I believe that books, like people, come to our lives for a reason. They come to our lives when we need them…when we are ready for them. I have always felt that way about books I fall in love with. I become personal with them. I get naked with their words, and feel their pages wrap themselves around mine and become one somehow because that’s what happens when a book grabs me and becomes muse food, poem, essay or even random heartfelt ramblings like my writings tend to be. That’s why reading Pain Woman Takes Your Keys And Other Essays From A Nervous System, by Sonya Huber was an intense ride, an intense read. Page after page of beautiful cascading words that described, defined, painted, narrated and otherwise gave pain a face, a name a way to communicate with my own experience of pain and my relationship with it.
Sonya Huber’s essays are more than essays. They flow naturally like water. They breathe on their own and pulsate themselves into poetic spasms of self-love and self-loathing all at once as if love and hate were one—as if learning to speak the word pain with love could make pain less painful. And I suppose in some ways it does. She brings us face to face with the social stigma that is automatically attached to the word pain. She exposes the realities of suddenly having to live in a body that is no longer her friend. Her words are poetically gorgeous as they dress and undress pain sharing the many faces of her life as a woman living in a body so intimate with pain. I dare say Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is gourmet food for the mind. A luxurious feast for those who love well crafted words.
But besides being an amazing read, Pain Woman was also a very personal read—one that touched me deeply and made me want to touch the skin of my own pain and try to become friends with it. Until now, pain has been, for me, almost like an out-of-body experience. Growing up disabled, people automatically assumed I was in pain when I wasn’t. By the time PPS (Post Polio Syndrome) slammed my body with pain and fatigue, I had years of experience dealing with people’s reactions to pain and disability. I had grown a thick skin to stares and stupid questions as well as the way people assume I’m fragile and breakable. I realize now that I spent years trying to prove that I’m not fragile or breakable and somewhere along the way, I had also taught myself to negate pain, pretend it doesn’t exist, believe it is something that will always make me stronger and all the other bullshit we tell ourselves when we desperately want to believe something.
And I desperately wanted to believe that I am always stronger than my pain. I wanted to sustain my definition of strong, my definition of successful. And successful and pain are never a good match. I have never been able to write about my pain with total honesty. I write about pain almost always relating to it through the experience of others like writing about Frida, how our shared experiences with polio and our scars have made me love her and want to become my own version of her pain because at least her pain became art. Reading Sonya’s essays turn my own pain into art. As I caress the spine of her book, I let her beautiful words pour pain over my pages, become a new awareness of myself, a new way of relating to pain…kind of like growing the woman version of balls when it comes to writing.
Her book also gave me a very intimate tour of how life is through the lens of a disabled body that does not look disabled to the world. Even though I am a disabled woman, until pain touched me personally, I think I probably struggled with not being sensitive enough to the realities of pain as an invisible disability.
So I pick up my pen and my muse takes off writing as if she suddenly understood pain with the same intimacy as Pain Woman. She writes the poem below. She calls herself a poet.
They thought she wasn’t
because pain has no color,
no way of making itself known
outside the body in which it breathes.
its own space, its own face.
It cannot exist outside itself.
And as much as she may try to explain,
describe, define, paint a portrait of her pain,
she was the only one who could feel
the needles, the constant pounding,
the throbbing, the tiny people with hammers
hammering away while she
gave herself away to a job that had become
because pain was her boss and it demanded rest…
rest she could not afford
does not pay the bills.
Rest does not make debt go away.
Rest is the only thing she craves,
and the one thing she can’t have.
So she goes to work every day
with those who don’t understand
because they cannot see
I put my pen down and realize that I too have the ability to communicate with pain, to write about pain, to give it a body besides mine. I am suddenly able to translate pain into a language of my own. I let it rip open like a zipper, and I look inside the body bag of my fears, my broken relationship with pain. I realize that pain has been a constant friend for years and one I have pretended and attempted to ignore. Suddenly, my own pain becomes a Maria version of Pain Woman. I realize she’s existed all along. She has been taking my keys and my muse and writing my wheelchair into the night until my Pain Woman becomes a rough draft of my former self, a sketch of what pain feels like when it’s cold. She rides my words and lets the wind caress her face until eventually she finds herself transformed into a poem.
Maria R. Palacios is a feminist writer, poet, author, spoken word performer, professional presenter, polio survivor, mother and disability activist whose message of hope and empowerment pulsates and breathes through her work. Palacios’ work has been featured in anthologies, articles, audio interviews and other multimedia publications. Known in the artistic world as The Goddess on Wheels, her multicultural background and passion for onstage performance have come to life through various events over the years. Her work embraces self-acceptance, empowerment and social justice surrounding women with disabilities, gender and sexuality and a wide spectrum of issues as they relate to diversity. Palacios is the author of several publications and the founder of the National Women With Disabilities Empowerment Forum formerly known as the Women With Disabilities Empowerment Fair which Palacios has been bringing to the Houston community since 2010. She can be found online at www.goddessonwheels.com.
One of my favorite things about Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is that you’ve made your experience of chronic pain and rheumatoid arthritis incredibly relatable; it’s easy to see many women’s experiences reflected in these essays. One of the universal issues, to this reader, is what we might call “the yoga question.” You mention how many people have asked you whether you’ve tried yoga as a potential cure-all. What do you think lurks behind those interrogations?
I do think it comes from naive good intentions, and the desire for a condition to be fixable. Before I got sick I found the same kinds of questions escaping my lips. I think part of what motivates the suggestion, too, is an attempt to connect. But beneath those good intentions, I think, is discomfort. We are a fix-it-quick culture, and sickness and disability are still seen as signs of weakness. I think it’s deeply troubling for many people to contemplate that they themselves might one day have something major going on with their bodies that they can’t control. The “yoga” suggestion is really a story people tell themselves about how they will be able to fix anything that goes wrong for them, I think. Regardless of yoga’s roots, the role that yoga has come to play in our culture is complex. This is not to bash on yoga–I do yoga myself! Rather, it’s sometimes short-hand for a weirdly neo-Calvinist approach to health, which Heather Kirn Lanier describes beautifully in a recent essay in Vela as “mind-body fundamentalism.”
The vague and hard-to-pin-down feeling of guilt that comes along with chronic illness is another theme that many readers will recognize in themselves. In “Cupcakes,” you say that “when I berate myself for my mothering, it usually involves a vision of cupcakes,” when you don’t even like cupcakes (or baking, for that matter). Where does this kind of guilt come from, do you think?
Martha Stewart and Pinterest? Kidding–but kind of not! I am a slob. I don’t like to cook. But self-acceptance about these traits is a daily struggle–even though I identify as a feminist. I think it’s all a testament to how much I personally need feminism in my life and in my politics, to counteract sexism that we are all soaking in like Palmolive Dish Detergent (referencing a commercial from the 1970s in which a woman soaks her hand in blue dish soap like she’s at a spa). Also, I think it’s much harder to appreciate and take pictures of what good mothering might mean beyond baked goods. Good conversations, for example–I think I do a lot of that with my son, and yet I don’t appreciate it as much because I’ve been trained to see that as “easy” emotional labor. Oh my god, I am winding up into rant mode; that another skill that’s harder to appreciate because it’s free.
This collection is rich with personal language for pain that’s unique among anything that I’ve read—pain is “the thumb of God right on me” and “pain demands that you make eye contact with it and then sit utterly still” are among my favorites. Can you talk about the craft choices you’ve made in handling pain as though it’s a character in your personal story?
My goal was to try to describe pain’s effect in an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sense, because as soon as I started to really pay attention to pain, I saw all kinds of interesting dynamics happening. I guess I made pain into a presence first in order to track my conversation with it, to move it away from a bad thing happening to me and toward a presence. Kids do this all the time, this transference and projection, and I needed to make it a being (or I guess many beings) to also get away from feeling trapped or victimized by it. I also wanted to watch what I did in reaction to pain, which became as interesting and important to me as to describe pain as a character. Pain messes with your head, leads you down rabbit holes that can get pretty bad, so I felt like I needed to see pain as a way to understand the shape I was making for it. Both of those phrases you mentioned came up when I was trying to watch how I was acting in the presence of pain while trying hard to stop freaking out about it. Pain–at least the kind of pain I have–sometimes seems to demand that I not move much, which is connected in my head with so many forms of spiritual practice. That doesn’t necessarily mean pain is “spiritual” but rather that there are interesting connections and resonances.
There are essays in this book, “Prayer to Pain,” for one example, when you write about pain with what feels like genuine compassion; you say that “Pain does not want to inflict itself. Its existence is probably its own greatest agony…Pain is more scared than you are; think of its existence.” How did you get to a place at which you could think of pain as something for which you could show empathy?
I think I was first reacting to the “battle” language that people sometimes use to describe illness or disability. I struggled for long time with self-judgment about so many other things in my life (and I still struggle), so I really needed to not fight with myself about a whole other thing. I needed to not have another reason to judge or criticize or resent my body or tell myself I’m not good enough, that I’m damaged and defective, and so on. I mean, this collection of organs and stuff is my home. And really, every single cell that feels pain and every single chemical reaction that creates pain is actually me. So I needed to feel empathy for pain as one part of the ongoing struggle to not be so ruthlessly hard on myself. The sick thing is that once I started to play with seeing pain as a character, it became easier to have empathy for it than it usually is for me to generate self-empathy. I was so relieved, actually, after the book came out and I heard other people describe pain as a kind of companion–and not a demonic one. Pain is something I hang out with all the time, and it’s much easier to bear it when I can say “Hi, pain” rather than “Oh my god I am such a loser, I’m in pain again.” (I do both, by the way).
In the title essay of the collection, you talk about Pain Woman as a kind of shadow author-self, or a shadow narrative voice, who despite being an unwelcome presence at your writing desk is still a powerful communicator. How do you celebrate the pain woman side of your writing and the unique gifts that it brings to the page without romanticizing suffering?
This is a huge concern for me. The assumption that any kind of extreme is naturally connected with insight and artistic vision is pretty dangerous for all kinds of reasons. Among others, it makes people go for those extremes instead of just writing where they are at. And it has a danger of letting someone think I might be “grateful” for my illness because of all the great writing Pain Woman gets to do. Gratitude is fine, but there’s the danger that suffering is okay as a result because it might make us better or purer (and thus we don’t really need to worry about helping those who suffer). I think the way to push against the romanticization is to also stay in touch with the shitty details. Like, it’s so glamorous that I’m lying here on the couch playing Two Dots instead of walking around at a farmer’s market. Or, I have to drive to Hartford in two hours and I’m suddenly scared that I’m not going to have the energy to drive there. Don’t you want my life?
Along similar lines, quite a few activists maintain that being disabled is simply another way of living in the world—not inherently good or bad, just different. You wrestle with that issue in “From Inside the Egg,” where you say that accepting pain is acquiescence to suffering, and that “in every case, it’s not okay.” How do you find a balance between advocating for better treatment and research while trying to destigmatize chronic pain?
This is another really hard issue for me–partly because I feel like I am slowly learning about disability and writing, disability rhetorics and communities and activism. Those communities and conversations have been key to my sanity. On the one hand, it’s necessary to push back against the impulse that many people have to “fix” my life, to accept myself and this incurable disease and say, you know what, I can still have a great life with whatever conditions I have, and my life is 100% as worthy and beautiful as the next person’s life. At the same time, I am scared of accepting chronic pain because I feel like, in one sense, “acceptance” can be taken to mean that we can be erased and ignored completely. And pain is a crisis; it’s one piece of our extended healthcare crisis in this country. People frame the “opioid crisis” as one of drug addiction, but I believe it’s also a symptom of our dysfunctional healthcare system. So I want to be a strong advocate for research and treatment. Many people with many disabilities have pain, and pain is a specific symptom that can often signal trouble. Everyone who is having trouble and pain deserves medical attention and care if they want and need it.
Speaking of stigma, this book makes no secret of the fact that colleagues have tried to steer you away from writing about pain and disability as though they were semi-scandalous topics that could somehow scuttle your career. What does a writer—especially one who’s a woman—risk by being open about her life?
I’ve tried in the book to connect to so many public debates, which I think for a male writer might be read as “universal” and “relevant” and for a female writer will be read as “personal” and “emotional.” Many people who write disability narratives are tagged as being self-involved, which is also a favorite epithet used against female writers of essays and memoir. At a personal level, I hope we stay on my husband’s healthcare plan because–given the current level of healthcare sadism–I’m now unavoidably and publicly linked to my pre-existing conditions. Finally, I think there’s the danger that I might be pigeon-holed as unable to do all the stuff I normally do, either at my job or as a writer in the world, because people now know about a condition I’ve had for a long time.
On the flip side, let’s talk about the rewards of being open. Your “Pain-Sex Anti-Manifesto” is one of the most relatable and even laugh-out-loud funny reflections on sex, relationships, and the ironic taboos on sex that spring from a sex-positive culture that I’ve ever read. Yet in the essay itself, you mention what a struggle it is to write so vulnerably. Was the essay worth the burden of its own creation?
This essay was worth it purely for the experience of going through the writing of it with my husband, who absolutely isn’t fazed by so many things that freak me out. I would not have written either the original magazine piece or the essay if he weren’t cool with them and if he hadn’t helped me try to find words for what I was struggling with. Those conversions were really good for us. Also, I feel like it’s pretty good practice for both writing and living to try to be as honest as I can be on the page, even if it’s cringe-worthy. I feel happy I wrote it, and now I never have to write it again!
Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collections Burn This House (Red Hen, 2013) and the forthcoming The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon). Formerly the Senior Editor of Eyewear Publishing in London, she recently returned to the United States to live and write in the greater New York area.
I could tell this pain was serious. I’m familiar with pain. I’ve had chronic digestive problems since I was a child. At college it got worse, and I was diagnosed with IBS (that nebulous diagnosis you get when no other diagnosis is determined). Over time, I learned how to cope, and I knew what to do when I was hurting. This was different. I confided only to my husband, who asked me to see a doctor. I didn’t. One morning, before work, I collapsed on the kitchen floor, bent over with pain. Disturbing amounts of blood had come out of me. Now, let me make this clear, I STILL WENT TO WORK. I waited until the weekend to go to an urgent care clinic. The doctor hospitalized me within minutes. I was anemic. I felt a perverse joy that I was sick enough to take a break. I thrilled at finally having an excuse to prioritize my health as well as my desires. I mean, what if I died? Dear reader, please note I believe any individual is entitled to prioritize their self care—no excuse needed, but some of us are self-punishing in weird ways.
Sonya Huber’s book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays From a Nervous System, deals with chronic pain through a variety of styles, tones, and angles. Years ago Huber was diagnosed with two autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis. Her thoughtful and well-researched personal essays play counterpoint to her experimental, poetic prose. Huber explores the place of metaphor in understanding pain. She weaves in tangential but poignant research on, for example, cloud nomenclature. You might laugh in recognition, at the frustrations of life with illness as a mother, at work, on social media, and in a relationship. She even discusses, against some initial hesitation, her sex-life (“A Pain-Sex Anti-Manifesto”).
Though it’s not meant to be a linear memoir, I read the book in sequence. For me, the book got more interesting as I went along. The title essay, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys,” comes at the end of Part III of VI. In it, Huber tells how an essay she wrote while in pain went viral, leading her to muse about her writing voice:
My non-pain voice searches for metaphors to entertain you. She aims to fascinate with far-reaching, pretty, solar-system lava curlicues, hiding behind constructions that might allow you to forget for a second that you are even looking at a woman at all.
Pain Woman takes your keys and drives away.
I enjoyed the meta aspect of this, remembering the mixture of voices in Huber’s essays. We are all, she says, “swimming in our multiple voices, and all we have to do is listen to ourselves.”
I was in the hospital for five days. On the fifth day I got diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which the doctor emphasized was an “incurable, lifelong illness”. Autoimmune. Like Huber’s, my immunological defenses, meant to attack foreign invaders, were overreacting and attacking my own body. Learning about what often happens to people with Crohn’s Disease was worse than the pain itself. The doctor prescribed the typical drugs that would reduce the immune response. He said I now required cancer screenings because of the added risk introduced by both the illness and the medicine itself. He cautioned me to take the prescriptions, as alarming as they sounded, because the alternative was worse—losing my intestines. I came to despise him for scaring me into submission, and for joking to my husband that he should hire someone to help me around the house—but not a blond, wink-wink. He assumed all at once: that I might be the housekeeper of the household, that we might have the financial means to hire someone, that brunettes, including myself, might be less attractive to my husband than blondes…I feel zero pity that no one laughed at his gross joke. My specialist would later more accurately diagnose me with Ulcerative Colitis, by the way—not Crohn’s. And eventually, I would be off meds but still taking herbs and supplements under my primary care doctor’s advice and supervision.
Before all this, though, I waited in the hospital bed for five days, not able to eat, in pain with no answers. I got woken up several times a night for vital signs. I was finally given an ungodly amount of a most disgusting fluid and wheeled away for a colonoscopy. When she first saw me, the nurse steering my bed exclaimed, “Oh! She’s pretty!” Greasy and raccoon-eyed, I saw myself as an irrepressible beauty, glowing even in illness. Not that it was true! Or that it should matter!
When I finally got home, I had lost over 10 lbs from my already low body weight. I could barely move from my spot on the couch. Like Huber, “I couldn’t even do sickness the way I had enjoyed in the past. I couldn’t read.” My husband pre-made lunches for me: containers of plain mashed sweet potatoes and tofu, with love notes adhered to the lids. The gesture heartened me to try eating. When I could read comic books again, things felt less dismal. I graduated to books. Books—my old friend and escape—let me feel myself again.
A year later, I was still on meds and had been stable for months when I relapsed. I sunk into the couch wincing in pain…and guilt. I was supposed to be at choir practice. It took some time, but I managed to force myself to get in the car and go, only to be reprimanded for being late, for missing my solo part. I felt judged for not being dependable, for not being grateful enough for my solo. I blamed myself for not thinking to text ahead that I was sick. It was after this incident that I first posted about my chronic illness on social media. I wanted people to know that flare-ups are unpredictable. When someone is late, we can’t possibly know what it took for them to get there.
People responded to my post with sympathy, but what surprised me most was how many people, all of them women, shared that they also have some kind of chronic pain or illness. In “The Alphabet of Pain,” Huber cites a 2011 study by the Institute of Medicine that estimates “100 million people in the country live in chronic pain.” And you don’t know who in your life is going through it unless they tell you. When I was at my worst, forcing myself to work despite debilitating pain, anemia, and embarrassing urgency for the bathroom, I don’t think a single person suspected a thing. To others, I looked normal. Meanwhile I was sure I was sacrificing my last days on Earth to be at work. They’d know I was sick when I died at their feet. It’s the invisible nature of pain that makes it easy to dismiss. It is easy to doubt women that are truly suffering, even when they’ve sucked it up and waited for the worst possible scenario before seeking help. I learned as a child that my pain could not be proven, that it was easier to accuse me of exaggerating or being a drama queen. Huber notes, “The majority of chronic pain patients are women, and the medical establishment seems to have a hard time hearing or treating them.” She says, “Women’s accounts of pain in particular are often minimized or ignored by physicians.” This has staggering consequences for women who have dramatically better outcomes when diagnosed early, as with Lyme Disease.
This book does not dwell in the negative, but it doesn’t offer answers or solace in the traditional sense, either. There’s no sugar coating. In the introduction Huber expresses hope that her essays do not depress. That might depend on your state of mind as you read. I can’t say how I would have felt about this book when I was newly diagnosed and frightened, but reading it now I felt the camaraderie of a good support group. I found charm in its honesty—and a bit of comfort.
Estella Ramirez is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She has a BA from Johns Hopkins and an MFA from Texas State. You can find her writing at The Toast, Bitch Flicks, Dryland Lit, Angel City Review, and elsewhere.
Taxi drivers the world over exist in possession of one liners that summarize all manner of things: circumstances, politics, personalities, conditions, and relationships. They neither hoard their wit nor dispense with it freely. If the moment strikes, they share, if it does not, they keep their counsel, knowing that the opportunity will present itself. They were masters of the 140 character mindset long before Twitter came into existence. At the very end of Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home, a taxi driver carrying Adlah Muneer Miltner to a Ramallah hotel from Ben Gurion Airport, is even more succinct: “Everything changes, nothing changes.”
I was struck by these simple words because they reminded me of the most enduring impression I had of Palestine and Palestinians from my relatively recent time there: they were indomitable.
How could that be possible? Whether we go back to their history before Alexander the Great, who invaded Palestine in about 330 BC, or to the time in 1187 after Saladin’s forces defeated the crusaders, or to the Ottomans in 1486, Palestinians have had to undergo centuries of invasion and occupation, the latest, and most inhumane being from the Israelis, a form of oppression perfectly enunciated in a post by American poet Rickey Laurentiis, upon his first visit to that country.
In the hundred years covered by this collection alone, the Palestinian people, from the bedouin to the villagers in A Curious Land’s Tel al-Hilou have to contend with the presence of Turks, Brits, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and of course, Zionists. And yet, through it all, whether they stay and fight for their homes or carry their families to safety through the night, the men still gather at the qahwah, the young still dream of love and professional success, parents shoulder burdens, marry their offspring, and bury their young and their old. Gossip flows through the towns, stories are passed along like diamond chips—brilliant but flawed—Arabic (never Turkish) coffee is cupped in veined hands, prayers are said, pledges made, and life goes on. It is the sublime ordinary that we yearn for in our heart of hearts.
In Nablus one day I was passing by a row of shuttered shops when I saw one wooden door open. I peered into the brightly lit sliver of a shop that lay behind it, a perfumery. It was like the stage set to a play I might be fortunate enough to see. A young man in a red shirt was milling around in the back while two old men perched on stools nearby and chatted with him. I entered the store, a magpie lured to bright things; my mother had been a lover of perfume, and I had inherited the craze along with her collection when she passed away.
None of the men look up or pay me any heed, foreign though I clearly am, in appearance, in demeanor, in dress. I take the opportunity to touch the small bottles lining the walls, to let intoxication in. After a while, when it is apparent that I might actually want to buy something, the two older men direct the young man’s attention to his potential customer, gesturing with their heads, and leave. The proprietor does not ask me what I want to buy, instead we fall into an easy conversation about the lure of perfumes. How irresistible they are, their many composite parts, the origins of those ingredients, the places where the best perfumes are created. Do you like this one? How about this? We spend a long time doing this, as though he and I are old friends traveling through strange lands, out to discover the best among the best to indulge our senses. He points to a row of perfumes up on a high shelf. “These I will never sell. They are for me,” he says, his own collection. And yet, after more time passes, more scents and stories shared, he returns to them and takes one down, his favorite. He applies the tiniest smear on my wrist. The smell of rose, neroli and Florentine orris rises up to my face and he grins widely at my delight and he picks another one to wave under my nose: oud, orchid, orange; a third: black pepper and patchouli.
Later, as he wrapped two tiny vials of perfumed oils that he mixed for me, each chosen according to what he has learned about my preferences, sealing them with the utmost care, his hands careful, intent, we talked of our families. I told him about my writing, and he propped my business card next to his row of precious not-for-sale perfumes. “Consider Palestine your second home. You are welcome here,” he said when I told him I had traveled from America. I heard about his wife and son, and imagined him returning safely home to them, the fragrance that they must associate with his work and his obsession.
How much time all this took, I couldn’t say. It might have been only half an hour, much less, more. But it was also a lifetime. A moment that framed my decades of distant involvement with a country to which I can only lay the claim of a global citizen who believes that the plight of others is her responsibility. I can still see him standing there, tall and fair, handing over the perfumes which, though I have paid for them, feel like a gift. In a place where their lives are always under threat, always being subjected to relentless deprivation, where despair is distilled and force-fed in every way possible, Palestinians act like coal in deep mines: they turn themselves into diamonds, a strength so great that the only thing that can threaten it is another diamond. Faceted, brilliant, sharp enough to cut but choosing whenever possible to dazzle. And it is these kinds of moments that affirm that sense I have: they will prevail. That in Palestine, one is never owned by hours and minutes, that “there is always time for a chat, to boil a small kettle of tea.” That this is the home I miss, and that I looked for and created wherever I went. A feeling that is the essence of all human longing, but manifested with the utmost clarity in Palestine.
A thin unbreakable thread weaves through Darraj’s stories affirming this indelible fact of community. Where memory is preserved about essential things—which mother threw herself over the body of someone else’s son and claimed him as her own to prevent him from being killed by Israeli soldiers; which secret-keeping spinster carries love notes between the homes of two teenagers while Israeli soldiers demand their food at gunpoint and empty their urine and shit into their water well before they give up the occupation of their roof; which wounded man’s lineage can be traced through exile and return, in Guatemala, Kuwait, and Washington DC; which love is lost and which held even after death and which altered by which grateful immigrant. A village rises up once more out of the earth, water fills the empty well, the Virgin Mary at the top of the church is unsullied by bullets. Erasure is not permitted. It is never permitted. How glad that makes me.
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist, the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane, and the editor of the anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, a collection of the voices of 65 American poets and writers speaking about America’s dis/engagement with Palestine. She holds a graduate degree in labor studies, researching female migrant labor in the countries of Kuwait, the U.A.E, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and has worked at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, in the South Asia office of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL/CIO), and the American Friends Service Committee in their humanitarian and disaster relief programs. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo,Hedgebrook, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Lannan Foundation. She was the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.
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
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 literature, Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, the Arts, and Humanities, Memoir 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.
What is home? How do you define home? Is it the land your village/town/city stands on? Is it the houses that are monuments to your childhood? Or is it the people without whom you would not exist?
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home attempts to answer these questions. The stories in Darraj’s collection are almost always set in the village of Tel al-Hilou in Palestine and centre on the inhabitants of the village.
What makes this book and the stories within it so brilliant? Ah well, there isn’t just one thing but a multitude. First of all, the stories in this book span nearly a century with the first one set in 1916 and the final one set in 1998. Secondly, while this book does not avoid politics (one could argue that to be Palestinian is a political act), the manner in which Darraj illustrates the creeping nature of Israeli occupation is superlative. Rather than a dialectic path, Darraj works implicit and explicit moments into the stories that delineate the oppression with understated and powerful profundity. This is most especially true in “Intifada Love Story” where four Israeli soldiers camp out on the roof of a house in Tel al-Hilou and threaten the inhabitants of the house with physical violence if they do not listen to their demands. The story is centred on Jamil, the teenaged son of the couple living in the house, who quickly realizes the fleeting nature of life and love when faced with the possible termination of both. However, it is not the presence of the Israeli soldiers that strikes a chord with the readers but the very last act of cruelty they commit before they leave: the soldiers dump their bodily wastes into the family’s water tank and only water supply before leaving.
A central theme to all the stories is love and not just the romantic love the poets sing about but love in all its shades and glories. One of my favourites (though all of them are beautiful) is “Rocky Soil” which tells the initially tragic tale of Emad and Evaline who, though sharing a mutual love, are unable to be together because her family prefers a suitor based in America. To them, living in America automatically means wealth and grandeur. Emad is left heartbroken after Evaline is married off and his reaction to his emotional hurt is to change priorities. He starts saving almost maniacally, not for any specific reason but because not having enough is what cost him Evaline. When she returns two years later, broken and divorced, with a daughter, he has a second chance but this time it is his family members who raise objections. The way he resolves this new conflict is what makes this story a thing of beauty.
A Curious Land is full of many iterations of femininity: strong women, meek women, weak women, women ruled by their hearts and women ruled by their heads. My favourite character is one who pops up in many of the stories. Salma is initially introduced in the second story when she helps her grandfather conceal some of their neighbours from people in the village bent on revenge. Throughout the book she is present as a confidante, helper, daughter, beloved, and finally, a memory. Her story, “Behind the Pillars of the Orthodox Church,” reveals the tragedy that set Miss Salma’s life on its course. The poignancy of the lost love juxtaposed with the crooked preacher in the story who uses his position to further his amorous exploits makes this tale a memorable one. All the women in the book are wonderfully depicted with all their flaws and humanity intact.
I cannot talk about this book without talking about the language Darraj uses to tell this story. Evocative, probing, and at times sparse, the prose pulls together the characters and makes them into people. It colours in the setting and makes the land home. An example:
“The night before, to keep the wolves away, he had played a melody on a flute, a hardened reed onto which he had hollowed out four holes. A sorrowful tune was all that could be played on it, whispering its way huskily into the crisp dark night, echoing in the walls of the cave…”
So, what is home? Is it the pieces of the land you carry in your bones when you travel away from it? Is it the whispered secrets you heard through open windows on dark nights? Is it the place the childhood bloomed? Is it the image you see that moment when you close your eyes for the final time before returning to your creator?
In Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home, home is a village that endures oppression and time. The village’s people live and die, leaving behind legacies and families. Home is the place they return to helplessly because it won’t let them go.
Nafiza Azad has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She has a passion for pineapple and poetry. She writes children’s literature and is represented by Katelyn Detweiler from Jill Grinberg Literary Agency.