Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Q&A with writer Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of a memoir, The Language of Baklava, and four novels: Arabian Jazz, Crescent, Origin, and her most recent, Birds of Paradise. She teaches at Portland State University, and lives in Portland and Miami.

Q: Your latest book, Birds of Paradise, tells the story of a teenage runaway and the impact her departure has on her and her family. Why did you decide to write about a runaway, and did you need to do a great deal of research on the culture of young runaways in Miami?

A: I began thinking about the idea of a runaway around the same time that my husband and I were discussing starting a family. We were very anxious about taking the step into parenthood and I became curious about why that was, wondering where that fear was coming from. I often write about things that trouble or in some way elude me: I think I write, in part, as a way to order my thoughts, to explain myself to myself. And in this situation, I wanted to get braver—if such a thing was possible. So I tried to write about those parental fears. I do like to push characters as well, to test their limits. Sometimes I’ll ask: What is the worst thing that could happen in this situation? The thought of losing a beloved child to runaway culture was compelling and awful.

For Felice’s chapters, I interviewed both former and current runaways. First, I visited a few high school English classes, told them about my novel, and asked if they knew of anyone who’d ever run away from home. Kids started approaching me, I got texts and emails, I was taken to a group house a bit like the one I describe in Birds of Paradise, and several of the kids who were squatters there talked to me about their lives. These children (including one 8 year old) were pretty open; a few were wary at first, but overall I found they tended to want to share their experiences. Several of them told me that running away had been their only chance at survival: one girl said it was the best thing she’d ever done for herself.
Q: Your memoir The Language of Baklava is focused around food. Why was food so important to your family, particularly to your father, and what role do you think food plays in people's lives as they move from one country to another?

A: My father and his siblings were inveterate story-tellers. Their stories gave them important links to their past. And their favorite place to tell stories was at the dinner table. My father, who was also a great, natural cook, would prepare the dishes of his childhood, and those ingredients and flavors became the spark to telling his American kids about their cultural legacy.

It’s profoundly dislocating, wrenching even, to emigrate to another country—especially, as in my father’s case, when one comes from a place and a time without computers or telephones. So food becomes one of the most vital, poignant reminders of that lost past. And food is our connection to our bodies, our deepest selves. I’ve always been captivated by the Sufic Dervishes, who twirl in order to reach states of divine ecstasy. In similar fashion, my characters’ relationship to food, cooking, and eating reveals their truest, mystical selves. There’s something undeniable, essential, about food. Modern life is full of pretension and deception, but the way we eat and what we eat goes right to the heart of things.

Q: One of the themes you deal with in some of your work is the interplay between your American and Jordanian roots. What about this situation is specific to Jordan, and do readers from other backgrounds find themes that are more universal?

A: It’s hard to pinpoint something like that, in part, because Jordan itself is a crossroads, one of those nations that’s been seized, invaded, colonized, so many times over. And all those foreign influences are reflected in the Jordanian people and their rich traditions. In addition to that, since I wasn’t raised in Jordan, many of the cultural elements in my books tend to be more broadly defined. The food, language, and religions of my characters are shared among many Middle Eastern countries. So while I might, for example, write about a traditional Jordanian dish, like mensaf, I find that I’m more interested in the tension between America and the Arab countries and that I tend to share more experiences with other second-generation Americans—no matter where their parents came from--than I do with Jordanians or Jordanian immigrants. Readers will say to me, “My Romanian mother says exactly the same things as your dad!” It turns out that being the American-born child of immigrants is very much its own weird, funny identity.

Q: Your book Origin is more of a mystery novel. How did you get the idea for the plot of this book?

A: Origin was a such surprise to me. I feel like that story chose me instead of the other way around. One morning, I woke up with this strange woman’s voice in my head: it was like she was talking to me, telling me all about herself, her life as a fingerprint analyst, her weird belief about her origins, all of this intimate information in this great confiding rush. It was exciting and weird, and I went right to my desk. It almost felt like I was taking dictation, the voice and the start of that story came so quickly and fluidly—very unlike my other novels.

But even with all that, I was also pretty nervous about that novel, because it truly was unlike anything I’d written before. I was totally unfamiliar with thrillers and suspense writing and I knew I was going to have to do a lot of research to get a foothold on all the technical pieces—fingerprinting, police procedure, etc. In the end it probably took me just as long to research that book (including going to the actual crime lab where the novel is set) as it took to draft and revise it. I also had to learn more about structure and pacing. Thrillers are generally more concerned with plot than are literary novels, which tend to be more focused on character. So, even though as a literary-thriller Origin is a bit of a hybrid—it still required a new approach to story-telling and thinking about forward propulsion—none of which came naturally to me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a follow up book to my culinary memoir, The Language of Baklava. Some of my early writing mentors told me I could be a writer or a mother, but I couldn’t be both, and that was advice that stuck with me for years. This new memoir follows the path I took to becoming a writer, and how it connected with, and diverged from, the impetus to have kids. Eventually, we did start a family, and that’s another important part of the memoir. I tell these stories, again, through the relationship to food. Although this time I’m drawing on my own recipes instead of my father’s, and so it feels like a much more personal, grown-up book to me than the first one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m all over social media— on Twitter @dabujaber, my Facebook page, website, the whole catastrophe—so it’s pretty easy if you’d like to keep up with new workshops, books, and readings. And it is so lovely, always, to hear from readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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