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From the Arab American Pen: Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Life Without a Recipe”

If an Arab writer comes to mind it’s likely Nawal El-Saadawi, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, or Kahlil Gibran –all non-Americans. But it’s the 21st century and new names claim attention and respect: e.g. Diana Abu-Jaber,  an American writer who for 20 years has woven Arab themes into her stories of life in the USA. This skilled writer and storyteller consistently offers us something others cannot:–subtle and intimate portrayals of Arab culture and people. Her new book–her sixth– “Life Without a Recipe”, adds to her repertoire of American life with an Arab ‘flavor’ (her last two books– “Origin”, a crime story, and “Birds of Paradise” about a runaway daughter—are exceptions).

One of the first Arab American novelists to gain wide recognition, Abu-Jaber now represents an established community of women writers in the USA who contribute to feminist thought and to what’s known as ‘ethnic narratives’. This is a literary community where women far outnumber men writers, a fact that begs explanation and comparison. (Does one find parallels among American East Asian, South Asian and Latino writers?)

During the initial phase of the history of Arab American literature, i.e. writing by Americans of Arab heritage, fiction did not figure in our artistic expression. What literary image we claimed was though poetry, established mainly by Gibran, Samuel Hazo and Etel Adnan. William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, (he’s now 88 and still writing) is barely recognized as Arab; the same is true for Jane Brox whose essays offer scant reference to her lifewihtoutrecipeArab roots. Apart from them, our most accomplished writers are poets; with Hazo stand Sam Hamod, Nomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Lawrence Joseph, DH Melhem, Mohja Kahf, and Suheir Hammad– a few names from scores of established contemporary Arab American writers.

As literary output by Arab Americans grows, poetry remains dominant, and our men are more prolific in this genre.

Just as novels and memoirs arrived late in Arabic literature, they have been slow to take hold
in Arab American and Diaspora Arab literary expression. Hanan Al-Shaykh, Nawal El-Saadawi, Fadia Faqir and Adhaf Soueif—all women, although not American — are well established fiction authors writing in English.

Diana Abu-Jaber is one of the first American writers from our community to establish a reputation as a novelist. She joins Rabih Alameddine whose rich, prize-winning style propelled him into mainstream, with Laila Lalami, a brilliant storyteller moving into the top ranks of this country’s writers with her latest book “The Moor’s Account”. Compared to them, and to Rawi Hage, Patricia Sarrafian Ward and Kathryn Abdul Baki whose tales are set in the Arab homelands, Abu-Jaber’s narratives are (contemporary) America- centered. Today Jaber represents an emerging voice of mainly women authors, e.g. Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Frances Khirallah Noble, Evelyn Shakir, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.

“Life Without a Recipe” is a woman’s exploration of a career as a writer told through the influences of her Arab father, her maternal German grandmother, and her decision (with her husband) to adopt a baby. Hers is not a typical woman’s story –two short-lived marriages, a childhood filled with tension between father and grandmother, the decision to adopt, and then raising her child while resuming her career. Yet it is one which many writers and many more women will enjoy and imbibe as they reflect on their own (American) lives. Abu-Jaber shows us that life need not—cannot– follow a prescription. Added joy awaits us in Abu-Jaber’s masterful imagery and in her delicious way with words.