Talking With Diana Abu-Jaber, Author of Crescent, Arabian Jazz and The Language of Bakhlava

Diana Abu-Jaber, author of "Crescent" and "Arabian Jazz", was born in Syracuse, New York, "back in the days when no one in America had ever heard of hummus, much less baba ganouj." Her father, who immigrated to the States from Jordan as a young man, worked every job under the sun while he cooked up lots of wonderful food and tried to teach his children to be good Arab kids in Upstate New York.

"We moved back and forth between Jordan and the States a couple times and eventually I decided I was going to have to commit to one country. So when it was time for college, that’s when I made my final choice. I went to graduate school at SUNY-Binghamton, studied with John Gardner, got a Ph.D., and started writing seriously," says Diana.

Her first novel, “Arabian Jazz”, was published in 1993, the second, Crescent, was published in 2003—in between, she cooked for a lot of dinner parties, did a lot of teaching all over the place, and as she puts it, "didn’t do enough writing." But all that cooking did come handy when she wrote her next book, "The Language of Bakhlava." A review in Elle magazine reads,"Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber revels in the stories her father told her while she was growing up, which centered on cooking and eating but “turned out to be about something much larger: grace, difference, faith, love”; —the same qualities that inform this passionate memoir (with recipes!).

Indeed, Diana Abu-Jaber’s childhood memories are filled with cooking and eating, and she weaves her story around vividly remembered and magical-sounding meals. We follow her from upstate New York to Jordan where the family eats goat and rice mensaf with their fingers, “as the Bedu eat everything,” back to New York for her adolescent years, and to the present day where she lives in both Portland and Miami, proving, “that she really is a bedouin by nature.” Each chapter is accompanied by mouth-watering recipes from her dad’s “Subsistence Tabbouleh” and “Magical Muhammara” made with pomegranate juice, to her mom’s “Sentimental Hot Chocolate,” to her aunt’s “Poetic Baklava.” We share these meals with her—feasts that teach her, and us, as much about identity and love as about food. She tells of the richness and difficulty of straddling two cultures, about cooking and eating, and about a daughter learning from her father to understand, and finally to speak, the universal language of food. I talked to her about her book.

"The Language of Baklava....well, it was a tough book to write, mostly because I was raised with the greatest single impediment I think any writer can have, that is, to be a "good girl," she says. "In my family, you must respect your elders and treat the older generations like saints. So to try and tell my own personal truth in a book felt very risky. I wrote one version and then my agent sent it back to me and said, ‘This is a very nice and polite book. Unfortunately it's also very boring.’ So then I had to start all over and write the real story. My father got mad at me after he read it. He yelled, "I NEVER YELL!" When I told him that he yells all the time, he said, "Well you didn't have to write a book and tell everybody." I told him that the moral of that story is that you should never do anything in front of your kids that you don't want everyone to know about because they might just grow up and become writers," smiles Diana. Her mom however feels Diana "went easy" on the family.

“I think most of my father's extended family has pretty much given up on me, anyway,” she continues. When Arabian Jazz came out, relatives doled out helpful advice about everything she got wrong in my novel and how she could improve her style. “But after Crescent, and now The Language of Baklava, they see that I just keep writing the same dumb things and they've decided I'm beyond hope!”

But there are others who love her work. Not only has she won awards, but she gets fan mail too… even if some of it is weird. “I DO have a lot of people emailing to me to say that they're related to me through their second cousin twice removed, stuff like that. Several people have written to tell me that they've got a "great idea" for a book that they want me to write for them and then we can split the royalties. Many people, from all different cultures and countries-- Italy, Finland, India, Japan, etc-- have written to say they can really identify with my characters, even though they aren't Arab. And one guy, from Romania, sent me a gold ring and said that we were "soul mates."” She sent back the ring.

“I just try to tell the most entertaining and emotionally honest stories that I can. It doesn't really matter that much to me what culture my characters are from (though they usually happen to be Arab or American.) Artistically, the only thing that really gets to me is when people try to silence writers, to stop others from telling their stories. If you don't agree with how something is written, I feel like the best thing to do is to simply tell your own story, write your own book, sing your own song. Let's make the conversation bigger!”
Weird comments not withstanding, Diana does welcome readers comments on her website.
“I really do love hearing from readers!” she concludes.