A Q&A With Nevien Shaabneh, Author Of “Secrets Under The Olive Tree”

Today, I want to introduce you all to Nevien Shaabneh, a Palestinian-American author who we may not often see in the book blogging community, but who certainly deserves our attention. She published her debut novel, Secrets Under The Olive Tree, in 2015 and has been been working on her sophomore novel alongside her activism and teaching.

Below is the Q&A I did with the author. Read it to become more familiar with her debut novel and with Nevien as a writer. And be sure to read up on the info for Secrets Under The Olive Tree  at the end of the Q&A. Add it to your Goodreads TBR and perhaps review it for #ReadDiverse2017!

Q&A With Nevien Shaabneh

Please tell us a little about yourself and your book, Secrets Under The Olive Tree.

I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Chicago. Books have always been an important aspect of my life. I submersed myself in reading all throughout my childhood. It was a genuine thirst to understand the world around me, yet also a form of escaping it at the same time. It would be an understatement to say that the books I read shaped who I am today.

Secrets Under the Olive Tree is my debut novel as a writer. My main character, Layla, is young Palestinian girl whose entire life has been shrouded in mystery. She learns all too well the vulnerabilities of being an immigrant in the United States and the capability of cruelty at the hands of her abusive father. Layla’s journey transcends her culture and religion (although they are aspects of the story), but more importantly touches on topics of sacrifice and struggle that many people can relate to. Ultimately, it’s a story about resilience and hope in spite of formidable obstacles.


As the idea for the book formed in your mind, what came first, the characters or the story?

The characters came first. I had this vision of a young girl about eight years old sitting under a table as her mother and friends made a traditional Palestinian dish called warek dawalee. The dish entails rolling grape leaves around a rice and meat mixture. It is tedious to make and many women choose to gather and prepare the dish together. I thought about this young girl, who came to be Layla, and envisioned all the stories she would hear as she sat under this table. The women’s laughter would eventually intermingle with tears and it tapped into the idea of how much we learn from the women around us, and how we shape our daughters in ways that eventually impact their lives. Initially, I wrote it as a short story. But as the characters developed in my mind, the story grew, and I let it lead the way to the end.


Give us insights into one of the book’s main characters, Layla Anwar. What makes Layla interesting or unique?

Readers get insight about Layla as a child, teen, and eventually as an adult woman. In many ways, the reader journeys with her and experiences her grievances and setbacks along the way. I am told by many readers that her personal growth in the novel is cathartic for them. Because Layla’s hardships in many ways become almost palpable to the reader, her healing in a way serves to heal the reader as well. Because the book is written in a series of flashbacks, the reader is given insight about Layla’s life and decisions along the way. Although she endures abuse, assault, and betrayal, Layla is able to gain the perspective needed to move on. Early in the novel, she succumbs to the idea of fate but ultimately learns she plays a major role in her own destiny.


How important are names in your writing? Do you choose them because you like the way they sound, are memorable, or because they have a meaning behind them?

Some names I chose because they just fit with the image of the character in my mind. Layla’s name came to mind in this manner as so did most of the names. Some characters in the book do have symbolic names. For example, the name Malik means king in Arabic. The name Faris is equivalent to a knight or horseman. These names do serve definite purposes and represent the characters’ roles in the book.


Secrets seem to be an important motif in Secrets Under The Olive Tree. Other than the title itself, “secrets” is used three times in the book description! Why did you want to write a story centered around secrets?

Many people keep secrets. Most likely not as dramatic and harrowing as the secrets in my novel, but even when we suppress our true feelings we are keeping secrets. I find the private lives that people keep to be intriguing. I have always been keenly aware of the public vs. private life personas people have whether with celebrities or politicians. And it is this keen awareness that I had ever since I was a child that propelled me to read books. I still pick up every book believing it will tell me a secret. That somehow I will be privy to a story that is kept within its pages.

Secrets bring us closer together. They are intimate and personal, and I wanted to share an intimate and personal experience with my readers. To invite them into a world and allow them to experience the emotions of the characters within it. Secrets rattle us and force us to rethink the status quo. They propel us to change and reevaluate what we hold as truth. I have had readers greet me with a firm hug because they felt we were connected. And we are connected through these secrets and through this novel. In essence we cried, we laughed, and we uncovered something important. I think that is very special. It’s an honor to be able to share this with my readers.


In the current political climate in the U.S., how do you view your role as a writer?

What an important question! I think all writing is activism. Literature is able to sensitize what has been desensitized in our society. Chimamanda Adichie profoundly conjectures “Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Writers, especially those who come from marginalized communities, have the opportunity to offer the many different stories that make up our communities. Often times, misconceptions come from what Ms. Adichie accurately titles as the “Danger of a Single Story.” In this current political climate, it is even more imperative to offer many differing and varying stories. We have to do this until, all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or color, are seen as individuals and given the chance to tell their stories and not TOLD their stories.


Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer? If so, what do you do during the day?

I consider myself a full time writer. In addition to writing, I teach literature to 11th and 12th graders, I am a public speaker on matters relating to writing and the minority experience in this country especially regarding the Muslim and Arab-American experience. I am an advocate for the empowerment of women and believe in intersectionality when discussing women’s rights and all rights for that matter.


What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

This really does not apply to me. My first job was teaching and I love it. Before teaching, I mostly volunteered my time on committees in my community and worked with youth.


Do you have any writing rituals?

I write in stillness. It has to be completely silent when I write. My phone is turned off; the house must be empty or quiet. Because of this, I write either late into the night when everyone is asleep, or early in the morning as the sun rises. This is when a story is born.


Does your schedule allow much time for reading fiction? What are some of your favorite novels or authors and why?

I make time for books! Some of my favorite books are A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings Maya Angelou, Their Eyes Are Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Ann Tyler and so much more. I am drawn to books that either take place in a different country or bring me into a world different than mine. Books that spark discussion about race, culture, history, society, and as for Anne Tyler’s book, family, are books that are worth reading. Vladimir Nabokov (most famously recognized for writing Lolita) believed the premise of a great writer is to combine three aspects: storyteller, teacher, enchanter. I read from writers who encompass these three characteristics, and I aspire to embody them as well.


Secrets Under The Olive Tree was your debut novel. Should we expect another work of fiction this year or the next?

Yes! I finished my second novel, and I am already starting on a third project! Readers can follow me for more information on my upcoming novel and works to come. I am also on Goodreads and my book can be bought at your local bookstore or ordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Secrets Under The Olive Tree – by Nevien Shaabneh


Book blurb – from Goodreads:

“We are a people who tell stories, Layla. You will now have your own story to tell.”


Layla Anwar is a young Palestinian born into a land plagued with war and an apartheid regime. She knows all too well what it means to be an outcast, second class in a country she calls home. But Layla is also an outsider within her village and family. Whispers surround her growing up… ones that mask the secrets her family has kept for generations.


Secrets and subjugation continue to plague Layla’s adolescence and young adult life after the move to America, as the monsters of her past threaten to break the relationships she most cherishes. A lifetime of tragedy haunts her until she is forced to confront the truth and rectify the mistakes that have shaped her destiny. Layla uncovers the unholiest of secrets on her path to redemption as she discovers the truth of her family’s history.


Secrets Under the Olive Tree is a haunting, mesmerizing novel that touches on the depths of the human spirit and unbreakable bonds that transcend tragedy. It is a story about the power of hope, second chances, and faith in the midst of tribulation.

Buy from: Book Depository | Indie Bound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Add on Goodreads

Secrets Under the Olive Tree

About The Author (From Goodreads)
Nevien Shaabneh authorNevien Shaabneh is a novelist, public speaker, and educator.

Nevien is a firm believer in the power of literature and the arts. She works with youth in inspiring expression and social action through writing.

Nevien graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s in English Education and from Saint Xavier with a Masters in Arts.

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27 thoughts on “A Q&A With Nevien Shaabneh, Author Of “Secrets Under The Olive Tree”

  1. On my TBR! Thank you for sharing this Q&A and thank you to Nevien. I particularly loved Nevien’s first vision of Layla, sitting under the table, listening to the many stories, joys, challenges, and sorrows. I will definitely be reading Secrets Under The Olive Tree and looking forward to her second novel.

  2. What a beautiful way to discuss the relationship between books – as holders of secrets – and readers. And a wonderful list of favourite writers. (Something I find so intriguing about Anne Tyler’s books is that they are all very loosely interconnected, characters crossing between them, sometimes decades apart.) Thanks for such an inspiring interview!

  3. Wow, this sounds incredible + BEAUTIFUL cover. I recently read Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah, one of my new favourite books, which is set in West Bank and Jerusalem and touches on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict — so this sounds like a great one to follow up with and expand my knowledge of the Middle East. Loved the interview Qs too, especially the one about her role as a writer in the current political climate. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Wonderful interview! Secrets Under the Olive Tree sounds like an interesting and important book (I’m glad you addressed the current political climate in the interview). I see writing as a form of activism too, though some writing is simply escapist entertainment, which I also think is important in our current climate. Sometimes we just need a break to recharge.

  5. I love your interviews, Naz! You always have incredibly insightful questions. I love adding recommendations to my TBR for your interviews. Keep asking for those recommendations. 😉

    Ms. Shaabneh — It sounds like you’ve had Secrets Under the Olive Tree in your mind for a while. How long did it take you to write the book? And are your new books going to relate to this, or be completely different?

  6. Excellent Q&A as per usual Naz!

    I really liked how you asked her about being a writer during current political climate in the U.S. today. I loved her response…

    “In this current political climate, it is even more imperative to offer many differing and varying stories. We have to do this until, all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or color, are seen as individuals and given the chance to tell their stories and not TOLD their stories.”

    What an inspiration she is! I had never heard of this book before this but it is now on my radar! Added to my TBR. Thank you for bringing her to my attention!

  7. I really like the image of learning from under the kitchen table. When I taught African American lit, I used an anthology that had an essay about the importance of black girls learning from the mother, aunts, and neighbors what life means from conversations overheard in the kitchen.

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