#20: ‘The Final Strife’ by Saara El-Arifi
In which I chat to a childhood friend about her debut novel...
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[Image description: Text ‘‘The Final Strife’ by Saara El-Arifi’ on a navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke highlighted segment]
[Image description: Author Saara El-Arifi wears a brightly coloured zip-up shirt and is looking out into the distance]
It’s UK publication day for Saara El-Arifi’s debut fantasy novel The Final Strife. Last month, I interviewed Saara for a profile for The Bookseller. Since Saara and I spent our late childhood and teens growing up together in a small northern English town (which was exceptionally white), as both of our families had settled there from abroad, and additionally, our mothers grew up together in Accra, Ghana, in the 1950s and 1960s, it means that, up to a point, we have a unique shared history.
The two of us hadn’t seen each other for a number years, and so when we saw each other’s faces on our video call we were excited. Saara peered hard into her screen to get a better look at my surroundings.
“Ah the room!”, she exclaimed.
I was doing the interview from my childhood bedroom, where during our tween- and teen-hood, we’d play games like, ‘Monopoly’, ‘Cluedo’ and ‘Dream Phone’ (for those who might not have heard of ‘Dream Phone’, the game came with a large pink phone and the object of the game was to find out which boy had a crush on you by dialling numbers and ‘talking’ to the boys to gather clues.).
[Image description: Vintage board game box for Dreamphone on a faux animal-skin throw]
The audio recording (above) and transcript (below) represent eight minutes from the middle of the interview I did with Saara where we painfully remembered our secondary school days in the noughties where we were both one of about three non-white folks in our respective year groups which housed of around 350 pupils.
I gushed about the breadth and depth of Saara’s imagination and the extract I’m sharing below picks up a thread about the horrors of colonialism that Saara has woven throughout her novel.
Almaz Ohene – 23:21mins
Okay, so would you be able to just repeat the King Leopold stuff again?
Saara El-Arifi – 23:26
Oh, yeah! So, I had no idea about King Leopold II, which is horrific because that should really be a staple of the curriculum. And I discovered that you know, the accounts differ but estimate around eight million slaves had no hands due to, kind of, a bartering system that happened where…
Because if you used a bullet you had to prove that you used a bullet in either self-defence or to discipline a slave. But soldiers wanted to use the bullets to hunt. So in order to then show that they’d killed the slaves they took the hand. And then King Leopold, asked for them to be smoked and burned. And returned him to count.
And so I took that, and I put it in the story. And I think that’s because I’ve had a few people – my mum – be like “Oh it’s very violent, the book”. And, you know, it’s all based in truth. There’s nothing, no suffering that I’ve represented on the page that actually doesn’t come from that history.
Almaz Ohene – 24:33mins
Saara El-Arifi – 24:33mins
And, you know, at the same time, I didn’t want this book to be just, you know, desolate. It is a terrible, terrible world, but I didn't want it to be like there was no hope.
Almaz Ohene – 23:46mins
Saara El-Arifi – 23:46mins
And that's where, like, this strive for rebellion comes. It is, more than anything, a story of hope. Because, more than anything, I wanted to show that there is so much light at the end of the tunnel, even when, like, there are shadows and colonialism, like, we can push past that.
Almaz Ohene – 25:08mins
This is another question that's not on the question list.
Saara El-Arifi – 25:12mins
Go for it.
Almaz Ohene – 25:13mins
But I want to ask you about at the beginning of each chapter, you have ephemera from the world.
Saara El-Arifi – 25:21mins
Almaz Ohene – 25:21mins
How long did it take you to come up with…
Almaz Ohene – 25:24mins
…all of these historical bits of writing?
Saara El-Arifi – 25:30mins
Almaz Ohene – 25:31mins
And, like, there's a recipe for groundnut soup.
Saara El-Arifi – 25:34mins
Saara El-Arifi – 25:34mins
I’ve gotta get that in there. Yeah, it was interesting. So because the world is so rich and unfamiliar. There aren't really many… When I say ‘unfamiliar’; ‘unfamiliar’ to Western audiences who are used to European fantasy. There aren't many like hallmarks…
Almaz Ohene – 25:49mins
Saara El-Arifi – 25:49mins
…that readers can, kind of, like, hang their hat on and go like “Okay, I understand that trope. I understand that genre-twisting element.” Like, you know, horses, they understand horses. Now, I’ll be like, “I’ve made a giant lizard.” Then we have to describe how that lizard works.
Almaz Ohene – 26:02mins
Saara El-Arifi – 26:02mins
You know, there’s certain things that I didn’t help myself.
But it was actually really fun. The epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, yeah, they’re, like, themed on each chapter. But also.. and it was easy because there was so much in this world that I could write about.
Almaz Ohene – 26:18mins
Saara El-Arifi – 26:18mins
And there were things that I knew that I wanted the reader to learn more about.
Almaz Ohene – 26:22mins
Saara El-Arifi – 26:22mins
You know, a lot of readers will skip past them, and that’s absolutely fine. But some readers will read them all.
Almaz Ohene – 26:29mins
Saara El-Arifi – 26:29mins
And they’ll learn twist that they have no idea of coming in book two or three. And so I think it was fun to play around with, like, ‘Easter eggs’ here and there
And then also the framing of the whole novel, which, when you get to the twist, you’ll understand a little bit more. But the novel is framed into five parts which are based on phases, of colonisation.
Almaz Ohene – 26:56mins
Saara El-Arifi – 26:56mins
And that was really interesting to me. Like, most people will go “Oh, that’s a phase of colonisation”. But for me adding that depth to each theme and each part of the novel was really important.
Almaz Ohene – 27:12mins
Yeah. It works really well.
Saara El-Arifi – 27:14mins
Ahh, I still find it so weird when people are like “I’ve read your book”. Just stop!? Please stop!?
Almaz Ohene – 27:19mins
Okay, so, please can you describe your writing process. Which bits do you love the most? And which bits do you find a drag?
Saara El-Arifi – 27:33mins
So, I don’t plot. Which people are like “What?” I don’t plot at all. I literally just write, and I write, and I write, and I write. And that’s, for me, the best bit.
I don’t know what’s coming next. In Book Two there was this character who had a glove on for, like, five chapters. I was like “I don’t know why he’s got one glove.”
I was like “Jim [Saara’s husband], I don't understand why he’s got one glove.”
Almaz Ohene – 28:01mins
Saara El-Arifi – 28:01mins
In the next chapter, he takes off his glove. Oh my goodness. I can’t tell you because, it’s a spoiler.
Almaz Ohene – 28:07mins
Saara El-Arifi – 28:07mins
But wow, there was something under the glove, and I did not know.
Almaz Ohene – 28:10mins
Saara El-Arifi – 28:10mins What was gonna be there. And that’s, kind of, my process. Like, I actually don’t know These characters, it sounds so douche-y, but they, like, talk to me [scoffs].
And I’m just like “Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe what she just did”. And Jim will be like “You wrote that.” So that’s definitely the funnest bit.
I think editing the first book was much more difficult than editing the second book, which I’m sick of now, because I’ve grown as a writer so much more.
The first draft of The Final Strife was 70,000 words. It’s now 170,000 words. So in edits it grew a huge amount.
So that was a slog for me because it was, like learning how to write, whilst also expecting to be a published author.
Almaz Ohene – 28:50mins
Saara El-Arifi – 28:50mins
So I was like “Oh, I’ve got to get better at writing, but I also have to get the story into a good place. That was hard, but now I actually enjoy most of it.
Actually, the hardest bit is just knowing when the books out there when people are reading it, that’s, like… I honestly want to peel off my skin.
Almaz Ohene – 29:08mins
Saara El-Arifi – 29:08mins
I just hate it!
Almaz Ohene – 29:15mins
Who do you write for? In terms of your intended audience and also in terms of legacy-making?
Saara El-Arifi – 29:22mins
Oh, legacy-making. For a long time, I think I was writing for Sally [Saara’s younger sister].
Almaz Ohene – 29:30mins
Saara El-Arifi – 29:30mins
I think it was really interesting for me, particularly the first book that I wrote that never got published. It was always about what I had gone through growing up. I was always trying to make her smile, try to make her laugh. So I used to tell her stories or read her books, and I’d often progress from what was on the page. And so it became, like, this relationship where it was very much, like, I was the storyteller.
And so when I did start writing, it was always for her. Like, how can I make her happy? Now she’s happy so [chuckles]
Now it’s very much like The Final Strife was very much like an ode to me more than anything. For me it was, like, finding my identity. It was finding own feet in a world outside of this one. In terms of, like, the legacy, gosh, I just hope that other authors out there who are like, “as a woman of colour, I’m never going to be able to do this”. Really find out that they can.
Like, they can just read this book and go actually “A-ha, I can do this. I can just go batshit crazy. Build an entire totally different world.” And we’ll buy it.
They won’t buy it quickly, but they will buy it. And I’m just so hopeful. You know I’ve had early readers, contact me and say, you know, “This has meant so much.” Like it’s very rare that I’m gonna find someone from my exact heritage, West Africa and Sudan and Britain. But there are people from different parts of the world who have been like, “Wow, this has been amazing”, “This has meant a lot to me”.
And it’s proved to me that I can write about my own heritage in different ways. So yeah, I don’t necessarily want to be a wave-maker. I don’t think I’m gonna be, but I think just giving people the opportunity to see there’s so much more out there.
[CONVERSATION CONTINUES FOR ANOTHER 15 MINUTES]
Below image: Almaz and Saara hanging out in a central London cafe in May 2022.
[Image description: Almaz (L) and Saara (R) are wearing glasses, have their afro-textured hair tied up and are looking at the camera. A digital image of Saara’s novel, ‘The Final Strife’ has been photoshopped into the image between them]
Order The Final Strife here: linktr.ee/SaaraElArifi. And look out for pictures from tonight’s book launch event on Saara’s social media channels: Instagram: @saaraelarifi; Twitter: @saaraelarifi.
[Image description: composite image of UK and US editions of ‘The Final Strife’]
[Image description: Text ‘PRODUCED BY’ on navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke]
I’m Almaz Ohene, a Creative Copywriter, Freelance Journalist and Accidental Sexpert.
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– For Refinery29, I interviewed emerging film writer–director Jessica Magaye and chatted abouthow young, Black directors are leading a new wave of British films
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