Saturday, September 6, 2008

Saturday Night on the Lower East Side: Randa Jarrar & "A Map of Home" at Bluestockings

After teaching our always enjoyable creative writing and short story classes for Borough of Manhattan Community College's weekend program on the Brooklyn College campus (thirty-nine years after we started our own undergrad career there), we were lucky enough to be able to brave Tropical Storm Hanna to see Randa Jarrar at our favorite radical feminist bookstore, Bluestockings, on the Lower East Side, and hear her read from her fabulous new novel, A Map of Home, of which Publishers Weekly said in a starred review:
Jarrar's sparkling debut about an audacious Muslim girl growing up in Kuwait, Egypt and Texas is intimate, perceptive and very, very funny. Nidali Ammar is born in Boston to a Greek-Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, and moves to Kuwait at a very young age, staying there until she's 13, when Iraq invades. A younger brother is born in Kuwait, rounding out a family of complex citizenships. During the occupation, the family flees to Alexandria in a wacky caravan, bribing soldiers along the way with whiskey and silk ties. But they don't stay long in Egypt, and after the war, Nidali's father finds work in Texas.

At first, Nidali is disappointed to learn that feeling rootless doesn't make her an outsider in the States, and soon it turns out the precocious and endearing Arab chick isn't very different from other American girls, a reality that only her father may find difficult to accept. Jarrar explores familiar adolescent ground—stifling parental expectations, precarious friendships, sensuality and first love—but her exhilarating voice and flawless timing make this a standout.

The MTA's weekend advisory told us the F train wouldn't be stopping at 14th Street, so we got off the L train at First Avenue and figured, since the rain had let up, that we could walk the sixteen blocks south to Bluestockings, which is on Allen Street (the continuation of First) near Stanton. Get there if you haven't for lots of cool books you will not find at any other New York bookstore, amazing radical T-shirts and other stuff, and good coffee and a place to hang out.

Unfortunately, it began to rain as we approached 12th Street and by St. Marks Place we were in a downpour. Despite our umbrella, we were kind of drenched when we got to Bluestockings, but luckily, Randa hadn't started reading yet.

We had never met her, but we have emailed after enjoying her work online, starting with her story "You Are a 14-Year-Old Arab Chick Who Has Just Moved to Texas," which won the Million Writers Award, StorySouth's prize for the best online fiction of the year, in 2004. Originally published online at Lee Klein's classic webzine Eyeshot, it's a terrific story, one we've taught to students at a Jewish high school and in a university class in immigrant lit.

(Intrusive and obnoxious local self-promoting aside: our story "Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn" was a finalist for the Million Writers Award the next year. It's in a Dumbo Books book. End of commercial interruption.)

Randa also writes the spicy blog Rockslinga. Here's her official bio:

Randa Jarrar was born in Chicago in 1978. She grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, and moved back to the U.S. at thirteen. She is a writer and translator whose honors include the Million Writers Award, the Avery Hopwood and Jule Hopwood Award and the Geoffrey James Gosling Prize. Her fiction has appeared in Ploughshares as well as in numerous journals and anthologies. Her translations from the Arabic have appeared in Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers; recently, she translated Hassan Daoud’s novel, The Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Lots of other friends and lit-lovers came in out of the rain earlier tonight to see Randa at Bluestockings. She began by thanking her sister and brother and her agent Jin Auh, who were in the front row, and also thanked her publisher, Other Press, for making things happen "beyond my wildest dreams." A Map of Home also just sold paperback rights to Penguin!

Reading an excerpt from near the novel's end, when Nidali, the protagonist, is preparing her statements of purpose for her college applications. Her father forces her to write numerous compositions which he wants to be celebrations of her Arab heritage. Randa then read some of Nidali's essays, which diverge wildly and hilariously from her baba's intentions and expectations. (Maud Newton has the whole excerpt here.) The voice is sharp, funny, refreshingly vulgar and energetic. Frankly, our mind wanders at most readings, but when hearing this -- and the demanded encore, the start of the novel that wryly details the almost-slapstick comic events following Nidali's birth. Randa is a terrific novelist.

If you don't trust us (and we don't trust us either), how about this? Not only did Randa's book get a starred review in PW, but it scored one as well from Kirkus Reviews:
A first-time novelist offers a fictional take on her own complex heritage.

Nidali’s Baba is Palestinian. Her Mama is half-Greek and half-Egyptian. In addition to this mixed-up background, Nidali has an American passport and a precociously peripatetic personal history. Born in Boston, Nidali grows up in Kuwait, but her family flees to Egypt during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. By the time she lands in Texas, Nidali has become a seasoned traveler, and, wherever she goes, she carries with her a keen awareness of her inescapable difference. Nidali’s story is shaped by the harsh realities of ethnic division, political uncertainty and war, but it is also, essentially, a typical coming-of-age story. Jarrar is a funny, incisive writer, and she’s positively heroic in her refusal to employ easy sentimentality or cheap pathos. Nidali is a misfit living through calamitous times, but Jarrar understands that all adolescents feel like misfits living through calamitous times. The political is always personal for Nidali. For her, bombs dropping on Kuwait mean that nobody remembers her 13th birthday. As her family drives across Iraq on their way to Egypt, she writes a letter to Saddam Hussein complaining that his invasion has separated her from her boyfriend. And, ultimately, international crises have less impact on Nidali’s life than ongoing battles between her and her Baba on subjects like curfew and college. . .A coming-of-age story that’s both singular and universal—an outstanding debut.

If these two starred reviews aren't enough, this week's People Magazine gives A Map of Home four stars.

We're know you'll enjoy Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home. And you should feel guilty if you don't.

1 comment:

rockslinga said...

Thanks so much for the love on the blog, and for coming out in the downpour!!! It was so great to finally meet you.