Taking Down the House: An Interview with Randa Jarrar




WRITER AND ACTIVIST Randa Jarrar recently followed up the publication of her wildly successful debut novel, A Map of Home (Other Press, 2008), with Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande, 2016), a collection of stories The Millions recognized as one of most anticipated books of 2016. Bitch Magazine wrote: “As a queer, Muslim, Palestinian-American and proud fat femme, Jarrar lives the complexities of intersectionality. Fortunately for her readers, she infuses those complexities into her characters.” Spanning geographies and cultures, blending wit and humor with tragedy and pain, the stories in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, “grapple with love, loss, displacement, and survival in a collection that moves seamlessly between realism and fable, history and the present.” These stories showcase the strength and talent of a writer of immeasurable gift and grace, who confronts the poignant and often brutal realities her characters face with sass and verve. 

Born in Chicago to an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father, Jarrar was raised in Kuwait and Egypt. At 13, after the 1991 Gulf War, she returned with her family to the United States. I first encountered Randa’s work in 2008, when a close friend placed a copy of A Map of Home in my hands and told me, “If there’s one book you should read right now, it’s this one here.” Years later, Randa would be my colleague at Fresno State, where we taught together for several years. She took time out of her schedule to talk about Miss Piggy’s nose, white supremacy, glittery bras, and why she still can’t stand white belly dancers. As if that weren’t enough, Randa also offered insight into what roles writers of color play on the public stage, as well as the need for these voices to rise up and challenge long-perceived notions of art, criticism, and the literary traditions we still cling to.

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ALEX ESPINOZA: Much like your debut novel, A Map of Home, the characters in your short story collection straddle multiple regions of the United States and the world. What comes first: character or geography? How do you manage to anchor your characters while simultaneously navigating such vast and varied terrains?

RANDA JARRAR: Character and geography — for me, because of the way I grew up, because I am a refugee — are intertwined. I don’t have a hometown. I don’t have a country of origin. I went through wars and to three different high schools. I was a frequent runaway as a teenager. I escaped one part of the US for another at the age of 20 because I was fleeing from a physically abusive partner. I’ve lived in four different places in Fresno alone, and I’ve lived here for six years. I’m a mover. I can take down a house and put it back up in less than a day. I pride myself in that, because I have never had the luxury or privilege to feel safe, or secure, or rooted, and I still am able to create homes for myself.

Because of this personal history, my characters are always moving. And that trajectory — always going forward, always being propelled to survive — makes for great fiction. Characters who act, who crave, who grieve, who plot, who scheme to survive: they’re the best characters we can make. Their movement pulls the story forward. I use humor and detail to anchor them, although anchor is maybe too grave of a word. Let’s say I use humor and detail to buoy them.

Humor brings levity to my characters’ lives. These are people who have also survived painful pasts or are in the present timeline of their stories trying to stay alive. They are deeply intelligent beings, and with intelligence comes humor. Humor is also a signal to other outsiders. Either the reader is in on the joke or they’re not. To be in on a joke as an outsider, you become, for a moment, an insider. This buoys both character and reader. Detail is essentially the same idea. If I describe a character in Egypt in the 1980s and a particular comic book character, or if I write an Arab woman with dark chin hair, or if I create a Muslim male character who keeps pigeons — I’m using these details as signals to other insiders. All to write characters who are alive, whose stories matter, and whose stories don’t usually find reflection in the larger world.

In 2014, you kicked up a bit of controversy with your essay “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers, which was printed in Salon. It elicited some very — shall we say — “colorful” responses by those who took offense to your claim that it is a blatant form of cultural appropriation. But, there were also some supportive and affirming responses by readers thanking you for your honesty. Lionel Shriver mentioned you and your essay specifically during her lecture at the Brisbane Writers Festival which, from what I understood, involved her donning a Mexican hat and talking about how, when a white person borrows from us, from people of color, we should just get over it and work through our sensitivity. Could you talk about the need you feel to be vocal about these issues? What do you want your readers and students to know about your efforts in this area?

Fuck white supremacy. Fuck white people who think they can steal from us with impunity. Lionel Shriver has a right to write whatever she wants, but at the end of the day, I have the right to tell her that she’s a racist; that a white writer’s “freedom” isn’t freedom if it’s at the cost of a person of color’s oppression; and that her books suck.

I loved the supportive messages I received, and continue to receive, for that essay. Even the hate mail is so creative and special. My face on the box of a douche bag; my hair photoshopped on Jabba the hut, in a belly dancing outfit. Get it? Because I’m fat?

One of the most hilarious things from the DNC convention was when Michelle Obama said that when “they” go low, we go high. I was thinking, high like stoned? High like drones? But yes, I understand that she meant “classy” or kind. But I’m done being either. Racists who read my essay went on my Amazon book reviews and called my first book a story about Arab trailer trash. If I’m going to be seen as trash either way, I’m okay with stinking up these racists’ lives with my presence, and by checking them for stealing our shit.

What cultural value, if any, do you assign to your writing?

My writing is drag, comedy, cinema, a weed flower, glittery bras, Miss Piggy’s nose, a plate of mulokhiyya, a sheesha packed with apple-flavored tobacco.

How has gender shaped your work?

Because my characters are all (but one) Arab and on the margins, their gender is shaped by their families, their societies, and their cultures, but are also doubly shaped by a larger world that fetishizes and dehumanizes them every minute of every day. My job is to nurture these characters and create a setting where their gender is expressed fully and without censorship or scapegoating.

The queer writer. The writer of color. The writer of difference. How can these “dissident” voices begin to move out of the margins and into the center? How do you see your writing as a tool to help facilitate this migration?

I don’t want us to move out of the margins; I want the people in the center, the people in power, to stop marginalizing us. If you’re a white reviews editor, only assign reviews of books by writers of color for the next two years. If you’re a white writer or reviewer or critic and the last five reviews you’ve written or been assigned or the last insta posts of book covers you’ve made are all by white writers, stop. If you’re being asked to be interviewed and you’re already famous or well known, give the publication or radio station you’re working with the names of five other people, people of color and women and queers, to be interviewed in your stead. Step out of the light.

I don’t really see my writing as a tool. I’m a writer and I create characters who are on the margins. But in the end, I’m not a white writer, and because of the subject matter of my books, or the repetitions of my sentences, which mimic Arabic speech, or because of whatever other reason, I remain on the margins until a better-known writer of color shines a light on my work, or a white writer chooses me to fill the Arab or Muslim gap in an anthology.

I want those of us on the margins to divest energy and importance in journals that tokenize us and ignore us.

There’s been a great deal of talk about the peculiarities of writing programs and students of color. Simply put: Most agree that, nationally, the MFA remains predominantly white. How do you mitigate this as a writer of color teaching in an MFA program? What role does race and difference play in your workshop?

When I was a student, my MFA program had all white professors except for one. Needless to say, the one professor of color was a lifeline. I didn’t feel safe when I was in the other professors’ classes, because I wasn’t. One classmate wrote a short story about a white woman, who tries to please her Arab boyfriend by getting henna; the boyfriend slowly turns into a camel and she has to put him in a zoo. This story was deemed not only acceptable, but awesome by my white professors. I never ever want my students to feel this lack of safety. But I can only do so much. MFA programs as we know them were mostly created or run by white people. I encourage my students to address inequalities on paper, but because of power structures, most students don’t feel safe doing this. The professor of color then becomes demonized because she can’t do everything, and her white colleagues don’t see the inequality or racism that she sees. In my own workshops, I teach stories mostly by people of color and queers. I try to make space for students of color by talking openly about white hegemony and supremacy. And at the end of every week, I take good care of myself. Because I cannot allow my job to kill me. 

What was one of the harshest things somebody said about your writing when you were a graduate student? What was one of the best things?

Probably that I reminded them of another Arab-American writer, whose work is nothing like mine. The best thing I was told was that I won a University of Michigan Hopwood Award. It was 10 thousand dollars. I bought my son and myself bicycles and took us on a trip to the Oaxaca coast and used the rest of the money to write without work for four months.

Novel versus short story: Do you favor one over the other? What challenges does one present that the other doesn’t? What were you able to do in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali that you couldn’t in A Map of Home?

I love both forms, but I respect the short story more. The novel is allowed to be baggy and sloppy. The short story is pristine, and every sentence counts. The short story form is the closest I can get to poetry without being a poet. A short story can take 10 years to revise. It can be written in an afternoon. Because of these vast differences, I find it sexy. In Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, I was able to span larger territory, both geographically and emotionally. These are 13 stories, each delving into a different character’s loss and survival. In A Map of Home, I was limited to one character’s voice, and inevitably, even the most sensitive and caring person thinks the book is a memoir.

What is your writing process like? If you had to pick one strange writing habit to tell us about, what would that be? 

I write whenever I feel like it, wherever I am. I think this is leftover from writing my first novel while raising my child alone. My strangest habit is a bit too sexually explicit to share, but I hope by just saying that, it gives you an idea of what it is.

Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?

I’m working on a novel about two Arab best friends walking around Berlin; a memoir about domestic violence, war, exile, and sexuality seen through the lens of the body; and a play called Lunch at Guantanamo.

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Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego León: A Novel.



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