Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson
For the last three years, since I’ve belonged to my current book club, our founder, C, has mentioned Jean Sasson’s Princess each time it’s been her turn to pick. And we’ve managed to thwart or redirect her every time. This last time, she would not be stopped. The Chancellor and C’s best friend A let out audible groans when she conference-called us during one book club meeting to announce her choice. I decided to just throw it back, Bridesmaids style, so I wouldn’t get bogged down.
If you ever want to know about the fundamentals of white feminism, appropriation, and Orientalism, this book unironically crams it all in!!!!!!
Sigh. It really does.
Sasson is the author of credit here, though it is supposedly the true story of Sultana, a pseudonym for a relative of the Saudi king who grows up a young woman in Saudi Arabia. Princess follows her adolescence and marriage, as well as her husband’s shocking announcement that he plans to take a second wife to have more children, despite his vow to marry only her. She decides to matters in her own hands and thus makes a shocking break with protocol to fulfill her own destiny. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, actually, though it is pretty interesting.
This book was published in 1992, so I have to give it that much credit for at least bringing to white women’s attention the conditions in fundamentalist countries. That said, however, there were issues of authenticity—if this is Sultana’s story and she’s already using a pseudonym, why cannot she tell her story with the help of Sasson? Clearly, she has enough free time to tell Sasson her story? Otherwise, it just looks kind of sketchy. Sasson’s “authorship” calls into question a true story, and if it’s a true story, Sasson’s authorship looks like appropriation of a story for her individual gain. And because Sasson is white, this impression is amplified. I feel icky thinking about it.
I had other issues with the book—namely, that the episodic nature made me wonder about the nature of truth and storytelling. Did all these events happen to Sultana in this order, or was Sasson trying to drum up sympathy from her white readers? Is this white tourism of Saudi women? Finally, cannot Saudi or Arab women tell their own stories? And isn’t it our responsibility to listen? I did not care for this book, but it gave me a lot to think about.