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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Anat Deracine Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

If I could ask three things of people, they would be to uplift the voices of those whom governments aim to silence, to question any assumptions regarding gender roles they may have inherited from their parents or cultures, and to think of solutions that don’t just help one individual cope with a broken system but actually change the system to liberate everyone.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anat Deracine (her pen name). She is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight (Macmillan, 2018) about a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia; co-creator of an online comic called The Night Wolves; and author of many short stories, including The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood about inequalities in technology. Outside of writing, she is a senior figure in the tech industry.

In between her 15-year tech career, she has taken time out to travel through many areas of the middle east alone, including Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Israel and Lebanon. She wrote the first draft of her first novel — Driving by Starlight — in five weeks while on a retreat in Bali. She is now working on a Sci-Fi/fantasy novel about a telepathic killer in an alternate modern-day South Asia.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Born in India, and raised in Saudi Arabia, I am fascinated by cultural narratives around equality and the portrayal of women. My parents were very liberal and I was encouraged to dress as a boy so I could take part in sports and other activities that girls were not permitted to. My father encouraged me to question everything, and so I’d leave him handwritten notes for when he got home from work, asking him things like, “What happens to the soul after the body dies?” and “How do people invent things?”

He would always respond without talking down to me, with answers like, “By thinking in the same way you thought up these questions. One must learn to always ask how? why? and why not? can we do it better? for everything, they see around. Newton asked why should an apple fall and he discovered that earth has GRAVITY which makes the apple fall.”

My family and I moved to Canada when I was 14, and since then I’ve lived in New York, San Francisco and London. These multi-national experiences fed my interest in politics and philosophy from a young age, particularly the effects of totalitarianism, nationalism, censorship and oppressive regimes.

Unlike many other girls in my culture, I was allowed to read whatever I wanted, and my parents ensured I learned tasks normally reserved for boys. I remember being taught to change batteries in toys at around the age of two, and I enjoyed building things.

As a child, I was somewhat oblivious to the restrictions on women because I didn’t know any other way of life. In many ways, always having to wear the uniform of a burka gave me a lot of freedom because I didn’t have to worry about what to wear.

My childhood shaped who I am today, and I am proud of that.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I was reading books by the age of five, and there were quite a few stories that not only inspired me as a writer but shaped me as a person. I was about seven when I read Lost Horizon by James Hilton, and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’d always read the classics, but those two stories really helped me see the way fiction could go beyond describing the world we actually lived in to show what could be, for better or for worse. Being so young, discovering that fiction didn’t have to simply narrate reality factually came as a revelation. I began to be more interested in political and allegorical fiction, trying to understand the rules of the world and how they might be changed, and most importantly, the role of the storyteller in shaping that new world to drive humanity towards it or away from it.

Around the age of thirteen, one book transformed me as a writer more than any other — Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. The story of an awkward, somewhat boyish woman trapped in her beautiful gilded cage resonated with me strongly as a teenager in Saudi Arabia. I hadn’t discovered the Gothic tradition yet, but long before I wrote Driving by Starlight, I knew that telling a story like that was what I was going to do with my life.

Reading The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham inspired me to study philosophy in college, where I became a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Albert Camus and George Orwell. The stories I write are always rooted in social commentary because I’m hyper-aware of the writer’s responsibility to act not just as a witness but as a prophet and a guide in times of darkness.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

When I was in high school, I was the editor for the school yearbook. But I was also an immigrant who had only been in Canada for two and a half years. So when I saw the word “peeps” everywhere in the yearbook copy, I assumed it was a typo. I meticulously corrected every instance to “peers” since that made a whole lot more sense, all the while wondering why my classmates were such poor spellers.

When I realized, long after the yearbook came out, that “peeps” were slang for “people,” I was mortified. I don’t think anyone’s quite forgiven me for that one. But it did help me see that there isn’t always an objective “correct” answer that everyone needs to reach, which helped me navigate editorial feedback later in life. So much of that feedback is prescriptive, focused on the rules of storytelling and grammar, and tends to ignore the intentions of the author or their cultural context. The miracle is that with each of us pulling language in our own direction, customizing it to express our own subjective intents, we are still able to tell stories with shared meaning.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

In Driving by Starlight, Leena and her friends are faced with several hurdles commonly faced by women in Saudi Arabia. They are unable to do anything without the permission of a male relative, who acts as a guardian. Until recently, Saudi women couldn’t really drive or vote. From my own experience, two things happen to people in such harsh circumstances. On the one hand, if there’s hope to be had, a window out of hell, so to speak, then there is intense and sometimes cruel competition for that chance to get out. People climb all over each other like crabs in a bucket. But on the other hand, there is an intense friendship to be experienced too, which means that even if she had a way out, Leena would feel guilty leaving others behind. People can work together to change their circumstances, but only if they stop fighting each other for that window out of hell. My hope was to share that message with the world because oppression can take many forms but solidarity can be our salvation.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Having lived in Saudi Arabia, the things that are probably interesting to others were simply mundane facts of my daily existence. At the very beginning of the book, I mention a restaurant with the sign, “Women and animals not allowed.” As a child, this was just the way of things. My father would park the car outside the restaurant and go in to get us shawarmas, which we’d eat in the car. Only the fancier restaurants would allow us to sit down together as a family since it meant they’d have to section off families behind a curtain. To this day, going to a restaurant feels like an act of rebellion. That’s the reason why the climactic decision in Driving by Starlight takes place in a restaurant.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

At some point in my book, Leena and her best friend Mishail have a conversation and decide that “if everything is forbidden, we can do anything.” My own best friend and I came to a very similar realization, which, it turned out, freed my mind and helped me in my career. As a woman in the tech industry, I realized that many women my age had grown up with messaging telling them that they couldn’t code, or couldn’t lead, or couldn’t be successful without a husband. What was strange to me was that many of them believed it! However, perversely, having been told as a young girl that I couldn’t walk down the street or drive or do any number of perfectly reasonable things had had the opposite impact on me. My father had taught me to do all the things I wasn’t allowed to do, so it was patently obvious I could do them. All I had to do was ignore anyone who told me something was impossible or beyond me. Could I lead a global team on a high-stakes technical project? Obviously. Could I learn to surf at thirty-five? Sure, why not. Can Leena save herself and her friends from the oppression of Saudi Arabia? Of course!

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I hear from women readers all the time about how much Leena’s story means to them as they struggle against their own societal constraints. But I hadn’t expected how much her story would resonate with the queer community. While Leena herself would never even consider Western labels like lesbian or non-binary to apply to her, she is someone who is both deeply religious and deeply in love with her best friend. Her ability to accept her love for both God and her fellow women allows her to find a solution to save them all.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The problems Leena faces in Saudi Arabia are mirrored in Western societies too, although perhaps they are more subtle. There is no difference between Leena’s inability to go to college without her guardian’s permission and Britney Spears being forced into dependency by her conservatorship. And many well-meaning parents force their children into gender roles that may not be right for them, by demanding they marry or choose a specific field of study.

Media plays the greatest role in either oppression or liberation, by either uplifting those voices that have been historically silenced or ignored, or by continuing to place value only on the words of those already in power. The law is a close second, and there are still many countries where basic equality of protection for all people is not guaranteed. Technology, my chosen field of work, can liberate people by democratizing access to education, lifting people out of poverty, and preventing censorship, but it can also be used as a tool by those in power to increase surveillance and censorship. Sadly, that seems to be the direction in which we’re headed, although I do plan to do my part to fight it.

If I could ask three things of people, they would be to uplift the voices of those whom governments aim to silence, to question any assumptions regarding gender roles they may have inherited from their parents or cultures, and to think of solutions that don’t just help one individual cope with a broken system but actually change the system to liberate everyone.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A true leader brings out the best in others. In my fifteen years working in the tech industry, I’ve seen teams led by rockstars fall apart with the predictability of traffic during rush hour, and the teams that succeed are usually led by someone who’s willing to put their ego aside to solve the problem. Great leaders inspire loyalty and provide clarity, helping others navigate ambiguous or even terrifying situations while remaining calm themselves.

In an essay I wrote recently on driving systemic change, I mentioned that being the protagonists of our heroic stories feels rewarding, but is not the way to achieve lasting change. It is the difference between driving a car and laying tracks for trains. Driving a car feels heroic, feels powerful, but at most we can take a few other passengers with us. If we stop driving, the car stops moving. And while we may get to our destination, we don’t leave a way for others to follow. Laying train tracks on the other hand creates a path that outlives you, that will carry hundreds or even thousands of passengers to their destination. But it feels slow and unrewarding by comparison. Why? Because our stories, with their individualistic heroes, have conditioned us to believe that.

We need a different kind of leadership, one that isn’t focused on saving individuals but on changing the system at the source.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each if you have one.

  1. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Of course, I grew up hearing that on airplanes throughout my childhood, but it didn’t register until I was in my twenties that this was good advice for life in general. So many people burn themselves out trying to help others, not realizing that when they’re emotionally at their limit they aren’t actually helping anymore. Their anxiety and stress drags others down with them, like a double-clutch drowning. As a leader, it’s more important than ever to take vacations, to protect your mental resilience, so that you can be available to your team when they need you.
  2. Create cohesion before clarity. When you’re trying to get a large group to move in a particular direction, it’s very tempting, especially if you’re an action-oriented person, to walk in and give clear directions. “All right, everybody here’s where we’re going next year. Here are the priorities and milestones.” But if people have misgivings about direction, if they don’t trust each other or you, if they’re not truly a team, it doesn’t matter how good your directions are, they simply won’t land. It’s important to go slowly at first and build trust first so you can move fast later.
  3. One by one, that’s how things get done. We now know that multitasking is a myth, but I really wish we’d discovered that sooner. I had a pattern of trying to take on too much at once, then feeling overwhelmed and then dropping everything on the floor when I couldn’t juggle it all. Telling myself, almost as a mantra, to focus on one thing at a time, has helped me get a lot more done. It’s built my mental focus too.
  4. Write as if everyone you know is dead. So many people self-censor their own imagination, worried about what their parents or friends will think when they see the words in print. But while writers do want to be successful in their own lifetime, the words you write will most likely outlive you and be read generations from now by people who don’t know you at all. There are so many forces conspiring to silence you, from government censorship to a lack of diversity in publishing, so why would you silence yourself?
  5. Lasting change must outlive you. Just as the words you write will be read long after you’re gone, when you’re trying to drive societal change, ask yourself, “Is this only getting better because I keep pushing? What will happen if I stop? Who’s going to sustain this victory?” Thinking along those lines allows you to figure out how to protect the wins you’ve collected along the way, by setting up safeguards to prevent backsliding, like finding other leaders to replace you one day or enshrining the change in the law.

Can you give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I surround myself with quotes from my favorite authors. They hang on my fridge in magnets and on my walls in posters, and they sit in my bookshelves in the books where I first found them. When I’m feeling down, I can always find the words that pulled me out of it the last time I felt that way.

These words by George Orwell remind me why I write and reliably break through any kind of writer’s block:

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”

As someone with an education in philosophy and politics, I have to remember that ultimately, to reach people, I need to tell a good story. To have a perspective and a purpose when it comes to writing fiction is great, but if I don’t tell a story well, I might as well be shouting about the end times from a subway station for all the good it will do.

Is there a person in the world or the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

At the moment, I’d love to have breakfast with Isabel Allende. I’m enamored with everything about her, the quality of her fiction, her wisdom on ageing, and the way she lives her life. She understands political persecution and exile but is not broken or weighed down by it. Her fiction is light and natural, and in this age of heavyweight literary novels produced by MFA graduates, her stories feel effortless. I’d love to sit down with her in private and pick her brain on her process, and also ask about her love life, which is just as fascinating as her fiction.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Anat Deracine Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.