A talk with one of Palestine’s leading children’s literature authors, Dr. Sonia Nimer

Arts and Culture
Her latest book, ‘Thunderbird,’ envisions Jerusalem as a phoenix rising again and again from the ashes of occupation ​

Literary experts, voracious readers, and professors from Birzeit University sat down with one of Palestine’s leading children’s literature authors, Dr. Sonia Nimer, who’s also an associate professor of philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit, on May 19, 2018. 

The discussion, held on campus at the university, was organized by the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies as the first of a series entitled “A Book and Author.” The series hosts prominent Palestinian authors, from Birzeit University and the broader Palestinian community, and highlights those writers’ literary journeys, and in the process, introduces them to new readers.

“This series will strengthen communication between students, readers, professors, and authors,” said Dr. Huda Awad, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies. “We hope that the next Sonia Nimer is sitting here with us. A student who’s going to rise like a phoenix and make us all proud, like our colleague Sonia did.” 

Renad Qubbaj, director general of the Tamer Institute for Community Education, noted in her speech that shedding a light on the efforts and works of Palestinian authors is one of the core missions of the Tamer institute, but that the main purpose is to increase readership among Palestinian youth. 

“We operate as a book-lending center, and ‘Thunderbird’ was one of our most sought-after books. As of today, it has been borrowed over 1000 times,” said Qubbaj, noting that Nimer was able to increase readership among young adults by a large margin. 

Qubbaj remarked that Nimer’s special relationship with the readers was one of the reasons behind her success as an author. “Sonia interacts with her readers in a special way, creating a lasting rapport that made her fans ask us repeatedly about her latest books. All we’re getting as of late is ‘When is Sonia Nimer publishing her book?’. I believe this is how successful authors approach their readers,” she added. 

One of Nimer’s students, Deema Yasser, a computer science major at Birzeit University, got up to the stage and talked about her experience with the established author, saying that she first read a book by Nimer in 11th grade, and wanted to enroll at Birzeit University to meet the professor. 

“One of the things I love about Dr. Nimer’s books is that they contain elements of the fantastical. It’s true that such a setting is mostly seen in international books and literary works, but Dr. Nimer beautifully weaves it in an original, authentic Palestinian template to which we can relate,” explained Yasser. 

Nimer, who wrapped up the introduction, gave a brief overview of her oeuvre and reviewed the connecting motif that links them all together, which is the human and the Palestinian in each one of them. 

Nimer explained the design and conception of her characters, stating: “Palestinians have to be superheroes, because we want to live, and this is why you find my characters with superhuman abilities, or in fantastic settings that can’t possibly happen. But the thing is, we Palestinians defy fantastic premises each and every day. We fight death, and we come out victorious. We are not afraid of death, but we love life.” 

Nimer won the 2018 Arabic Young Adult Book Award for her young adult novel, “Thunderbird,” at the tenth Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. “Thunderbird” has also been nominated for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, one of the Arab world’s biggest and most prestigious awards in children literature. In addition to that, Nimer has also been nominated for the annual Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s literature award. 

Her works, which include 16 children’s books, have garnered attention far and wide. “Wonder Travels in Mysterious Lands,” for example, was the winner of the 2014 Etisalat Award for the Young Adult category, and her novel, “A Little Piece of Ground,” co-written with famed children’s fiction author Elizabeth Laird, has received international praise and admiration. 

She has drawn extensively from Palestinian folklore and cultural heritage in works such as “Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories,” to which she adds her special touch of humor and comedy.