This week, we chat with Diana Abu-Jaber, American-Jordanian author, and Professor, who won the 2012 Arab-American National Book Award for her book, ‘Birds of Paradise’. She teaches at Portland State University.
1) Briefly describe your journey as a writer particularly as shaped by your dual identity as American and Jordanian.
I was educated in the United States where I was fed was the Standard American Diet of literature, also known as the Western Canon: Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Joyce to Hemingway. There were almost no women, writers of color, and assuredly no Jordanians in the mix. I struggled to imagine what sort of artistic space there might be for someone like myself. I understood I was meant to emulate these authors as best I could, and possibly even disguise my gender, like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and so many others.
The other piece of my education came at the dinner table. My Jordanian father cooked and told stories, which helped give me a much wider, more fluid sense of the possibilities of voice, character, and storytelling. My advisor in graduate school encouraged me to quit trying to sound like John Updike and try writing from a much more personal and intimate perspective. It was just the shift in point of view that I needed. After that, I started writing my first novel, Arabian Jazz, about an Arab-American family, and I began to hope that perhaps I too had a story that others might just be interested in reading.
2) Do you feel any one part of your ancestry has a stronger effect on your writing? Why?
That’s a pretty tough question, because both sides are so important to me. English is my mother tongue, the language I read and write in. My American mother was a reading teacher and she taught me the importance of listening and always keeping the audience in mind. My father, however, was an endless source of material– a chef, an immigrant, a comedian, a yarn-spinner. If anything, I’d say it was more the experience of living in-between cultures and places that gave me a voice and identity. I grew up learning to shift from country to country, loving travel and exploration, to develop endless curiosity about what it means to be human, to never become too complacent, and certainly never to feel self-satisfied. There’s a kind of edgy restlessness that comes from the between-places and there’s a lot of energy and inspiration in that restlessness.
3) How do you divide your time between the multiple roles you play – writer, professor, mother?
I wish I had a really wise answer for this one, but the truth is I just muddle along with the rest of us. I do try to have dedicated work time, but this too is a continual negotiation between writing and the other duties and desires. The biggest shift for me is that I’ve started turning off my internet access when I really need to get things done– it makes a huge difference. And I try to squeeze in a smidge of yoga every day– that really helps my whole outlook!
4) What advice would you give to mid life women who are looking to change their situation in life?
I’m always surprised when I hear women tell me things like that they’d like to get a degree but then they’ll be (fill in the age) when they finish. And the answer to that, of course, is: okay, but you’re going to be 60, 70, 100, anyway, so why not begin? I truly believe we are usually our own biggest obstacles– formidable obstacles, indeed–to our goals. As soon as you recognize that the resistance is coming from within, then you can start on the real work that’s necessary to make a change. I think this is a particularly big issue for women– we’re so keyed into taking care of others, we tend to see ourselves and our time as a resource to be given away. Men seem to see themselves as a renewable resource– that’s a valuable paradigm. And fear stops everyone– fear of the new, of the unknown, of being vulnerable. But fear can also be valuable: it tells you when you’ve moved closer to what’s real, what truly matters, and what needs to be overcome.
5) Can you tell us about the current book project you are working on?
I’m working on a new novel that’s currently called Fencing With the King– it’s about an immigrant who gets invited back home to a dueling re-match, to settle an old score. Its set in Jordan and America and it’s based in part on some of my father’s stories about being a young man in the Jordanian army and his life in America.