:: Interview with Diana Abu-Jaber
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of The Language of Baklava (2005), Crescent (2003), which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award and was named one of the twenty best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor, and Arabian Jazz, which won the Oregon Book Award. Her latest novel, Origin, will be released in June 2007.
DM: You write about your childhood in The Language of Baklava, but for the sake of those who haven't read it, would you briefly describe?
DAJ: My childhood was funny, eclectic, stressful, exciting… filled with family and cooking and sudden surprises, like cousins who'd show up out of nowhere and were suddenly living in the guest room. Since my Dad came to America from Jordan when he was a young man, we were generally seen as "the Americans" in the family, and the relatives thought of us as a safe jumping-off place if someone wanted to immigrate to the States. While there was a lot of richness and variety to my upbringing, it was often hard to be a child torn between cultures. I often fought with my father over the question of our identity -- he wanted us to be Jordanian, but I'd been born and mostly raised in the States, so I felt very American.
DM: When did you know you were a writer?
DAJ: I come from a family of crazed storytellers. My father and uncles and aunties would take over the dinner table with their stories and go and go and go. And they were loud too. I didn't have a very loud voice, so instead I'd go to my room and start writing. When I was writing, it was my turn to tell stories. I did this from as far back as I can remember.
DM: Do you put your reading before your writing? I mean, are you reader and then a writer? In that order?
DAJ: Well, I certainly started out in that order, and I love reading with a deep passion. But I have to be careful not to let my "reader" take over. For me, writing requires so much concentration and discipline (and I'm not naturally a disciplined person, alas) that I can only allow myself to read in carefully measured amounts. Otherwise, I could easily crawl into a library and never come out again.
DM: And do you consider yourself a novelist for the most part? Or perhaps you don't make such distinctions?
DAJ: Well, novels seem to be the main thing that I'm drawn to write. Though I greatly enjoyed writing The Language of Baklava memoir and might just write another one some day. I also love dabbling in short fiction and I used to write tons of journalism -- essays and restaurant, movie, book reviews. Sometimes I think I just might write a cookbook.
DM: What about your writing habits? I know you talked about this in an interview. You said something about writing even when you're walking down the street, or having a conversation. I was wondering if you would talk about that, and if you would also describe what your writing space looks like.
DAJ: Because I'm so not-disciplined, I have to be very opportunistic about the way I approach writing. I often have a little notepad with me when I'm cooking or meeting a friend or out and about, so I can sneak in little writing moments. I get a lot of writing in when I wake in the night, around 3 a.m., and can't sleep. I turn on my little book light and start working. Unfortunately, I tend to be a good sleeper.
My writing space -- as you might have surmised -- is pretty darn messy. The man who sold us our house used this room as his bedroom, but I stole it for myself because it's got more light and a window that I can sit next to while I tap away. Of course there's shelves crammed full of books, plus an old dresser full of copies of my own books; my desk that's really a dining room table; a floor lamp with a Polynesian leaf shade; a blue Moroccan kilim-style rug; some inlaid boxes; a doggie bed; lots of photographs and prints and a number of my mother's paintings; and eight purses (but four of them were given to me.)
DM: How do you balance your relationships and your art?
DAJ: My life is very simple, I don't have a lot of demands, so it's not too difficult -- i.e., I don't have children, I don't care much about shopping or getting my hair cut, and I don't do housework, I just let things be messy. My husband works at home with me -- we often go out to cafes and write together. I see my parents and friends every week -- usually for lunch; I love to cook for people, though I don't do as much of that sort of entertaining as I used to -- maybe a dinner party every couple of weeks. I don't believe in worrying about things too much. I guess I pretty much try to have things boiled down as close to the essentials as I can get them.
DM: I'm curious as to how you teach creative writing at the university.
DAJ: With empathy. I try to give the students a safe place to show work, an audience to write for, the time to do it in, and maybe a few good ideas to help them get inspired. It's tough -- you can't force anyone to be a hard worker, but you can try to show them what an artist's life is like, give them encouragement, and tell them what the traditional expectations of the written form are. I'll say, "Many people like a plot to do this and that," but I always explain that these are only very general sorts of approaches and that there are a million different ways to write a story.
DM: How is finding a publisher for your novel, Memories of Birth—how is that coming along? I would really love to read that book. It sounds like the whole planet could use that book right about now.
DAJ: Oh, thank you so much, but I think that particular project may never see the light of day.
DM: Oh… you think so? Well what a shame. I just love your writing. You have a prominent, gorgeous voice. The Language of Baklava is now one of my favorite memoirs, I loved your novel Crescent, and I can't wait for Origin!
DAJ: Thank you, Dominique. I feel honored.
DM: The honor is mine. And thank you so much for your generosity in agreeing to talk with me.
Conducted via e-mail in February 2007.
There are lots and lots of other wonderful interviews with Diana Abu-Jaber, including this one on Fresh Air.