An audio interview with the lovely Sandip Roy of New America Media.
Here is an interview with Beirut39:
My fellow gypsy Texan! You have moved around quite repeatedly in your life. What is it about Texas (or Tejas, as I like to call it) that makes it stand out from the other places you have lived?
Texas kind of reminds me of an Arab country in America where everyone speaks Spanish instead of Arabic. I like the approximation in culture. Also, Texas- Austin in particular- is the place I chose for myself. Everywhere else I’d lived was chosen for me, whether by the dictatorship of my father or some war. I love the weather here, the landscape. I love that it doesn’t conform to stereotypes of itself. I find places and people like that endearing.
It is said you like to fictionalize your history. How does this tell more truth than fact?
My story is rich and layered and varied. I can tell so many different versions of it. A Map of Home is the fictionalization of mostly my grappling with my loyalty to my parents and culture. If I wrote it another way, it would have been about my sexuality. If I wrote it another way, it would have been about my parents’ eating disorders and how they forced them on me for years. And yet another way, it could have been about being a young mother. I chose to limit my perspective and focus on the voice. Everything else followed from there. By choosing to tell my version of history- the fictional version- I have managed to talk about all these things at once.
On revisiting intricate images from the past – you mentioned somewhere that you began writing at a very young age. In your short story, Barefoot Bridge, the young protagonist obsessively writes her thoughts on paper. Did you ever carry a notebook as a child?
I didn’t, but I wanted desperately to be able to paint or to have a camera. I wanted to record the imagery around me. I remember very vividly the last time I went to Palestine. It was 1993. My family kept telling me that this would likely be the last time I would visit for a long time. I kept looking at my surroundings and wanting to capture them; later I found that doing that in fiction works just as well.
I did get a sense, though, as a child, that there were certain types of art I could and could not do. I knew how to dance and write. I wanted to paint or take photos or make films. I thought dancing and writing was something I could execute- all I needed was my body. My body, and a pen, and maybe some music. These things are easy to find. When it came to visual art, I didn’t have the confidence to ask for lessons; and we couldn’t have afforded a camera just for me. There was a sense growing up that cameras weren’t for “kids.” Nowadays, my young son has his own.
In The Story of My Building, we see a child’s perplexities during the summer of 2006 when Gaza and Lebanon were simultaneously bombed by Israel. This could very well be the story of any child in Gaza. (I, too, grew up surrounded by card nights and men ready to fight over political disagreements.) How did you come up with this narrative, this child?
I read a news story about a child whose home was destroyed by an Israeli air raid. His father was out of the building and later identified his child in the rubble by his belt. Originally, this story was going to be about that. But as I wrote it, I grew to love the child. I wanted him to live. That’s actually what I love about literature- how the submerged of the world can finally get their say. I love to write about the disenfranchised, the fatties, the cast-offs, the queers, the dirty kids, the ones history doesn’t love.
You will soon be joining the English/MFA faculty at California State University in Fresno. This won’t be the first time you teach?
In the past, I’ve taught as a graduate teacher. And I didn’t feel that I was compensated adequately. But I always loved my students. It’s amazing to see them dissect a piece of literature. My favorite days are when I leave the classroom inspired by them; by something new they’ve taught me.
The question I am sure you don’t like to be asked: what are your thoughts on Arab-American writers who exoticize their stories – the ones who suffer from “hyphenism”, as I like to call it – to capitalize on their career as public writers?
I don’t have a problem with that question, per se, but I would rather focus on the Arab-American writers I love. Arab-Americans have been writing beautiful literature- novels, short stories, poetry. And they’ve been writing from a unique place, and have accomplished a lot just in the last ten years. I like to focus on the writers who make me feel at home; inspired; that my history is reflected. Those are people like Suheir Hammad, Hayan Charara, Mohja Kahf, Kevin Rashid, even Alicia Erian. I know it’s controversial to love her, but after I taught her novel a few times, I’ve grown to really respect how it doesn’t bend to parent-adoration; just critiques everyone no matter their racial background.
When asked to write an essay on women and fiction, Virginia Woolf said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Have you ever tried to write while scavenging pennies? I must say, it’s not conducive.
That’s how I’ve been living the last 12 years. I’ve learned to write under any circumstance. I think this is a result of having a child early in life. I wrote whenever he slept. And we were always poor. People have helped me and been very generous, but ultimately, I wrote my first novel on welfare and food stamps.
Any anticipation for the Beirut39 Festival?
I’m so excited to be in Beirut. I’ve never been. I’m looking forward to meeting the other writers. My husband is joining me, and it’s our first anniversary next week, so it’ll be amazing to share the new city and new acquaintances with him. And: I’m looking forward to the food-I’m just gonna say it! But most importantly, as an Arab-American writer, someone who writes in English, and mostly thinks and dreams in English, I used to struggle with authenticity issues. In the last two years, I’ve found myself ripping up the voices in my head that question my authenticity. No one can tell me what I am. So going to Beirut39 as the only Arab-American in the group really makes me proud.