Diana Abu-Jaber: The Only Response to Silencing is to Keep Speaking

Andrea Shalal-Esa

After years of trying to shepherd her second novel, “Memories of Birth,” through an arduous publishing process, Diana Abu-Jaber finally put the project aside and turned her attention to a third novel, “Crescent,” which explores themes of exile and the quest for identity as it weaves the story of an Iraqi-American chef in Los Angeles and her romance with an Iraqi immigrant. An immensely relieved Abu-Jaber has just signed a contract with Norton, which is slated to publish “Crescent” in the spring of 2003 – 10 years after her first novel, “Arabian Jazz,” was published to wide critical acclaim. Her short story about Afghan women is due to appear in Good Housekeeping magazine in September.

Abu-Jaber discussed her second novel’s odyssey and the difficulty of telling Arab stories in America at a conference in Washington in April, hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Asked to rewrite her characters again and again, remove references to Israel, and provide historical evidence of the war crimes committed against Palestinians in 1948, Abu-Jaber said she finally reached a point – five years after beginning the book – when she had to put it aside.

She presented her story as a case study of the problems facing Arab-American writers and said the climate was simply not conducive to publishing a book about the expulsion of the Palestinians after the creation of the state of Israel. She still doesn’t know if the problem was her prose, or the results of racism and politics, but she told the conference that she eventually concluded, “The only response to silencing – besides our paranoia – is to keep speaking.”

Nor has she given up on eventually publishing the book, excerpts of which have already appeared in several anthologies such as “Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing” and elsewhere, including Al Jadid. She and her editor are hoping that the climate may become more hospitable after “Crescent” comes out next spring.

The first Arab-American novel to reach a large mainstream U.S. audience, “Arabian Jazz” won the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the national PEN/Hemingway award. It even sparked the interest of Hollywood, although one movie producer told Abu-Jaber he didn’t like the word “Arab” in the title. Perhaps, he mused, the book could tell the story of another, more acceptable ethnic group. While U.S. reviewers loved the book, which uses dreams, memories, and humor to explore the psychological life of one Palestinian/Jordanian immigrant and his “American” daughters, some Arab-American critics tore it to shreds. One reviewer accused Abu-Jaber of falling into a naïve liberal feminism and perpetuating clichéd representations of Arabs. Another Arab-American reader –   enraged by her inclusion of a discussion of female infanticide – said Arabs “don’t do these things. And even when they do, you don’t write about it.”

Abu-Jaber, who confesses to having “ridiculously thin skin,” has concluded that Arabs and Arab Americans are so maligned in the mainstream press that they simply could not tolerate any criticism of their culture, even when presented in what she described as a loving, light-hearted way. She has also resigned herself to being a lightning rod for criticism, regardless of what subject she tackles.

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 grown up in Jordan too. Life was a constant juggling act, acting Arab at home, but American in the street. This 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 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 the Georgetown conference, Abu-Jaber discussed “Crescent,” her new book project, the trials of “Memories of Birth,” and her views on the state of Arab-American literature.

Shalal-Esa: Can you talk about your upcoming book, “Crescent”?

Abu-Jaber: It’s 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.

Shalal-Esa: What was the genesis of the book?

Abu-Jaber: I was teaching a class in Middle Eastern culture at UCLA as a guest lecturer. This was when I first started working on “Crescent” 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.

Shalal-Esa: You’ve written a great deal about food. It seems to be very important to you.

Abu-Jaber: I’ve taught these sorts of classes before, and always the favorite unit 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 recreate family, to recreate 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.

Shalal-Esa: 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?

Abu-Jaber: 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.

Shalal-Esa: How does race play out in your new novel?

Abu-Jaber: 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 of that out.

Shalal-Esa: Why did you rewrite it?

Abu-Jaber: 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.

Shalal-Esa: Why did you decide to write a short story about Afghan women for Good Housekeeping?

Abu-Jaber: 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 this story it’s an ESL teacher, and I think with “Arabian Jazz” it was humor – that’s the way to … make it accessible.

Shalal-Esa: You’ve experienced censorship even by Arab-American publications?

Abu-Jaber: Ah, Mizna. I sent them an excerpt from “Memories of Birth.” It was a story about a girl who is discovered outside a refugee camp. She’s mysterious, and she doesn’t sleep well at night. It comes out that she’s been tortured by the Israeli army, and she’s suppressed the memory of the torture. So I sent that to Mizna, and first they said, ‘We’re so excited, it’s going to be in this issue.’ Then about six months, and then a year went by, and I received this scathing rejection letter. One of the editors told me that they’d given it to somebody to read after they’d already accepted it, and that she was violently opposed to it. A lot of her unhappiness centered on the fact that I had them talking about the evil eye. She didn’t like that, because she thought it made the Arabs look superstitious and old-fashioned.

Shalal-Esa: You seem to provoke a lot of strong reactions.

Abu-Jaber: 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.

Shalal-Esa: There’s this great word in German, Nestbeschmutzung, which means essentially, fouling one’s own nest. And I guess your novel struck a nerve.

Abu-Jaber : 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.

Shalal-Esa: But silence has a price.

Abu-Jaber: 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, to be quiet. 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.

Shalal-Esa: Do you get the sense that censorship is on the rise now, after September 11?

Abu-Jaber: There was that essay by Susan Sontag in The New Yorker. It was pretty critical. She said things like that terrorism doesn’t happen … that we should have seen it coming because of our foreign policy. She was really lambasted for the essay. To me it shows you what kind of chilling times we’re living in; that people are being extremely careful about what they say, and how they’re representing themselves. You hear whispers about McCarthyism, that kind of fearfulness. It means that you have to become a lot more cagey and strategic about the way you speak. You have to be smart about it.

Shalal-Esa: Do you think “Memories of Birth” will ever be published?

Abu-Jaber: My agent thinks so. We were just talking about it. She thinks that we will be able to. We talked about timing. We talked about when is the time to bring out a novel. It’s interesting to me to try to understand how the cultural Zeitgeist affects how an art object is received. I’m not abandoning it at all, not at all. Some small presses made offers on it, but I really want it to have as much of a mainstream audience as it can. So I’m going to revisit it next year.

Shalal-Esa: So what are you working on now? Another novel?

Abu-Jaber: 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.  

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 39 (Spring 2002).


Copyright   © 2002 by Al Jadid

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