A Q&A with Susan Muaddi Darraj

By Zahie El Kouri

Susan Muaddi Darraj is the author of two story collections, including the Grace Paley Award-winning A Curious Land: Stories from Home.

A Curious Land: Stories from Home is a collection of interconnected stories spanning generations and continents, all generating from the Palestinian village of Tel al-Hilou. Reading this book was a very powerful experience for me. Not only was it amazing in terms of characterization, structure, and line-by-line writing, but it also answered so many questions I didn’t know I had about Palestinian, Middle Eastern, and immigrant culture. In 2016, A Curious Land won both an American Book Award and an Arab American Book Award. The author’s previous short story collection, The Inheritance of Exile, was honored by the U.S. State Department’s Arabic Book Program.

Zahie El Kouri

The book is compelling both for and beyond its exploration of the Palestinian and immigrant experience. How has it been received both within and outside Middle Eastern communities?

What is it like to discuss the book with non-Arab readers? Do the non-Arab readers catch things like Abu Ammar (the familial name for Yasser Arafat) and “combleet jerk” in “Christmas in Palestine”? (There is no letter “p” in Arabic.) Do they ask what those details mean?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

I feel grateful that the book has been received quite well in the Arab American community — it won the 2016 Arab American Book Award for fiction, which was a lovely surprise. I was happy because the book does not always portray Palestinian culture and values in a “positive light,” so to speak — there is a philandering priest, there are abusive husbands, there are hostile mothers-in-law. I did worry what people would say, but I’ve been lucky to have an outpouring of support from my community.

The book also was shortlisted for the Palestine Award, which is sponsored by the Middle East Monitor and given to books about Palestine written in English. That was quite an honor as well, and gave me a sense of how the book was received on a more international scope.

Non-Arab readers seem to like those details you mention in A Curious Land. They get some of the jokes I’ve planted. They have mostly responded to how familiar some of the characters and their situations feel, which makes me feel great to know that the book appeals to so many people.

Zahie El Kouri

The title A Curious Land is attributed to WEB DuBois, and you include his full quote from The Souls of Black Folk in the epigraph. Can you discuss how his work influenced you?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

When I was younger, I didn’t know of any books by Arab American authors. Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful novel Habibi wasn’t published until the 1990s, when I was in college, and there have been many books since then, by Randa Jarrar, Ahdaf Soueif, and others. But in the 1980s and early 1990s I discovered African-American writers, and I understood my own identity struggle through that lens: I read bell hooks, Alice Walker, June Jordan. And of course, DuBois, who writes much earlier, in the early 1900s. His theory of ‘double consciousness’ –the concept that African-American people develop a “two-ness” by which they see themselves through the eyes of others — spoke to me. It helped me understand how Arab Americans were viewed, how people already thought they understood us before they even spoke to us.

DuBois’s book, The Souls of Black Folk, is his attempt, in 1901, to take a “snapshot” picture of the African-American community in the United States at that particular moment in history. I think I was trying to do something like this in A Curious Land, to describe the history of Palestine and all its wars and all its tragedies, in a fictional format.

In The Souls of Black Folk, he says in a description of the deep South, “How curious a land is this — how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, and big with future promise!” These words, in my opinion, can also apply to Palestine — it’s filled with stories that have never been told.

Zahie El Kouri

In other interviews, you have mentioned your love of Indian Anglophone literature and of Gish Jen. How and why has Asian diaspora literature influenced you? What are your favorites?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

I am influenced by the ways in which other “hyphenated” American or Anglophone writers express identity and the intersection of cultures. My absolute favorite writer is Rohinton Mistry; his novel, A Fine Balance, is a masterpiece of historical fiction. I also enjoy reading Jhumpa Lahiri, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Gish Jen. I recently read Aimee Phan’s The Reeducation of Cherry Truong—what a marvelous novel.

Zahie El Kouri

The stories in this book are separate and can be enjoyed independently, but they also link together in a larger narrative. How did you go about linking these stories? Why did you approach the narrative in this way, rather than writing a novel?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

The history of Palestine has been so fragmented by wars, and the landscape so fragmented by occupation and settlements, that I felt this format worked. I wanted the book to have an ‘epic’ feeling, and so I thought I could also cover more of the timeline I wanted to by using interconnected short stories.

I began with one story, “Abu Sufayan,” and that character of the old man himself. I wrote that story first. I was fascinated by him—a man who has seen so much, and is such an icon of the village, but a man who is willing to go against tradition. What would make him so different? Why wouldn’t he be like all the other men in his tribe? So I started to invent a backstory for him, and that is when I wrote “The Journey Home.” From there, I wrote the story of Abu Sufayan’s granddaughter, Salma—what became of her? And before you know it, I began populating this village.

Zahie El Kouri

This is amazing! The two stories felt so organic. I felt like I wanted to be drawing a diagram of the character connections while I was reading the book. Now I have a million questions about the process of constructing the village. How did you do it? Did you have notecards? Timelines?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

You can buy A Curious Land at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

I was just giving a talk at Valdosta State University in Georgia, and I was asked this question. I explained to the audience there that I actually drew a physical map of the village, as a way to keep the setting straight in my mind. One reason this was helpful was that, in constructing a village, or a place, to make it real, you have to have landmarks. There were some places that appeared over and over in the stories—the Orthodox church, the qahwah (coffee shop), the Israeli settlement on the opposite hill. So I drew a map of the village on large sheets of white paper and hung them up above my writing table, so I could keep that visual. As the stories developed, the village changed, and so new maps were sketched out and rehung.

Another thing that helped me was to draw a family tree, with birthdates and years, because many of the characters are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, of ones who appear in earlier stories. I had to make sure the dates were right, because if Abu Sufayan were 60 in one story, he had to be in his early thirties in an earlier story, because it was set during World War I, for example. I spent a lot of time on things like that, adding and subtracting. The reader may not know (or care) how old Abu Sufayan was in a particular story, but I needed to know that information as I write the story because he had to be clear and real in my mind.

Zahie El Kouri

I was struck by the fact that the title of the Abu Sufayan eponymous story is the name of a person who would not exist if not for the choice the protagonist makes in the preceding story. If Jamil had not kept his promise to marry Hilwa, he might have had another life with Rabab and maybe a different son, and a different “father of” name.

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Yes. One reviewer, Amina Gautier, said that Jamil and Rabab are like the Adam and Eve of this book, that all the other major characters emanate from their story. I love that.

Zahie El Kouri

I love the elliptical nature of time in “Rocky Soil”. I love how the story begins with Eveline’s death, because that is how Arabs think about things, always the joy with the shadow of sadness, usually death or separation from family: “They were all dressed in black, like a flock of crows that had descended on the village, picking at every morsel of grief, holding it up for all to see and inspire new tears.” Why did you choose this structure for the story?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

In that story, I was playing with a narrative voice that was close to Emad but also distant, a narrator who spans time and can “see” the whole timeline of the story’s events. I liked the feeling of that narrative voice, so I went with it. I liked the idea of backtracking from a funeral, to tell the love story from its origins. It’s one of my favorite stories in the book, actually.

Zahie El Kouri

One of the most interesting and sympathetic characters is Salma, the granddaughter of Abu Sufayan. Her story is especially sad, but also uplifting. How did you come to create her character? Is she intended to be representative of Palestinian women?

I loved the fact that we see so much of Salma’s life from other perspectives before we hear her story in Behind the Pillars of the Orthodox Church. My experience is that having children was the most important thing a person could do (male or female) and the fact that Salma meant so much to so many people without having been a mother was very important.

Susan Muaddi Darraj

No, Salma is not intended to be representative of all Palestinian women, but of a “type” of Palestinian woman—the local activist, the woman (every village has one) who is dependable, reliable, and everyone’s “auntie.” The rare woman whom all the men in the village respect and to whom they defer.

In her story, I wanted to show how sometimes your life can change because of someone else’s mistake. How no matter what you plan for your life to turn out otherwise, your plans will be thwarted. It’s like Robert Burns’ line about “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”—they will go awry. That also gave me an opportunity to show how political violence—the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1948—affected so many people, even those who did not make it into the history books.

Also, Salma was a victim of her own family as well as of the political upheaval of the time. It was important for me to show that.

Zahie El Kouri

In “The Fall,” Sufi muses on how he fundamentally misunderstands the past, how he is adding details about cacti in his mother’s life in Guatemala and vineyards in Palestine. Did you grow up feeling like there were gaps in your understanding of your family history? And how have you filled these with research? Did you do oral histories, or were stories passed down to you that were detail-rich enough to be able to represent the past? What books about Palestinian and Middle Eastern history were the most important to your understanding?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

I grew up, like many children of immigrants, with stories my parents told about “back home.” Being Palestinian, hearing about “back home” was sort of a disconnect, because Palestine is neither a place you can locate on a map of the world, nor a nation that others recognize. So Palestine existed for me in stories. We also visited the West Bank over many summers, and one summer, while in college, I studied at BirZeit University, near Ramallah, which was a wonderful experience.

I did conduct some research, however, because I do cover almost one hundred years of history, and I cover events like the Arab Strike, the bombing of the King David Hotel, the intifadah, the few years after the Oslo Accords. I wanted to get things right. Palestinian history is always being denied and contested, so I wanted to make sure that—even though I am writing fiction—I am writing historical fiction, and there is an obligation to be accurate.

I have been reading Ilan Pappe, the Israeli historian, whose books are thoroughly researched and richly detailed. Rashid Khalidi is another wonderful source — all of his books are excellent.

A few years ago, I became interested in Palestinian “village books,” which are being written by people to preserve and document their village history and genealogies. I read Rochelle Davis’ book, Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced, which is excellent. Salma, in A Curious Land, writes a village book about Tel al-Hilou because she fears that the village will be overrun by the nearby Israeli settlement on the opposite hilltop.

Zahie El Kouri

There is a lot of criticism here of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but there is also criticism of Palestinian cultural norms as well. In “Rocky Soil,” Eveline’s family proudly displays the wedding night bed sheet to demonstrate Eveline’s virginity, but Manal is educated and able to live in a different village as a teacher, and no one thinks she is an inappropriate match for Emad. And in “The Well,” Amira makes a choice about whom to marry and follows through on it even though her parents don’t like it. And in “Village Gossip,” Jibril reverts to an older idea of a woman’s role in marriage, and when his father tries to question his attitude, explains that “the occupation made a man feel like less than a man.” Did you struggle with this? Many writers are critiqued by their own communities for writing plainly—Alice Walker, for example. Were you conscious of opening yourself up to criticism over this?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Yes, I struggled with that quite a bit, but I felt like I had to be honest and accurate. Every culture has its progressive and its regressive aspects, and so I wanted to show the entire range. I have not had much criticism over this, maybe because overall, Palestinian history and culture is so beautiful, and I hope I have been able to put that on display.

Zahie El Kouri

A recurring theme is how the choices people are making are influenced by war and the threat of war. How people are looking to marriages and children and religious callings as a way to have peace within external turmoil. When Samar insists on marrying at 17, she says, “There’s a war, Mama”, and her mother understands, “There’s no time to wait and think.”

And in “Abu Sufayan,” the protagonist says “(a)n accident calls for sulha, not the spilling of blood. This village has not spilled blood since I was a child! Let’s remember our ways, our laws. We have them, despite what the British soldiers think of us.” I was deeply affected by this internal village conflict, that this intra-familial conflict was going on with the backdrop of the British and with the Jewish settlements. Am I reading correctly that there was a suggestion that just as maybe the two families would have been able to resolve their differences without blood, maybe the Jews and Arabs would have been able to live in peace without the Ottomans and British? That they were pushed to behave more drastically by the way the Ottomans and British were treating them?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

I’ve always been intrigued by the question of “How much do our circumstances (especially stressful circumstances)—rather than our values—dictate our actions?” In other words, in “Rocky Soil,” Eveline’s parents marry her off—in one week!—to an Arab American who’s come “home” looking for a bride. They are better people than this, but of course, the economic situation in the West Bank is crumbling, and in their minds, this is a chance to offer her a better life. Eveline is really a victim here, and so naive—she buys into the “dream” and gets into the hastily-prepared wedding festivities. But of course, when she gets to America, she realizes she has married into a nightmare.

How could her parents have predicted this? It’s easy to criticize them, and I believe the tone of the story generally does, because the narrative is aligned with the view of Emad, her jilted boyfriend. And yet, the reader can hopefully put himself or herself in their dire situation—what other hope is there? For them, the American who has come home and takes a liking to their daughter is like winning the lottery. Should Eveline stay in the West Bank, what are her options? A highly educated woman has a slim chance of landing a job that suits her, and she might be miserable. Also war is always looming in the background, which is terrifying.

Zahie El Kouri

That’s interesting. Even though I was also aligned with Emad, I really felt for Eveline’s parents in that story as well. I was struck by how kind and welcoming they were when Emad came to visit after Eveline returned. They clearly felt so much embarrassment and shame, but they were still able to open their hearts to him.

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Yes, I wanted to show that they felt embarrassed, they realized what they had done was misguided, and that, in viewing Emad’s renewed interest, they hoped he would now help them solve a bigger problem—how to marry off a daughter who is divorced and with a child. Of course, we also see Emad’s family reacting strongly against this, and they warn Emad that they won’t accept such a marriage.

The theme here is the way in which the culture (this is the culture of the 1970s in the West Bank) and the political situation (the Israeli occupation) threaten Eveline’s happiness, and Emad has to decide how far he will go to have autonomy and agency over his own life. He’s been concerned with this all along, and when their schoolmate is killed during a demonstration, Emad is plagued with the thought that no matter how hard you strive to reach your goals, a soldier with a gun can just end your life on a whim. He hopes that money, being frugal, will give him agency, but he realizes, with Eveline’s return, that he has to make difficult choices.

There are other characters, besides Eveline’s parents, whom the reader may dislike, but I try to clarify the reasons for their behavior. For example, Salma’s parents favor her brother over her, which is painfully clear to her as a young woman. However, they are living in the early to mid-1900s, when having a son is so integral to one’s identity—your name is changed in your society when you have a son, for example. Can we try to understand, if we cannot approve of, their actions, their attempts to always push their son forward, to give him every opportunity?

Zahie El Kouri

Adlah, the main character in “Christmas in Palestine,” makes a momentous journey back to Palestine and Tel al-Hilou. How did you shape Adlah’s character and her struggle to be a mother? Her story intersects with the overall narrative of the death of Demetri, the young child who is killed in the second story, “Abu Sufayan.” Why did you link these together?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Adlah’s struggle with infertility was based on my own. I wanted to connect her story to that of Demetri as a way to “close the loop”—the book is a collection of interconnected stories, but there is an overall narrative: how does the death of Demetri ripple through subsequent generations? Adlah has to face the fact that her chances at motherhood are gone, and she has to grieve for that. Of course, she’s already lost so much in her life, including her mother and her country.

Zahie El Kouri

Yes, that makes so much sense. I thought it was so powerful that Amira chose motherhood over love and then found love, and that Adlah had to reconnect with her loving stepmother to feel the possibility that motherhood can come in different forms. Whose story came to you first?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

Adlah’s story was first, because I had been trying to write a story with a character who suffers from infertility for some time. I experienced it myself, and it’s an agonizing process. I could tap into the longing and the heartache that my character was feeling.

Zahie El Kouri

How is writing about Palestine an act of resistance? What is the work of an Arab-American writer in a culture full of so much hate, for Palestinians, for Jews, for Muslims, and for so many others? I feel like I continue to read stories about this village and its diaspora forever. Will you continue to tell these stories, or will your next project be different?

Susan Muaddi Darraj

I’m stunned by the hostility we see today against Muslims and Arabs in the United States. I think that it’s important to have stories and books where young Arab Americans can see themselves and their lives and the lives of their families mirrored, because it’s isolating and frightening to be an Arab in this country today. I think often of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha—they were killed by a neighbor in their apartment in Chapel Hill, NC, in 2015—young people, full of life, who were nevertheless murdered for being “the other.” This new travel ban is a Muslim ban, no matter how anyone in the administration tries to explain it or justify it, and it’s clear that this country reviles Arabs when in fact, more murders are committed by non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Fear trumps facts, but literature can trump fear. So we have to keep writing and keep insisting on a place for our stories in the literary canon.

 

Zahie El Kouri’s work has appeared in Mizna, Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American literatureArs Medica: A Journal of Medicine, the Arts, and HumanitiesMemoir Journal, and Brain, Child: the Magazine for Thinking Mothers. She has a J.D. from Cornell Law School and an MFA from New School University and is on the board of RAWI, the Radius of Arab-American Writers. You can read more about Zahie and her writing at www.zahieelkouri.com.

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