When one’s growing up years revolve around good food and great storytelling, it’s guaranteed that one’s doing more than just having a good time; one’s making lovely memories. Diana Abu-Jaber, an author with six bestsellers to her credit, recalls of a childhood that revolved around tales and arts, and aromas and flavours. She grew up in New York State. “We lived close to my father’s brother and our two families spent all our time together. It was a wonderful place to be a kid and a wonderful upbringing, surrounded by family and food. Occasionally, dad would try to move us back to Jordan. We would sell our house and furniture and fly back to Jordan, but inevitably, he’d become restless after a few months, and each time we ended up moving back to the States.” Now, Diana divides her year between Oregon, where she teaches at the Portland State University, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Even in the midst of all the moving, Diana’s dad made sure that his childhood and their heritage travelled with them, all the time. “Dad was passionate about cooking — it was his medium to acquaint us with the culture. It was his way of ‘tasting’ home and feeling closer to it. Whenever he missed Jordan, which was all the time, he would cook one of his mother’s traditional dishes. So for me, cooking and eating became imbued with emotion, culture, and longing — all the ingredients that go into writing.” She poured all these feelings into her second novel, Crescent, about an Arab-American chef. “That opened the flood-gates for me!”
It’s not tough to miss a pattern in her writing. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz, was sort of fun and funny, much of it taken from her own life and family. Crescent was a celebration of Middle Eastern food mingled with a love story, against the backdrop of Los Angeles and the war in Iraq. Origin, her third novel, was a thriller about a fingerprint detective, set in snowy New York State. Birds of Paradise, her fourth novel, set in Miami looks at the unravelling of a family when their 14-year-old daughter runs away. “The Language of Baklava, my first memoir, is organised around my memories of growing up in a food-obsessed, multi-cultural family. Each chapter is based on one of my father’s dishes.”
It goes without saying that her inspiration to be a writer and beyond, is courtesy of her family. “My parents and my grandmother are my biggest inspirations. My mother and grandmother gave me books — we’d talk about travelling and family tales — covering cities and gossip! My father gave me my love of stories and storytelling. All three of them helped me to grow and nurture my imagination and curiosity, which is invaluable to a writer.”
Today, she writes as well teaches and shares how both are sort of opposite things. “When teaching, you’re trying to take things apart, to understand and explain to students what makes art tick. But when you’re writing, you have to try to forget all that, and hope that the magic of it — the inspiration and imagination — will take over and let you loose in the dream.” Does that not make writing a creative, yet lonely career choice? “I don’t mind the long immersion in solitude to do my work. I feel tremendously lucky and grateful to be a writer. But, I need lots of social time as well. I definitely inherited both extremes from my parents. My father would invite and invite and invite, then run away when all his company came over! My mum rarely invited, but she loved to socialise when people showed up. To me, meeting up with friends and cooking dinner for the family is just as important as sitting down to work. You’ve got to have the stream of life through your existence, which gives joy, richness, and meaning — and this, in turn, feeds writing and work.” On her writing desk, you will find her writing notebooks — she still writes all her books longhand in the first draft, good pens, and lots of wonderful books.
Three years ago, Diana was a speaker at the Sharjah International Book Festival and recalls having had an amazing time. Ask her to list the three most fascinating aspects of Arabic culture and she counter-questions, “How to narrow it down? Well, I am, of course, passionate about Middle Eastern food. But, I personally find the music, architecture, and calligraphy also astounding and captivating. And then there’s the Arabic language, which is its own remarkable tour de force.”
She gets amused when we ask her what other than writing helps her relax. “I’m impressed that you think of writing as relaxing! I’m crazy about yoga, and we’re very lucky to live near a beach, so I try to take regular walks. But, when you come right down to it, I think cooking is one of the best de-stressors I know. It’s meditative, active, and you get to eat your final product.” Well said. If not a writer, what would she be? “Something in the field of arts — a filmmaker perhaps or a painter. I adore films, the visual medium.” Until she explores other mediums, professionally, she is, of course, busy writing! Life Without A Recipe, her newest memoir, is about her attempt to create a writing life and the struggle to decide whether or not to start a family. In the pipeline is another novel titled Silver World, a young adult fantasy.