Debut Author Snapshot: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

May, 2018
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
The debut novel The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of 12-year-old Nour, a Syrian American girl from New York City. When the book begins, Nour's father has just passed away from cancer, and her mother—a cartographer who makes unusual handpainted maps—decides to move Nour and her two older sisters back to the Syrian city she grew up in. When unrest and violence arrive in their quiet neighborhood and they lose their home, Nour's family makes the difficult decision to leave Syria in search of safety.

As Nour and her family travel across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees, Nour tells herself a story that her father once told her: the story of the real 12th-century Muslim mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi and his fictional apprentice, Rawiya, a girl from the North African city of Ceuta, who leaves home disguised as a boy to apprentice herself to the mapmaker and support her family. As Nour and Rawiya travel identical geographical paths 800 years apart, both girls struggle with what it means to make a map of a home they've left behind. Goodreads talked to Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar about turning her anger over the Syrian refugee crisis into her first novel and how storytelling can enable empathy.

Goodreads: Congratulations on your debut novel! Introduce yourself to readers.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: I'm a Syrian American writer, and I was born in New York City. I'm a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers and of Mensa. I've been writing for as long as I can remember, but I also hold a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences from Brown University; I worked as an academic research scientist for several years before switching careers to pursue writing full-time.

GR: What sparked the idea for The Map of Salt and Stars?

JZJ: As I watched the war in Syria unfold, I felt increasingly angry about how American racism and Islamophobia were fueling the rejection of Syrian refugees. That same bigotry would eventually lead to the Muslim Ban. I thought a lot about how, if my father had never immigrated to the States, I could have been born and grown up in Syria. I could have experienced the conflict there directly.

I am tied by blood to Syria, and the country where my father was born is suffering while the country in which I was born still views us as not fully American. Where, then, does that leave me? And for people of Syrian descent living in diaspora, particularly for the generation of children who will grow up in exile because their parents left Syria for safety reasons, what can we take with us? What do we carry with us that cannot be lost?

GR: Why did you decide to have Nour cling to her father's tale, taking readers into a parallel story set in the 12th century?

JZJ: I wanted to explore the stories we tell ourselves when we are in pain. Particularly for those of us who have experienced severe trauma, can our stories help us heal? Can knowing who we are, our rich history as Arabs and particularly as Muslims, our storytelling traditions, our scientific achievements, our faith, our heritage—can holding onto these things remind us that there is a life beyond that trauma and remind us that we are not broken?

I wanted to tell a story about the power of stories, so I gave Nour a gift that she could take with her even to the darkest of places. Just as there are ways of defining home so that it can't be lost, if we carry stories in our hearts, it is harder to lose them. I wanted to show the reader the power of that gift, and I wanted to give a similar gift to readers of Syrian and/or Arab descent, as well as Muslim readers, because we so rarely see ourselves represented on the page as multidimensional people.

GR: Tell us about your writing process for The Map of Salt and Stars.


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JZJ: I wrote the first draft quickly, in about two weeks. I usually write first drafts fast to get the basic structure down, the basic character arcs, the plot, and then revise over a period of months—but beyond that, this story was boiling in me. I knew right away that I wanted each section to begin with a shape poem. I spent about six months revising the book before I signed with my agent, and then we revised further together before Touchstone acquired the novel.

The more I revised and the deeper I went into the story, the more difficult the book became to work on emotionally. Every day, real human beings are going through the suffering and violence described in the novel, particularly women and children. Of all my responsibilities as a writer and as a human being, I felt most deeply my responsibility not to look away from that suffering. But I also felt it was important to include the small joys and creative acts that function as resistance to suffering, because to overlook those things would have been an act of violence and dehumanization.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in The Map of Salt and Stars?

JZJ: I have been influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Federico García Lorca, and most of my works—particularly my short stories—have magical realism woven into them. In The Map of Salt and Stars, the magical realism is subtler in the contemporary timeline and more visible in the historically based timeline, which I molded into a fable.

I have also been influenced by the many Arab American writers who have come before me, including Randa Jarrar, Laila Lalami, Diana Abu-Jaber, Rabih Alameddine (particularly The Hakawati), Naomi Shihab Nye, and many others. I devoured their work because it was the first time I'd seen myself represented on the page.

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GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

JZJ: For readers who don't know a lot about the war in Syria and the refugee crisis, I hope they come away from the book with increased empathy for the Syrian people and for refugees in general. I hope that the novel serves, in some small way, to combat racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia wherever it's read. I hope that it encourages people to seek out the work of Syrians and refugees describing their own experiences in their own words. I hope that it challenges readers to stand up to racist and Islamophobic policies like the Muslim Ban—not because these communities need saviors but because, in the spirit of the quote by Lilla Watson and the Queensland Aboriginal activists group, our liberation is bound up together.

For other readers of Syrian descent, and other Syrian Americans in particular, I hope that the novel serves as a reminder that although many of us in the Syrian diaspora are undergoing trauma and loss right now, there is life after this. We have so much that we cannot lose if we remember where we come from and that we still have each other. Our loved ones and our heritage and our history are never lost. When we come together in community and tell our stories, we are never alone.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

JZJ: I recently finished Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead and Roxane Gay's Hunger, both of which I am recommending to everyone I know.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

JZJ: I'm still revising my next novel project, but I can say that it also has a pair of voices from different eras, that it features a Muslim American protagonist, and that it explores the history of the Syrian American community over the last century against the backdrop of a Midwestern road trip taken by a group of Muslim friends.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Anushree (new)

Anushree Wonderful interview! Collective responsibility begins small, within our individual worlds... I look forward to reading the book. Best wishes to the author, Dr. Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar!


message 2: by Fufa (new)

Fufa Holguin How can I like this more than once?!?


message 3: by Elliott (new)

Elliott What a fountain of courage!


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