Diana Abu-Jaber's paternal grandmother hailed from Bethlehem; her grandfather came from a Bedouin family that has long called Jordan home. Her father, originally Syrian Orthodox, converted to Islam after moving to America. Abu-Jaber grew up in a little town outside Syracuse, New York, raised with so many of her father's memories that she felt as if she'd also grown up in Jordan. Life was a constant juggling act, acting Arab at home but American in the street. The struggle to make sense of this sort of hybrid life, or "in-betweenness," permeates Abu-Jaber's fiction. These days, she teaches creative writing at Portland State University in Oregon, and she freelances as a food critic, a job that occasionally finds her yearning for a simple bowl of cauliflower. In addition, she writes columns and essays for publications like the Washington Post
and The Oregonian
In a wide-ranging interview conducted in Washington during a conference at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Abu-Jaber discussed Crescent, her new book project, the trials of "Memories of Birth," and her views on the state of Arab-American literature.
What was the genesis of Crescent?
I was teaching a class in Middle Eastern culture at UCLA as a guest lecturer, in 1995. The class was filled with students who were all either Arab or Iranian Americans and they were all very interested in identity work, in finding out about their cultures or their parents. Almost none of them could speak Arabic or Farsi. They didn't know, they were just really eager to learn. It was uplifting. I was energized, and that's when I started writing the novel....There really is this little Lebanese café in the heart of the section of town they called the Tarantula. I remember thinking How interesting, it's Lebanese but it's an Iranian part of town. I started thinking about how cafés create their own cultural environment, their own micro cultures. I knew I wanted to write about food, I wanted to write about Arabic food. And I'm a food critic too.
Crescent is about a woman who's Iraqi-American and she's a chef. She cooks in an Arabic restaurant in Los Angeles and she falls in love with an Iraqi immigrant. He's kind of mysterious. He teaches linguistics at UCLA. It explores a little bit about the question of exile. That's one of my literary obsessions what a painful thing it is to be an immigrant. How when you leave your home country, you don't really know what it is that's about to happen to you. What an incredible experience and journey it is. And how for a lot of people it can be a real process of loss.
You've written a great deal about food. It seems to be very important to you.
I've taught these sorts of classes before, and always the favorite subject is food always. Belly dancing is up there, but...food is such a great human connector, it's so intimate. And Middle Eastern food, when it's done well, is amazing. I thought...let the food be a metaphor for their experience. And I want people to relate to it through the beauty and the passion of the senses, the sensory joy of the novel and the beauty of Arabic cooking....I'm close to my family, and I find that I have an almost instinctive drive to re-create family, to re-create an intellectual and an artistic gathering. I've been trying to explore that in my own writing. And that's why food has been such an important metaphor. To me, that's one of the most immediate and powerful ways of creating the metaphor of the hearth and a gathering place, a place where the collective forms.
How do you situate your writing in the context of everything that's been done globally on exile? What's the interplay between the concept of exile and immigration?
I feel that especially in the political gestalt we're in right now, exile has become a particularly pointed question, more so than immigration. Immigration, at least from the Arab-American point of view, was just more innocent and I don't want to say naïve but it had a kind of hopefulness and optimism that wasn't as charged by issues of race and politics as it is now. Particularly for Palestinians and Iraqis, a lot of them are not choosing to emigrate, but rather they're fleeing political persecution or they've lost their homes. It's an act that is not entirely of their own volition. I'm very interested in what the loss of a homeland means for someone.
I haven't read a lot of people who've gone specifically into this question as Arab exiles. There's a critic whose work I really like who talks about that, Homi Bhabha. Some of the things he said about exile were very meaningful for me. He talked about how for contemporary immigrants and exiles, what you can have in your life, instead of home culture, is a new tribe. That you look to other writers and intellectuals and artists who are experiencing the same sorts of political exigencies and angst and maybe they're not even literally exiles, but they feel exiled from their communities and they come together in a modern regrouping, a new kind of tribal gathering. That has been a very poignant way of looking at exile for me. When you're faced with not being allowed to return to your homeland, perhaps there is a way that you can resituate yourself. And Edward Said is very emblematic of someone who does that. He makes a home in his writing and in the academic community, and when I read his work, I feel an intellectual home that's there. It's incredibly comforting to me.
How does race play out in your new novel?
It's an issue. When I started writing it, I had the idea of working from the Othello story. I wanted to sort of retell Othello, where instead of having Othello be the Moor, he's Arab. So I really had the idea of race very strongly in my head. The Iraqi professor I described as being very dark. However, I rewrote it and I took all the direct allusions to Othello out.
Why did you rewrite it?
When I wrote it the first time, I really was trying to rewrite Othello. But it's a very hard story to transplant to a modern version because it's so dramatic and it relies so much on the idea of villainy and heroism. When you try to do that in a modern context, well, it's almost like Freud wrecked it for everybody. After Freud there are no more villains. We understand each other too much unless of course, you're Arab. We have too much understanding about the unconscious and about family history, so everything has to be subtler and more complex. And so, the closer I got to the characters, the more I saw, well, the villain really isn't a villain, actually he's suffering too. And the hero isn't that great. It all just sort of dissolved as I was working on it. But the vestiges that I kept of Othello were that the Iraqi professor was very dark, that he looked dark, and that the Iraqi-American chef was very white and American. She also had an Arab father and an American mom, so she was doing that kind of straddling. And I wanted to talk about...and I do this in the novel...about her conflicting feelings; if I don't look like it, does that mean that I'm not it? It's the curse of the first generation the children of immigrants. You're straddling generations and you straddle cultures. And like so many people who are cultural mixes, we kind of submit to the lie that is the whole notion of race because race is based on appearance. And appearance is tenuous at best. I happened to come out looking like this. My sisters look much more traditionally Arab...but actually I'm the only one among my sisters who can speak Arabic. Race has nothing to do with who we are and it's not a reality. It's a complete social construction, but we cling to it. We cling to it as some kind of a signifier, and it basically signifies nothing.
Why did you decide to write a short story about Afghan women for Good Housekeeping?
I feel like the best political work I can do is to try to put a human face on people who are culturally erased. Rather than try to be didactic, or deliver some kind of message, I just try to go for the human element, and try to be really personal and intimate. We had started bombing Afghanistan. Part of the problem is that nobody sees Afghan people on TV. We don't get to see the culture. We need to have some stories from within....It's set in America, but it's really about a family of Afghan women and their experience. You learn to provide editors and readers with a bridge to your subject. That is something that has taken me quite a while to learn how to do. But if you provide the bridge, if you provide the connection in the Good Housekeeping story it's an ESL teacher, and I think with Arabian Jazz it was humor that's the way to...make it accessible....
You seem to provoke a lot of strong reactions.
I have always, always, no matter what I've written about, had people who wanted to take hits out on me. There is something about the way I write, or something that just incenses people. There are people who like my writing too....I often feel that it doesn't even really have to do with what I'm saying, or how I'm saying it. It's the topic, and also that people perceive me personally because of my name, or my heritage as being one of them, one of the troublemakers, one of the scary people.
There's this great word in German, Nestbeschmutzung, which means, essentially, fouling one's own nest. And I guess Arabian Jazz struck a nerve.
You need to find a certain amount of strength or simple self-confidence in order to laugh at yourself. You have to feel at ease. It makes me sad in a way that people do feel this kind of tense fearfulness about the way that they and their culture are written about. I was very taken aback by some of that response. There's also the sense that...Arab-Americans have been so maltreated by the media, their image has been so dark, that I think there's a real anxiety about the artistic representations that are out there. "Is this just going to make us look worse? You're exposing us, you're making us even more vulnerable. What we need to do is be quiet, we need to close ranks. We need to really control what's being said about us." I think a lot of that fearfulness was stirred up by the novel. I understand it, I really do.
But silence has a price.
I feel like if there's a choice...between speaking and suppressing yourself that inevitably you have to speak. Audre Lorde once said, "Your silence will not protect you." That's a really hard lesson to learn, and sometimes you have to learn that the hard way. It's an instinct to try to hide if you're feeling like you're under attack. And you learn that, unfortunately, what looks like the easy way is often a really bad choice. If you silence yourself, if you try to be good, if you try to be polite, or toe a party line, you end up paying for that in the long run. You pay for it...with your homeland, or with your soul, or with your artistic vision.
What are you working on now? Another novel?
I'm actually working on a food book. It's a food memoir. It's a memoir told through food. It's fun to work on. I've been really enjoying myself. Each chapter is about a certain kind of Arabic dish. Then I use that dish to talk about my father's love affair with food and how we were raised in this totally food-obsessed family, and the implications that the dishes had for us. How each one symbolized a different stage in our evolution as a family, as immigrants.