Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Language of Baklava: Diana Abu-Jaber

"The late afternoon swirls in the house with shadows, and in the kitchen it smells like onions frying in butter. There have been some changes at home since I've started school. For one thing, there's a new baby in the crib, grumbling, a big, loud complainer. One-year-old Monica has a special way of rocking her crib so it chugs through the room on its wheels like a train engine. And the other baby, my sister Suzy, has been displaced. She's nearly three, barely able to amble around, but she frequently points to the second baby and says, 'Get that kid outta here!'" From THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA

ROBERTA: Today JRW welcomes writer Diana Abu-Jaber, one of the speakers I heard at the Key West Literary Seminar on food writing in January. She has written three well-received novels (one a mystery, ORIGIN) and a lovely memoir called THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA. She is a writer-in-residence in the English Department at Portland State University in Oregon. Welcome Diana!

There are so many amazing moments in your memoir--your visit to the
Chinese restaurant with your grandmother, the desperate suicide
attempts by Mr. Basilovich, the lesson in pastry, adolescence, and
world peace given by another grandmother, the visits to your
extraordinary relatives in Jordan...I had to wonder as I read how you
could remember all these events in such detail? Are you a

DIANA: I've kept journals all my life, which helps enormously--especially when it comes to details. Beyond that, the truth is that I only tell the stories that I can actually remember-- the hazy stuff doesn't make it into my narratives. I think that the more funny or dramatic an experience is, the more clearly you're going to remember it, and the more you'll want to re-tell it in some fashion. In my case, that's especially true if there's some food component to it: that's such an important filter for me.

ROBERTA: In one of the sessions at the seminar, you were on a panel of writers discussing the process of writing a memoir and your families' reactions to what you'd written. I believe you made the comment that writing fiction doesn't work as a "cloak"--could you talk a little about how you manage to write your own story without impinging on the lives of relations and friends? How did your family feel about what you'd written?

DIANA: If you're going to tell your life story, unless you're a hermit, it's virtually impossible to do so without some sort of portrayal of others and interpretation of their experiences. And yes, even fiction tends to spring from the details and memories of real life experience. Once you accept that, you see the only way out is through, so to speak. You've got to go for it or risk shutting down completely. When I write in the memoir form, I strive to be emotionally honest, respectful, and to try and stay inside my own head. I might report on what others say and do, but, if possible, I try not to wildly project what I imagine they're thinking and feeling. I try to stay the butt of my own joke-- if that makes any sense. When I was writing The Language of Baklava, a therapist told me, "Everyone has the right to their own story. If they don't like yours, let them write their own!" I returned to those words frequently while I was writing.

ROBERTA: One of the themes in THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA is how your
father and his family felt torn between their two countries, the US and Jordan. Your father came to the US impulsively, married an American woman, and moved you and your family to Jordan and then back to the US over the course of your childhood. Remarkably, you seem to
have been able to adapt to living wherever you moved. Could you tell us something about that experience. (And is this related to your two places of residence now??)

DIANA: When I was younger it wasn't too bad. My parents weren't the sort to "check in" with the kids a lot. They just kind of made their plans and then sprung them on us. One second we'd be living in Syracuse, the next, surprise! We'd be on a plane to the Middle East! I didn't have much choice but to swing with it all. And for a while it was even kind of fun--I was up for anything when I was 8, especially if ice cream was involved. But after I hit adolescence, the fun started to wear off-- I wanted to stay in one place and go to one school and I had a lot of fights with my parents about that (which I lost.) It is funny that once I grew up, I seem to have inherited some of that fever from my folks, though. I moved a lot as an academic and now I spend the fall in Oregon where I teach at Portland State University, then retreat to Miami for the rest of the year. I have to admit, it does keep things lively: my husband says that I'm a "genetic bedouin."

ROBERTA: I don't want to hog all the air time, but I would love to hear a little more about your mother. Your father is such a dramatic, expansive character. She must have been a remarkable woman to choose him and agree to follow him through some amazing adventures!

DIANA: Mom has the patience of an Irish-Catholic saint. She's patient and thoughtful where Dad is impulsive and zany, and I think my father was just really smart and/or lucky to have married someone who could keep him from spinning into outer space. Mom was the one who taught me to love books and the importance of listening. If you're always talking (like my father) you never really make very much progress. Dad was supposedly the creative genius in the family but Mom was the attentive audience-- which I believe is its own form of genius.

ROBERTA: And one last question, what's coming next?

: My next novel, Birds of Paradise, is coming out this September from Norton. I'm very excited about it because it brings together several of my own literary obsessions-- French pastry, the lushness of Miami, and a family mystery-- a vanished daughter. And as for work in progress, I'm working on a follow up to The Language of Baklava, which I may call Cooking For Grace. It's about my own journey as a writer and the struggle to hang on to a creative life while taking my first steps into new motherhood. Baby steps.

ROBERTA: Thanks so much Diana! You all really must read this book. And now--your questions! (And come back tomorrow for part two, which involves shish kabobs...)


  1. Love that short excerpt - I'll be reading the book, Diana. Were there 3 sisters? Always interested in stories about sisters.

  2. I, too, was introduced to Diana by the Key West Literary Seminar and immediately went out and purchased all her books. They are mesmerizing and a wonderful retreat into different worlds (the Arabic culture). I loved Crescent and have just picked up The Language of Baklava.
    I encourage everyone to do the same.
    Great interview.

  3. Diana, you had me at "Syracuse." (We moved to Liverpool when I was in my early teens and my folks have lived there ever since.)

    I love memoirs. It's a genre I dive into when I'm deep in the middle of my own work--a good memoir connects me to people's lives without tempting me to copy something into my own manuscript. Although it sounds like I should have some good pita bread and baba ganouj ready to snack on before starting "The Language of Baklava!"

  4. Thank you, Hallie! Yep, there were three of us-- I write about my sisters in The Language of Baklava. Although my wild Dad ends up hogging most of the attention. As usual.

  5. Victoria,
    Wasn't that a wonderful seminar? Thank you for your kind words, I hope you'll enjoy The Language of Baklava.

  6. Julia,
    Yaay, Syracuse! We've still got family there too and try to get back for a visit every year. Make sure you at least have some felafel handy before you start reading ;-)

  7. The Language of Baklava was so wonderful that I've sent it to five other: to my daughter-in-law struggling with a rebellious 14 year old, to our granddaughter who loves to cook with me (and discuss life while we're at it), to a dear friend who appreciates equisite story telling through food, and to my two daughters just because they'll savor every word as much as I did. Made your panna cotta recipe on Sunday, added a raspberry puree. Used egg-poachers as my molds cause that's all I have available in a rental house. Delicious and cute.

  8. OH, what lovely writing!

    And remember when we used to think memoirs could only be written after a certain age?

  9. And trust me Hank, she is not of that certain age!

    Victoria, thanks for visiting us! wasn't that a wonderful weekend? Your life cooking on a yacht sounds fascinating!

  10. Pat,
    Thank you-- I LOVE it when people try the actual recipes (and report success) I feel like it takes the reading experience one step farther. And how great to have a family of fiesty, reading women. My best to you all!

  11. Ha ha, Hank and Roberta,
    you've both made my month! I wonder if I can have your comments engraved on my desk somewhere? For posterity.

  12. Hi Diana,
    I loved what you said about the only way out being "through." And I think the advice about emotionally honest and respectful applies to almost every writing.

  13. Great interview, Diana. It brought to mind a question for everyone, tho. I quit keeping a journal after 25+ yrs. of it. I wonder what this really says about a person and his/her life? I was puzzled at the time and am still puzzled. Am I 'done'? Have I proved uninteresting? Have I internalized all I need to in order to go forward? It's not that my life got busier or more boring or my literary work has changed dramatically. It just is and I wonder if anyone has had the same experience and if there's a certain guilt or sadness associated with it, like saying good-bye to an old friend.

  14. Thanks to Jungle Reds for bringing another fabulous writer to our attention. I'm really looking forward to reading Diana's books. Obviously the memoir still lives!

  15. One of my favorite books is the memoir involving food!
    Just about to go on Amazon and have something to read on my Kindle during what may be a long trip to Chicago tomorrow.

  16. Sondra,
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts about journaling-- it's so interesting to think about why we even keep journals in the first place and what we hope to get from them. My reasons seem to change from time to time-- sometimes I want the personal record, sometimes to analyze events or feelings, frequently they help me to look at a tough spot in something I'm working on or figuring out something like character motivation. Thanks for raising these points, Sondra. I think it's so helpful to consider the tools we use and often take for granted.

  17. Thank you, Jan.
    I think I got that "through" idea from someone-- maybe Camus or Oprah? Is it a bad sign that I can't tell the difference?

  18. Many thanks, Susan!
    Personally, memoirs are one of my favorite forms to read....

  19. Thanks, Rhys--
    Yes, that food/memoir combination is just delicious isn't it? Glad to accompany you into snowy Chicago!

  20. "Food" and "memoir" are the magic combination for me, too. Can't wait to read your books, Diana, and the new mystery coming out sounds wonderful.

    Were you by any chance a fan of Laurie Colwin? I have read and re-read Home Cooking and More Home Cooking for years, and it's always like visiting an old friend. And I LOVE the recipes.

    Thanks so much for visiting Jungle Red--lovely to virtually meet you!

  21. "Camus, or Oprah? "
    Please, let's make bumper sitckers of that! It's hilarious and perfect.

  22. "Camus--or Oprah?"--the new JRW motto.

    Thanks for your time Diana! And come back tomorrow y'all for her shish kabob recipe and more...

  23. Deborah,

    Oh, I just loved Laurie Colwin's writings--she had a recipe for scrambled eggs that I still use to this day. Her books, along with Tender At the Bone, and some of MFK Fisher are all in my pantheon of faves! It's lovely to meet you as well.

  24. Hank and Roberta
    (or Camus and Oprah, as I shall henceforth think of you)thank you and the other Jungle Reds for hosting me. What fun you guys have!

  25. I'm envisioning "Team Camus" and "Team Oprah" tee-shirts!