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An American Voice: Randa Jarrar on Her Debut Novel

A Map of HomeNidali’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.

September 14, 2008 | Permalink


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