Songs for the Dead and Living: Sara M Saleh on the pluralities Palestinian personhood
Sara M Saleh didn’t initially think her first novel would become a coming-of-age tale played out across generations from Palestine and Lebanon to Australia.
In fact, when she sat down to start writing it four years ago, it started off as a speculative fiction, and the first bits of text were all based in a refugee detention centre. But one character, Jamilah, kept coming back to Sara. Soon the idea and premise behind Songs for the Dead and the Living, an intergenerational novel following Jamilah and her Palestinian family that end up in western Sydney, all fell into place.
“Her family came to me,” Sara recalls. “I was seeing it play out from the very beginning, it felt like a better view.
“I was thinking a lot about my personal journey of healing, which then led me to my parents of course, their stories and contexts.”
"I didn’t want to give any easy answers. I didn't want to have a neat ending — when is being Palestinian ever neat?"
While Songs for the Dead and Living is Sara’s first novel, it’s not her first foray into writing. She is also an award-winning poet, activist and organiser, and the co-editor – alongside Randa Abdel-Fattah – of the non-fiction anthology Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity. In fact, it was shortly after that anthology was published in mid-2019 that Sara started writing her novel. Importantly though, the writing journey became a way to forge a deeper connection with her mum, a Palestinian-Lebanese who rarely spoke about her experiences of exile and war.
“Maybe because it was too difficult, or maybe because nobody ever asked. This book, something tangible and accountable, is what encouraged her,” Sara said.
“Having many a kitchen-countertop conversation over coffee as part of my research was so enriching, and it made me realise that so much of my situation is not the result of the random, but is a product of a chain of events that started out with one single incident; an incident that has shaped who my family are, where we are, how we are – and how we love and leave.”
The plot of Songs for the Dead and the Living revolves around Jamilah, who lives with her large family in a house above a paint shop on the outskirts of Beirut. She soon learns that as Palestinian refugees, her family's life in Lebanon is precarious, and they must try to blend in even as they fight to retain their identity. But when the civil war comes to Beirut, Jamilah's world fractures, and the family is forced to flee. In its essence, Songs for the Dead and the Living is a portrait of the fragilities and flaws of family in the wake of war, and the love it takes to overcome great loss. And with the dynamics of five women within Jamilah’s family driving the story, the novel is also a celebration of the tenacity and resilience of Palestinian women.
For Sara, it was important to tell a story about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and to do so in a variety of pathways and experiences that the different characters offer readers – without idolising, romanticising or dehumanising.
“There is a running theme throughout of loving someone or something - a person, or a country - that wants to love you back in the same way, but cannot,” she tells The New Arab.
Songs for the Dead and the Living also joins a growing library of books about Palestinians written by Palestinians. For Sara, coming up with a story that sets it apart from the others was so not much of a challenge as the desire to do justice to the complexity of the issue.
“I didn’t want to give any easy answers. I didn't want to have a neat ending — when is being Palestinian ever neat? I just wanted it to be complex and figured out as you go along,” she reflects.
“We always have agency and make choices but Jamilah’s don’t always end up how she’s expected. I wanted to resist the inevitability that Palestinians have that loss and grief are the defining things. That’s why I have the grandmother and mother’s trajectories contrasted with the sisters. As Palestinians, at what point do we have permission to resist the inevitability of loss and grief?
“There is a growing number of books about these experiences and that is a wonderful thing because for too long we have been silenced, and it naturally reflects the fact that our experiences are not homogenous. There is not one way or path to be Palestinian – and it’s actually freeing.”
Nonetheless, Sara had good reasons for why she wrote the novel.
“I wrote this novel because I’m interested in Arab women speaking back to patriarchy, back to partners, back to borders; and how when we are made invisible or ignored, we create our own spaces of subversion, softness and strength through sisterhood,” she explained.
“I wanted to explore, what do they give up each time, exile after exile? Where do they find love, and in whom?”
She stressed that her art – whether it be prose or poetry – is always inherently political, as she strives to embody the multiplicity of her identities and subvert the disconnection between many Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia today.
“This has its own unique double bind for Arab Muslim migrant women,” she said.
“Opening up about misogyny bears a risk: In naming my hurts, I don't want to feed harmful stereotypes. But if audiences coming to my work with that existing view – I am not sure my book will be the thing that changes it, nor is that its function. That compromises the writing and doesn’t allow us our full humanity. I can't write like that, to that.”
Sara also highlighted the importance of the Australian context surrounding Songs for the Dead and the Living, especially since a large part of it is set in western Sydney, a predominantly working-class suburban sprawl that is home to a thriving Arab Australian community.
“Given this was set in the 80s, my experience growing up here as a third culture kid in a post-9/11 world, was different in so many ways and yet rooted in a lot of the same racism and Arab/Islamophobia, which of course stems from so-called Australia’s founding as a colonial project,” she said.
Sara went on to add that if it weren’t for the “giants” in her family – both inherited and chosen – who were generous in sharing anecdotes and archival information, nor for the inspiration she derives from contemporary Arab Australian authors and artists, then Songs for the Dead and the Living would not be here today.
“I’ve been so lucky to have grown as an artist on Darug Land and to me that’s worth acknowledging and honouring in story always,” Sara said, referencing the Indigenous, pre-colonial name of western Sydney.
“I tell stories on land where stories have been shared and told since time immemorial.”
Elias Jahshan is The New Arab’s social media editor, and the editor of This Arab Is Queer: An Anthology by LGBTQ+ Arab Writers (Saqi Books, 2022)