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Diana Abu-Jaber: Race, Food, and Cultivating Selective Deafness

June 10, 2011

abu-jaber-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by littlegraypixel


A Guernica fiction writer on how the search became more important than the homeland.

abu_jaber_author-100.jpgFor Diana Abu-Jaber’s young protagonist in “The Oracle,” being fat does not necessitate self-loathing. “Every Halloween…I would dress up as Fat Bastard from Austin Powers,” he brags. “It was spectacular. I just had to do the hair and warts and I supplied the fatness myself.” Abu-Jaber is one of five Arab American women featured in the June 1st issue of Guernica. She grew up in Upstate New York with a Jordanian father and an American mother. In her almost-twenty-year-career, she has published five books, four of them novels. Here, she reveals that, before being a writer and professor, she was a cook in a string of restaurants, and after that, a food critic. Her newest novel is Birds of Paradise, about a family of foodies coming undone. Her editor at Norton has said that this novel will be Diana’s breakout book, but to her many fans, Diana broke out years ago.

—Randa Jarrar for Guernica

Randa Jarrar: One of the things I love about Arab and Arab-American families is their hospitality, especially when it comes to food. Almost all your books treat food, or the preparation of food, as a central subject. I’m guessing this is because the subject also plays a central role in your daily life. When did you decide to incorporate this interest into your writing? Was it always a conscious choice?

Diana Abu-Jaber: I honestly never intended food to occupy so much of my creative work. Food-writing often seems about to plummet straight into sentimentality. I think food can be dangerous to write about because if you don’t manage to mediate it somehow, it can be the worst sort of greeting card. But the obsession with food filled my childhood—that’s what happens when your parents are from a place or time where people really might starve. In America, my Jordanian father spent decades cooking professionally and pursuing his dream of a restaurant, and it was one of the central ways that he explained himself to his American children. Even though he’s a passionate talker, he has a hell of a time with listening. His cooking gave him a way of having a conversation—which was a really interesting thing for a writer to look at.

During and just after college, I cooked in a string of (crappy) restaurants then moved into food journalism—I reviewed restaurants, wrote a restaurant news column, and did magazine pieces. After I had a slight disaster with a second, never-published novel, I gravitated toward what felt like solace, and I set Crescent in a Middle Eastern restaurant. I thought that would be the end of it, but my editor thought otherwise. She suggested the premise—recipes and food-oriented stories—for what became my “food memoir,” The Language of Baklava. But my next novel, Origin, was a thriller; I think of it almost as a kind of anti-eating book, because it’s so concerned with self-mortification, poison, and existential suffering.

I’ve found that the questions and the search—for meaning, for “home,” for tribe—consume me more than trying to crank out one identity or one homeland.

The first draft of Birds of Paradise had no cooks in it. Food appeared in satirical form, as one of the characters owns a chic organic grocery. During rewrites, when I found myself (inevitably?) nudging a pastry chef into the mix, I knew only that I wanted write against “type.” This baker would not be an elf, she would be a chef with ice in her veins. As a new mother, sugar was a wonderfully complicated subject for me because my husband and I talked a lot about how we wanted to feed our daughter, and I come from a long line of mad sugar fiends. As a literary device, sugar and pastry carried so many nuances—the sweetness of the past, the danger of overeating and addiction, the political and environmental devastation of plantations—it was just what the book needed.

Randa Jarrar: I recently read an article by Hilton Als in the New Yorker about playwright Lynn Nottage, who “realized she didn’t have to write black; she was black, and her race would be inherent in everything she did.” In your last two books, the characters have been either racially ambiguous or not Arab. But at the same time, you’re continuing your theme of orphaning, which I remember from Arabian Jazz and Crescent. I’ve also heard in interviews that you’ve, at one point or another, not felt embraced or authentic as an Arab-American. Can you speak a little about that?

Diana Abu-Jaber: The question of identity has always been a murky issue in my own life and my writing bounces that right back. My father was adamant that my sisters and I were “Arab,” and even though our house was in Syracuse, it was filled with the food, language, music, and overbearing relatives of Jordan. Unlike my gorgeous sisters, though, I inherited my mother’s lighter complexion—it really is amazing what a difference a little bit of pigment can make on a person’s experience!

I grew up hearing my father shouting, “You are an Arab girl—never forget that!” Usually he’d be shaking a finger at me while he said that. On the other side, I heard friends and strangers saying, “You don’t look Arab—what are you supposed to be?” It really is a tired old problem for children of immigrants and kids of mixed race, constantly trying to explain yourself. Eventually, you give up and say, “Okay, what do you think I am?” When you’re in the midst of it, you come to understand that “race” is a loose social construct, a series of visual impressions, and that your identity can be whatever the hell crazy thing you want it to be, you just have to grow a sense of humor and cultivate selective deafness.

Cultural identity is of course connected to this issue. When I was younger, it was inspiring to write about the people that raised me, especially their near-insane struggle to live between America and Middle East. But like many writers, I want to paint on as broad a canvas as possible. My heritage will always be an element in my work (there are Where’s-Waldo bits of it in it in all my books) but as I’ve written, traveled, and lived more, I’ve found that the questions and the search—for meaning, for “home,” for tribe—consume me more than trying to crank out one identity or one homeland.

Randa Jarrar: I heard you once say that you’re not a traditionally “disciplined” writer, and yet, you’ve published five books. Not a bad run! There’s this false idea that you have to work at your art everyday. (If I find the person who started it, will you kick their ass with me?) What was your writing process for Birds of Paradise? What inspires you first—an idea, an image, a voice?

Diana Abu-Jaber: [Laughs] I blame Stephen King—let’s go get him! No, seriously, the daily writing practice is something I used to hear batted around a lot in writing workshops—which is probably why I dropped out of all the writing workshops. I wish I could take credit for innovating a new approach to writing, but the truth is that I’ve managed to write books despite myself. I’m lazy and ungovernable and undisciplined, but I do have a lot of anxiety about never amounting to anything and ending up as a bag lady (not to cast aspersions on bag ladies).

I’m constantly at war with myself to quit goofing around, and the internet hasn’t helped that any. I’ve learned that I have to be sort of exploitive about seizing moments to write. Luckily, I still write most of my first drafts by hand, so I often work in bed when I can’t sleep. Every day I try to do some small thing connected to writing (editing, proofing, gossiping with other writers, posting cat pictures on Facebook). Or I’ll station myself at a café (hopefully with WiFi) and try to hold myself captive with chocolate. I find that writers tend to be dismissive of small amounts of work or time, but they can actually add up. I’ve written several books in 15 minute increments. Birds of Paradise was especially challenging because I wrote it with a baby on my lap—she was so opinionated! Everybody’s a critic these days. But if you only write for 15 minutes at a time, you can write a book and still have time for Legos.

Randa Jarrar: A teacher of mine once told me that I would have “disappeared” if I had tried to publish a first novel about a Palestinian family fifteen years ago. You wrote a second novel with Palestinian characters that you ended up shelving. There was talk among some circles that it wasn’t published because of its political content. Have you ever looked back at that book? Do you think it was ultimately the best choice to shelve it?

Diana Abu-Jaber: Ah, teachers say the darndest things, don’t they? In my case, I’m afraid my best answer to this question is I don’t know. I did dig out Memories of Birth a few years ago, but I didn’t love what I saw. I felt like it was filled with heavyosity, probably because I felt like I was taking on this forbidden, sacred subject of a dispossessed Palestinian mother and child, so I wrote it in this grand, breathless manner. On the other hand, a handful of excerpts did get published in some nice places. So maybe the truth is somewhere in between—the story wasn’t where it needed to be stylistically; after five years of hard labor, I didn’t have the energy to keep going with it (see 15 minute rule, above). And maybe there was also a complicated reaction to the topic, some sort of fear or uncertainty. Certainly the political and social climate has changed dramatically since I finished that manuscript in ’99. If anyone is curious enough to look—it’s now in the special collections library at the University of Oregon, along with about 20 years of scrawled manuscripts and notebooks. I like to think that this unpublished work wasn’t a total “loss,” but that it was a story that I needed to write in order to make the books that came later.

Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine

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abu_jaber_author-100.jpg**Diana Abu-Jaber** is the author of the forthcoming novel Birds of Paradise, due out in fall 2011 from W.W. Norton. Her latest novel, Origin, was named one of the best books of the year by theLos Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post.

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To read blog entries from Randa and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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