Thursday, January 26, 2006

Kafka on Beginnings

A little something when you are despairing over your new short story/novel:
The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organization of the world, which, like every completed organization, strives to close itself off. However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its complete organization within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world. Of course, one never knows whether the despair one feels is warranted or unwarranted. But reflectiing on it can give one a certain support; in the past I have suffered from the lack of this knowledge.
(From Kafka's diaries.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This Makes Me Very Happy Indeed

If you know me well, you know of my sad little crush on Elia Suleiman. This crush began 8 years ago, when I first viewed his film, Chronicle of a Disappearance. I just learned that the movie is now available on DVD. I'm glad I'm at home, because I screamed when I found out.

I love this movie. It's a poem, really, and everything film should be. I was disappointed with Divine Intervention, which got tons of press and Cannes awards: Chronicle is subtler, funnier, and much more moving. Check it out if you haven't already.

Friday, January 20, 2006

(Early) Spring Cleaning

I donated all my old clothes that were lining my closet floors. I squatted in front of the closet for an hour and picked out pants, skirts, dresses, shirts, skirts, hats, stuffed them in bags, and took them downstairs. Then, I actually took them to the car, and from the car, to the place women need those things more than I.

When I was little my mom had several purses, and they were all filled with receipts and makeup, she saved everything, and my father saved everything I ever did wrong in his head. Everyone was hording something for sometime, and now I finally realized that I do it too, so the past three weeks has been all about throwing things out.

I haven't been able to sleep lately, because anxiety eats at me all night, and I think of my anxious parents and their anxious parents and a whole history of anxiousness.

The clothes I threw out were too small. My parents tell me they are worried about my health, about my heart. I have been told for ten years that I will have a heart attack. There is always a sickness I have to avoid. If I shower at my parents', I don't dare leave their house with my hair wet, because someone will faint from screaming that I will catch pneumonia.

I remember when I told my father I went to a demonstration in grad school: he was livid. He thinks Arabs in this country should keep a low profile and behave themseves and not get into anything political. When 9/11 happened I crouched on the floor by the TV and prayed for the first time in years, repeating, "please don't let it be one of us, please don't let it be one of us."

When you grow up preparing for disaster, you can end up thinking a pair of old pants will save you. I know it's just a clean closet, but I can't describe to you how light I feel.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Of Stories and Storytellers

Aramco did a piece on Arab American writers which I just found. It features quotes and works, and is pretty cool. Be sure to check it out!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gate of the Sun, etc.

I was happy to see Lorraine Adams's review of Elias Khoury's Bab el-Shams in the Sunday Times. It looks like the book is selling, which is awesome news for Arabic novels in translation. My favorite Elias Khoury novel remains Ghandi al-Sagheer (The Journey of Little Gandhi) which is available in translation but is worlds better in Arabic.

Friday, January 13, 2006

On Hazards of Writing

In your career as a writer, you will some days be so immersed in your work that you will need to go to places you don’t usually go to for sustenance. This is a grave mistake. Avoid it, because if you do go to those places (I’m talking about HEB, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart) you will meet the following fates:

The lighting at such places is borrowed from Hades. You are a sensitive, pathetic person, and lighting affects you immensely. When you were little, your mother would invade your room in the mornings and turn on the lamps, and you’d screech with sadness, because lights on during the day depress the shit out of you, along with about three dozen million other little things. Like…


You will be reminded of some ex of yours you went to the place with. You will remember how they said stupid things and did stupid things and had stupid features you never liked. Why did you ever date this person? Why did it take you all those weeks to figure out they annoyed the shit out of you and made you miserable? Now you are angry with yourself. Just then…


You will inevitably bump into someone you slept with 2 or more years ago. Now, you’ve been immersed in your work, so, you look like dog excrement. You may even have a little dog excrement on your shoes somewhere. Your shirt is all wrinkled and covered in some indistinct substance, and your hair has old cigarette ashes in it, and your teeth look even yellower under the harsh lighting. You’re wearing the same shoes you sported when you were seeing/sleeping with this person, they’re distinct shoes, and the person will notice this, along with everything else that’s gross about your appearance. Worse, they’ll ask you what you’re doing with yourself, and you’ll have to say you’re writing, and when they ask what happened with the last novel, you have to tell the truth.

So, dear friend, I hope I have convinced you not to go to gross places while you work. Stay home and purchase as many things as you can online. Your psyche will thank you.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

"Modernity is crisis."

That's a quote from my favorite Edward Said book, Reflections on Exile. I re-read certain essays in that collection every year. Right now I’m reading “History, Geography, and Literature.” In it, he discusses Auerbach (Said wrote the intro to Mimesis) and Vico and Hegel and Marx and Lukacs and Gramsci . According to Said, the most brilliant description of the novel was penned by Lukacs:
The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God. The novel hero's psychology is demonic; the objectivity of the novel is the mature man's knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into nothingness or inessentiality...Irony, without intuitive double vision, can see where God is to be found in a world abandoned by the highest freedom that can he achieved in a world without God. That is why it is not only the sole possible a priori condition for a true, totality-creating objectivity but also why it makes that totality-the novel- the representative art-form of our age: because the structural categories of the novel constitutively coincide with the world as it is today.
What I love is how he brings all these theorists together to birth a real understanding of how to read, which, to me, translates to how to write. And then he ties it all in with Arab intellectuals and the thrust towards "modernity". It's a brilliant piece. I heart Edward... allah yerhamu, may he rest in peace.

Monday, January 09, 2006

On Maps

I'm revising my first novel, A MAP OF HOME, and reading Timothy Mitchell's book, and I found this section on maps so cool and relevant:
The twentieth century’s new regime of calculation did not produce, necessarily, a more accurate knowledge of the world, despite its claims, nor even any overall increase in the quantity of knowledge. Its achievement was to redistribute forms of knowledge, increasing it in some places and decreasing it in others. At the same time, it transferred this knowledge to new sites. By a series of removals, it opened up a certain distance, the distance between the field and the computing office, between the farmer and the colonial survey officer, between the iron triangulation marker and the paper map. The distance of such removals, repeated countless times in the cadastral survey and in increasing numbers of other projects, was to have a strange effect. The act of removal began to appear not as an action but as something more profound. The distance from the field to the map and back again, from the village to the computing office, would come to mark what seemed an absolute gap: the divide between reality and its representation, between an image-world and its object. The question of accuracy or truth could now be cast as the degree of correspondence between the object-world on one side of this divide and the maps, images, and numbers on the other. The strange effect gave rise to new objects and forms of calculation—among the most important of them, the economy.
My novel's title refers to a scene when the narrator has to copy out a map of Palestine until she memorizes it. But later she finds out that Palestine's maps have changed and evolved so much over the years that there's no telling where it really starts and where it ends... which I think is a cool way of talking about the concepts of "home" and "belonging".

Friday, January 06, 2006

Lucky Girl

Inventory of books/book related gifts:

What Work Is, by Philip Levine
Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity , by Timothy Mitchell
Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, Lawrence Joseph
Modern Fiction Studies, a special 1957 Graham Greene edition
A Love & Rockets Zippo lighter with a pic of Luba on it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

About A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar

My first novel is out now, and is forthcoming in German, Italian, Hebrew, Chinese, and Arabic. You can order your copy here or from your bookstore. Read what some people are saying about the novel:

Kirkus: (Starred Review):"... Jarrar is a funny, incisive writer, and she’s positively heroic in her refusal to employ easy sentimentality or cheap pathos. Nidali is a misfit living through calamitous times, but Jarrar understands that all adolescents feel like misfits living through calamitous times. ...A coming-of-age story that’s both singular and universal—an outstanding debut."

Publishers Weekly: (Starred Review): "Jarrar's sparkling debut about an audacious Muslim girl growing up in Kuwait, Egypt and Texas is intimate, perceptive and very, very funny. ... Jarrar explores familiar adolescent ground—stifling parental expectations, precarious friendships, sensuality and first love—but her exhilarating voice and flawless timing make this a standout."

BookBrowse: "Rare is the book that makes one stay up to finish it; this is one of them, simultaneously circling in its family dramas and spiraling outwards in its connections to history and place. Adult and teen readers alike would enjoy Nidali's honest portrayal. She's the Muslim equivalent of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, tender, caustic and wise in all the right moments."

People: “Depictions of her hilarious family…are punchy and vibrant. Jarrar’s lack of sentimentality and her wry sense of humor make Home a treasure. 4/4”

Christian Science Monitor: "Randa Jarrar takes all the sappy, beloved clichés about “where you hang your hat” and blows them to smithereens in her energizing, caustically comic debut novel, A Map of Home."

Entertainment Weekly: With her big brain, big wit, and big personality, Nidali has a tough time conforming to her father's rigid 
standards. ... Some parts — like Nidali's grandmother's fable about flatulence — will leave you laughing out loud. A-"

Booklist: "Ah, eccentric families. In Jarrar’s first novel, the lovable Ammars are talkative, argumentative, and so alive they practically burst off the page. ... Jarrar is sophisticated and deft, and her impressive debut is especially intriguing considering her clever use of recent Middle East history."

Alef:"[A Map of Home] sparkles with humour and intelligence. Nidali tenderly describes her rollicking family life, recounted with both a wicked sense of humour and seriousness. Nidali’s parents are larger-than-life characters. ...This brilliant book is not one to overlook."

Library Journal: "This wonderfully engaging work has vivid descriptions of the different places Nidali lives and the culture she grows up in.... Highly Recommended."

Daily Candy: "This debut coming-of-age novel from author Randa Jarrar is funny and fresh, tackling adolescent insecurities, nationalism, and a longing to fit in."

Dallas Morning News: "A Map of Home promises to tell us about Arab culture as we never knew it. And using young Nidali as our guide, it does, giving us a multifaceted portrayal of the Arab world."

The National: "Holden Caulfield’s narrative struggle is primarily to make sense of his individual place in the world. Nidali is more like Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in that she wants to use the power of art to make the world take shape around her. By the book’s end she is not so much enlightened as empowered."

Foreword: This novel is important in that it closes the gap between East and West at a time when the dominant stateside narrative is one of intrinsic difference. Rather than diffusing the "serious" issues, Jarrar divests them of some of their charge to reveal the human conflicts and connections at their root. This is the mark of good fiction."

Chicago Tribune
: "Moving—and often quite funny—debut about a Muslim girl who is forced to flee Kuwait to Egypt, then on to Texas, where she must really come of age."

The L Magazine: "Many of the incidents in the book are sweet, vivid or witty, and Jarrar’s descriptions of bustling Alexandria stand out especially, as does Nidali’s enlivening use of minor profanity. Boogers are wiped, crotches scratched and bidets put to use as auto-erotic aids."

BuzzSugar: "Towelhead meets Persepolis... [t]he kind of story I've been hoping to find."

Naomi Shihab Nye: "Jazzy, and vastly intelligent and fun. Jarrar is a wonderworker with delectable details and sweet swerves of surprise. ...I turn to her for gusto."

Porter Shreve
: "[Nidali's] is a particularly complicated immigrant story, since she is continually arriving and adjusting only to depart, arrive, and adjust again. On her map of home, the borders are never fixed. ...Funny, surprising, and fully alive."

Leslie Marmon Silko: "Randa’s novel possesses perfect pitch. Her language is pure music and completely original. ... But not only is the "sound" of the novel, the narrative voice so perfect and seamless the reader is helpless and insatiable: the characters are unique and alive, born storytellers and poets that fill the pages with fierce beauty and a passionate sense of community that spans continents and generations."

Elizabeth Kostova: [Jarrar] is a born storyteller...stories pour from her fingers, and yet she's also managed to organize them into a vivid arc. ... I think of myself as a fairly hard-bitten reader, but I laughed aloud several times at her narrator's comments on life and family. I fought a few tears, as well."

It's My Birfday

I am officially 28 years old.

My kid brought me breakfast in bed this morning. It consisted of two pieces of toast, several carrots, an apple, and a cup of milk. Those are literally the only things that were in the fridge to pick from.

We met up with his carpool, and my friend Steve, who is 50 and gorgeous, gave me baklava for a b-day present, and jokingly said he hated me because I'm still in my twenties.

Ah, 28. Four years away from my supposed "peak". Is that libido rising thing for real? Shit. I can't imagine getting any hornier.

On New Year's Day, the good old pearl "massager" broke. Correction: I broke it. No, it's not the batteries. I checked. It's the wire. I don't really need a massager, I'm double jointed in the fingers. I'm lucky like that. But still. Why January 1st? I wonder if it's an omen for the year to, uh, come.

Anyway, birthday. I'm getting my hair did. And buying myself some flowers. And maybe a new massager. I love getting older.

Monday, January 02, 2006

I'll take you back to school

My kid's school started up today instead of tomorrow. He was up till 1 yesterday because he stayed up late on New Year's partying it up with me, and I stayed up till 3 writing. Result: we looked frightening today, like Scowl-Face-People, batteries not included people, breakfast can't be as important as that, please go back to sleep, people.

I dressed hurriedly but remembered to put on some cute faux-gold $3.99 earrings I just pimped at Rainbow, one of the most ghetto-fabulous stores of this century. I always try to have my hair and earrings on right when I leave the house in the morning, because it's always the one day I wear a mildewed bandanna and a cartoon-character Tshirt that I bump into someone fly I'd like to spend the next 3 weeks with.

I trudged down the stairs to the kitchen, where my kid was already waiting. His mohawk is now a nohawk, and dangerously resembles a mullet. He was wearing a biker T-shirt and green camo-pants his dad bought him, and a crappy blue plaid shirt over it all. He looked like a Seattle grunge kid about to go hunting. I practically vurped.

I wanted to say several things. Like:
You look like a geek.
I will be embarassed if you exit the house dressed in this "fashion."
God, oh, God. You look all wrong.

But instead, I said, gently, "What are you wearing?"

He paused a long moment, looked at my earrings, and said, "What are you wearing? You look like your mom, after she goes to a jewelry store and stays there all day."

Like... my... mom? Fuck! He was going hunting, all right.

I poured out my coffee and we left. I kept the earrings on... at least until after I dropped him off. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to stand your ground.