Sacrificing love for country is a poignant and timeless struggle. Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Keija Parssinen received the 2017 Faculty Development Summer Fellowship to pursue this classic storyline with a Saudi Arabian twist.
Parssinen grew up in Saudi Arabia on an Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) compound, which is now Saudi Aramco. The complex relations between America and Saudi Arabia was the background to her happy childhood. “My mom also grew up there from when she was four until she was 21,” Parssinen said. “We have this intimate and long-standing connection with the country.” In her novel I Sing of You, she weaves three tales together to recognize the humanity underneath the political rhetoric and desire for oil.
Similar to Parssinen, her protagonist Lucy Hale is an “Aramco brat” who returns to Saudi Arabia after her husband is hired by Aramco. Unbeknownst to her husband, Lucy plans to investigate the disappearance of her first love, Raif. “There is mystery surrounding this person who she was deeply in love with as a young woman,” Parssinen explained. “He disappeared from her life when she was 18. She wants to go back to see what became of him.”
The second plot line revolves around Ghassan (Gus) an ailing former public relations executive for Aramco. Gus is grappling with the consequences from a past decision to place Saudi Arabia and Aramco above a personal and genuine relationship. Striving to cope with his loss, he shares a story of a forbidden love between an American girl and a Saudi boy with a Saudi woman poet in exile whom he’s called to his home to help him tell this important saga. “Later, we learn that this American girl is indeed the same Lucy we are hearing from as an adult,” she revealed.
Parssinen’s third storyline is Zahra the poet’s retelling of Gus’s memories of the young couple on her Arabic radio poetry program. “He puts his own spin on these stories and creates a modern day Majnun Layla, which is an epic poem from the Arabian Peninsula,” she said. “It’s this tale of star-crossed lovers, sort of a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet.” Parssinen embeds some of the themes of the Majnun Layla throughout the book.
This novel has been haunting Parssinen. “I’ve been scared to do it because it will require immense amounts of research and peeling back the layers on a childhood that I see as being happy,” she said. “Yet at the same time, I know that these characters are a product of this intricate political relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”
In preparation to write the novel, Parssinen engaged in a unique writing technique. She taps into a dream-like state of creativity. “Writing is like dreaming in a lot of ways where you are tapping into all these thoughts that you didn’t know were there,” she said. She also recognizes that people tell the same few stories over and over again – “stories of love, betrayal, family and country.” In the earliest forms of literature, these themes resonated. “It’s the human condition, and that’s what I love about literature,” she said.
“You can look back at work that was written hundreds of years ago, and there are these connections to our emotional makeup today.”
Parssinen does not believe that books should convey messages. Instead, her books ask questions: Are the Saudi people synonymous with their government? Are Americans? “When it comes to human emotion and experience, there are many more similarities than differences between Saudis and Americans,” she said.