The first time anyone told me to change my name I think it was intended as a compliment. It was in a class on Nabokov, at a college in upstate NY, and my professor had a long, richly-vowelled Armenian name. He'd given us the option of writing something creative for our final papers, so I'd written an alternate ending to Lolita (in which Humbert repents).
The professor went around the room, commenting on each of our finals. When he got to mine, he shook his head and said, "If you start publishing, you'll need to write under a different name than Abu-Jaber. Otherwise, the book industry will keep you on the 'ethnic' shelf."
I didn't consider it for a second. Spending one's lifetime spelling, pronouncing, explaining, and generally standing by one's name tends to lash one to it. But there was another larger reason I ignored it and that was simply because I thought he was wrong.
This was in the mid eighties; I was 23, but I wasn't a complete nincompoop. I knew that racism and sexism were alive and well, along with all sorts of other bigotries and biases. But at that age, I was at loose in my imagination. I dabbled in writing Harlequin-style romances to boost my graduate funding; I moderated a group on postmodern feminism; I sang in a punk rock band; I tutored foreign exchange students. I tried on identities at will and saw no problem with doing so because I believed that America was a place of limitless imagination and expression. It was the place I'd been born and raised and I trusted it implicitly. Race and class might have been hard realities for some, but I believed that in our creativity we were all completely free.
On some level, I still believe this — that the only true limit is the one imposed by our own minds. But I also know now that there are many more gatekeepers out there than I'd ever dreamed of, and that — very, very often — being disciplined, determined, talented — and all those other noble immigrant values my Jordanian father loved — well, they aren't always enough to make the door open wide.
Whether it's called a "niche" or a "rut" may well depend on where a writer is in their career. A niche can be wonderful for helping a new author create an identity in the marketplace, but it can also quickly feel confining. A single work may establish you as the foremost scribe of the Maldives, but will you ever get to leave your island?
Several years ago, I spoke on a literary conference panel — let's called it "Women Writers of the Third World" — along with a woman from Mexico, a woman from Jakarta, and another American writer whose mother came from Korea. We all lived in the States and wrote in English. After our panel, the four of us went out to lunch. We were having coffee when the woman from Jakarta leaned forward and said, a bit tentatively, "I find these sorts of panels so interesting, but... well, I wonder if I'll ever be invited anywhere to speak as just a regular sort of writer-writer?" I think she was afraid that we'd be shocked, but we all chimed in, a chorus of frustration, "I know! Me, too!" The woman from Jakarta told us about a person at one reading who was upset that she'd appeared in American clothing and complained that she didn't seem "very authentic." I told them about the woman in one of my audiences who seemed very pleased after I'd read, announcing during the Q and A that I "wrote just like an Arab."
It turned out that the table right next to ours contained a group of women who'd been on another panel at the same conference. One of them leaned over and said that they were all sick to death of being labeled "Southern Lady Writers." The woman from Mexico said, "We'll trade with you! I'd rather have yours."
I'd rather not have any. But perhaps that's the way of the world — we need our shelves and categories — how else would we find our way around the bookshop? Maybe there really is no easy way to write "outside" such classifications. After all, many readers were startled when John Updike wrote a book from a Muslim teen's perspective: perhaps he gets tired of his white guy label — though somehow his identity box seems so much larger to me than others do.
Not only do I have doubts about the possibility of resisting classification, part of me also worries that it seems ungrateful or ungracious to even try, because classification gets mixed up with community. Up till recently, my novels tended to have an Arab-American component. But not long ago, a young reader told me she felt "upset" and "abandoned" after she heard that my new book would have no explicit link to my Middle Eastern heritage. "So you decided to cut and run," she said bitterly. "Us Arabs holding you back?"
I was flabbergasted. I have sometimes encountered odd, politically-edged reactions to my work; but I would have turned to other subject matter years ago, if I'd truly wanted to "cut and run." I told her that I wanted to write about all sorts of experiences and characters, and that psychically confining oneself struck me as a type of artistic death. She rolled her eyes. Exasperated, I asked, "Would you prefer that instead of writing an "American" book that I never wrote again?"
"Yes," she said.
But if there's pressure not to change, there's also the perception that writing from a "special interest" platform is somehow cheating, taking the easy way. When my novel Crescent came out, I was shocked at how often I was asked how I'd managed to so quickly whip out a novel responding to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. I didn't. It took me four years to write Crescent. I turned it into my publisher the week after 9/11, months before we started bombing Baghdad. But some readers imagined that I'd craftily engineered the whole book, somehow cashing in on my Arab heritage at a time of crisis.
Now, of course there are all sorts of cynically-engineered books out there — like the current spate of Muslim-bashing testimonials floating around that feed into the public fear and dread of that religion. This is not to say that I'm in any way some sort of apologist for fundamentalist Islamicists. Extremism of all sorts is usually a distortion: most of us can not and should not live in extremis. Life, in its beautiful complexity needs to be conducted in the rich gray areas, among choices, plenty, and variety.
And this, then, is where I think labels and limited imaginations can really hurt us. When we're willing to believe the simple-minded distinctions that are bandied about in the media — notions that all Muslims are terrorists, that if you look or sound a certain way then you will behave a certain way, or write a certain kind of book, or be a certain kind of person. This acquiescence to stereotypes is at the heart of the culture of fear which keeps so many of us imprisoned in mute alienation, afraid to travel, afraid of the Middle East, afraid of our own government, afraid to speak up or take risks — political, artistic, or personal.
When I first told my book editor that I was going to write Origin, a literary thriller (set in America with American characters) her first reaction was to say, "Great!" Then she frightened me by adding, "And it's brave." Unfortunately, I'm not really brave at all — just naïve. I didn't realize it might be seen as risky, to write a sort of book that your readers aren't expecting. At the time, it didn't seem like a stretch to write an "American" book — after all, I am an American. With a Jordanian last name.
In the long run, I suspect it's much scarier and more dangerous to try to stay inside what is "known." It reminds me of the days, post 9/11, when we were advised by our fearful leaders to seal our homes with duct tape in the event of a terrorist chemical or biological attack. Some friends who came to dinner brought us a bottle of wine and a house gift of duct tape; we laughed together ruefully and later the tape came in very handy when we had to reinforce some packing boxes. I suppose the lucky truth is that, in essence, there is no truly safe place. Our best option is to go out, into the world, into the imagination, and to try it all on. The joy of being alive is in daring to really live.
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Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Crescent, Arabian Jazz, and The Language of Baklava. Her most recent novel is Origin, which Booklist called "an utterly magnetic story....Readers seeking gorgeously rendered fiction as well as intelligent and atmospheric mysteries will find Origin extraordinary." She grew up in Syracuse and now divides her time between Portland, Oregon, and Miami, Florida.
Diana Abu-Jaber will read from Origin at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on Wednesday, July 11th, at 7:30PM.
Books mentioned in this post