- Interview with Hadil Ghoneim, an Author from Egypt
Hadil is a bilingual (Arabic and English) Egyptian author of several books for children and young adults and an active essayist. Her bestselling Sana fi Qena [A Year in Qena] received a great deal of attention, was on the 2016 IBBY Honor List, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature. She is known for her humorous and realistic middle-reader books that focus on community building. In her early career, Hadil wrote biographies of notable Egyptians for middle readers and in 2006 her biography of Nobel prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz was selected to be added to all Egyptian public-school libraries. During her time as senior editor at the Cairo-based publishing house Dar El Shorouk, she translated and localized into Arabic many books for children, including the famous book series Geronimo Stilton. Hadil's essays, profiles, and interviews have appeared in numerous Egyptian media outlets. Hadil holds an MA in culture and society from the London School of Economics and a BSc in political science from Cairo University. She is currently based in Michigan with her husband and young daughter.
So, Hadil, how did you make your way from studying in the humanities to writing for children?
After I finished my MSc in cultural studies at LSE, I was meant to return to my editorial job at Weghat Nazar, a literary review magazine in Egypt. Instead, I found myself happily accepting a position in the children's books department at the magazine's parent company, Dar El Shorouk. It felt like the most natural thing for me, because even as a student, I was always finding ways to steer my work towards the world of children's literature. For example, as a fresh graduate I led a team of volunteers in an oral cultural [End Page 46] heritage project by collecting traditional "house tales" from women all over Egypt. Years later, I chose to write my master's dissertation on the local reception of Disney's Mickey Mouse comic magazines in their Egyptianized version.
Writing for children, however, came gradually; I started with translating, localizing, and editing translations of children's books. My first book for children was the Naguib Mahfouz biography. I was comfortable writing a research-based book because I had been specifically trained to write research, and I loved the process of storifying and simplifying. After two years at Dar El Shorouk, I had authored three more picturebooks that were turned into the Green Home Series and covered topics like waste and water management, civic responsibility, and community engagement. It was a fantastic beginning because I was working alongside the art director, the illustrators, and the graphic designers in the "kitchen," so to speak, and the learning and confidence curve was high.
How do the other hats you wear impact the "children's author" hat?
I get excited by research-based writing projects, and early on in my career I felt that my books had to have a strong informative value. I wanted them to carry all I had found important in studying and writing about politics, dialogue, community, and culture. Today, I feel more focused on my writing as a creative expression of myself that is performed for the child reader. Losing those hats along the way has liberated my writing and made it subtler. The parenthood hat must be informing my work as well, as I am always peeking into the world of children as I watch my daughter grow. Another hat I currently wear is that of "resident alien" in the US, a status that keeps my senses open and my mind active in constantly reflecting on what is universal and what is culture-specific.
How has your trajectory changed as a writer in terms of themes, style, or topic?
While there was a strong storytelling element in my work from the start, even in the biographies I wrote for middle readers, it was only in 2011 that I broke out of the nonfiction mold, when I wrote A Year in Qena. Even though it was grounded in factual research and touched on the difficult...