Gaines:Why did you decide to write a memoir at this stage of your life?
Diana Abu-Jaber:I never expected to write a memoir. I suppose it always felt too important (or self-important?) to me, the sort of thing someone like Ulysses S. Grant would do. But then my editor for Crescent urged me to give it a try since I’d been writing so much about food for that novel; it seemed like a natural—you might say organic—dovetailing of my food writing and literary interests.
What prompted the title, The Language of Baklava?
It was sort of an accident, actually. I started out with “The Logic of Baklava,” because I was working on this notion of food as a way of seeing and processing experience. But then my agent accidentally referred to my manuscript as “The Language of Baklava,” and I thought that was even better, a more inclusive way of seeing cooking and eating as description and communication with others. It really seemed to get at the heart of what I was thinking about.
Was it difficult to decide which stories to use with all those years of family tales?
Yes and no. I mean, certain episodes were really family “classics,” like the time Dad chased the boy out of our house and over the yard. Or the time the neighbors wanted to report us to the police for barbequing in the front yard. But it got difficult to know what to leave out—my family is so food-obsessed and there are so many stories! I especially struggled over how “current” to make my book. There’s a section where I say something like, “Oh yeah, then I get married and divorced a couple times, blah, blah….” I think I have to save all that for another volume.
How did the Jordan of your childhood change when you returned as an adult? Or was it you that changed?
In many ways, I think Jordan has retained its basic nature—there is still a strong cultural emphasis on family and hospitality, downtown Amman is still an ancient plaza built around Roman ruins, and you can still find camels at the Dead Sea. In other ways, though, you can see the effects of Westernization everywhere—from modern hotels to high-rises—there’s even a Starbucks. And there is an increased presence of the veil and certain related aspects of conservative Islam, which I also see in part as a reaction—as a form of resistance-- to the encroachment of Western values.
To be a child in Jordan, though, is a bit like being a rock star here. You are coddled and made much of, so it’s impossible to be objective on the matter. But when I returned as an adult, I felt my American-ness in a way that hadn’t seemed as obtrusive when I was a child. Suddenly, I was a “wild American woman,” not the “good Jordanian girl” that Dad always said we were. Years of shows like “Baywatch”—and now, even worse, so-called reality TV, give Middle Easterners the idea that Americans are all corrupt and decadent and frightening. Sort of in the way the American media portrays Middle Easterners as frightening and sinister.
But it was good to return to Jordan in my own right, as an adult, and to try living there on my own terms. I made my own friends—both Arab and Western—and I did my own work. It was satisfying and exciting to return and spend a year there: it made Jordan into real home, not just one of my father’s private legends.
Your parents both had strong personalities, your mother American and your father Jordanian. How did they achieve a balance in their marriage?
So many people who read The Language of Baklava seem to come away with the impression that my mother had to have been a saint to be successfully married to my father. But I’m happy to report that she definitely is not a saint—just very smart and patient. I think that they sort of hit on an unspoken bargain that if we were going to live in the States (it’d always been Dad’s plan to return us to Jordan) that Dad would get more of a say in the cultural environment of our home. He would cook us Arabic food and play Arabic music and we usually had one or two immigrant cousins living with us. We learned to be Arab at home and American in the street.
Food is very important in your memoir, almost a way to define feelings and retain memories. Can you talk a bit about the relationship of food to your culture and the role it plays in family gatherings?
For my father, cooking and eating were some of the most important tools in teaching us about our cultural legacy and family. He might let me sit beside him at the kitchen table and help him thread kabobs of lamb on to the skewer and he’d talk about how they used to raise and butcher their own sheep when he was a child. It was very powerful and immediate. Every time we tasted Dad’s cooking, it was like we came a little closer to his own childhood experience. And the rituals around the way we ate were very Jordanian—certain meals were to be eaten with the hands, for example. Or, if you really wanted to show someone affection, you’d offer them a bite of food from your own fingers. The meals could last for hours and there was usually some form of extended family participating, so it was our time to learn who each other was, what our lives and our concerns were like, on a daily basis.
Your father was torn between his love for Jordan and raising his family in America. How did he make peace with these two halves of his heart?
I’m not sure my father really has made that peace yet. But it seems that there was sort of a point where he kind of tapered off on talking obsessively about returning to Jordan. It might have been around the time that my sisters and I began moving out of the house and into lives and careers of our own. I think it occurred to him that, despite his best intentions, he’d managed to raise a family of Americans, and that this was the country we were going to choose for ourselves. He in turn knew he’d have to choose between returning to Jordan and living close to his daughters. Family has always been the most important thing to my father—once there were grandchildren in the equation, well, case closed.
You have always had the stories, but at what point did you give yourself permission to write them?
I find that giving myself permission to write openly and bravely is an ongoing process. One of the reasons that writing is so important to me is that I always believed that my work was the sanctuary, the place I could tell my truth as directly as I liked. Yet, even with that belief, it seems there are always little doubts, bits of self-censoring that go on all the time—mostly to do with the wish not to hurt anyone or shock anyone (i.e. parents.) Of course, to really write, you have to let go of all that, but with each new book, I always have to take myself through that letting-go again.
You aren’t a doctor or a lawyer, but by now your father must be proud of what you have made of “English Literature”.
Well, it’s been an interesting road for the two of us. Dad never intended for me to be a writer. While he always stressed the importance of education, I think he wouldn’t have minded too much if I’d just gotten married to one of my cousins and started delivering grandchildren to his door. The path I chose was not one he’d ever dreamed of—it’s nontraditional and there’s no clear road map to cobbling together a writing career. He has the immigrant’s obsession with financial security and working hard to “make something of yourself.” Since I’ve started publishing—and since I’ve proven I can support myself—Dad’s been much happier with the whole enterprise. And with The Language of Baklava, a lot of the media attention has also washed over him as well. Real Simple Magazine sent a photographer to shoot me and Dad together and one of the Florida newspapers, The Sun-Sentinel, did a story where Dad and I cooked and talked together and we ended up serving up a huge lunch feast. He loves stuff like that—he’s made for the limelight.
Can you explain the different Arab-American responses to your first novel, Arabian Jazz? Were you wary of the response to your second novel, Crescent? What has been the response to The Language of Baklava?
My answers to these questions inter-connect. I think that there were a number of things going on with Arabian Jazz. My first novel is broadly comic in places, with an almost burlesque spirit, and some of my Arab-American readers just didn’t know what to make of that at all. Since there are so few positive images of Arabs in this country, it tends to make Arabs a little gun-shy about the way they’re portrayed, and I think some of those readers worried I was being glib or mocking in my tone. It takes a fair measure of self-confidence to have a sense of humor and Arab-Americans are weary of always getting knocked around in the media. It didn’t help that Arabian Jazz. seems to have been one of the first novels about Arabs in America, so people looked at the book under a microscope and acted as if it represented the entire Middle East. Mind you, I felt that overall I had a very positive response from my Arab readers, but there was also an unhappy group of critics out there.
So yes, I really was concerned about what would happen with Crescent. That book was very close to me; it took a long time and a lot of thought to write. It was a real labor of love. Luckily, the critics were much happier with that book—I don’t think it got a single scorcher—that I know of! So I felt that perhaps my writing had progressed, along with the sensibilities of my readership. I do think that the Arab-American community has come into its own in this country. They’ve become more discerning, more self-aware, and more a part of the popular imagination of the United States.
I’ve always had a very eclectic readership, overall, with readers from all sorts of backgrounds—the Arab-Americans are actually a fairly small percentage of the bigger picture. And it’s been exciting to hear from so many Americans who tell me that their experiences growing up were very similar to my own. Frequently, these are the children of immigrant parents from a wide variety of backgrounds, but sometimes they’re Anglo-Americans who fought with their parents over the basic struggles of growing up. What I love is that it tells me that there’s a universality in these sorts of stories that we can all relate to on some level.
I know you are working on a new novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a real departure for me! It doesn’t address culture or ethnicity in an overt way, rather, the idea of identity comes up almost metaphorically. It’s set in my hometown of Syracuse, NY, where I set my first novel, and while it has elements of the mystery genre it’s still very much a literary novel. And it’s still in fairly rough draft form, probably another six months away from completion.
With three books to your credit, do you feel that at this point you have really sunk your teeth into your identity as a writer?
I feel like my writing life is very much a work-in-progress. Maybe all writers feel this at some level. One of my books might receive a great review one day and then I’ll have a horrible, maddening day of non-writing the next. Whether we’re talking about my writing schedule or my identity as a writer, I find that at times it’s very much a roller-coaster. But I have found, to my relief, that with more publications and recognition comes more of a sense of confidence and authority. And it helps me approach the work with a greater seriousness of purpose. Receiving the acceptance of a critical and reading community has been very important and sustaining to me—especially since I’d been raised to be a “good Arab girl,” who wasn’t ever supposed to say anything too provocative or too eccentric.
Any advice for would-be writers?
Tell the truth. Tell your truth. Be brave. Make writing a regular part of your life, and if you get stuck, cooking is a wonderful method of working through the rough patches.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines
conducted her interview with Diana Abu-Jaber via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of The Language of Baklava: A Memoir.