Hey! I’m an award-winning fiction-writer.
My short short story, “She Is Not Going to Call Him” won the Editors’ Award in the latest writing contest—the topic was “Men”—sponsored by TheNovelette.com. You can find my entry, the Readers’ Choice winner, and the other finalists here.
Thanks to those discerning editors, and thanks to everyone who voted.
An American Voice: Randa Jarrar on Her Debut Novel
Nidali’s father is Palestinian, which means, essentially, that he is homeless; he is the citizen of a country that doesn’t exist. Her mother is half Egyptian and half Greek. In addition to this mixed-up pedigree, Nidali has a rather peripatetic personal history, one that stretches from Kuwait to Texas. And Nidali is endowed by her creator—first-time novelist Randa Jarrar—with one of the most engaging narrative voices I’ve encountered in awhile. Singular and universal, hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking, A Map of Home is an outstanding coming-of-age story.
One of the things I admired most about your book was how—without melodrama, and without allowing your heroine excessive self-pity—you make the political personal. At 13, Nidali isn’t upset about the invasion of Kuwait because it’s an abrogation of international law; she’s upset about it because it screws up her social life. This is something that a lot of readers will, I think, understand in a way that they might not understand, say, the feeling of having bombs dropped near one’s home.
Randa Jarrar: Thank you. Well, I made a conscious choice early on in the process for Nidali to have a fresh perspective—that the things that would upset or anger her should surprise the reader. For example, a reader might expect the family to leave Kuwait because of the danger or the imminent arrival of American forces, but they leave because they run out of za’tar spice. I just think it’s funnier and more interesting that way.
There’s a moment in your novel when Nidali’s father remarks on the constantly shifting borders of Palestine and says, “There’s no telling where home starts and where it ends.” For him, this is tragic, but, for Nidali, it’s liberating. Is Nidali’s reaction an accurate reflection of your own feelings about the idea of home?
RJ: Nidali’s dad has suffered so much partly because he lost his home, and also because he’s spent so much time and energy trying to regain it, even psychologically. Nidali has a different take, a different way to adapt to displacement. She can either find it tragic, the way her baba does, or she can find or cling to a new home, or she can realize that she is a borderless person; someone who can belong anywhere. Of course, the last option is the most exciting for her. And yes, it is for me, too.
Nidali is a wonderfully expressive character. It's both heartbreaking and hilarious when she arrives in the United States and, all of the sudden, her speech assumes the stilted formality peculiar to English as a second language. Experiencing that transition in your story really made me think about how hard it must be to move not just to a new country, but also to a new language.
RJ: It’s very lonely. But you know, I think Nidali is really fortunate in that transition, because she went to English schools; she knew the language and understood it well; it was the cultural aspect that was difficult. I remember when I first moved to the US I translated everything people said into Arabic, not to understand it, but to warm up to it. And I’d sometimes be watching a Marilyn Monroe movie and fantasize about her speaking her lines in sultry Arabic. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I was trying to bridge that distance. The language difference is huge, I think, because it removes you from the familiar, but also from the great feeling of being at one and in-sync with the people and culture around you.
Do you have a different personality in Arabic than you do in English?
RJ: Not anymore. I’ve always had a crazier, edgier English persona, but now I feel comfortable and confident enough in my own skin that I can be crazy in Arabic, too. It always takes me a couple of days when I travel back to Egypt, though; I have a hard time sassing in Arabic there at first. But after the first two days, I’m back to making blowjob jokes and shocking and entertaining my friends and family.
Is there an added responsibility—or an added burden—to being a Middle Eastern voice in American culture at this particular moment?
RJ: Hmmm, I have to say I find the question a teensy bit problematic. I consider myself an American voice.
But if I had to answer, I’d add “pleasure” to that list: a responsibility, a burden, and a pleasure.
I started this novel just before 9/11, and after 9/11 I retreated into the novel completely. My writing gave me comfort. That was the pleasure part. And the burden comes afterwards, when I feel as though I have to translate my characters and their way of life. But I think part of my responsibility is to my characters, and to be fair to them, I have to let the reader do some of the leg-work.
What are you working on now?
RJ: I’ve just finished revising a new book of fiction, a dozen stories set in New York, Iran, Texas, Zaire, the Puget Sound, Gaza, Australia, Michigan, and Egypt. I’m really excited about it. And I’m now in the research and planning stages of a new novel.
Everything I Need to Know about the 2008 Presidential Election I’m Going to Learn from Us Weekly
Look, I know it. You know it. We all know that I’m voting for Barack Obama in November. Consumption of campaign coverage only confirms my position and, frequently, fills me afresh with rage that is, at this point, superfluous. Time spent reading about the candidates is time wasted. And yet…
And yet, I can’t quite turn away. So, rather than stop reading about the election altogether, I am restricting myself to tabloid coverage. It’s short, easy-to-read, and filled with information I’m unlikely to get from the New York Times or Daily Kos.
For example, the September 15 edition of Us Weekly opens with a photo spread of Michelle Obama. Glowing with praise for her “simple and chic” style, for her rejection of “first lady suits”, the magazine uses a Moschino wrap dress and that Thakoon number Obama wore the last night of the convention as a metaphor for the type of change we can expect from an Obama presidency.
Compare and contrast this with a quotation from Hillary Clinton from “Loose Talk”: “To my supporters, my champions, my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits: From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” It’s true that, when it comes to fashion, Clinton does not come close to Obama. But the gentle self-mockery shows us that the junior senator from New York is a good sport and a gracious loser. It invites Democrats to go forward with our chosen candidate without forgetting about Clinton. It might even encourage us to think “Majority Leader”—or, even, 2016?
The real story in this issue, though, is the cover story: “Babies, Lies & Scandal”, in which Us Weekly gives Sarah Palin the type of treatment usually reserved for Britney Spears (which is kind of funny, given the McCain campaign’s juxtaposition of Barack and Britney).
The story hits all the Palin highlights, and adds some material you might not see in “the mainstream media”. It begins with Palin giggling along on the air as an Anchorage shock jock calls one of the governors rivals a “bitch” and a “cancer”—that last one being especially charming, given that said rival is, in fact, a cancer survivor.
There’s Troopergate, of course, Palin’s alleged involvement with the Alaska Independence Party, her relationship with Ted Stevens, and the fact that she was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. (It would have been nice if Us Weekly also mentioned that, as mayor of Wasilla, Palin oversaw the construction of a sports complex on land somebody else owned and resisted the then governor’s plan to make it illegal to force rape victims to pay for their own rape kits, but you can read about that here if you’re interested.) This being Us Weekly, though, the heart of the story is pregnancy scandals.
Although we all know by now that Trig is not Bristol Palin’s baby, Us Weekly provides a handy recap of the rumors, including side-by-side photos of Palin looking quite large in an earlier pregnancy and quite slim while six months along with Trig. The “Anatomy of a Scandal” sidebar also reminds us that Palin did not disclose her last pregnancy until her seventh month. (Us says that she “shocked coworkers”; it doesn’t mention that Palin’s constituents—the people of Alaska—might have been interested in this development.)
I appreciate that Us quotes the former president of Juneau’s NOW chapter saying that Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is “a textbook case of how abstinence-only doesn’t work in practice, even if your mom’s the governor”, but my favorite part of the article centers around Bristol’s baby daddy. Leave it to the journalists of Us Weekly to go straight to Levi Johnston’s MySpace page, which includes such charmingly conservative sentiments as “I’m a fuckin’ redneck [who likes] to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some shit, and just fuckin’ chill, I guess” and “Ya fuck with me I’ll kick [your] ass.” Small-town values, indeed. Oh, and he writes, “I don’t want kids.” That part actually makes me feel sorry for the guy, and for Bristol—not just because they’re having a baby they might not be ready for, and not just because they’re going to have a marriage they might not be ready for, but because Palin is undoubtedly going to continue to drag them onstage as a testament to her Republican-style “family values” even as she asks us to respect her family’s privacy.
Sarah Palin. [Sigh.]
A couple of people have asked me when I’m going to write something about Sarah Palin. Honestly, I’ve been trying, but I keep getting distracted by thoughts of the distinctive names she has given her children and by her astonishing hair. I have given some thought to a few of the choices that she’s made as a parent and a working woman, but there’s no way I’m opening that can of worms in this forum. If you want to talk to me about it, give me a call, and, if you don’t have my number already, I’m probably not going to talk to you about it.
However, I feel duty-bound to post something about Palin, on the off chance that anyone who visits this blog is an undecided voter who is intrigued enough by John McCain’s choice of running mate to consider going Republican. So, allow me to suggest a couple of links. Silicon Valley Moms Blog has an opinionated summary of Palin’s record. And, over at The Reality-Based Community, you’ll find a point-by-point refutation of Palin’s convention speech.
Short Short Story: “She Is Not Going to Call Him”
NOTE: Voting for thenovelette.com’s writing contest ends September 8.
Her phone is on the table. It does not appear that she tossed it there, unthinkingly, when she got home from work. The phone is not in the company of her keys, say, or a pile of unopened mail. The table is generally uncluttered, holding nothing more than the aforementioned phone, a bottle of wine, a single glass, and her left hand, which rests a few inches from the phone.
Certain people might draw certain conclusions from this scene. They might, for instance, infer that she is going to call him.
She is not going to call him.
Thus begins the short short story I entered in the latest contest at thenovelette.com. You may continue reading here. If you like it—and I certainly hope that you do—please be so kind as to rate my entry. If you think my story is crap, please feel free to save yourself the trouble of voting.