Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman – Susan Muaddi Darraj

Susan Muaddi Darraj


Susan Muaddi Darraj is the author of The Inheritance of Exile, which was a finalist in the AWP Book Awards Series and named ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year (Short Fiction). She is a fiction editor for Barrelhouse Magazine and co-founder of the annual Conversations & Connections Conference: Practical Advice on Getting Published. Her new book, A Curious Land: Stories from Home, was named winner of the AWP Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction and the American Book Award, and shortlisted for the Palestine Book Award. She is a two-time recipient of an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.


Daniel Libman

Fifth Wednesday Journal: The phrase “linked stories” is almost meaningless because it’s used so much to market collections, but yours is the real deal: stories that connect, comment and greatly enrich each other when read together.

Susan Muaddi Darraj: I definitely did think of it as a conceptual whole, trying to tell the story of a community. That was my goal although I didn’t know that when I started out. I was just writing one story, “Abu Sufayan.” The original version was much shorter and I got it published in Mizna, an Arab American literary journal. Even several months later, I kept coming back to it and I thought: my character is very unusual. He’s a man who’s a wise and reflective person in a tumultuous time. He’s the voice of reason. I kept thinking, what made him that way? Characters are like real people in that their experiences help create their future personalities. I wondered what made him so wise and rational. Later I wrote what became the first story in the book, “The Journey Home.” That was a difficult story to write because it was loosely based on my grandfather’s experience.


FWJ: It’s a family story?

SMD: Loosely. He was born in 1885 so he was young man in the beginning of WWI. The Ottomans had begun to conscript people, Lebanese and Palestinians, to the front lines and he was forcibly drafted to the war and he did run away from the Turkish army. He never really talked about it, but the story goes he was taken one day and a year later he showed up again. He walked from Damascus to my family’s village, which is close to Jerusalem.


FWJ: In the place where most of the stories in A Curious Land are set?

SMD: The village I create in the book is a composite of several villages. But, yes, that escape is a true story, although I imagined the rest, what happened to him during that time, how he escaped. He never really talked about the specifics, as far as I know. Probably some PTSD there.


FWJ: There was a different kind of a code on what men said about war.

SMD: Exactly. And what you would admit. But I know later events; for example, in the 1948 war and in 1967 he had his doors open to the refugees who came through my family’s village. He was very keen on helping people. His house was always open to anyone who needed a place to stay or to hide. For me as a fiction writer I put that all together and kind of imagined what happened to him at that time, that he was found by a group of Bedouins. I know from my historical research Bedouins were affected very much by World War I. So I just put all those elements together. I found out from research this was an actual policy during the Ottoman Empire to conscript young Arab men during those last days of the war when the Ottomans knew they were losing. So yes, a lot of family stories are braided into this book, and a lot of historical research is also weaved in. I’m trying to create a sense of place and time, which is difficult because the place stays the same but I’m moving throughout an entire century.


FWJ: When did you write that story and when did you decide it would be the lead piece in the collection?

SMD: “The Journey Home” was the second story I wrote and it wasn’t until later when I thought about how to order them. Originally I was going to put it second. In other words, in “Abu Sufayan” you learn he has this past and then in the second story you would find out what it is. But my reader is a Western reader. I was throwing a lot of unfamiliar names and terms and cultural facts at the reader. I thought I should give a timeline that was familiar, a chronological timeline.


FWJ: So the stories are in chronological order as a guideline for the reader?

SMD: That’s the challenge for linked short stories. The reader has to put things together and is a very active part of the process. As a writer, you have to create links for readers to hold on to.


FWJ: The stories contain some italicized Arab words and terms. Some I eventually figured out from context, like servees, but others I never did, although the words worked on the level atmosphere and authenticity. Is it difficult to know when to go with an Arab word versus when to translate? Is the process deliberate or mostly intuitive?

SMD: It’s really tough! I know 20 or 25 years ago people who were using foreign words in their writing were really working hard to make sure the readers got it. Some writers put glossaries in the back.


FWJ: I have to admit I did flip back once to see if there was a glossary.

SMD: Did you? Well, a lot of people included them and other writers will work very hard to define what the word means in context. I think lately we see — especially with Latin American writers — people are just dropping the words and telling the reader: here, figure it out. Junot Diaz does that quite a bit. His narrators drop in Spanish words. The narrators aren’t helping but Junot Diaz the author is behind the scenes offering some contextual clues. It’s brilliant. I tried to do it the same way, use some of the words for atmosphere as you say, but not make it too artificial, not make the attempt at helping the reader too obvious. The more difficult part is translating what people said from Arabic to English so a lot of the English sentences are translations of phrases like “God willing,” I put that in there a lot. That’s a translation of the phrase inshallah, which people say all the time. When you hear people saying it English, it sounds overdone but it is really what people are saying in Arabic.


FWJ: But it’s idiomatic? People aren’t trying to invoke God every time they say it.

SMD: Exactly. They’ll say something like, “The Orioles are playing tonight. They will win inshallah.” It can be a very casual thing.


FWJ: Your stories are as rooted in character as they are in place. When you’re starting out a story which is the stronger pull?

SMD: I’m definitely more motivated with character. Like with Abu Sufayan, why is he able to not go along with everyone else in the village? His wife and his son are participating when they want to take revenge. Why is he that way and what problems will that cause for him later on? And then I became interested in his granddaughter, who hides his secret that night and later on has her own secrets to hide. I definitely am fascinated by character and I think that’s one way when you’re writing about unfamiliar places your readers can still latch on to a familiar person. We all have wise elders in our lives, aunts who know everyone’s business, for example. The characters feel familiar even if the place does not.


FWJ: “The Fall” is a story told in a male first person voice, very modern and very American. Was it difficult to switch gears like that?

SMD: That was the most familiar for me because I know that voice really well. It was really fun as a female writer to write from that working class, young, breezy male voice. I love that character. That story was interesting because I thought originally of telling the story from the perspective of the father. But the father is so…


FWJ: Closed off?

SMD: Right. He tries not to think about what he did in the past and he’s just so immersed in his own sense of guilt. I thought, well, a father who’s like that would surely have an impact. That personality when you’re a parent has ramifications on the children, so what are his kids like? I gave him one child and wrote it from the perspective of his son. That story I rewrote many, many times. But I’m proud of that story and have gotten a good response.


FWJ: I also know that voice really well and you nailed it. The story “Ride Along” which appears in this issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal is also in first person.

SMD: It’s a young man whose sister has been thrown out of their family by the father. Their mother has died some years ago. The sister is getting her life back together, she’s in college and she’s dating an African American man and so the main character is sort of going between the father and the sister, trying to handle the family tensions that normally would have been his mother’s task


FWJ: In A Curious Land, after deciding to present in chronological order, did you write them in that order?

SMD: Not really. The third story I wrote is actually the last story in the book.


FWJ: The Christmas story?

SMD: I never thought of putting it in the book and then later as I realized I was working on a collection, I rewrote it in a substantive way to help it tie into the book. Originally my two characters were not related to the village, then I gave my female character a link; she’s the stepdaughter of Amira so it was a different kind of story. It was much longer than the others — originally I thought of titling the book Christmas in Palestine and Other Stories but then I felt it didn’t quite capture the mood of the whole book.


FWJ: That story does feels like a coda, like it is separate from the others.

SMD: Well, it was challenging too because, throughout the book, a lot of my characters leave the village and go to other countries — Palestinians are in a Diaspora currently — but in this one I had a character who was coming back and witnessing the changes. And also that’s the story where I offer some criticisms of the Palestinian Authority, in the way that the Arafat regime was taxing people to death and making it impossible to build a state after the Oslo Accords. Obviously, the Israeli military and the ongoing occupation helped kill the peace deal, but the Authority also made it really difficult for people to return.


FWJ: You could interpret a political undertone in that title if it had been the title of the book — how much were you thinking about politics when you published these stories? Were you concerned at all that your work would politicized? How much of that was in your thinking as you wrote?

SMD: I thought about that a lot because I feel like “Palestinian” is automatically a political identity. If you tell someone you’re Palestinian American, they immediately start talking politics with you, or it has been my experience that if they’re pro-Israeli, they will often start contesting your identity. I had a college professor — I’ve written about this—who told me, “There’s no such thing as Palestinian people. Your family is really Jordanian.” I’ve had that experience many times so the Palestinian identity, whether we like it or not, is political. But I’m an American fiction writer and American fiction is character-driven and so that’s where I was going with this, hoping to really humanize a very political story. I was hoping my readers would look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from that perspective. I deliberately did not insert a lot of politics in the stories for that reason.


FWJ: A lot of the time, as you write it, politics are in the background, murmured opinions, the back channeled thoughts about global events — while your characters are experiencing real life, for lack of a better term. “Intifada Love Story” is the story where the reader is most aware of a global political situation and its impact on the personal.

SMD: It’s funny, when you’re writing fiction you’re doing a lot of stagecraft. I want to bring out the tensions of these characters, so I had to think: what situation can I put them in that will bring out those tensions? What I was really focused on was the frustration of this young man, the main character. I wanted to get him to be stuck in the house with his family. I had heard from relatives about how after a skirmish, the military will literally find the tallest building in a village and turn it into their post. The family in the house is locked down because of that. So that’s what I did: I had him locked in the house with his family and I had the military right there on the roof. Every scene of the story is told from a day to day perspective: Day one, day four… And I could track the mounting frustration of the family in that way. That was an interesting story to write because you don’t want to demonize the other side. That’s another kind of struggle I have as a writer, to not demonize either side. You want the reader to trust you and a lot of the elements are based on things that actually happened to people I know.


FWJ: Let’s talk about you as a writer. Did you have a clear moment of epiphany when you decided you were going to write?

SMD: I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. As an elementary school student, I was writing stories in leftover notebooks from the school year. My father and my uncle are both poets — my uncle has published a few books of his poems in Arabic — and I grew up in a house where reading was highly encouraged. My father recited Arabic poetry from memory. In the Middle East, the oral tradition is still very intense. My father has volumes of poetry he’s memorized and he will sit at breakfast and recite a few lines from something. I grew up with the sounds of poetry and literature.


FWJ: This was in Philadelphia?

SMD: Yes, before the era of Nintendo, Wii, and other such distractions. I read a lot. My mother encouraged my brothers and me to read a lot. We went to the Free Library every Saturday and loaded up on books. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but whenever those Scholastic book forms came home from school each month, my mother would make sure I ordered several books each time. So I loved to read, but of course, I never saw an Arab character in a book. I thought, growing up as an Arab American, that literature was about Caucasian characters. My favorite book growing up was Anne of Green Gables. I still love that book. But I thought literature involved people who were not like me. At Rutgers University my professor there, Lisa Zeidner, a great poet and novelist, said to me during one of our conferences, “You’re Palestinian American right?” I said, “yeah.” She said, “So why are you writing stories about people named Heather and Jennifer?” And believe it or not, I had never really thought I could create literary stories about Arab American characters. I started to read books by African American writers. Alice Walker is a big influence on me. Latina writers like Julia Alvarez and Esmeralda Santiago’s book When We Were Puerto Rican — I love that book. Also South Asian writers. Probably my favorite writer is Rohinton Mistry. He’s one of those writers who just drops words into the text. I learned from other ethnic American writers how to write about my own community. In fact the title of my book comes from a book by Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, where he talks about the Deep South as an unknown territory, a curious land. And I felt that way about Palestine. People think they know what Palestinians are like, but I’m going to show them in this book what they’re really like. I was thinking, for example, of Alice Walker. She’s very critical of the black community and I knew I was going to be critical of my community as well. I knew I was going to write about these traditions, even the ones I find abhorrent, because I want my reader to trust me. Because this community is very politicized, if the reader is going to trust what I say about the Israeli military using the family water tank as a urinal, they’ll trust me if I write critically about other traditions, like hanging up the bed sheet on the wedding night.


FWJ: I also want to ask some Paris Review type questions about your writing habits.

SMD: Oh good — I’m always happy to answer those questions because I like reading about the habits of other writers.


FWJ: Me too. So how disciplined are you in terms of your writing time? What’s your routine?

SMD: I’m very disciplined. I have three young children and I have to make time for myself to write. It’s funny because I have friends who get up early in the morning to exercise and they say if you get up early in the morning, you’ll feel good the rest of the day. I’ve adapted that for my writing. For the last fifteen years I’ve been getting up at 4:45am, I make a pot of coffee, and at 5 o’clock I sit down with my words . . .. It’s not always writing. Sometimes I’m stuck. But I’ll always do some reading or some journaling for two hours, from 5-7.


FWJ: What do you write on?

SMD: It depends. If I’m writing nonfiction, I’ll often write on a laptop. If I’m writing fiction, I usually write longhand. My first major revision is when I type it into my laptop.


FWJ: Cursive? Legal pad?

SMD: Yes! I have excellent penmanship — Catholic school education — and I write on yellow legal pad with a black gel pen.


FWJ: Fine point?

SMD: No. The point seven millimeter. Sort of an in-between size.


FWJ: You stay there for two hours no matter what?

SMD: Yes, and if I’m not writing I’m reading something. I just feel good when I’m done. I feel productive. I’ve moved something along. The rest of the day I don’t feel resentful of my busy schedule. I have children and work full time and that’s a very intense schedule. But I feel like I’ve had my time, so now I can give my time to other things.


FWJ: And when you are stuck and reading instead of writing, what is it you’re reading?

SMD A lot of fiction. Sometimes I read craft books. Benjamin Percy has a book titled Thrill Me which is a wonderful collection on writing. Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind is wonderful. Deborah Spark has a book of essays, Curious Attractions, which is also really good. In terms of fiction I have shelves and shelves of things I’m reading, like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and he’s already got a new one out.


FWJ: Do you reread a lot of books?

SMD: Very rarely. But I do mark up my books quite a bit and I will go back and look through the passages I’ve marked. Colm Tóibín has a novel called Brooklyn, and the other day I was marking it up because he has a scene where he handles time really well. The main character reflects how three weeks have already passed since she’s been in America and she’s relating what happened to her in a series of letters home. I thought it was a great way to do that which didn’t seem artificial.


FWJ: It’s like you’re collecting material for your own in book on craft.

SMD: Well, as a writer you’re always learning, always figuring out how other people have done it, taking notes. I feel like I’ll probably be that way forever. I hope I’ll be that way forever.


FWJ: Can I ask what you’re working now or are you superstitious about talking about it?

SMD: Isn’t that funny that people are so superstitious about that stuff? I’m working on a novel, not a short story collection, set in Philadelphia in the 1970s shortly after the Vietnam war. I’m still finishing the first draft and my agent is waiting for it. I write very slowly. There are two major characters, one of whom is a young woman who’s had a baby out of wedlock and she’s been sort of thrown out of the family by her immigrant parents but she remains in touch with her siblings. The other major character is a young man who has come back from the war.


FWJ: Is it difficult to transition from thinking in terms of the short story to the novel?

SMD: I’m reading to learn how to do it. I’ve thought of my collections as bigger pieces but I’m telling the story in a more fragmented way. This is different. I’m reading a lot of novels to see how they’re done and I just read a great one, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan, a young Vietnamese writer. I love how she tells it because she switches points of view, inserts fragments of letters from people. I love the model she came up with. I’m really big on structure, on story structure.


FWJ: Do you enjoy teaching? Does it impact your writing?

SMD: When I’m teaching — I just came back from the summer residency at Fairfield University where I taught a workshop — I just leave that environment with so much energy. There is something very empowering about looking at a student’s story and saying, here is where it works and here it where it needs improvement. And then sitting with them and working on making those improvements. It shows you that anyone can get better at telling a story. It’s also empowering because sometimes the improvement that needs to be made is simply shifting the point of view. I make them write each scene on a separate postcard and then we lay out the cards. I borrowed this trick from somebody, it’s not something I came up with. But we lay out the postcards and now we have the skeleton of the story and I say, is this progressing? Is this moving forward? What if we take the last scene and put it at the beginning of the story and work our way backwards. Would that build the suspense a little bit more? Would that intensify the telling of the story? Would that invest the reader sooner? It’s interesting and fun to do and forces them to take a second look at a story. And I leave with a lot of energy. On the train ride home I was just writing like crazy. It triggered a lot of my own ideas.


FWJ: A lot of writers complain that having to read so much student writing and say it subtracts from their own creative energy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with you.

SMD: No, I really enjoy it. My life is busy, so when I’m teaching I feel I’m with people who care just as much about the written word as I do. That’s a very nice community to be with, to sit and talk about a single sentence for a half hour because it matters to all of us. I look around and I think, these are my people. This is my tribe.


FWJ: That’s interesting since in so many of your stories, a sense of community is what drives your characters.

SMD: Right now I feel that way about the Arab American writing community. I’m on the board of directors of RAWI, the Arab American Writers Association. That community of writers is wonderful. When my publisher asked me to find people to blurb my book, every Arab American writer I asked was very happy to do it for me. I’ve tried to pay that back when I’m asked to blurb something or give feedback on a manuscript. I try to be a good citizen.



Daniel Libman is Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner and the author of the story collection, Married But Looking. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.




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