Thursday, September 7, 2023

Q&A with Kathryn K. Abdul-Baki




Kathryn K. Abdul-Baki is the author of the new memoir Dancing into the Light: An Arab-American Girlhood in the Middle East. Her other books include the novel Tower of Dreams. She lives in McLean, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir, and what impact did it have on you to write it?

A: I wanted to write about the deep connection I’ve always felt with dancing and with how it was important in my adult life. I also wanted to show how Latin music has always drawn me because we danced to it during my childhood.


When I began exploring this, I found my focus shifted to the roots of my passion. The book became less about my current dancing and more about my childhood growing up in the Middle East and the role dancing played then.

Writing about that time dredged up so many painful feelings of loss—losing my mother and brother at a young age—that it was difficult to write at times. I tried to maintain a child’s viewpoint throughout, so to relive those times were difficult, but also very therapeutic.


I started to write in greater depth after the passing of my father. Not only was that cathartic, but it also brought me great joy to write about the happy times of my childhood in the Middle East and to be able to describe a way of life I lived then.


The memories are very joyful, despite the tragic losses I experienced. I found I could recreate that wonderful, lost time and paint for others a landscape I loved in order to enable others to see, smell, and feel all the richness of the Middle Eastern culture that I had.

Q: The writer Virginia Hartman said of the book, “Such a stirring story about grief…so fluid and lovely that it was a pleasure to read.” What do you think of that description?

A: That’s so kind of her to say. It is a story about grief—losing a mother is, to a child, devastating. I try and express my childhood feelings of that time so readers can identify. And yet, there were also such lovely times during my childhood that helped me eventually overcome the sadness, and social dancing was a big part of that.


I wanted to bring that out, too. To show how we heal and what helps us heal, which is mainly love from not only my surviving parent, but from strong family ties that kept me bonded and grounded.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, or was most of it from memory?

A: Most of my descriptions are from memory, but I had to do some research when I referred to events and specific dates, especially historical events, I couldn’t have known of as a child—such as political events in Iran during the Shah, or when oil was first discovered in Kuwait. Mostly, my personal memories came forth easily and are what carry the story.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 

A: The book’s title went through different incarnations. It started out as “Dancing to Harry Belafonte” because my father loved calypso music and especially Harry Belafonte’s calypsos, and we danced to his music a lot.


But the book doesn’t take place in the Caribbean or delve deeply into calypso music, so I began to re-examine what the book and dancing mean to me. The book is about a journey back into living after grief and despair. “Dancing into the Light” seemed to encapsulate that feeling and message.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m now working on a book of memoir-like essays that deal more with my adult experiences living in the Middle East where I went back to live for a brief period .

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Middle East is a wonderful place to visit and to live, every bit as exotic as one would imagine. It has dramatically changed in just a few decades with modernization and industry, so I feel very lucky to have lived there during that change and to have seen both periods.


It is also a place where, within minutes of leaving a metropolis, one can be back into a centuries-old way of life that hasn’t changed much. That can be very refreshing.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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