Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Jean Sasson.
Ms. Sasson is the author of Princess, More Tears to Cry (Liza Dawson Associates, $12.99)—the fourth book in her New York Times bestselling series recounting the life of Saudi Arabia’s Princess Sultana. She has written several additional titles and her work has been featured in People, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New York Post, The Sunday London Times, The Guardian, CNN, FOX, NBC, among other news organizations. A world traveler, Ms. Sasson has made her home base in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a passionate women’s rights and animal rights advocate.
Princess, More Tears to Cry was published in August. Privy Trifles (Reviews & Musings) noted, “Each and every story, incident or experience is so beautifully narrated … The tone is … touching … it is difficult to not be moved or shed a tear … an emotional roller coaster ride for the reader as you experience a gamut of feelings … after witnessing what can be easily called the darkest side of life.”
From the publisher:
When Jean Sasson’s book Princess: Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia was published, it became an immediate international bestseller. It sold to 43 countries and spent 13 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now, in this long-awaited, compelling new book, Sasson and Princess Sultana return to tell the world what it means to be a Saudi woman today.
Through advances in education and with access to work, Saudi women are breaking through barriers; they are becoming doctors, social workers, business owners. Major steps forward have been made. But this is not the whole story. Sadly, despite changes in the law, women are still subjected to terrible suppression, abuse and crimes of psychological and physical violence. For many, the struggle for basic human rights continues.
PRINCESS, MORE TEARS TO CRY reveals the intimate struggles of Saudi women inside one of the richest, most conservative kingdoms in the world. These are stories of triumph and heartbreak amongst the highest- and lowest-born. Princess Sultana speaks frankly about her strong-willed daughters, her beloved husband and the contentious Al-Saud family whose daily battles about what it means to be a woman in Saudi Arabia mirror those of the society at large. PRINCESS, MORE TEARS TO CRY is an unforgettable journey into the hearts and minds of Saudi women, and will be forever etched into the memory of readers.
Now, Jean Sasson lifts the veil of secrecy shrouding gender relations in Saudi Arabia …
1) What inspired you to revisit Princess Sultana’s story—and how do you feel that this particular book will appeal to readers, both new and old?
I had written three books about the tragedies that Saudi women endure and had wept many tears as I wrote those true stories, starting with Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia in 1992. Although readers have been clamoring for years for an update on Princess Sultana, I had said that I would not do a fourth book until conditions started to change for the good for women in the desert kingdom. But the country was going backward rather than forward when it came to recognizing the value of female lives.
During the twelve years I lived in Saudi Arabia and worked in the royal hospital in Riyadh, I had the opportunity to meet King Khalid and then later, King Fahd. I think King Khalid and King Fahd liked women and considered the brutish treatment of many Saudi women wrong. Yet, strangely, both men were passive when it came to helping the cause of women. Then Khalid died, and Fahd suffered a stroke, and Abdullah was to become the king, a member of the royal family much more conservative than King Fahd. I was fearful that Abdullah would not care at all about women’s lives. But Abdullah surprised us all, turning out to be the first king since Faisal who made a concerted effort to help women. So when I was approached about writing a fourth Princess Sultana book, I contacted the princess, met with her for three weeks, and then took pen in hand and wrote Princess, More Tears to Cry.
2) This work reveals the “new” Saudi Arabia. How have things changed—and how have they stayed the same?
In the past, Saudis who took up the cause of women would have been targeted, harassed and possibly imprisoned. But in the “new” Saudi Arabia, education and the Internet have led to many Saudis discussing the issue of women’s freedom. Now most Saudi women are being educated, and there is talk of allowing women who are thirty and older to drive. These developments are changing the entire country, for women are starting to enter public life, something I feared would never happen.
On the other hand, some things appear written in stone and will never change. Several very forward-thinking men who are supporting women in court have been imprisoned. This is a shock and a sad surprise. And there is the issue of guardianship. Every Saudi female, from the moment of her birth to the moment of her death, has a male guardian who makes the major decisions in her life, including whether or not she will attend school, whether she will work, and whom she will marry. Thus, Saudi women are still treated like children, and until this ingrained guardianship tradition changes, it will be difficult for Saudi women to live full and happy lives.
3) You’ve had the experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia. How does that background enhance your ability to capture and convey such stories? Also, please share with us how you saw relations between Saudis and Westerners change over time …
I lived in Saudi Arabia during a time when the kingdom was in the middle of enormous financial and social change. I was fortunate in that I met Saudis from all walks of life, from royals, to those in the professional class to the Bedouins. Unlike the vast majority of westerners living in the country, I lived in a Saudi neighborhood and saw firsthand the daily lives of Saudi men and women. I attended many women’s-only gatherings but was also allowed at men’s events, since they didn’t scorn the appearance of western women at their dinners. I was married to a British citizen living in Saudi Arabia, a man who spoke fluent Arabic and who included me when he met with Saudi men for social and sometimes business functions. During this long period of time, I came to understand the culture and the mentality of the Saudis. Later, after leaving Saudi Arabia, I traveled throughout the Arab world. Now my Saudi and Arab friends tell me that I understand their cultures as well as they do. This personal experience and cultural understanding has been a great asset to me as a writer.
When I lived in Saudi Arabia (from 1978 to 1990), Saudis, for the most part, welcomed westerners to their land. There was very little suspicion towards me as a westerner, and I was welcomed with a smile wherever I went, other than from the religious police, of course, who detested all women. I was invited into Saudi homes, to Saudi women’s parties, and to weddings. Now it is very different there. Since the first Gulf War, and 9/11, relationships have deteriorated: I hear that Saudi Arabians distrust and dislike westerners and that is very little interaction between the two groups. It’s a great pity, for without social interaction, there can be no understanding.
4) How do you endeavor to balance candor with discretion when telling somebody’s life story—and what is the key(s) to entertaining readers while also informing them?
I admit that it is not easy to balance candor with discretion when writing such personal stories, but I respect my subjects, and I do not insist upon revealing personal accounts they would rather not have exposed to the world. Also, Arab women are shy about discussing certain aspects of their lives, such as the personal details of their relationships with their husbands. So I consider those off limits and never include in my books anything more than a kiss or a hug between my female heroines and their husbands. Basically, it is a matter of trying to tell the important stories that reveal what the culture is like, without embarrassing anyone.
As far as entertaining while informing, the plight of women in my books can be so depressing that I make it a point to include fun anecdotes about the individuals I write about so that readers can feel they are experiencing the ordinary, but enjoyable parts of a person’s day-to-day life. In fact, I have found myself laughing out loud when relating some of Princess Sultana’s stories about tricking her highly conservative brother. I know that readers enjoy such stories, too, because they tell me so! At the same time, I also slip in important information about the history of each country where a story is taking place, but without belaboring the point.
5) Why should this book appeal to a global audience—and what are some of the universal lessons that can be learned from the Princess’s life?
All of my books should appeal to anyone who is female, and to any male who has a mother, sister, wife or daughter, which pretty much gives these stories a global appeal. My books have been published all over the world, in many, many editions. The world’s reading public has spoken, and they want to know what is happening to women of other lands, and other cultures.
The universal lessons are that until every woman is free to live a life of dignity, that no person can feel satisfied with the state of our world. Women are half the world, and, without them, human life would end. All women should be valued, yet in many countries women live short, miserable and brutish lives. For example, there is a new craze of throwing acid in the faces of women in both Iran and in Pakistan, ending all their joy, and bringing them agony and misery! Such brutalities against women MUST change for the world to reach its potential. This I believe with my whole heart, and that is why I do what I do.
6) What comes next?
I need a hundred years to tell all the stories I feel compelled to write. But I will be writing the fifth book on Princess Sultana, Princess, More Secrets to Share, as well as a special book about a War Poet.
Thank you for these intelligent questions. I thank you, and I’m sure that my readers will thank you, John.
With thanks to Jean Sasson for her generosity of time and thought and to Nancy Berland, President and CEO of Nancy Berland Public Relations, Inc. for facilitating this interview.
Be sure to connect with the author on Facebook and Twitter.