Intrepid 2GQ reporter Nora McCrea interviews authors Diana Abu-Jaber (Arabian Jazz, Language of Baklava) and Laila Lalami (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Moorishgirl.com; pictured right), exploring the mysteries of polycultural identity and community.
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Diana Abu-Jaber, Laila Lalami, and the Superhuman Reader
by Nora McCrea
“To be American is to embrace complexity and difference.” Diana Abu-Jaber’s voice radiates a hard-won clarity even through email. I recently talked with Abu-Jaber and Laila Lalami—one an acclaimed author and teacher, the other a promising new talent—about what it’s like to be an Arab-American writing living and working in the Northwest, confronting intersections of community, polycultural identity, and language.
Abu-Jaber broke out in 1994 with Arabian Jazz, a tale of motherless Arab-Irish sisters marking time with their Jordanian father in white-trash upstate New York. Born in upstate New York and raised there and in Jordan, Abu-Jaber migrated to Oregon in the 1990s and finished the novel. It was hailed by the Library Journal for “its fine depiction of Arab Americans,” going on to win the Oregon Book Award and place finalist for the National PEN/Hemingway Award. She followed that with Crescent, half love story—the heart burns in inner LA between Hanif, the hunky soulful Iraqi professor in exile and Sirine, serial monogamist and quiet-eyed orphaned Iraqi-American chef—and half a re-telling of Othello starring Omar Sharif as a character out of one of Scheherazade’s thousand stories set in Saddam’s Iraq. Crescent took the PEN Award for Fiction, the American Book Award, and a place on Christian Science Monitor list of Best Novels of 1993. Her recent memoir, Language of Baklava, cut deep into the meat of food and cultural memory within her family, both Jordanian and German-American, winning her a 2005 nomination for the Oregon Book Award. A self-described gypsy, Abu-Jaber has lived in New York, Jordan, Florida, and Oregon, and currently teaches as a writer-in-residence at Portland State University.
Laila Lalami, on the other hand, debuted in 2005 with her first short story collection. As she tells it, she was not supposed to be a writer. Moroccan born and raised, she trained in linguistics first in London and then in Los Angeles, where she worked as a computational linguist. However, when she turned thirty, she decided to do what she had always wanted to do: write. Lalami had turned out stories and poems since a child, but “I was supposed to be a doctor or lawyer, something really sensible…I was claimed by art.” She and her family moved to Portland, Oregon, to make it possible for them to live off her husband’s income. During the first six years she was writing full-time, her literary blog, Moorishgirl, was the subject of articles in US Today and the Washington Post, which probably served her well in winning a two-book deal with Algonquin Books for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Detailing the events leading up to four Moroccans’ illegal crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar in a flimsy dinghy and the fallout of their capture afterwards by the Spanish authorities, her debut received wide review in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, NPR, the Library Journal, Bust, People, and Elle. Being claimed by art has paid off.
Culture Is a Two-Way Mirror
As put forth in Language of Baklava, Abu-Jaber’s childhood veered from eating goat-rice mensaf off a communal platter with the Bedu branch of her father’s family in Jordan’s Amman valley to her Gram’s Easy Cheezy Macaroni and angel food cake in a NYC apartment. Abu-Jaber’s work is marked by a profound sense of “in-betweenness” as she put it in an interview with Andrea Shalal-Esa, although this seems not particularly a conflict of religion, language, or even politics. Instead, the protagonists in her books seem conflicted at the most visceral levels: about sex, love, music, dance, and above all, food.
In other words, they are ambivalent about their sense of self, and this self is ambiguous to others as well. Crescent’s Sirine cooks a walnut-pomegranate stew that makes an Irani neighbor forgive the Iraq-Iran conflict enough to eat at her table. Arab students and immigrant laborers line up before the restaurant opens because her food tastes like back home to them, the same cuisine she herself grew up eating. But her wild hair curls blonde over blue-white skin, and she has her American mother’s aqua eyes. Hanif makes her a meatloaf All-American Dinner on their first date because she seems “so American” to him. It’s as if her cultural identity shifts depending on who’s looking at her, a feeling Abu-Jaber talked about with Shalal-Esa: “If I don’t look like it, am I not it?”
This in-betweenness started out at home for Abu-Jaber (pictured left), having to act Arab within the family and American in the outside world. In Arabian Jazz, neither sister can be induced to marry the long string of Jordanian cousins brought before them, nor does Jemorah fall for the older American guy who gets himself adopted by her family. Jemorah’s racist boss bemoans that Jem’s American mother produced these children who do not look American enough, while the sisters’ aunt upbraids them for not dressing more traditionally feminine. Like Sirine, they are reluctant to commit themselves to love or even that much sex, maybe because then they would have to define themselves more narrowly, to choose. Jemorah falls into a fling with a poor, white drop-out seemingly because he induces in her a feeling of birds escaping, of running away. Abu-Jaber herself says she wanted “to belong to one country and one identity…it wasn’t until I got to college that I began to see that there might be other ways of being in the world.”
Abu-Jaber's uses food, above all else, to make complex comments on culture and identity. She has commented that cooking is a form of talking while eating is a form of listening, the former being her father’s primary mode and the latter her mother’s. Sirine similarly remarks in Crescent that “tasting a piece of bread that someone bought is like looking at that person, but tasting a piece of bread that they baked is like looking out of their eyes,” to which an Arabic poetry professor from Syria replies, “Your cooking reveals America to us non-Americans. And vice versa.” Take that together with Hanif’s statement that perhaps it isn’t “possible—or desirable—to have an identity [as a writer] apart” from this fusion of place, and writing starts looking like sustenance, like a taking of cultural transmission into the body of the self with all the co-mingling that implies.
The Superhuman Reader
Lalami has spent summers revisiting her native Morocco, but her sojourn first to Europe and then America has given her “this sort of outsider/insider perspective. You notice things you might not have noticed before.” Though she may not have started out with a multiplicity of identity, she now sees Morocco as her homeland and the United States as her country.
Her adopted country has a long history of treating the “exotic Other” with artistic flourishes. The Beats’ history of writing about Morocco, hashish-glazed and dusty with sex, is actively lampooned in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits when a college grad with a BA in English and no job prospects dons a jellaba to hook hippie backpackers with lines about Paul Bowles. Because she writes in English, the expectations of her audience does not always peacefully coexist with her characters as they make their way in the fallout of post-colonialism and globalization. Lalami says she’d write fiction in Arabic if she could. “It’s one thing to write about Morocco in French, the language of the colonizer, and then yet another to write about it one degree removed, in English.” Saudi author Raja Alem once told Lalami that she would like to write for the superhuman reader, the one with no expectations.
Lalami has had particular problems with expectations of description in foreign settings such as the one she write about, Morocco. It’s common in workshop at conferences or in writing classes for the group to offer fixes for perceived problems in the manuscript, places where the writer is felt not to communicate their intended world to the reader. In Lalami’s experience with workshops, she often felt that the other students were bringing an unspoken agenda to their reading of her text. “There are basically three topics people are familiar with: the veil, terrorism, and Islam. When they read something else, they have questions.” One workshop member suggested that she move the setting of her book to Florida because it would be “easier to relate to the boat people.” Another encouraged her to “describe the rugs more.” Lalami's is a spare vision, even to me, yet not dissimilar to other dismantlers of the colonial past such as V.S. Naipaul. Lalami views herself as writing for readers “who are sort of like me,” either of Moroccan background or internationalists interested in things unfamiliar to them in another culture.
The sole workshop experience where she felt a sense of community was the San Fransisco-based Voices of Color conference, mainly because “it’s very important to share your work with people of the same background. They will call you on your shit.” She particularly found it useful in parsing choices of language in description: in other words, in navigating choices of representation. Lalami felt it helped her “to seek out the truth of [her] characters’ lives” rather than pander to what a particular audience might like to see.
Community as Mosaic
This exoticization of the odalisque Other can work in writers’ favor sometimes. Recent years have seen English-language fiction by Alaa Al Aswany, Firoozeh Dumas, Sayed Kashua, Marjane Satra, and many others in print. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has been first on the trade paperback’s bestseller list for months as of this writing, and Salman Rushdie rightly enjoys a prolific career. However, this trend has dropped off as 9/11 recedes in memory, according to Publisher’s Weekly, and Abu-Jaber points out that “as far as mainstream publishing goes, the Arab-American literary community is tiny.”
Not to mention that certain visions, as Lalami’s experiences imply, are difficult to place with publishers for mainstream audiences. Crescent was Abu-Jaber’s replacement for her original second book for Norton, Memories of Birth, which discussed the war crimes committed against Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948—crimes some would say continue to this day. Abu-Jaber has also taken hits from the Arab-American community for getting various details of character or setting “wrong,” or, in fact, different: for failing to represent them as they would wish to be seen. Lalami commented that she certainly doesn’t feel misrepresented by Abu-Jaber, but that “where it comes from is that when the image of your identity that you’re confronted with is denigrated on a daily basis, it turns the community overly sensitive…so that when someone in the community criticizes it, it’s experienced as betrayal.” Lalami is pleased that Algonquin is marketing her book as mainstream literary fiction, rather than specifically as an Arab-American book. “I haven’t experienced [what Abu-Jaber has], but we’ll see.”
Whether any book can be “taken for what it is on its own,” as Lalami hopes, is an open question. The Arab world alone represents 200 million people with widely differing cultures. Lalami schooled me that even Moroccans are in fact an integration of Jewish, Arab, and Berber ethnicities over the centuries. For Abu-Jaber, America in particular has “an inherently mosaic identity.” When she goes to Jordan, she returns all the more “confirmed as an American with America’s mixed-up value system and language and peoples.” If identity shifts in the eyes of the beholder, than what can it mean to take a book on its own? Perhaps only this, that in reading something that imparts a specific experience, it’s possible to ingest a cultural transmission and make it a little part of our ever complex selves.
Portland-based writer and performer Nora McCrea takes cultural identity and representation to the mat in her work. She grew up in a bi-cultural Jewish-Scotch Protestant family in Oregon and spent 1996-97 teaching ESL in Romania and singing with the Jewish community choir. She is presently writing a novel, Diary of Light and Shadow, based on her experiences.