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Remade in America

Parkville Writer's Short Story Collection Explores Adult Lives Of Immigrants' Children

Christopher Myers
HEIRESS: Susan Muaddi Darraj considers the rich complications of second-gen life in her new book THE INHERITANCE OF EXILE.

By Joab Jackson | Posted 8/22/2007

Nadia al-Jundi, a young, single Arab-American woman living in South Philadelphia, meets a handsome Arabic doctor, George Haddad. The two get along swimmingly and even talk of marriage. While on their way to a ski trip, however, George blows through a stop sign and the car gets hit from the side. Nadia ends up in the hospital and, as a result of the accident, unable to bear children.

At first, Nadia, deeply in love with George, doesn't think about how the accident will affect their relationship. It is her mother, Siham, who points out the harsh truth: George will not marry Nadia now--even though he caused that accident, even though he loves her, even though he has a big heart.

Why? He's an only son, and his family will expect him to carry on the family name, Siham points out. Nadia angrily responds that they don't even know his family. They don't need to, her mother responds. They both know how Arabic culture values the family lineage. "Maybe George would not care, but his parents will care. They will want a child who is their own blood, of their own genes. And they will force George--pull him away from you," Siham says. And while Nadia rages against this argument, deep down, she understands it maybe a little too well.

The Inheritance of Exile is a group of interconnected short stories from Parkville author and erstwhile City Paper contributor Susan Muaddi Darraj that follows four Arabic-American women. The individual stories are dedicated to their youthful days in the 1980s, their adult lives today, as well as the challenges their parents experienced understanding America.

"I'm sure a part of [the subject matter] came from the fact that my parents are immigrants and there are a lot of things that you deal with when your parents are immigrants," Muaddi Darraj admits over coffee one early Saturday morning at the Daily Grind. She has plenty of energy to answer questions, despite having had only a few hours sleep and being about eight months pregnant.

The book, Muaddi Darraj's first, has been a long time in coming. It grew from a short story she wrote in 2001, and that later ran in the New York Stories literary magazine. "I just really liked the character of Nadia," she says. "She really stuck with me, so I wanted to explore her some more. She seemed to have a good relationship with her mother, but there is a disconnect. Her mother puts up walls that Nadia can't reach."

Through successive stories, she develops this world in which Nadia lives, looking at situations though the eyes of her family and friends as well. The second story in the book flashes back to the early 1970s when the newly married Siham discovers that her husband was previously married. It was a marriage he arranged to gain U.S. citizenship, which took place long before he met Nadia during a trip back to Palestine. With wounded pride but firm resolution, Siham takes the money she made from hand-woven baskets sold in the gift shop below their apartment to pay off the remainder of what her husband owed this woman for the arrangement.

While a few of the stories found homes in small literary journals, in 2003 Muaddi Darraj decided to link them together into a novel. Like Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, The Inheritance of Exile can be read as a collection of individual stories or as a novel.

The book is divided into four sections, one for Nadia and one each for three of her friends. Aliyah, the writer, angers her otherwise supportive father by detailing an embarrassing family secret in a short story she publishes. Hanan marries an up-and-coming American cultural studies professor, much to the chagrin of her mother, whose suspicion turns out to be well-placed. And finally there is Reema, who is delighted with a new boyfriend until she realizes he sees her as little more than the Arabian queen in the Rudolf Valentino movies of his mind.

Like Aliyah, Muaddi Darraj says her family, living in Philadelphia, encouraged her early enthusiasm for writing. Her father bought her a Smith Corona typewriter after she'd shown an inclination for writing at a young age. She'd type up stories and collect them in homemade books.

The writing fervor brought her to Rutgers University at Camden, N.J., where in a series of creative writing courses, she found she didn't cotton to poetry but liked short stories just fine. Muaddi Darraj says her focus sharpened when came across Ahdaf Soueif's 1999 novel In the Eye of the Sun, about an Egyptian woman who travels to London to get a doctorate and returns home only to find out how the trip changed her perception of home. The book resonated for Muaddi Darraj--she had experienced many of the same cultural issues Soueif describes, and she thought to herself, This is the kind of stuff I can write about.

Exile crackles with the tension of characters trying to reconcile Arab and American cultures. The characters struggle to draw the best traits from each and try to make sense of the more quizzical ones. Bon Jovi dance moves, cheese-steak sandwiches, and Rob Lowe posters intertwine with Egyptian soap operas, malfoof, and fortunes told through just-emptied coffee cups.

"She is interested in questions of belonging and identity," says Lisa Zeidner, Muaddi Darraj's adviser at Rutgers, about her former student's new book over the phone. "In Susan's work, the idea of being a `native' becomes particularly gnarled and complex. What makes the collection particularly strong is the range of characters for whom she can feel deep empathy--young, old, Palestinian, American."

In one story, an 8-year old Hanan asks her mother not to come her school's parents' day--she is still at the age where she is mortified by her mother's Arabic accent. The mother understands, though is hurt nonetheless. And that evening, the hurt only deepens. Over the dinner table, Hanan bemoans her name, oblivious to the damage she has already caused. "Why can't I be Laura? Or Miranda?" she asks. "All the kids laugh at my name and the teachers never say it right."

Muaddi Darraj pays particular attention to the tensions between the parents, who still have fresh memories of the old country, and their offspring, who are growing up in America. Her own parents were both born in Palestine; they moved to America in 1967.

"When you're an immigrant and you're raising kids in this county, you are so idealistic about what you want from them," Muaddi Darraj says. "You've come all this way to this other country to start this new life so you want to give them the best of what you can give them. But that is hard to do because you don't know the environment in which you are placing your kids--actually your kids know it better than you do. And that is the irony of the whole thing."

Still, the work is important. "As an immigrant, you are the biggest resource a child has for that culture," she continues. "You're the living representative, the envoy, the ambassador for that culture. You have to be really careful about what you encourage them to understand, explore, and what you make them aware of."

In many ways, Exile shows that while individuals can break out of cultural norms to forge their own values, family has deeper ties, though in Arab-American culture, the two concepts are very closely related.

"There is always a sense of loyalty to the families," Muaddi Darraj says. When something happens to one member of the family, "everybody jumps in and does what needs to be done. That's a beautiful thing." In fact, this is the reason she is so tired this morning. Late into the previous night she was at the hospital with her niece, who was having a baby.

Right now, Muaddi Darraj is writing her second book, which she works on in the dawning hours of the day. By day, she teaches at Harford Community College and is also senior editor for the literary magazine Baltimore Review. She expects to have her book finished by early next year, though by the time you read this, she will have had her second child, so the book may be put on hold for a month or two.

Is it harder to have a baby or raise a book? "It's harder to write a book," Muaddi Darraj says without much deliberation, before pausing. "I don't know. Maybe there is a parallel between raising a baby and writing a book. With writing a book, you're always thinking about it. It's always in the back of mind. With having a daughter, I'm always thinking about her as well. If she's not with me, I'm wondering where she is--what is she doing, is she OK? Both are definitely things that are always on your mind."

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