Anat Deracine, author of Driving by Starlight, discusses growing up in Saudi Arabia, the complexity of female bonds, and finding strength through unity.
About Anat Deracine’s ‘Driving by Starlight’
Sixteen-year-olds Leena and Mishie are best friends. They delight in small rebellions against the Saudi cultural police—secret Western clothing, forbidden music, flirtations. But Leena wants college, independence—she wants a different life.
Though her story is specific to her world (a world where it’s illegal for women to drive, where a ten-year-old boy is the natural choice as guardian of a fatherless woman), ultimately it’s a story about friendship, family, and freedom that transcends cultural differences.
Our interview with Anat Deracine, author of ‘Driving by Starlight’
Give us a quick elevator pitch about what your new novel Driving by Starlight is about.
Driving by Starlight is a story about the complexity of female friendship and the ways it can be tested. Leena, Mishail, Aisha and their friends are teenage girls who live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where restaurants sometimes have signs that say Women and animals not allowed. The girls find themselves caught up in their jealousy of each other, trying to outdo one another instead of uniting against the problems they face.
What inspired you to write this book?
I grew up in Riyadh, and I went to an all-girls school a lot like Leena’s. When people in America ask me about my childhood, they usually ask about the restrictions in Saudi society, like wearing an abaya, not being allowed to drive or move around freely, or the strict prohibition on dating. But I wanted the world to know that more often than not, my friends and I were a team, trusting each other when we couldn’t trust anyone else. The strength of that bond inspired me both then and now, which is why Driving by Starlight is dedicated to them.
I loved the way you wrote about Saudi Arabia so warmly and also honestly, showing all the things you loved about it as well as all the things that frustrated you about it. Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing about growing up in Saudi Arabia and balancing between those two things?
I spent almost my entire childhood in Saudi Arabia, and so I wasn’t aware of how my childhood could have been different if I’d grown up elsewhere. This meant that I wasn’t just happy there, I learned to love the desert as a home. I miss it, because there are few things that have inspired me as a writer more than the desert sky. As the slightly boyish child of a very progressive family, I had a lot more freedom than other girls my age. My father used to point out the constellations, and he even taught me to drive, in the desert, as soon as my feet could reach the pedals. Until I was about twelve, I could ‘pass’ for a boy as Leena does, and I took full advantage of that, playing football with boys and looking for adventure. The restrictions of Saudi society and my struggle with them came afterwards. And so, when writing this book, I kept both these things in mind, the joy and love I felt for the desert, as well as the sense of betrayal and injustice over knowing that boys had freedoms I could never have.
I’m biased as I myself am a teacher, but I have to say that my favorite character who wasn’t Leena (whom I loved) was Maryam Madam. Who would you say was your favorite non-Leena character and why?
I’m so glad you loved Maryam, I love her too! She was such a joy to write. I had a teacher just like her, complete with chalk-throwing. Besides Maryam, my favorite non-Leena character would have to be Hossein. He doesn’t show up in a lot of scenes, but a man like Hossein is a rare gem in that society. He takes care of his friend’s wife, asking nothing. He isn’t threatened in the least by the intelligence or the independence of the women around him. He teaches his son to treat women well. By law, he has the right to demand everything from either Leena or her mother when they are powerless, but he invests not just in their current happiness but in their future freedom.
One of my favorite parts of the novel was this one: “We had each been in our corners, hoarding the tiny slice of love we still had, but together we had more than enough for everyone.” One of my favorite things about this story is the female friendship and female relationships found in this book. Can you speak a little bit about those and your experience writing them?
I have always been sustained by my friendships with other women, and so I seek these out naturally. It’s easy to get caught up in the false competitions with each other, where we think the things we want (like love, success, or fame) are limited, and that if one of us gets the “prize” there’s less for the rest of us. But as long as we hold to that, we can be manipulated easily, played against each other, and we all lose in the end. The friendships that Maryam Madam has with the women around her showcase some of the reasons I wrote this book. Maryam always comes through for others, even for those who push her away. She’s a great role model for Leena, who’s a bit feral and doesn’t know how she can trust kindness after everything she’s been through.
What do you hope people learn from Leena? (And/or any of the other characters)
Leena thinks ahead. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do as a teenager, especially when you’re unhappy. It’s really difficult, when you’re already hurting, to be told to be patient, to wait a little longer, to let this disappointment or betrayal go, so that you get something better in the future, or so you don’t make things worse. But Leena always does, because she’s mapped out what’s likely to happen six steps ahead. To others, she seems fearless, but hers isn’t the kind of bravado that makes people do dangerous things just to prove a point or make a statement. It’s a determined courage that comes from knowing the risks and moving forward anyway.
What do you hope people learn from the story?
Women will finally be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia this June. I can’t begin to express how overwhelmed I am that my story arrives as a herald for such a historic event. I know it’s not going to be easy. Even when the law changes, culture stands in the way. It’s not as if these women are going to find a warm welcome, affordable cars and driving lessons, or gather up the courage to take that step without a lot of love and encouragement. I hope they find that in Driving by Starlight.