The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Please meet Susan Muaddi Darraj, fiction writer, critic and editor. She is an Associate Professor of English at Harford Community College, a Lecturer in the graduate writing program at The Johns Hopkins University and Senior Editor at The Baltimore Review. Her short story collection, The Inheritance of Exile, received the ForeWord Book of the Year Award for Short Fiction in 2007.
Susan Muaddi Darraj writes with care and intelligence, and her compassion for her flawed and complex characters reminds us of our own humanity.
Susan’s contribution to the Little Patuxent Review, “My West Bank Education: 1998,” was an essay you can read in a revised version here by clicking on this link. It first appeared in the Winter 2011 Water issue. Incorporating reflections on her heritage and current events, Susan writes the following about the craft underlying the LPR piece:
We’re living in a time when the Middle East is changing rapidly and drastically. The ousting of dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali are events that I never imagined I would witness in my lifetime. Certainly my parents never imagined it. They both arrived in the United States in 1967, when the Arab world had collapsed and dictators had begun entrenching themselves. Now it seems that youths in Arab nations have found new ways to articulate their vision, their identity: we are not backward; we are not content with ignorance; we seek love, happiness, free expression; we do not accept living in fear.
Growing up in the States, the daughter of Palestinian immigrant parents, has surely influenced my identity as a writer. I was raised to love my Arab heritage and to be grateful for the freedom and opportunity my American nationality offered.
My Arab heritage? That arrived in the poetry my father often recited at the dinner table, on long car rides, while raking leaves on a Sunday morning. It was delivered in the chords he played on his oud in the mornings and evenings, in the music of Farid al-Atrache and Fairouz and Abd al-Haleem that my mother played, the Egyptian movies that she rented for 75 cents on clunky VHS tapes and played over and over, the grape leaves and stuffed squash that simmered on her stovetop. It also came in the form of boundaries: we did not attend sleepovers and summer camps, go on dates, stay out with friends and indulge in other aspects of “typical” American life. We did, however, play baseball, eat ice cream and watch The Dukes of Hazzard and replays of The Honeymooners.
Therefore, I suspect I grew up like most Arab Americans—or perhaps like the children of most immigrants—feeling “in between,” living some of this and some of that. And while I begrudged being in this awkward place—I did not have memories of the Middle East like my parents and did not fully dive into American life like my classmates—I nevertheless have to admit that, as a writer, this gap provided fertile soil in which to plant my imagination.
My trip to the Middle East, which I describe in “My West Bank Education: 1998,” was not my first, but it was the first I’d undertaken alone. Remembering it was not difficult, but writing about it was. And yet it was also quite liberating.
I remember events in terms of images. When I recall that summer, I think of water, and then the attached memories rush back mightily: how I felt when we were in the worst of it, the regret of not understanding or appreciating how common an experience like this was in the West Bank, how angry and misunderstood I felt.
How to portray those various conflicting feelings? The answer was the structuring and layering of scenes. Each scene detailed the image, a contradictory side of it that had come before: water, life, emptiness, flood, sickness, calm and strength.
Nonfiction is best rendered in the form of a compilation of tightly constructed scenes, each building upon the previous one. I learned this from Laura Wexler in one of her classes at Johns Hopkins University. I’d known scene-building formed the skeleton of fiction but hadn’t realized that the same was true of nonfiction. Each scene develops the primary image, chiseling a curve, hollowing out a feature, until the detailed sculpture of the larger experience emerges from the once-smooth stone.
And it’s true that writing is thinking on paper. As I wrote out each scene, I understood so many things about my experience that had eluded me: that I didn’t completely enjoy the visit, and not only because of the water problems. The writing was as complicated as the in-between feeling I had, and there was no resolution.
Perhaps I’d hoped for too much. At a time when I felt a need to really connect to my Arab identity, my trip confirmed that I could not become easily assimilated into Arab culture, just as I would never be 100 percent “American.” Like Ameen Rihani, the first published Arab American writer, said in 1921, “We are not of the East or the West; no boundaries exist in our breast; we are free.”
In the next installment of “Concerning Craft,” we will continue the prose part by introducing you to two writers whose short stories have appeared in earlier LPR issues: Madeleine Mysko and Glenn Moomau. And, as always, we would be pleased to post any comments you might have.