Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Diana Abu-Jaber talks about Life Without A Recipe, food, family--and oh yes, CAKE.
"Abu-Jaber renders her relationships to both food and family in rich, joyful detail."—Booklist.
Diana Abu-Jaber’s new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe, has been described as “a book of love, death, and cake.” Ruth Reichl calls it “bold and luscious” and “indispensable to anyone trying to forge their own truer path.”
Oh yes, all of that is so true.
I first met Diana Abu-Jaber at this wonderful, now defunct bookstore on the Upper West Side. She was reading her debut, along with a friend of mine, Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, and I fell in love with Diana's reading. Of course I set out to make her my friend.\
Her most recent novel, Birds Of Paradise, won the 2012 Arab-American National Book Award. It was also named one of the top books of the year by National Public Radio, the Washington Post, and the Oregonian.
Her novel, Origin was named one of the best books of the year by the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. Her second novel, Crescent, won the PEN Center Award for Literary fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book award for Literary Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award.
The Language of Baklava, her first memoir, won the Northwest Booksellers’ Award, and has been translated into many languages.
I am absolutely thrilled to have her here, but it does feel like we need some cookies and wine, doesn't it, Diana?
I know the answer to this, but I want you to talk about it anyway—has your life always circled around food?
It’s so funny because I never really became conscious of my family’s food obsession until after I’d written my first food-obsessed book, Crescent. Then it was like, wait a second, what was that? Then my fiction editor actually proposed that I write a food memoir next, and I laughed, saying there was no way I had enough food-oriented family stories to fill a book. And of course, after I wrote the first draft I ended up having to cut it in half because it was too long.
My sharpest early memories are filled with food: lying back on the hood of the family car, eating hot shish kabobs that Dad brought from the grill; getting routed out of bed in the middle of the night for fried fish sandwiches on the edge of Lake Ontario. In general, I think whenever immigrants are involved, the connection to food gets kicked up a notch—it’s a link to the native land that’s richer and more immediately alive than other sorts of artifacts.
Writing every new novel is always different. What was different about this one and why?
Well, this is my second memoir and, once again, just like with the first one, I set out doggedly thinking I would write it in the same way I wrote my novels: decide on the main characters and their struggles and how they get resolved. And, just like with the first memoir, I was once again flummoxed, obliterated, and generally overwhelmed by the experience. I was raised to be a good girl, which means never, ever, ever hurting anyone’s feelings or upsetting anyone and always trying to see absolutely every side of the story, and so when writing each memoir, I go through all this bargaining and wrangling. I think: well, I’ll tell this much of what happened….but I won’t tell about that part! And then of course I’m tormented by the ghost of artistic omissions, so I end up putting it back in again.
This memoir was even more confounding to write than The Language of Baklava, though, because my first memoir really focused on childhood and it ended—conveniently enough—before things got too grown up and complicated. So Life Without A Recipe is my complicated grown up book –which meant I had to start owning up to poor decisions and escapades and the generally confusing mess of adulthood. Certainly, novels also require emotional honesty, but the memoir demands a kind of truth-telling that’s far more specific and literal than that of fiction. It also means dipping into other people’s stories to a certain extent--which is unavoidable if you’re going to write deeply about shared experiences—and which I have a horror of, because it feels so much like co-optation or colonization. Or like being a tattle-tale. There are memoirs where you sometimes think, wow I can’t believe she had the nerve to say that out loud. Well, this is that book for me.
What’s so wonderful about you is you have this engaging social media presence that is very much like your books—warm, smart, open-hearted—and so, so creative about food! So, here is a weird question—does cooking influence your writing and does your writing influence your cooking?
Oh Caroline, thank you! I do think Proust was right—that taste and scent are the best senses for retrieving memories—which makes food such a rich source for all kinds of artists. We each have our madeline cookies. An interviewer once asked me if I used food-writing to avoid “more important” issues. I was so offended! These sorts of assumptions overlook issues of race, class, and gender. If you’re stuck at home raising babies, for example, then food is your important subject. I suppose if you wear a suit and teleport into your office, you might be able to pretend there are more pressing concerns. But for most of us, even if we’re fortunate enough to have plenty to eat, food still represents one of the last and most vital ways we return to animal gratification and our basic shared humanity. It’s art, it’s culture, it’s history—so rich and multi-valenced and layered, I can’t really figure out how people manage to not write about it.
Haha, as for my writing influencing my cooking—for me, that probably happens only in unfortunate ways, like being a messy cook, bossing everyone in the kitchen, and trying to have every dish done ahead of time when company comes to dinner.
Talk to us about improvising your life?
So much of my childhood was built on a parental bulwark of advice, rules, and restrictions. I grew up in an extended family of immigrants, so the instructions were boundless; and then I decided to go get a Ph.D.—I didn’t want to stop school and I didn’t want to leave home. For years after graduation, I was constantly badgering my friends for advice. But that’s how I ended up getting married three times (and divorced twice) and a zillion dollars in debt and not writing enough and waiting almost too long to become a mother. Sometime after the second husband, I gradually, slowly, began taking over the reins and began making better mistakes—my own mistakes—which is much more satisfying than letting others make them for you. I guess that’s really what the book is about—the necessity of trial and error, of learning to let yourself try and fail grandly, to love your mistakes as much as your successes. When I tell my students that they need to learn to fail, they look at me like I’m insane. It takes a while to get that.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Surprise: my current obsession is…food-related! Several years ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Both my parents had it and my doctor said basta, I had it and I should take medications. I just really didn’t want to be tied to prescription drugs—which for someone so advice-driven—is perhaps somewhat surprising, but there it is. For a while I kind of ignored it, which didn’t work out so great. My blood pressure grew to humungous, alarming numbers. So a couple years ago, in something of a panic, I started to study alternative approaches to high blood pressure. I dove in, reading one nutrition book after another, and became absolutely fascinated. I learned so much about food from an entirely new perspective. Instead of simply cooking for pleasure, I began to think more seriously about what I prepared—and what I was feeding to my daughter and husband. I now walk every day, practice yoga, take supplements, and eat stuff like beet juice with ginger and turmeric. My readings are still high, but they’re much lower than they used to be.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Haha—how do readers get to hang out with me all the time?! Come find me on Twitter @dabujaber, Instagram, and Pinterest. I pin all sorts of fantastic cookies and pastries that I’m no longer allowed to eat. Come join me if your hobbies include procrastination, work avoidance, and sugar-sublimated pinning.