No Choice but to Be Strong: An Interview with Roxana Trabulsi

Earlier in the year, a delightful email landed in my inbox from author Roxana Trabulsi. She’d received my name from a mutual connection and was inquiring about a possible book review. When I checked out her website, I knew immediately I wanted to hear from Roxana herself: front and center on her website is a quote from Henri Matisse, which reads, “Creativity takes courage.” Anyone who’s published a book knows this is true, and it served as a gentle reminder in ways I won’t go into here. Roxana’s debut novel, Of Mud and Honey, is out now. Kirkus Reviews said of the work, “Trabulsi has composed a moving drama that illustrates the troubles of a city and nation in the microcosmic struggles of a family. A gripping and emotionally affecting political tale.” If historical fiction dealing with families is something you love, you won’t want to miss this book. Many thanks to Roxana for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions!

Christina: Congratulations on the publication of Of Mud and Honey. It’s based on a true story. For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with it, can you give us a brief rundown of that true story and what the story is about?

Roxana: Thank you. Of Mud and Honey is based on the real events that my parents experienced in Aden, Yemen, in the late 1960’s. Aden had been my father’s family’s home for over a century and when the British decided to leave (quite abruptly) and forfeit the government to a communist regime, my parents decided to stick it out. Aden was their home, and they did not believe that they would be treated differently. Sadly that was not the case. The new government initially was very moderate, and their business and personal life was not really impacted. However, when a radical group bubbled up through the ranks and took over the party, things changed. The government seized the family business under the pretext of nationalization, took my father as a political prisoner, and put my mother and my three siblings under house arrest. Ultimately the fight to get my father released lay in mother’s hands.

Christina: Did you ever consider writing a nonfiction account of the book instead? What made you move toward fiction?

Roxana: Only in the very beginning. There were aspects of the story that were so compelling, but I did not have enough information about them to write it as nonfiction. So it became very clear to me, very early on, that it needed to be fictionalized. I also struggled with the writing when I was using my parents real names. Changing the names allowed me to take on my characters in a more personal way than I was able to do while thinking of them as my parents.

Christina: With a book steeped in both family and reality, how much research did you have to do for it? Did that research involve travel since the book is set in Yemen?

Roxana: I had to do a tremendous amount of research for this book. One of the things that I felt very strongly about and wanted to be sure to detail accurately was the history of Yemen, and Aden in particular, in this time period (a time period that is not widely documented). My research took me to London, where I visited the National Archives and sifted through embassy notes and documents. I also reached out to universities with Yemen Studies programs and specifically to scholars specializing in Yemen. It was this that led me to Dr. Noel Brehony, who happens to be the Chairman for the British Yemeni Society; he was also working in the British Embassy in Aden at the time my parents were experiencing this trouble. After speaking with Dr. Brehony, we realized that he and my parents had been friends in Aden more than fifty years before. They had frequented the same beach club, where my father had rescued him when his boat had capsized. Noel remembered the story and became integral in my historical detailing in the book. He also proofread the book multiple times to check for any inaccuracies. I was not able to travel to Yemen unfortunately.

Christina: The title is intriguing. How long into the process was it before you found the title? Did the book ever have another title? How does the title apply to the story?

Roxana: The original title of the book was The Colonel’s Daughter, and it was this until my editor, Lauren Blue at TEN16 Press, asked if I would consider a different title. I was very open to a new title but was stumped as to what it could or should be. Then after a conversation with a dear friend and fellow writer, we came up with Of Mud and Honey. The title is a nod to the mud houses of Northern Yemen, where mud farms cover acres of ground to create mud bricks that are hardened in the sun and then used to build homes that are often four stores high. Also in the northern part of Yemen are the Sidr trees, which produce an aromatic honey that is considered to have magical properties. I loved the metaphorical play with the thick, heaviness of mud and the sweet, translucence of honey. It matched the emotion of the book perfectly.

Christina: Everyone’s journey to publication is a little different. Please tell us a little bit about yours!

Roxana: I began by sending out queries to agents all over the world. I had three calls for full manuscripts, but through the process I struggled with giving up the rights to my story to a traditional publisher. The more that I learned about hybrid publishing, it seemed like the best fit for me. I started to look at hybrid publishers more thoroughly and was thrilled when I got the call from TEN16 Press.

Christina: Condolences on the loss of your mother. I lost mine within the last year, too, and I’m still learning to move forward despite the grief. Aside from this story, how did your mother impact your life and your writing? What do you think she’d say about this book?

Roxana: Thank you. And please accept my condolences for the loss of your mother. I, too, am still trying to figure out how to move forward; her absence is palpable. My mother was, well, she was quite remarkable. Her life was not always easy, riddled with tragedy from a young age, but she did not allow that to define her. She was strong willed and determined, always, and I think it was this that transferred to me in the writing process. I learned so much about her through this process, mostly learning about her as a strong woman, not just as my mother. I want to be and strive to be more like her everyday. I think that her strength always astounded me.

I remember being little and hearing her have a firm conversation with a family member. After her phone call, she placed her head in her hands and was quite upset. You never would have known it if you had heard her. I asked her how she did it, how she had held herself together and had been so strong. Her reply is something that has stayed with me my whole life. She said, “Sometime life throws situations at you and you have no choice but to be strong. If you are not, everything around you will crumble. And when that happens, you stand to lose everything. Just think about the ones you love, that is where you will find the strength.”

My mum was able to read the book as it was being written, and even though she had Alzheimer’s, there were a few occasions where she would come through, and she would express her pride. I think she would be happy with how it all turned out.

Christina: Let’s switch gears a little. You’re a freelance graphic designer. How did you get into that field? Do you find that your design skills feed the same creative void as writing? Does designing inform your writing at all?

Roxana: I was business management major in college but left the workforce to raise my family. When my youngest son started preschool, I went back to school and got an associates degree in graphic design. I have always considered myself an artist and was so intrigued by graphic art. It was wonderful for me as a mother to have something that was just mine and that I was able to turn into a small business. I approach my writing in the same way that I approach a design. It has to come together for me in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible. So I believe that it does inform my writing in a very abstract way.

Christina: As you know, authors have to do a lot of marketing for themselves these days. I suppose that’s a little easier for you than some! Do you have a few short tips to give the rest of us who might be fumbling with Canva and other programs to help us design marketing material?

Roxana: I have found that creating vision boards is a great way to pull your ideas together and create your vision. There is something about seeing concepts that appeal to you in one place that helps you develop your concept ideas. I also think that finding examples of what you find appealing can help you settle in on designs that you like. Finally, you have to be willing to just play around, Canva is a great tool and easy to navigate once you are familiar with it. Just set your self free in it and see what happens!

Christina: What’s next for you?

Roxana: I am currently working on another novel and have ideas for a third. So keeping myself very busy.

Roxana can be found in multiple places!
Instagram: @roxanatrabulsiwrites
Facebook: @ofmudandhoney
Goodreads: Roxana Trabulsi

Thanks to Roxana for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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