Postcolonial Women Writers 3.0: One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling 

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Published August 15th, 2011 by Pantheon
Hardcover – 320 pages


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Erotic, brutal, witty and poetic, One Thousand and One Nights are the never-ending stories told by the young Shahrazad under sentence of death to King Shahrayar. Maddened by the discovery of his wife’s orgies, King Shahrayar believes all women are unfaithful and vows to marry a virgin every night and kill her in the morning. To survive, his newest wife Shahrazad spins a web of tales night after night, leaving the King in suspense when morning comes, thus prolonging her life for another day. Written in Arabic from tales gathered in India, Persia and across the great Arab empire, these mesmerizing stories tell of the real and the supernatural, love and marriage, power and punishment, wealth and poverty, and the endless trials and uncertainties of fate. Now adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh the One Thousand and One Nights are revealed in an intoxicating new voice. —GOODREADS


One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling is a counter-narrative of stories passed down over centuries from India, Persia, and across the Arab world. Other versions include One Thousand and One Nights, Nights, Arabian Nights and more. Despite being a feminist counter-narrative to these earlier versions, a reader does not have to have read a prior version to understand the stories within One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling. Al-Shaykh does not cover all 1,001 of Shahrazad’s stories, but the 19 that she re-presents are beautiful, dark, and thought-provoking.


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Hanan al-Shaykh is a postcolonial woman writer who created a feminist retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. The stories contained in the retelling are geared towards survival through storytelling.

Al-Shaykh shows how ending stories on cliffhangers gives speakers power and agency over their fates by suggesting that there is a point beyond the story. By updating these stories, which are set before the Arab world was colonized, al-Shaykh injects them with a modern feminist approach, specifically regarding survival and the voice of women.

The main character and female narrator, Shahrazad, beds and tells stories with cliffhanging endings to keep King Shahrayar from killing her each morning. Sharazad recognizes the power she has over King Shahrayar and her own fate by telling stories with cliffhanging endings. This theme is important because Shahrazad is allowed power and voice—which many colonized women were not. However, Shahrazad can only tell her stories because King Shahrayar allows her to, which ostensibly takes some of her agency away, but also encourages her to use her voice to tell intriguing stories in order to survive.

To start a story and not survive to finish it would be the same as taking [someone] in a boat out into the middle of the sea, and then leaving [them] there without oars. But, if the King wishes to hear the story… and is willing to postpone my death, then I am ready to tell it… with great enthusiasm.” —al-Shaykh, 24

The story of Shahrazad is popular because she volunteers to be bedded and killed by the King, but is able to control her fate via her voice and imagination. Sharazad tells stories which have similar strands to her own and makes King Shahrayar change his opinion to view her favorably—this type of storytelling is the strongest aspect of the novel. Not only does she have power over King Shahrayar through her cliffhanging stories, but she is able to situate and control her position via the characters in the stories that she tells.

Through the cumulative impact of its interlocking stories, al-Shakyh’s Nights unfold as a battle of the sexes in which men are portrayed as authoritarian, jealous, and vengeful, but also lovesick and gullible, while women are portrayed as lubricious, cruel, and vindictive, but also sisterly. —PUBLIC BOOKS

The theme of storytelling in order to survive is really strong. Telling stories with cliffhangers in order to survive is a really interesting theme for a postcolonial novel. This theme sheds light on how the storyteller has power over their audience. Therefore, Shahrazad has control, even when it seems like she may not.

Al-Shaykh shows her female characters to be subject to social and sexual domination, but she also depicts them as losers on their own terms. —PUBLIC BOOKS

Survival is important to and recurring in postcolonialism. In other words, to be postcolonial means to have survived. Survival for postcolonial women means using their power, namely their voice, to ensure the continuity of their and their loved ones’ lives.

Al-Shaykh subverts colonization by creating a space where oppressed women can use their voices, imaginations, and stories—with cliffhangers and deception—in order to survive. 

The literary theorist David Damrosch has argued that “world literature” is not a fixed canon of universally known texts but a mode of circulation. World literature, he proposes, is literature that travels, changing shape and gathering luster in the process. This definition perfectly fits the Nights, whose geographic mobility has been interwoven with recurrent textual transformations. —PUBLIC BOOKS

I should have expected that One Thousand and On Nights: A Retelling would end on a cliffhanger. I cannot decide if I am disappointed with the ending or if I enjoy the ambiguity. However, as a postcolonial novel, an unresolved ending is powerful because it is a counter-narrative to the typical ‘perfect ending’ found in many books today.

By updating these ancient stories, al-Shaykh is able to take a modern feminist approach and show the power women have over their own survival, specifically through the use of their voices. By rejecting colonization, al-Shaykh designs stories where oppressed women can use their voices to show their authority and influence over their own lives. Through Shahrazad, al-Shaykh shows how storytelling—specifically ending stories on cliffhangers—and deceit can give the teller agency over their own fate.

I highly recommend this novel because every story is extremely unique, but they all have common strands. Every story is very interesting and different from what I typically read—this was a real page turner.


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