"Halaby's writing carries the flavor of
the lands she writes of, west of the Jordan—rich and imbued
—Gelareh Asayesh, author of Saffron
Sky: A Life between Iran and America
"Laila Halaby is a deeply gifted writer.
She describes complicated, culture-spanning lives in a poetic
prose that is clean and compelling. There is no glossing over
pain here, but the power of telling—richly human voices
and the redemption of honesty."
—Naomi Shihab Nye,
author of 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East
1. What inspired you to write a novel about the experiences
of young women coming of age in Palestine and America?
Mostly because these were the people in my world, but also
because I was intrigued by the perception, or misperception, of
Arab women versus the reality of Arab women. So often I would
hear words like "submissive," and yet the Arab women
I knew were among the strongest women I'd met. I am also
interested in the effect that occupation, and exile, whether self-imposed
or not, has on an otherwise intact family set-up.
2. What inspired you to become a writer?
Writing is something that I've always done—I
guess it's how I process life—and I've always
loved stories. Something I find particularly interesting is how
people communicate with one another and how that communication
is perceived—how much miscommunication there actually is,
and the effects of those misfires.
3. Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced
I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country at a
fairly early stage and thinking, "Yes, writing can change
someone's mind or understanding of a situation." That
was very important. I admire Arundhati Roy tremendously, for her
courage, perception, and incredible sense of the beauty and agony
of life. From Sandra Cisneros and Sherman Alexie I have learned
that you can create nontraditional American characters without
apologies and explanations. From Joe Bolton, I learned that you
can tell a lyrical story in the space of a poem.
4. What are your writing habits? Do you have a specific
routine? How do you stay disciplined?
My ideal writing scenario is three or four hours in the morning,
first to write fervently, then reread, then edit, then take a
walk to mull it all over, read it one more time, and put it away
for the day. When I am writing a scene, or something that is functional,
I can do it directly on the computer, but if it is poetic, or
character building, or part of the mulling, I have to do it longhand.
5. What have your four main characters learned by the
end of the novel? How have they grown throughout the course of
Each one has had to deal with a blow to her security blanket,
which has in turn launched her into adulthood or at least into
accepting responsibility, or ownership, for where she is in life.
Each one has learned about herself and her history and has had
to come to terms with it a bit more.
6. If we could continue to follow Khadija, Soraya, Hala,
and Mawal, what would you envision their lives to be like after
the novel ends?
I'm afraid that for none of the four would it be as
easy as it is in this book. The world has changed, as have they
(as have I!). I think Soraya will have a stable period and then
run into difficulties. Hala will be okay as long as she focuses
on her schoolwork.
7. Which character is your personal favorite? As the
author, is it possible to choose?
I don't think I favor one character over the others,
though I have certainly spent different times doting on one or
worrying about another. They each have such a handful to deal
with and have to react to circumstances beyond their control rather
than creating the circumstances themselves. I think of Soraya
as one of those girls who you run into every so often who is grown
in a way that girls generally are not, who is aware of herself
as a sexual being. I think that this is the reason for her relationship
with her uncle. Obviously, he is hugely guilty in the whole mess,
but I don't think it is as simple as an older man taking
advantage of a young girl. I don't think Soraya tries to
rebel, I think she is just different fundamentally, straight from
the factory. I see Mawal as content with her life that is so much
safer than the lives of her cousins. I think it is very important
to understand that in spite of occupation, in spite of all the
problems, she is secure in herself and her family and her life.
She sees her family functioning in a traditional, predictable
way; she will not deviate from that because there is no reason
to. Even after her father dies and she and her mother are forced
to move in with her grandmother, she is accepting and can come
to terms with it. Khadija is stuck between what is expected of
her by her family's world, and by her schoolmates'
world. Unlike Soraya, however, she is not proud of who she is,
cannot relate on a fundamental level, and is therefore alienated.
Finally, Hala, I think, has the most ability to choose her life,
but this is also by default—were her mother alive, perhaps
that wouldn't be the case. Like Soraya and Khadija, Hala
is something of an "other," and she too comes to terms
with that over the course of the book. There was a time in the
evolution of this book, that it was more focused on Hala's
experience—I think that may yet come in the next book!