thought that influenced his work over the years.
“I was like anyone else riding the boat of life. I was raised in a neighbourhood in Kuwait. My childhood was not any different to most other Kuwaitis until I read Mother. It shook my boat. I realised there were other people, different to Kuwaitis,” he added.
“The best way to learn about other people and their lives is by reading about them. It was an Arabic translation of Gorky’s Mother that started the process for me. Then came along other Russian authors like Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy who left a deep impact on me before others like Honoré de Balzac, Sigmund Freud and Ernesto Sabato joined in,” continued the short-story writer who worked as an engineer until the 90s before moving to Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Art, and Literature.
Al Refai was honoured as the SIBF 2021 ‘Cultural Personality of the Year’ for his body of work spanning six collections of short stories, three novels, one play, and several literary studies that are widely seen as a bridge between Arab and Western cultures.
“This honour doesn’t touch me alone but, in fact, the entire country of Kuwait, it’s culture and the literary fraternity of the country,” he remarked before he began explaining what writing meant to him.
“The same water does not flow through a river twice. The water – sometimes quiet, other times roaring – is renewed at every moment, while the banks along the riverway although rejoice in its flow and feed on its beauty, always remain stable. This is what writing is for me versus reading,” he further said.
Al Refai’s session was part of the several cultural activities and author interactions lined up throughout the 11-day book fair being held under the theme “There’s always a right book” by Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) at the Expo Centre in Sharjah.