AYA DANE by Mhani Alaoui

AYA DANE by Mhani Alaoui

Eye on the Indies: A Look at Indie Authors
and their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor 

AYA DANE by Mhani Alaoui (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2019). 256 pp, $15.00; paperback ISBN 9781623719685.

Aya Dane is an elegant exploration of invisible cultural memories, creatively rendered on a canvas of migration. Here in her second novel, Mhani Alaoui shapes a well-thought-out protagonist with astute observations on the fear of those who are different—and on walls.

Aya Dane, a Boston artist from Morocco, lives alone in her Cambridge studio. Her intimate partner is David Vandeer, whom she calls “Daoud.” He’s in wealth management. Hailing from an old Boston family, he’s her only close friend. They compare childhoods. He has his own demons—but he reminds her to take her pills. His former fiancé, Catherine Dumont, is a philosophy professor. Aya met the couple when they came to one of her art shows.

Inspired by Frida Kahlo’s 1939 painting “The Two Fridas, Aya combines paint, metal, glass, and wood into artistic sculptures that depict poignant journeys of resettlement—signing each panorama with a blood-red porcelain rose (represented on the book’s canvas cover). Aya’s works capture exile and the confusion of multiple cultural identities. They plumb aquatic depths, of oceans as well as tears. Some scenes pay homage to those emigrants who never became immigrants—for whom the sea was a final resting place, with vistas of their native countries fading on the horizon just as new terrains were coming into view. Other art pieces juxtapose images from the Strait of Gibraltar—bougainvillea, medieval forts, marketplaces—aligning North Africa’s many varied cultures.

After Aya’s compositions garner critical acclaim, she receives a letter from a mysterious powerful figure in the art world named Ari. He offers to become her patron if she can create a mixed-media piece intriguing enough for his collection—which would ensure her artistic reputation in perpetuity. It’s a hard commission to resist.

As Aya begins painting long-forgotten pictures of her Tangiers childhood, impressions she’s pushed into a corner of her unconscious mind start to appear on her canvas. Fearing for her sanity, she details the surfacing emotions in a diary. Blinding headaches incapacitate her. Can she finish her artwork by the patron’s deadline before she goes mad?

She recalls her muñeca, a word emanating from two cultures (Spanish and Andalusian) that means “doll.” Aya’s brother Kareem appears. Family secrets emerge. She comes to understand why her mother was unable to love her. A motif of tea and music drives the recollections. Her mother had a ritual for preparing Moroccan mint tea, a green gunpowder tea with spearmint leaves and sugar, which Aya repeats. In the lobby of David’s apartment building, she hears a blind pianist playing a Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” from his 1984 album Various Positions. Her parents used to dance to the melody.

Alaoui utilizes that particular tune and its poetic lines to underscore the achingly poignant years Aya buried. David’s Jewish grandmother, Nana Beck, represents Moroccan history in a nod to the invisible memories of Cohen’s song, causing Aya to wonder how David’s great-grandfather got his money.

Throughout the pages of Aya Dane, Alaoui textures in an age-old question: What is creativity? MacArthur Fellow and clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison probes the border between creativity and artistic temperament in her books Touched with Fire and Exuberance: The Passion for LifeJamison has noted the “profound despair” in some artists “that gives them a very different kind of appreciation of the human condition,” which Aya Dane seems to exemplify.

Mhani Alaoui
Author photo: Yasmine Hatimi

Psychologist James Pennebaker employs writing to unlock memories and emotions. In a similar manner, Alaoui utilizes art in Aya Dane. She draws upon the work of French artist Françoise Dupré and her DORA Project in memory of vengeance-weapon victims—particularly DORA Project 2, which builds on Michael Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory.

Alaoui goes into the importance of light and time of day to an artist. She brings in deaths, drug busts, and fanatic Islam. Magical realism crops up from time to time. She parses hate and its origins. PTSD in victims of sexual violence is not overlooked. The storyline rouses questions: What does it take to survive in America? How do images on a screen trump facts? Is the migrant condition definable? Can one generation right the wrongs of past generations? When does cultural memory affect each of us? Mhani Alaoui tosses so much together that, after a while, the jumble makes no sense.

But then, all of a sudden, it does.

Aya Dane is a provocative and timely book for the New Year.

Mhani Alaoui is a Moroccan author who teaches anthropology and sociology at the School of Architecture (EAC) in Casablanca, where she grew up—and where she set her first novel, Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms (also published by Interlink Books). That book won gold as the 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year and tied for bronze in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards (both in multicultural adult fiction). Alaoui’s short stories have appeared in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, in which a portion of Aya Dane, the novel under review, was published as “The Expat.”

Alaoui completed a degree at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies of Georgetown University before earning a PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. Her 2009 dissertation, Migratory Trajectories: Moroccan Borderlands and Translocal Trajectories, was an ethnography looking at survival and adaptation of migrants. She is coauthor of a policy brief for the German Marshall Fund titled What Moroccan Model?: Moroccan Reform and New Regional Perspectives. Alaoui has worked as a consultant for the United Nations in New York and as a research director for a foundation allied with a public corporation in Morocco.

Publisher: Interlink Books

Interlink Books in Northampton, MA, has been operating for over thirty years under the motto “Changing the Way People Think About the World.” This independent publishing house, which annually publishes about fifty titles, got its start in 1987. Today Interlink has an active backlist of over a thousand titles under five imprints: Interlink Books, Cadogan Guides USA, Olive Branch Press, Clockroot Books, and Crocodile Books USA.

Palestinian Michel Moushabeck founded Interlink in Brooklyn with his former wife, Ruth, six years after he graduated from New York University with a degree in international business. He is author of Kilimanjaro: A Photographic Journey to the Roof of Africa and A Brief Introduction to Arab Music. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee presented Moushabeck the 2010 Alex Odeh Award. In 2011, he received the Palestinian Heritage Foundation Achievement Award.

He is on the board of trustees for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (under the aegis of the Booker Foundation) as well as the board of directors of the Media Education Foundation. He’s also a founding member of Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble in Boston. Moushabeck’s recordings include “Lost Songs of Palestine” and “Folk Songs and Dance Music from Turkey and the Arab World.

Interlink does not publish poetry or plays. Manuscript submission guidelines for both fiction and nonfiction are on the website, and stress: “The only fiction we publish falls into our ‘Interlink World Fiction’ series. Most of these books, as you can see in our catalog, are translated fiction from around the world. The series aims to bring fiction from other countries to a North American audience. In short, unless you were born outside the United States, your novel will not fit into the series.”

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