Elmaz Abinader: Looking Inward

Elmaz Abinader’s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and In the Country of my Dreams, as well as her play, Country of Origin, all illustrate personal lives negotiating hostile terrain.  

Elmaz recently performed Country of Origin at the Kennedy Center; Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams and a Goldies Award for Literature. Elmaz has also been a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Egypt and a winner of several residencies.

Now a professor at Mills College, Elmaz’s primary concern is giving voice to other writers of color. Her participation in VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) allows her the opportunity to make a difference in the growth of the cannon of literature of color.

Her upcoming work, The Water Cycle, is at memoir that draws from the author’s childhood experiences growing up in a all-white Appalachian coal mining community and her subsequent journeys around the world. Each story describes an encounter with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationship.

In addition, Elmaz is a fitness instructor at the YMCA in Oakland CA where she lives with her husband Anthony Byers.

The author was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJ: Elmaz, you write in every genre. Your first book was a memoir—Children of the Roojme—and you later published a collection of poems—The Country of my Dreams—and several plays. When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

EA: Like many writers of color, as I was coming up, I scavenged books for an experience that matched mine. I wasn’t the typical young American girl that showed up in YA novels, or the boy learning about the world in James Joyce or Faulkner. My experience was not represented: a life of merging cultures, an identity that resisted assimilation but had to find a way to co-exist with the dominant culture. These disparities had no place in American literature yet and that absence fermented a loneliness that many can relate to. Poetry was the way I responded to this. Poetry allows the story and the emotion equal presence inside of it—I could fill a poem with the picture, pull the thread of culture and honor through it.

When I allowed myself to look inward, I recognized how I was the product of these two cultures which formed a third one that aligned me with other members of a Diaspora. The story of my life begins with the travels of my parents and when I listened to them, the history of my family–the encounters with unrest, famine, loss, civil war, and ultimately immigration–impressed me as something heroic. I realized that many people around me had similar stories—the other immigrant shopkeepers, the field workers, cab drivers—the fabric of our culture is woven with these stories. Arab-Americans had no representation in the genre in a big way.  I wanted to share the stories much like Maxine Hong Kingston did.

MJ: For the past few years, you have hosted summer writing workshops on memoir and creative non-fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). The foundation is dedicated to nurturing writers of color and, when I attended the first VONA residency in Miami, my fellow residents and I discussed the struggle with being an ethnic writer—one from a distinctive culture, language, or religion—and we examined the pressure that comes from representing a specific group. Is this a struggle for you?

EA: Our people pin our hopes on the one writer or actor or artist who gets attention to be the one to tell their story. Because we are all complex and individual, we can’t possible represent the race; we can only open the door on it. The pressure is not on me to represent, it’s on me to help other Arab-American stories and the voices of other writers-of-color be present—not just one Junot Diaz or one David Mura, but the many Junots and Davids. The frustration is the industry’s satisfaction of having a small collection or a single author from an identity is enough. This was the impulse behind VONA/Voices—to push our work so hard, develop our voices so elegantly, they cannot be ignored and we can populate the shelves.

MJ: Some of my stories have been accused of not being “ethnic” enough. Evidently, it didn’t suffice that the core of my writing was about the human experiences of family, love, longing and disappointment, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressure of society. I felt that readers wanted me to write about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences. As far as publishing goes, do you think that a writer of color who sets himself apart from the easily recognizable cultural typecasting may find his or her work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”?

EA: Here’s my response to this and to other worries about industry or audience: write first, write true, write with commitment and write with conscious. Don’t write to or for anyone, to be or appear to be anyone—put those thoughts away. Know that people, publishers, industry all are loaded with their own assumptions and need to the familiar. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to grow that image, not engender it.

MJ: You are a professor at Mills College. Do you think it is possible for creative writing pedagogy to take a colorblind approach?

EA: I don’t think pedagogy should be colorblind. When we interact with writing and the writer, all that is part of the work is present.  What really needs to happen is pedagogues need to learn to read and teach everyone in their room—not neutralize the responses. This means that your book would have the same elements as a mainstream book , but that’s impossible. Your education wasn’t the only contribution to your literary talent, so  were your songs, your food, your family culture, your spirituality, your languages, your relationships, your body’s geography—

MJ: As a writer of color, how do you fight the racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.

EA: As a writer of color, I ignore ignorance and write as honestly as possible.

MJ: Growing up in Pennsylvania, your home life was very much rooted in Lebanese tradition. Can you talk about popular depictions of Lebanese women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?

EA: The connection between my work and identity as an Arab-American has less to do with Lebanese (in Lebanon) than it does with other writers of color. The Lebanese women are in a homogenous culture that has its own set of complexities which are quite different than the merged identities of immigrants, African Americans and American Indians and other native peoples. Lebanese women (Christian, mostly) are beauty icons of the Middle East.

In the US, most women of color who are in the public realm do have to respond to particular stereotypes and expectations about their behavior. I don’t find it a struggle; I find it boring and had hoped by now the exoticization might have dissipated. When Rima Fakih became Miss America in 2010, the anti-Muslim factions in the US did their usual smear campaigns. Simultaneously some Islamic communities took issue with her being in the pageant at all.

We are all in the unfortunate process of growing the perspective about our people through our work.

MJ: What are some writers who have influenced you?

EA: I am often tempted not to answer this question because I honor most of the writers I read by learning something from them. All the VONA/Voices faculty have been great influences, as are the program’s participants.  When I was young, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin,  signed their names to the permission slip that encouraged me. I am moved by poets, magic realists, modern American short story, and true stories. I write to jazz, Omar Sosa, Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.  I love movies. I am influenced by silence and stillness too.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming work The Water Cycle.

EA: The Water Cycle is a collection of memoir stories that take place in my two hometowns in Pennsylvania and in various countries in the Middle East.