An interview with Susan Muaddi Darraj
I first met Susan Muaddi Darraj at an MLA convention in Philadelphia, where she was speaking on an editor’s panel on publishing. Sometime after that I ran into her again, this time at the AWP conference, where she was signing copies of her linked short story collection Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). We have kept in touch since then, seeing one another at AWP and various writers’ venues, where we meet, reminisce about Philadelphia, and discuss our love of the short stories. A Philadelphia native, Darraj currently lives in Baltimore, where she teaches at Harford Community College and is a fiction editor for Barrelhouse. Darraj’s newest collection A Curious Land: Stories from Home (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), which recently won an American Book Award, provides a generational view of the Israel-Palestine conflict by recounting the lives of characters in the fictional Palestinian village of Tel-Al-Hilou. In this interview, we discuss the relationship between Darraj’s first and second collections, the use of imagery, and the importance of place in fiction.
At one of your talks, I heard you mention the necessity of seizing the narrative. What does it mean for you, as an author, to do so? What responsibilities do you think writers have, if any?
I think a lot about WEB Du Bois when I say writers should “seize the narrative.” When he wrote The Souls of Black Folk, he was determined to offer a picture of what African American life was like in the United States at the turn of the last century — he wasn’t going to let white sociologists and historians do it. He did it, and in that way, he seized the narrative of Black life in America.
This is what I strive for when I write: so much has been written about Israel/Palestine, and about Arabs in America. The current administration, with its executive orders on banning people from specific countries, is trying to write a certain narrative, and it’s actually an old narrative, about Arabs in America: that our community brings trouble, that we’re different, we’re unable to contribute to America.
I said in a previous interview that fear trumps facts, but literature trumps fear. That’s because literature presents a more accurate narrative, it offers stories of experience, and in the face of this complexity, stereotypes usually collapse. So, as a writer, trying to “seize the narrative” about the Palestinian American community, all I can do is write as authentically as I can, without being didactic, without being sentimental, and hope that my books challenge the stereotypes of Palestinian Americans that some reader has encountered elsewhere. At the same time, of course, perhaps more importantly, I hope I can intrigue and captivate that reader by offering a good story.
Your first book Inheritance of Exile deals with familiar terrain for you. It’s set in South Philly and you’re a South Philly girl. However, your second book A Curious Land is located wholly in Palestine, with stories being set as early as 1916. Please tell us a little about the research that went into the second book. How long did it take you to complete the second project?
Well, it took me about 8 years to write A Curious Land, but not because I was writing that whole time. I was having children and working towards tenure, and so for years, I worked on the book only sporadically. However, I was reading — and reading quite a bit. I read several works about the history of Israel/Palestine, Ilan Pape’s A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. I also read Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced by Rochelle Davis, which records how Palestinians are trying to document their shrinking and destroyed villages by writing these very personalized village history books. Therefore, while I was not writing, I was “filling the well,” so to speak, by reading and noting certain details and facts about the Palestinian experience in the West Bank.
Then there was a two-year “burst” in which I was really attentive to the book, and writing every day, sometimes for hours a day and that is because I had figured out how I wanted to shape the book. I realized that the book should tell the history of Palestine by focusing on a specific village, and that the stories should link together (as my first book had) and present a composite picture of the Palestinian diaspora. Once I drafted all the stories, it took months for me to go back and tie them together carefully, to make sure that one character reappears realistically, several years later, in another story.
On occasion, you’ve mentioned the difficulties in writing about a place that some would say doesn’t “exist” or can’t be pointed out on a map. Yet in creating the village of Tel-Al Hilou, the fictional village so central to A Curious Land, you’ve literally created a place that doesn’t exist on any map. How did you decide to create this village? What were the difficulties, if any, of creating a landscape from scratch? In which ways did doing so artistically constrain or free you? And, lastly, does the village’s name have any special significance?
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, and later in New Jersey, I used to love hearing my parents tell stories about their childhoods. My father, for example, had terrific stories about his boyhood in Taybeh, our village, which is outside of Ramallah. And many times, our family would travel to Taybeh in the summers, an experience that my parents referred to as “going home” but that my Americans friends called “going on vacation.” The difference is subtle, but interesting. However, when friends would ask me to explain where we were going, where we’d be spending most of July and August, what could I say? There was no way to point out Palestine on a world map – it didn’t exist.
But, yes, you’re right, I did make up the village of Tel al-Hilou, which means “the pretty hilltop” in Arabic. Why did I do that? I think I didn’t want to be tied to a particular place, like Ramallah or Jenin, because Palestinians are very attuned to the history and details of their cities and villages, since they always feel that their way of life is under assault. I didn’t want to be confronted with “the house you described is actually on the north side of the village, not the east side.” And I always loved what Marquez did in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in creating Macondo. It is a fictional village, right? But is there any doubt that it’s a Colombian village? None at all.
For me, Tel al-Hilou represents a typical Palestinian village without being a specific one: it has a place of worship, it has a central town surrounded by farms, it has a coffee shop, etc. I’ve had people write to me — Palestinians — and ask me “Is this based on Beit Jala?” or “Is your town modeled after Birzeit?” That makes me feel great, actually, because that means I have done a realistic job in this depiction.
Both of your collections are linked. The first one depicts stories about four South Philly families and they all take place in the same location within the same time frame, the second one being linked by the inhabitants of the village but crossing generations. Because of their thematic unity, it’s easy to imagine that either or both of these collections could have been written as novels instead of story collections. What makes them a linked collection, or a novel in stories? Is there a conceptual difference for you? Were they ever conceived of or drafted as novels?
They were always conceived of as short stories, and I found a way to link them because I wished for them to make a larger, collective point. The Inheritance of Exile was an attempt to paint a portrait of this immigrant community in a specific, urban neighborhood, and A Curious Land attempts to document Palestinian history, in the West Bank and in the diaspora. A novel is a very different thing, and independent short stories are their own thing — a collection of linked short stories is like a separate genre, I think. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, are examples of this genre, and I feel very comfortable working in it. Linked short stories give me the space to do several things: 1) I can explore specific moments in time, but 2) I can also pull back, as with a movie camera, and offer a panoptic view of a particular place. 3) I am able to transition over large gaps in time, from World War I to the Arab Revolt, for example, or from 1948 to the years before the 1967 Arab Israeli War. Those advantages — plus the fun of linking together these characters — make it an enjoyable genre in which to write.
In both of your collections, you have a story entitled “The Journey Home.” Was this a deliberate choice, or what was your reasoning behind doing so? What does this title mean to you?
I know. What a literary faux pas, right? And yet, I feel like there are different ways of exploring this theme of returning home. In Inheritance, Hanan wants to go home, but doesn’t know what that home is. Same thing in A Curious Land — Rabab doesn’t actually have a home, and she wishes for one. As the daughter of immigrants, this is a theme that is always on my mind.
The stories in A Curious Land seem to be built upon the foundation of a material object that is introduced in the first story i.e. the lira bracelet, which appears and reappears in later stories. In fiction we would call this image/object an objective correlative because of all of the weight you’ve imbued it with. This bracelet even appears as the book’s front cover art. How important was the use of this image to your overall creation of the narrative? What does it signify in the collection?
I’m a visual person, and I’m a visual writer. I like structure in a book, and I look for images that work on multiple levels. For example, I just read Aimee Phan’s The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, which is about a Vietnamese family separated during the fall of Saigon. The two sides of the family go in opposite directions — one side becomes refugees in the United States and the other side finds asylum in Europe. The novel is divided into separate points of view, so the narrative swings back and forth, just as one family is developing and growing independently of the other. Phan also divides the novel into chapters and sections by using letter fragments. Later, we will learn the importance of these letters to the family secret that triggered the separation. So we have the physical separation, we have the letters — everything just fits well in this novel. As I said, structure is really important to me, and Phan achieves a structure that reflects the content and theme of her beautiful book.
In A Curious Land, the stories are linked, but they stand alone as well. That bracelet, which is a traditional wedding gift in Palestine — a bracelet of Turkish liras, of coins linked together — reflects the structure of the book. The stories are individual coins, valuable in their own right, but when they are linked together, they make something new altogether. Of course, the bracelet also plays an important role in several of the stories — it will save Rabab, in the opening story, and it will remind Adlah, in the final story, of the importance of family.
In many ways, The Inheritance of Exile and A Curious Land seem to be different sides of the same coin, that is to say, that the two collections seem to speak to one another. For example, in The Inheritance of Exile, there is the story of the young Palestinian-American woman who spends a summer in Palestine and becomes affianced there, but is nevertheless viewed as an outsider, even by her fiancé, who ultimately chooses a local girl over her. Echoes of this story appear in A Curious Land’s story “Rocky Soil” when Emad initially loses the love of his life to a Palestinian-American man who returns to the village to visit with his family, and further echoes crop up in the last story in the collection “Christmas in Palestine” when a native of Tel-Al Hilou returns to her village for a short stint after having lived in the U.S. for some time. Were you looking toward A Curious Land when you wrote The Inheritance of Exile? How did writing the first collection teach you and/or prepare you to write the second collection?
In Inheritance, I was writing from my own experiences — growing up in Philadelphia, in an immigrant community, among other immigrant communities (Italians, Vietnamese, etc). That “third space”, between two cultures, is an isolating place, because you never quite belong to one culture. I remember being asked so many ridiculous questions by my schoolmates, about owning camels, and whether my own marriage would be arranged, whether I knew any terrorists. Unbelievable stuff, really, but hurtful. But lest I imagine that I was fully Palestinian, there were summertime visits “back home,” in which I was reminded regularly that I did not belong. I mean, those summers were terrific, but there was always something that made me stand out as an American. So I was never fully embraced or felt fully comfortable in either place. I think Inheritance reflects this tension.
In A Curious Land, I attempted to stretch myself as a writer, to write from a perspective that was not natural for me. I’d lived my entire life in the United States, but I have cousins who have spent their lives in Palestine. My life in the US is a consequence of my father’s deciding to emigrate in 1967, to look for work. I could have easily grown up in the West Bank, prohibited from moving around freely, limited in my choices, but on the flip side, more fluent in Arabic, more connected to that culture.