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Interview: KNOT MAGAZINE FALL 2012: NOVELIST Diana Abu -Jaber by MANAGING EDITOR: Tarik Nayman
TARIK NAYMAN: In 2003 you penned your first novel Arabian Jazz, which went on to win the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the National PEN/Hemingway Award. How have you grown as a writer since Arabian Jazz?
DIANA ABU JABER: With my first novel, I was in my mid-twenties, writing in a state of uncertainty. I didn’t know if I even really knew how to build a novel; I was learning on the job. Everything was an act of discovery. The novel’s humorous tone, while organic to the story, was also an expression of that uncertainty. I’d never read any novels about Arabs or Arab-Americans before that point; the only things I’d read about the community were negative and political, not at all reflective of my own experiences. So I think humor grew out of the story as a natural way of trying to reach and speak to an uninitiated American audience.
Since then, my range has grown in style, tone, subject matter. I no longer feel anxious about ranging beyond personal experience. And the elements of writing and reading that engage me have changed over the years as well: I’m less fascinated by prose and style than I am by story and research. I suppose it’s only natural that a writer will want to paint on as broad a canvas as possible.
TARIK NAYMAN: In 2003 you penned Crescent and in 2005 your memoir The Language of Baklava, and your newest book Birds of Paradise came out last fall. Food plays an important role in each of these novels. Do you use food as a type of symbolism or metaphor in your works?
DIANA ABU JABER: I do think that food is such a fascinating metaphor: it has layers, it has intense personal and political significance, it reveals inner lives on many levels, it helps build and develop families and communities. I’d never intended to have such a strong food element in my writing, but it seems to pop up quite a bit. In Crescent, the Lebanese restaurant was a way of talking about the recreation of home—the way that restaurants can give immigrants a new gathering place. For The Language of Baklava, I found that I wanted to extend the theme from Crescent, to see how it had played out in my own family.
Birds of Paradise is a slightly different animal than those earlier books—in my most recent novel, there’s a wider, more dispassionate exploration of food—specifically sugar—as a metaphor for the schisms in relationships, between the mind and body, between people and the environment. The mother in that novel is a pastry chef while her son owns an organic grocery store and they wage their private battles through their different beliefs and approaches to food. It was a lot of fun to play with that.
TARIK NAYMAN: Birds of Paradise chronicles the life of teenage runaway Felice. There are undeniable similarities between your leaving your Jordanian family and Felice’s search for independence. How much of Felice is Diana Abu-Jaber?
DIANA ABU JABER: In many ways, Felice and I were your basic American kids, just trying to figure out how to cobble our way in the world. Felice, however, was raised almost without limits or boundaries,. Her parents were distracted by work and by their own agendas—they didn’t connect with their daughter on a pretty fundamental level.
My father, on the other hand, was very strict, very traditional. It made him nervous that his kids were growing up in America (never mind the fact that my mother is an American) and so he clamped down on us. In either case, the outcome is the same, Felice and I both left home at an early age—she ran away, I went to college—trying to get what we needed.
TARIK NAYMAN: Finally, KNOT MAGAZINE’s goal is to promote peace by celebrating and preserving Middle Eastern literature. How have your Jordanian roots hindered or helped you in your career? How do you identify with your culture living in America during a time of racial profiling?
DIANA ABU JABER: I don’t think my ancestry has had a clearly quantifiable impact on my writing career in either direction. When I first started writing, back in the late eighties and early nineties, it wasn’t so “cool” to be multicultural. Now you can find hummus in every supermarket, but there is still anti-Muslim rhetoric in our mainstream discourse. I’m primarily interested in telling the truest stories I’m capable of—the cultural and political backgrounds are almost beside the point.
Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise, an Indie Books Pick, as well as of the award winning memoir, The Language of Baklava, the best-selling novels Origin and Crescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel Arabian Jazz won the 1994 Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
A frequent contributor to NPR, she teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland and Miami.
*from Diana Abu-Jaber’s official website:
Tarik Nayman is Managing Editor for KNOT MAGAZINE, a successful Editor and translator from Izmir, Türkiye. He has edited journals, newspaper, and online publications in Türkiye, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Nayman is currently under contract for his first book, Afiyet Olsun due in spring 2013.