This lyrical hybrid memoir revisits a lifetime's worth of personal journals to slowly piece together a narrative of chronic illness—a moving account of survival, memory, loss, and hope.
Shahd Alshammari is just eighteen when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and told by her neurologist that she would not make it past age thirty. Despite what she is told, by thirty, she has become a professor of literature, and has managed to navigate education systems in both Kuwait and the United Kingdom and inspire generations of students.
Head above Water is the painstaking, philosophical memoir of Shahd Alshammari's life of triumph and resistance, as the daughter of a Palestinian mother and Bedouin father, as a woman marked "ill" by society, and as a lifelong reader, student, and teacher. Charting her journey with raw honesty, Shahd explores disability, displacement, and belonging—not only of the body, but of culture, gender, and race, and imparts wisdom of profound philosophical value throughout. It is people, human connections, that keep us afloat, she argues—"and in storytelling we have the power to gain a sense of agency over our lives."
"A necessary and beautiful account of life with a sometimes-invisible and unpredictable disability, complicated by both patriarchy and racism, as well as a professor's love letter to the act of teaching and being taught." —Marcia Lynx Qualey, ArabLit
"Shahd Alshammari’s Head above Water is a welcome addition to the growing body of illness narratives. She conveys eloquently and candidly the randomness of her multiple sclerosis, communicating what it’s like to live in her body—Arab, female, disabled—and how her illness has shaped her education and her life as an academic. Her prose is at once lively and deadly serious, vividly somatic and deeply thoughtful, highly engaging. Her book succeeds at a difficult endeavor: narrating chronic illness without imposing a false narrative arc on that experience." —G.T. Couser, author of Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing
"This is a rich, lyrical, honest account of living with a chronic, painful condition which deals with pain and loss, and yet is a joy to read." —Catherine Simpson, author of One Body
"Shahd Alshammari's memoir of life with MS is one of the first distinctly 21st century illness narratives. She situates chronic illness at the intersection of issues that include gender, exile, medical experimentation, and the politics of the Middle East." —Arthur W. Frank, author of At the Will of the Body
"Beautifully written. . . . The book offers numerous anecdotes filled with trials and tribulations, historical narratives and childhood dreams, and above all human moments that remind us that wherever we lie on the spectrum of being fully able-bodied human beings or significantly disabled we all share similar fears and more importantly hopes." —Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation
"A breakthrough narrative on dealing with a chronic illness. Conversational in tone, yet candid and probing in nature, Head above Water fills a gap in disability narratives by Arab Women." —Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, author of Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies