One of our recommended books is Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah

BRIDE OF THE SEA


During a snowy Cleveland February, newlywed university students Muneer and Saeedah are expecting their first child, and he is harboring a secret: the word divorce is whispering in his ear. Soon, their marriage will end, and Muneer will return to Saudi Arabia, while Saeedah remains in Cleveland with their daughter, Hanadi. Consumed by a growing fear of losing her daughter, Saeedah disappears with the little girl, leaving Muneer to desperately search for his daughter for years. The repercussions of the abduction ripple outward, not only changing the lives of Hanadi and her parents, but also their interwoven family and friends—those who must choose sides and hide their own deeply guarded secrets.

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During a snowy Cleveland February, newlywed university students Muneer and Saeedah are expecting their first child, and he is harboring a secret: the word divorce is whispering in his ear. Soon, their marriage will end, and Muneer will return to Saudi Arabia, while Saeedah remains in Cleveland with their daughter, Hanadi. Consumed by a growing fear of losing her daughter, Saeedah disappears with the little girl, leaving Muneer to desperately search for his daughter for years. The repercussions of the abduction ripple outward, not only changing the lives of Hanadi and her parents, but also their interwoven family and friends—those who must choose sides and hide their own deeply guarded secrets.

And when Hanadi comes of age, she finds herself at the center of this conflict, torn between the world she grew up in and a family across the ocean. How can she exist between parents, between countries?

Eman Quotah’s Bride of the Sea is a spellbinding debut of colliding cultures, immigration, religion, and family; an intimate portrait of loss and healing; and, ultimately, a testament to the ways we find ourselves inside love, distance, and heartbreak.

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  • Tin House
  • Paperback
  • January 2021
  • 312 Pages
  • 9781951142452

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$16.95

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About Eman Quotah

Eman Quotah is the author of Bride of the SeaEman Quotah grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, and other publications. She lives with her family in Washington, DC.

Praise

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“For fans of Mohsin Hamid and Min Jin Lee, this debut from Arab-American author Eman Quotah, which spans four decades and two continents, will satisfy anyone looking for their next sweeping family saga.” —Chicago Review of Books

“Quotah’s deft characterization and pacing, combined with an inside look at Saudi Arabian life, make this debut a compelling and worthy read.” Booklist, Starred Review

“A beautifully intricate family drama about a young woman torn between her parents and two worlds.” —PopSugar

“Alluring. . . . The narrative’s delicacy belies the weight of its themes, and descriptions are etched with precision. . . . Quotah’s resonant, neatly plotted outing will be a treat for readers who love fractured family dramas.” Publishers Weekly

“A rich, finely rendered novel.” Kirkus Reviews

Bride of the Sea is a gem.” Book Page

“A spellbinding debut of colliding cultures, immigration, religion and family; an intimate portrait of loss and healing; and, ultimately, a testament to the ways we find ourselves inside love, distance and heartbreak.” —Bookreporter

“This lovely novel traces the life of a young woman caught between parents and cultures, from Saudi Arabia to America, and brings both worlds to life in all their complexities.” —Shilpi Somaya Gowda, author of The Shape of Family

Bride of the Sea is a marvel. Eman Quotah has such compassion for her characters—especially the unforgettable Hannah—while uncovering new ideas about pacing and structure. This is an intricately realized novel that honors every place it depicts.” —Rakesh Satyal, author of No One Can Pronounce My Name

Discussion Questions

1. The novel opens with Hanadi having a dream about Saeedah’s funeral. Why do you think the author begins the story with this imagined loss?

2. What do you think of the rotating points-of-view in the novel? How would this story be different if it were told entirely from Saeedah’s perspective? Or Muneer’s?

3. Describe the various portrayals of marriage in the novel. What are some similarities or differences you see across generations?

4. The plot hinges on Saeedah’s decision to take Hanadi without Muneer’s knowledge. What does Saeedah willingly give up by staying in the United States and disappearing, and what does she lose despite herself?

5. When she first arrives in Jidda, Hanadi says that “she could tell, being here for less than half an hour, that she was a different person than she might have been if she’d grown up here, with her family intact…. What other lost elements of herself would she find here?” Do you believe that your birthplace shaped your identity? Have you ever found “lost elements” of yourself in an unexpected place?

6. While exploring Jidda, Hanadi recognizes that “this place—this bride of the Red Sea, as her father calls the city—is the origin of her mother’s phonemes.” What do you think Quotah is saying about intimacy and alienation in parent-child relationships?

7. Which character makes the most egregious decision in this novel? Does your answer to this question change depending on where you are in the story?

8. Over the course of the novel, more than forty years pass. What character changes the most in that time, in your opinion?

9. What role does secrecy, both voluntary and involuntary, play in this novel?

10. What do you think of Hanadi’s dreams and prophecies throughout the novel? Have you ever had a dream that seemed to predict later events?

11. How do the various sections—the chronological history and Hanadi’s flashbacks—affect your reading of the book? Why do you think the author chose to structure the novel in this way?

Essay

A found family, and a shocking revelation

We weren’t the only people she shared poems with
By Eman Quotah

We found out about Vicki’s other poetry group at her memorial service, like children discovering their dead father’s second family.

B.K. had seen the obituary in the paper, and, of course, the four of us wanted to be there. We’d met with Vicki about once a month over dinner for years. More important to us even than sharing poetry was the mantra that at our meetings “No one will go hungry,” which was why B.K. called us The Poets Who Eat. For her and Paul, the other co-founder, it had been something like two and a half decades. Even I, the newest and, at 42, youngest member, had joined nearly fifteen years earlier, after getting to know Sally at a weekend writing workshop and practically begging her to let me join her poetry group.

I’d been new in town, five years out of college, and I’d wanted to be a writer—maybe a poet, maybe a novelist. A writer, I’d thought, needed a writing group to give her feedback on her work. What I got, instead, was a little family, centered on reading and writing poetry and sharing Netflix DVD recommendations; the Canadian theater comedy Slings and Arrows was a favorite for a time. We talked gardens and politics. We were in Washington, after all.

In my early days in the group, sitting in their dining rooms each month, I tuned out the gardening chatter. It would be years before I bought a house and planted a garden. What I had then was a two-room apartment and a potted ficus. But I enjoyed listening to my “older friends,” as I called them affectionately behind their backs. They didn’t obsess about dating, like people my age did, and they remembered presidents preceding Reagan and Carter (the first ones in my memory).

Sally, 10 years older than me, had grown up in a small Maryland college town and now co-owned a graphic design business. B.K., 10 years older than Sally, was a respected government economist. Vicki, a dozen years older than B.K., was a former science teacher and a volunteer at Children’s National Hospital. She’d lived most of her life in Washington. Paul, about Vicki’s age, was a former immigration judge.

Knowing them gave me a sense of having lived in Washington longer than I really had, almost of having roots here.

When my college boyfriend broke up with me a few months after I joined the group, I didn’t tell them about my heartbreak. Not in normal conversation over cheese and crackers or during dinner. But when desert and tea came out, and we smoothed out our photocopied sheets of poetry, and someone began to read out loud, I shared the poems I wrote out of my grief. Something about azaleas, a spring lost to mourning. Something about elegies in early Islamic Arabia. It was easier and more comforting to talk about line breaks and word choice than about the crushing weight on my organs, the nights I couldn’t stop crying.

There was a sense of intimacy, but also of distance, in our group. We didn’t gossip about each other or socialize much outside our monthly meetings. I could only count a handful of times I’d seen any of them without the others. Still, B.K., Vicki, Paul and Sally were like two aunts, an uncle and a cool older cousin. I saw them more than I saw my own family, my brothers in Cincinnati and Seattle, my parents splitting their time between Cleveland and Saudi Arabia.

Most writing groups don’t last decades. They fizzle out when people’s lives get busier or their priorities change, or when some members bring a greater seriousness to their writing than the others do. Ours persisted through all those obstacles. When I switched to novel writing and stopped bringing poems (or anything at all) to workshop, they didn’t kick me out. When my kids were born and my schedule got crazy, they told me to attend when I could. Sally, B.K. and Paul all brought fewer poems, too, over the years. We stayed together because Vicki sustained us. She brought poems she’d written every single month, even when the rest of us didn’t.

Now, she was gone. And it turned out, she’d had a secret.

We’d known Vicki had cancer. We’d known her prognosis was not good. She was in her mid-seventies and in her final email to us, she’d written, with characteristically sardonic wit, “I have not yet thrown in the towel completely but, to mix metaphors, the handwriting’s on the wall.”

When we entered the funeral home, ushers handed out a chapbook along with the program. It contained poems Vicki had previously published under a pseudonym. I wondered who’d put it together, but I missed the note in the front: “This collection of Vicki’s wonderful poems has been prepared with love and admiration by her cohorts in poetry,” followed by a list of ten people I’d never heard of.

After the officiant spoke, one of Vicki’s three daughters took to the podium. And then a man named Jim, who said he was in Vicki’s poetry group of—I can’t remember, was it two, five, ten years? He said he’d consulted with her to choose the poems for the collection. Poems that had been published under her pseudonym. Jim and several others read her poems from the podium.

I felt surprised, jealous. Sally and B.K. had told me years ago that Vicki had a nom de plume, but I didn’t know what it was, and she never shared her publication credits with the group.

That was OK, I’d thought before her illness and death. We were lucky enough to glimpse the early versions of her poems, and sometimes second or third drafts, before anyone else read them.

Now, the four of us sat in the back of the hall, anonymous, unacknowledged as an important, regular part of Vicki’s life. I thought we’d mattered to her a lot, but maybe we hadn’t. Maybe these were her real poetry friends.

“But she’s known us longer,” I thought, recognizing my pettiness.

When the service was over, I gave my condolences to Vicki’s youngest daughter.

“We’re having a reception at my mom’s house,” she said. “You’re welcome to join us.”

I relayed the invitation to the group. They preferred to go back to Paul’s as planned. It was spring. We sat in his small fenced-in garden, under flowering trees near the koi pond. We ate chocolate cookies and ice cream, because Vicki loved sweets, and we were still The Poets Who Eat, even though some of us hadn’t written a poem in years.

No one mentioned the other poetry group. I wondered if I should bring up the shock I’d felt and tried to tamp down. Were equally confused? Had they been even a little bit hurt? I decided to stay quiet. We were sharing memories of Vicki and her poetry. Why ruin the remembrance?

Once years before, I went to see Vicki’s middle daughter’s documentary film, at an independent movie theater in Washington. Vicki’s family and friends—including, I think, her ex—were sitting up front. Her daughter the filmmaker was greeting people. When I walked in, Vicki looked so happy to see me. And when the lights dimmed, she sat with me, even though I was way in the back, surrounded by empty seats.

I don’t think she preferred me to anyone else, more that, in what I guessed was a stressful social situation, she could get quiet support from me, someone she knew well but wasn’t intimately close with. She didn’t have to talk to me about what she was feeling. She could just be. As though she was sharing one of her poems with me and letting it do the talking.

Like a family skilled in repression and secrecy, for four years none of us said a word about what had happened in the funeral home. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to submit a love letter for a proposed anthology. I decided to write to the remaining members of the group. I told them what they’d meant to me. I brought up the surprise at Vicki’s memorial service.

At our next meeting, pent up feelings flowed. There was a sense of catharsis around B.K.’s dining table that evening. We’d been unable to talk about our common pain till then, and now the questions were passionate: Why hadn’t Vicki told us about her publishing triumphs? Why had our role in her life not been acknowledged?

“She could join whatever groups she wanted,” B.K. said. We just wished she hadn’t hid the other one from us.

There was no way to get answers or to change what had happened. So, I clung to Vicki’s last words to us, in that email several months before her death. We’d been trying to coordinate a meeting, but she was too sick to come.

“If I can’t get together with you guys, what worthwhile is left?” she wrote.

If someone other than us helped her organize her poems on her deathbed, I think it was because we weren’t her poetry group anymore. We were her group-group, a part of her life that went without saying. We were there in her poems, though. Our loyal feedback, our years of saying, “I love this one.” It didn’t matter whether anyone else felt our presence. We were there.

Without Vicki at our center, Sally, B.K., Paul, and I see each other much less frequently, once or twice a year. In this time of COVID-19, we haven’t seen each other at all, and it’s hard to say when we will.

I worry. Everyone is getting older. And if you can’t get together with the people you love, what worthwhile is left?

Eman Quotah is a writer in Rockville, Maryland. Her debut novel, Bride of the Sea, will be published in January.