Diana Abu-Jaber, Jordanian-American author and professor at Portland State University, is coming to Virginia Tech to speak as a part of the English department’s Visiting Writers Series.
Abu-Jaber will speak Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Inn at Virginia Tech in Latham Ballroom C.
Abu-Jaber first gained notoriety for her novel “Arabian Jazz” in 1994, which won the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. She also received several awards for her best-selling novels “Origin” and “Crescent,” and her memoir “The Language of Baklava.”
Her most recent novel “Birds of Paradise,” published in 2011, is a story about a fractured family and the coming of age of a young teenager, Felice.
According to Abu-Jaber’s website, “(‘Birds of Paradise’) illuminates the silent crosscurrents of guilt, anger, blame, and grief that can plague a family, and it will resonate with all those who have sought adolescent independence and then yearned to reconnect with their families once they are grown up.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Abu-Jaber about her life as a writer, her career and her upcoming visit to Tech.
CT: When you were growing up, did you always want to be a writer?
Abu-Jaber: Pretty early on I figured out I loved writing. My mom was a reading teacher, so she was always bringing home books and my father was a big story teller. I grew up in house full of stories. My family is bilingual, speaking both Arabic and English, which made stories, images and language important. I can remember writing as early as fourth grade and really enjoying it.
CT: Was there a moment when writing became real for you, when you knew you could do this for a living?
Abu-Jaber: There were a couple of moments. I won an award in graduate school — the best dissertation award. They had a big $100 prize; it was the first money I had ever received. I had gotten money writing for a newspaper before, but this was different; it was creative writing. It was such a thrill for me; I framed that hundred dollar bill and didn’t spend it right away.
CT: What inspired you to write your first big novel “Arabian Jazz”?
Abu-Jaber: It took me a while to write that, because I didn’t want to write anything about my family’s background. The novels I was writing had nothing to do with Arab American families; it wasn’t part of the vocabulary of literature at the time. I kept making up stories that I thought literature was supposed to be, kind of like cocktail parties in Long Island. My graduate advisor, Larry Woiwode said, "You have interesting cultural background, why don’t you use those stories instead?" He kept hammering that in; he wouldn’t let up. I tried writing a story from a personal perspective with cultural collisions and clashes. He loved it and his agent loved it. It started a domino effect for me where I realized people were interested in a new cultural perspective; things were changing in the cultural conversation. That is where “Arabian Jazz” got started.
CT: How has your use of multiculturalism in your writing grown and evolved over the years?
Abu-Jabber: It wasn’t something I ever intended to do; but, the next book I wrote never got published. “Arabian Jazz” was more lighthearted and humorous, so I tried to write something heavier, kind of political. I wrote a book from the perspective of a Palestinian exile, and it didn’t work, but I put like five years into it. I started becoming interested in food writing: the experience of cooking and eating. My memoir came out of that, from all of the research on cultural food, since it followed the cooking that my father did. I never meant to write all these cultural books, it just kind of happened that way. My last two books don’t have any Middle East culture in them.
CT: I understand your recent book, “Birds of Paradise,” follows the story of a fractured family. Can you describe the underlying elements of the novel in more detail?
Abu-Jaber: It is about an Anglo family living in Miami. It is about cultural collisions, but this time it is the Anglo-Cuban clashes. The family has a young daughter who runs away from home. The story is about the impact of the runaway — they all kind of deal with that in their own way. The mother is a pastry maker, and she channels her anger and grief in that. A lot of the book is about food, how we look at food and what it symbolizes to us.