Part romance, part thriller, and wholly intriguing, Anat Deracine’s Driving by Starlight is an engaging chronicle of a razor-sharp witted girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia. With a knack for the small, telling details, Deracine reveals the contours of daily life in Saudi Arabia—and the mind-boggling, complex web of culture, religion, gender and class that undergird it.
You dedicate Driving by Starlight to “all the girls of Riyadh,” but I understand that many books are still banned in Saudi Arabia. Do you think Driving by Starlight will ever be read in Riyadh?
Banning books only increases their readership. When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I smuggled in books and magazines without their covers, wrapped in dirty laundry and buried at the bottom of the suitcase. My friends did, too. I believe that water will find a way, and that people who love this story will find a way to share it. I hope, especially as the government finally lifts the ban on women driving this June, more people will read Driving by Starlight and feel less alone.
Like your protagonist Leena, you were raised in Saudi Arabia and then moved away. How much of Leena’s story is inspired by events from your own life?
While some of the characters in Driving by Starlight are inspired by my own friends and acquaintances, Leena’s story is very different from mine. I wish I’d had her foresight and her courage when I was her age. But the story is definitely inspired by people and events in my life. That scene where Daria kicks a dent in a metal desk out of frustration? That was me. The scene at Al-Kharj where the girls dressed up underneath their abayas? That was us. Also, that prank with the food coloring and the Vaseline? Sorry to say that was real.
Do you still visit Saudi Arabia, and if so, what is the experience of returning home like? Would you ever move back?
At the moment, I’m not allowed back. While Saudi Arabia is planning to open up some tourist visas eventually, I am pretty sure those will not be available to women traveling alone. Still, I don’t think I’d ever go back. I’ve grown used to my freedom now and wouldn’t be able to fit in anymore. Whenever I miss the desert, I travel as close as I can. I went to Jordan recently and it was incredible. Something about being at the mercy of that landscape always leaves me both humbled and energized.
Did you choose to publish Driving by Starlight under an alias because of the political situation in Saudi Arabia, or is there some other reason for, or significance behind, your pen name?
Deracine in the French means "uprooted." I chose to write under a pen name for a variety of reasons, the political situation in Saudi Arabia among them. Activists get arrested and charged as traitors. There were other considerations as well, like uniqueness and findability. (My real name is both common and frequently misspelled.) I consider myself a citizen of the world, having lived for years in many countries. At this time in history, when there is so much hyper-focus on identity as being defined by national boundaries, it was important to me to take on an identity that was more global. To be uprooted from one’s native homeland or society can also be a blessing. To be deracine can also mean to be free of the expectations rooted in a single culture.
We hear much about fundamentalist religion in Saudi Arabia, but your protagonist shows us an alternative approach. Did you feel it was important to expose Western readers to different branches of Islam?
Honestly, that didn’t occur to me! I wrote about people I’ve known, the beliefs they had, the struggles they went through in reconciling what they were told to believe with what their hearts and minds told them to be true. I’ve studied religion and philosophy pretty deeply, so I know that even in the smallest of sects there is often a division of belief. What’s happened in Saudi Arabia is that the conservative religious imams have substituted unity of practice instead, as if everyone appearing to believe the same thing is what matters. But conformity is not the same thing as community.
For readers who know little about Saudi Arabia, Driving by Starlight is sure to be truly revelatory. Is there one thing about Saudi Arabia, or Saudi Arabian people, that you hope readers take away from your book?
It’s very easy to turn anger and pain into a weapon against others, instead of using those emotions as a catalyst for structural change. It’s also easy to consider this a gender war, men against women, when in fact women can perpetuate some of the problems because they’re afraid of change, while many men find themselves frustrated by the same laws and cultural norms that oppress women. In some ways, the current conversations in Western feminism are leaving these people behind, because people from the Middle East can be ostracized for not being progressive enough. In Driving by Starlight, I wanted to make sure people saw the full picture in all its complexity, saw these people and the hard choices they make more clearly. In your review of Driving by Starlight, you mentioned that alongside the desperation there was hope and joy. If nothing else, I hope people remember that.
Leena is such an engaging character, is there a sequel in the works, or are you turning to a new project?
Both? My writing process usually involves more than one project at a time. I would love to write a sequel. I have so many questions, and early readers have reached out to me with their own. Will Mishail really be content in her secondary role? Will Leena come to love Faraz, or will she be destroyed by jealousy watching him go to Qaraouine? Will Sofia finally become a writer? What happens to Leena’s mother? So I guess the answer is, insh’allah?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Driving by Starlight.