Diana Abu-Jaber: AH-boo JAH-ber
Diana Abu-Jaber discusses her true identity with Origin
This interview, with Angela Miyuki Mackintosh was first published at
As writers, we've all heard the saying 'Write what you know', and many of us take it to heart. But how about writing what you don't know? Where do you start? Certainly, it would require a lot of research, creativity, and fortitude.
Those of you familiar with Diana Abu-Jaber's work know that her novels focus on Arab-American culture, delicious recipes, and culinary love stories. Yet in her latest novel, Origin, Diana delves into the literary mystery genre and writes about 'what she doesn't know'.
Origin is a gripping, spellbinding thriller, and a breakthrough novel for Diana in every sense. Lena, a fingerprint expert, is thrust into a mystery when a woman breaks into the crime lab building where she works and begs her to solve the case of her baby's death. As the crib deaths multiply and become classified as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), she discovers connections, clues to the case, and most of all to her past, embarking on an enlightening and terrifying journey.
If you ever wondered how to write 'what you don't know' or are interested in discovering your full, creative potential, you will learn a great deal from this interview. Diana shares her secrets of the process and reveals that learning about character is key. Having the gift of prose and being able to write about anything doesn't hurt either.
Q. Diana, welcome back! It's always good to have you. When we last talked you were slightly secretive about your upcoming novel, Origin. Now, since the secret is out and the book is to be released this month, we're thrilled to have total access and plow the depths of Origin. What prompted you to explore this new genre?
Thank youI love WOW interviews. I think partly I wanted to see if I could write a thriller just for the challenge of trying something so different. I'd written several multi-cultural literary novelsoften with an emphasis on foodand it felt like it was time to break new ground and try on a bigger literary identity.
I think part of it also had to do with living in South Florida. This is mystery-centralthere are whole bookstores devoted to used detective paperbacks. Surrounded by so many thriller writers and readers, I started to wonder if it might be possible to interweave the tension and excitement of a thriller plot with the texture of literary characters and language. Origin was my attempt to do that.
Q. And you definitely achieved that; no matter what genre you write in your voice always shines through. You have the gift of language, each sentence a masterpiece. How much time do you spend crafting your sentences?
Thank you! Oddly enough, I felt like the language in this novel was so plain and sparse! Isn't that funny? But I guess compared to my earlier books it was. I always do several stylistic rewrites of my fiction, but with Origin, it was really the plot that took a ton of revision. I found it incredibly challenging to write a mystery plotembedding clues and foreshadowing that is all supposed to add up in the end (without giving itself away). Oy. I can't count how many times I redid it.
Q. That's why Origin is a breakthrough for you on many levels. Not only are you conquering a new genre, but also you're writing about what doesn't come naturally to you.
As writers, we always hear that we should write what we know. Research expands what we know, but acquiring scientific information and making your main character come alive with that knowledge is another. How were you able to mesh the two worlds?
I had to do so much research for Origin that it accompanied me throughout the entire writing process. I felt like I really "got" Lena, the protagonist, as a person, but what in the heck was this fingerprinting and forensics job of hers all about? I now own a small library on fingerprinting, as well as my own junior fingerprinting lab set. Probably the most valuable research for me came through interviewing other print analysts, visiting the Syracuse Crime Lab, and learning not only about the technical details of their work, but their emotional and personal feelings about it as well. I found the trick for me was to not be seduced by all the fancy new technical data: instead of showing off the info, I tried to keep the focus on character, and just let strategic details come through tohopefullyinvest the story with more authority and depth.
Q. You did a great job with your protagonist Lena. She's a smart, multi-layered woman, someone who is innocent and yet thoroughly compelling. Where did your inspiration come from?
Lena, like most of my major characters, starts with certain elements of my own dreams and obsessions. When I was very young, I had fantasies about living in the wild and being raised by animals. I loved the idea of having animal powerslike flight or gills or a great sense of smell. And my father's ancestors were real honest-to-goodness Bedouin tribes people, which had a similarly mystical / natural quality in my imagination. My father's father and grandfather were reputed to be uncanny trackers; I heard stories that my grandfather could tell from looking at a camel print the health of the animal and exactly what sort of burden it was carrying.
Q. Diana, that's amazing! Those stories must have fueled your insight into character. One thing that amazes me is how Lena battles with her repressed memories of the past. How were you able to capture this feeling of memory loss so accurately?
Probably because my own memory is so weird and convoluted and unpredictable!that helps. When I was working on my memoir, The Language of Baklava, I was constantly trying to re-evoke and re-live the past and I was equally surprised by how much detail I remembered and how much I didn't. I also am quite fascinated by the idea of memory repressionit seems like a kind of magic to me, the way we can "lose" things that we've lived through, and then, almost ineffably, rediscover them, sometimes years later, again.
Q. It gives the book a spellbinding, almost eerie, quality to it. When Lena meets people she's unsure of why she's drawn to them, or if they somehow relate to her past. I don't know if that's common, but I've felt this way beforelike we're all connected. Have you experienced this yourself?
Definitely: I think there's a complex system of attachments, connections, chemistries that draws us to each other (or repels us). And then there's that fascinating phenomenon where sometimes a new acquaintance reminds you of another personand you might decide you're fond of this new person based on your associations with someone entirely different. There are just so many forces and wavelengths working on all of us that we can't possibly be entirely conscious of. I don't know if there's any truth to the notion of reincarnation and the idea that the people closest to us have gone through several lifetimes with us, but I wouldn't rule it out, either.
Q. That's interesting... because I was thinking about your characters and wondering if you ever have inhibitions about admitting how real your characters are while you're writing?
Oh no, I'm from the school of full disclosure and blabbermouthism. My only inhibition is how little I know the answer myself. I think my characters bubble up from bits and pieces of my own psychesort of the way Jung says our personalities populate our own dreams.
Q. That's true, and I'm sure our personalities filter into everything we do... but how about the writer who wants to distance herself from her characters?
There are some tricks for inserting "space" between a writer and her character, like writing in third person, switching the gender, deliberately masking or "disguising" the surface detailsjob, religion, race, etc, as much as possible, until it feels more comfortable.
Q. Diana, with a person unable to access many memories, there is a sorrow borne much like a sixth digit that goes unnoticeduntil circumstances make it unavoidable. You did a remarkable job of not burying your protagonist in grief, making her morose. Can you explain how you could tell when it was 'too much' and yet not lose her essence?
I like the way you put that. Lena is very sensitive, but she also operates with a deep disconnect from the trauma of her past. She's developed some powerful coping mechanisms that allow her to shut down grief. I think that's how a lot of us operate in real lifewe find ways to get through. Sometimes it's possible to experience the grief and live through it. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, I think people just have to find a way to defer it until they're ready to take it on. That's what Lena doesto a rather extreme degree. And you know one of the elements of narrative style that I often find myself applying to my own characters is the idea that you want to push them to their very limits, to really see where the writing will take you.
Q. That's one of the remarkable things that you accomplish through all of your charactersa willingness to let them take over, so to speak. But with Origin, the scientific research explores another side, which is a major undertaking for any author. Did you have to learn the psychological make-up of your protagonist as well? Or did you take on one research project at a time?
Thank heavens, I really only did research on forensics; Lena's psychology (and that of the other characters) was much more available to me as an author. I just tried to stay "close" to her, to imagine her as multi-dimensional and layered as much as I was capable of; and I tried to bring as much emotional honesty to her story as I could.
Q. Another thing that interested me was your focus on SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which is an unexplained mystery in itself. What drew you to the subject? And what did you ultimately learn about SIDS?
You put your finger right on itexactly as you say, SIDS is one of those modern mysteries that still manages to confound us, so I felt that it could offer a very authentic and intimate sort of realism to a novel. We think we can know and control everything through science and technologyand we're closing in on some of the reasons behind SIDSbut we still don't know it all. One of the things I learned about SIDS is how controversial it issometimes it turns out to be a convenient alibi for a child abuser, but sometimes grieving parents are unfairly cast under suspicion, compounding their tragedy.
Q. Right. It's one of those double-sided mysteries that automatically blame the parents because of the vagueness of it all. Much like spousal death, or cruise ship 'disappearances'...
It seems like there are many sub-stories within Origin. Driving out to the desert with my hubby, I happened to be on Chapter 7 (The Haverstraw case), and read it out loud while he was driving. At first he objected because he didn't know what was going on in the book, but after I started reading he was completely wrapped up. Do you purposefully structure your chapters to read like complete stories?
I wish I didI think that would actually be a very good idea. The Haverstraw case, because it's an extended flashback, does work out pretty neatly as a contained piece. But for the most part I wanted the whole novel to be as tightly woven and integrated as I could possibly get it. I thought that would be crucial for developing the right sort of suspense and tension.
Q. Do you ever move chapters around to fit the flow of your book?
Oh yes indeed, quite a lot. Usually it's pieces of chapters that get moved, or paragraphs, passages. I also keep a separate file for saving big chunks of text that I've deleted. It sort of like having a "transitional" closet for old shoes before you relegate them to Goodwill.
Q. (laughs) That's a great analogy. Sometimes those old shoes are hard to give away, much like bits of story. You have a great way of making connections, which brings me around to the theme of Origin. With Lena being orphaned as a child and her memories of being raised by apes, the uniqueness of fingerprints, DNA, mysterious connections etc. it's as if you're exploring Darwinism vs. Creationism. Was this what you intended as the theme of the book, or was it something that just evolved as you wrote?
Yes, Darwinism is very important to the novel, on a thematic level, especially. I admire Darwin's insight and humility as a scientistthe idea that we try to know things, but the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know. I also think his work as a naturalist is very important, and this was a point I wanted to stress in Originthe absolutely critical urgency of respecting and caring for our planet. Lena understands that the apes are still in touch with something that the humans seem in danger of losingthe ability to live simply and respectfully in accord with mother earth. I believe all good things will come from this sort of symbiotic relationshipwisdom, serenity, health, and beauty. Unfortunately, it's easy to take the natural world for granted, to assume that we can pollute and consume without consequences, and we're paying the price for that now.
Q. You know Diana, I couldn't agree more. I didn't recognize the theme immediately, but as I read it came as an epiphany... Did this book yearn to be told as your others? Or, did you become more involved along the way, much like your readers?
Thank you! Yes, I felt a great pull to tell Lena's story, absolutelyI was deeply immersed in her voice. At some level, I think you have to feel that way to varying degrees about all your books, at least when starting out, otherwise they're too exhausting and hard and you'll never get them written! I actually suspect it must be a bit like baby feverwho would ever have the courage for a baby unless you were really hankering for one?
Q. True! When I feel like I want a baby, sometimes I get scared of the process, but then I figure if billions of women can have one, then I guess I can too! You must have gone through a similar thought-process writing Origin. It was something so new, possibly hard to begin, but it must have been fulfilling as you wrote it... or did the sense of satisfaction wash over you when it was finished?
Well, Origin was probably my most difficult book to write in the long run. It's the darkest; it goes into the scariest, eeriest places; it required taking hard looks at frightening things, so it was emotionally draining. And the revisions, as I'd mentioned were just so mind-bogglingat one point I had something like pieces of seven different drafts swimming around on my desk and I was just in despair. I thoughtthis will never come together. Even when it finally did, I knew I wouldn't really believe it was done until I saw the finished book!
Q. So, would you recommend genre hopping to others?
NO. Well, okay, let me qualify that let me put it this way Let's just suppose you're a writer of literary fiction it's easy to look over at block buster genres like mysteries and thrillers and think that it can't be all that hard. In my experience, genre hopping was intensely difficult and humbling. Dang, thrillers are tough to write! In the end, the process was incredibly satisfying. But it took me all the way to the edge to get there!
Q. Well, now that you've birthed your baby and are in the midst of promotion, I happen to know that you've recently discovered MySpace. How has it been for you promotion-wise? And are you thoroughly addicted now?
That is one heck of a good question. Myspace is so funnyit reminds me of trading baseball cards when I was a kid Get friends! Collect all 20,000! I've certainly learned about a lot of different writers and musicians since joining up, and most everyone is incredibly sweet. I think it's a lot of fun, but in the long run, I'm still not sure how helpful it is or isn't for promotion.
Q. It is fun! And let me plug your profile right here: http://www.myspace.com/dabujaber. Diana, since this issue is about balancing life and writing, what do you personally do to maintain a healthy balance?
I work a little and play a lot. I'm married to someone I'm crazy about and we have a very basic, uncomplicated life. Neither of us commutes to a job; Scotty runs the house and yard, and I do the writing and teaching. We try to stick togetherhe comes to a lot of my readings; we entertain; I take tai chi and I've recently started belly dancing! Cooking and dancing are quite restorative to me. I think it's important to know or try to find the simple pleasures that make us happy. And to remember to be grateful for what we have.
Q. Super advice! So, what's next on your plate?
Next, I'm hoping to be finishing up Silverworld soon, my young adult book; and I'm in the early stages of a new novel (for grown ups!)
This interview was first published at www.wow-womenonwriting.com. Copyright © 2007 www.wow-womenonwriting.com. All rights reserved. This article was reprinted with permission of wow-womenonwriting.com
An Interview with Diana Abu-Jaber about Crescent, by Andrea Shalal-Esa
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 thinkingHow interesting, it's Lebanese but it's an Iranian part of town. I started thinking about how cafes 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 obsessionswhat 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 foodalways. 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 andI don't want to say naïvebut 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 muchunless 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 generationthe 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 racebecause 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 connectionin the Good Housekeeping story it's an ESL teacher, and I think with Arabian Jazz it was humorthat'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 personallybecause of my name, or my heritageas 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.
A longer version of this interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 39 (Spring 2002). Copyright © 2002 by Al Jadid.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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