Debut Author Snapshot: Rajia HassibPosted by Goodreads on August 3, 2015
Debut Author Snapshot: Rajia HassibThe elusive American dream slips away from a first-generation family of Egyptian Americans in Rajia Hassib's debut novel, In the Language of Miracles. Beginning one year after their eldest son committed a shocking, violent crime—a murder-suicide—the story follows the surviving members of the Al-Menshawy family. While still reeling from grief, they must also cope with being ostracized by onetime friends in the upscale New Jersey suburb where they've built a life. Stubbornly, patriarch Samir seeks to make peace with the community, while second son Khaled struggles to emerge from his dead brother's shadow.
Born in Egypt, West Virginian Hassib discusses the post-9/11 cultural climate and shares some of her inspiration for In the Language of Miracles.
Rendering of the Ground Zero Mosque. (Photo source.)
Protestor holding sign (Photo source.)
"The proposed Park51 cultural center (commonly referred to as the Ground Zero Mosque) was supposed to be a 'platform for multifaith dialogue'—a lofty enough idea that seemed to be exactly what was needed in a post-9/11 world, until it spawned rallies of protest where people carried signs claiming that such a mosque would 'spit on the graves of 9/11 victims' and would be a 'victory mosque' aiming to 'glorify the murder of 3,000.' That controversy was the genesis of my novel, where I tried to investigate, among other things, how those left behind can possibly redeem themselves for the crimes committed by one of their own."
Rajia Hassib: I came to the United States shortly before the September 11 terrorist attacks, and for years afterward I struggled with the shame and guilt of knowing that my religion was used to justify such a barbaric act. I longed for Muslims to do something to show the world that our religion was not the violent one that extremists suggest it is, but not until the Ground Zero mosque controversy of 2010 did I realize just how impossibly complex any attempt at redemption was. Becoming preoccupied with the idea of a public act of apology for a crime one has not committed, I decided to create a microcosm for the September 11 attacks and use that to examine how it feels to be an American Muslim post-9/11. From there came the idea of a novel about a family whose oldest son commits a crime and leaves his parents and siblings burdened with the consequences.
Once that was established, I knew I had to choose an act of violence that was, first and foremost, unjustifiable. The unfortunate fact is that violent acts that are either politically or ideologically motivated will always find supporters—the mere existence of Neo-Nazis and Bin Laden sympathizers proves this point. For my novel I wanted to avoid any possibility of debate when it came to the violent act; it had to be unquestionably horrendous if it were to represent the September 11 attacks. A personal, calculated, and vengeful act that claimed the life of a young, trusting woman seemed therefore like a suitable choice. That particular act of violence also freed me from having to address the political aspects of 9/11 and let me instead focus on its aftermath on a personal level, which was the subject matter I wanted to explore. It also allowed me to investigate various other themes that I was interested in, such as gender expectations, family dynamics, the challenges of immigration, and cultural conditioning, to name a few.
"I've always been fascinated by Nabokov—such a brilliant writer who was not a native English speaker! His mere existence gave me hope. I had read that he often included butterflies in his fiction as a symbol of metamorphosis, so I decided to include butterflies in my novel as a tribute to him. When I started researching butterflies, I came upon the Monarchs and their amazing migration habits, which fit my novel's theme perfectly. So my tribute to him ended up providing me with a wonderful system of symbols that I then happily explored further." (Photo source.)
RH: Those complex dynamics are a blessing to anyone writing a character-driven narrative. They dictate conflict, add layers of complexity to character relationships, and often play into their motives for action. This is true even if the plot did not revolve around a tragedy.
Add a tragedy to the mix, and those differences between parents and children become magnified. We are all conditioned to react to extreme circumstances in ways that are directly tied to our culture, traditions, religion, and various other markers of our respective identities. At times of travesty, it is therefore only natural that the parents and children will react differently. The generational gap alone makes this noticeable even in families that do not have the added complexity of a hyphenated identity. For first-generation Americans, those generational differences are complicated by the added cultural differences. The parents and children speak two different languages—literally and figuratively—and therefore deal with grief and sorrow in different ways and, unfortunately, often have trouble communicating as a result. Those disparities inevitably end up generating more conflict. So taking the cultural differences into account was not only central to creating authentic, believable characters, but also instrumental in developing the plot of the novel.
GR: Why begin your narrative one year after the family tragedy?
RH: I needed to assert that the focus was not on the event itself but rather its long-term aftermath. Had I started the novel earlier, I would have had to present the murder-suicide in more detail or, at the very least, I would have had to devote more time to the shock and grief that both families must have experienced, and that was not the subject matter I was interested in exploring. Instead I was interested in what happened next: in living with the kind of dull pain that promises never to go away and trying to renegotiate one's life around a devastating and irreversible tragic event.
I also needed to allow the family enough time to absorb the community's rejection of them and to start to reflect on what to do about it. Allowing one year to pass before I ventured into this emotionally fraught landscape seemed like a reasonable amount of time: The pain would still be acutely present, but the question of what to do next would have been allowed to present itself.
"Food is an essential part of Egyptian culture. We just like to eat. We like to cook for our families as well as for guests. A dinner party is not considered a success unless you have enough food to feed at least twice as many people as you have invited over. As such, food has also claimed a role in my novel for its cultural significance: as a symbol of offering comfort and of expressing love. In celebration of the novel's upcoming release, I have cooked many of the dishes mentioned in my novel. The baklava featured above is one of them." (Photo credit: Rajia Hassib.)
RH: Unfortunately, Arab Americans still bear the brunt of the horrific events of 9/11. The FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics show that anti-Muslim hate crimes are still five times higher now than they were before 9/11. Mistrust of Muslims is also well-documented: According to a 2014 poll conducted by the Arab American Institute, Muslims and Arabs had the least favorable rating among the nine religious and ethnic groups the poll inquired about.
Interestingly, that same poll showed that those who knew an Arab or a Muslim personally were more likely to have a favorable view of the entire race or religion. Which brings me to the role of literature. While I would never advocate for literature driven by a political agenda (that is the realm of propaganda), I do believe that literature by Arab Americans or about them can make the lives of Muslims and Arabs more accessible to those who do not know them. While that 2014 poll is painful, it is understandable. When someone knows nothing of Islam other than the atrocities he or she sees committed by extremists on TV, then it is only natural that this person becomes mistrusting of the religion. That those extremists are only a small percentage of the 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world doesn't matter because they are, unfortunately, the loudest. But literature can give the rest of us a voice. Through literature readers can see the almost-always flawed humanity of members of other cultures and races—the Other is certainly less frightening when humanized. Finding that common ground of shared humanity is an essential step toward combating hate.
GR: What's next for you as a writer?
RH: More novels! Right now I'm working on one set partly in Egypt and partly in the United States. The novel takes place in the years following the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and it follows the paths of three vastly different characters as their stories intertwine and finally merge. I hesitate to discuss any project in progress in detail, but I will leave you with this: There is a mysterious disappearance, a marriage on the brink, and a young man yielding the destructive power of one who has lost all hope. It's a complex, intimate, and exhilarating story. I'm enjoying every moment of writing it, and I hope readers will enjoy it, too.