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On In the Language of Miracles–An Interview with Rajia Hassib

November 27, 2015

On In the Language of Miracles–An Interview with Rajia Hassib

Interviewed by Rob Wilson Engle

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About Rob Wilson Engle

Rob Wilson Engle splits his time between his native home of southwestern Pennsylvania and his current home of southwestern West Virginia. Rob is an undergraduate at Marshall University pursuing degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Creative Writing. His poetry has been published in Hawai’i Pacific Review and is forthcoming in Profane, The Altar Collective, and Texas Poetry Review.

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Rajia HassibRajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was twenty-three. Moving from New York to New Jersey to California and finally settling in West Virginia, Hassib has become a keen observer of our country and culture. Her debut novel, In the Language of Miracles (Viking, 2015), paints a tender portrait of an Egyptian-American family’s struggle to move on in the wake of tragedy. Hassib’s acute exploration of grief, identity, and faith resonates beyond this fictional family, revealing what it means to be an outsider in a place one calls home.

Hassib received her BA and MA in English from Marshall University. Her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, Steam Ticket, Bone Parade, and Border Crossing and her debut novel was recently reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I had the chance speak with Hassib when she came to Marshall as a featured reader for the annual Writers Harvest as part of the A. E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series.

 

1. Your novel was recently reviewed in The New York Times. Did you ever expect your book to take off like it has?

RH: No. I never even expected it to get published. My mentor Dr. Jane Hill was the one who insisted it was going to get published, and Marie Manilla after that. They both kept saying, ‘It’s going to be published. It’s going to do well,’ and stuff like that. I just thought they were being nice.

2. What inspired you to write In the Language of Miracles?

RH: I wanted to be a writer for my entire life, but this particular story goes back to the fact that I moved to the United States in 1998 and saw the shift that happened with the perception of Muslims after 9/11. For a long time afterwards, I kept hearing that Muslims, especially American Muslims, should be doing more to apologize for what happened, to distance themselves from the terrorists and fundamentalists, and to show the US where their loyalties lied.

Then in 2010, something happened that brought all of this back into the foreground: The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy. At the time, a group of Muslim investors wanted to build a mosque in Manhattan, very close to Ground Zero, that was supposed to promote interfaith dialogue. They wanted to open this center as a place to have meetings and conventions, and it would be open to people of all faiths, religions, and ethnicities. Basically, it was a way for Muslims to step out there, make themselves open to the public, and have people get to know them. That sounded like what we’d been asked to do for a long time, right? To tell people where American Muslims stood and what they believe in. But people hated the idea. There were demonstrations, and people saying, ‘We’re never going to allow this. We don’t want you in Manhattan. We don’t want you at Ground Zero. You’re being disrespectful to the memory of all those who died.’

That got me thinking about the idea of apology—how can you apologize for something that you didn’t personally do, but something that society identifies you with? Someone sees you and thinks of what another person did, then blames you for the actions of that person. So, I wanted to write something about that, and about what it feels like living as a Muslim in the United States after 9/11, but I didn’t want to write about politics. Instead, I decided to create a microcosm for that. I wrote about just one Egyptian-American family whose son commits a crime that has just one victim, an American girl. I decided to take the idea from there and examine how their lives would look after the fact. I wasn’t interested in the actual crime he committed, but rather how his family has to survive through what comes afterwards.

3. Like your characters Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy, you are an immigrant. How did your experience of coming to the United States translate into building these characters?

RH: Some of my personal experiences helped me, of course, but I think the main thing was examining the struggle between your identity as someone who comes from another country and the identity that you’re developing as you’re living in your adopted land. The idea that immigrants choose to comes here, right? It’s a choice, so there is an allure to this particular culture, to this particular country. There is this desire to fit in but you don’t realize there are barriers to doing so, even for someone like me, who had a very Westernized upbringing. In my experience, it wasn’t like I was coming to a totally different culture from what I was used to. But that particular part, the idea of struggling to fit in and negotiating the two identities—the one that you knew your whole life and the one you’re developing here—that comes from my own life.

4. Speaking of identity, in this novel it was interesting to see the dynamic between the three generations of the Al-Menshawy family and how that related to their faith. There was Ehsan, the grandmother from Egypt, who was strongly founded upon Islam and the hope and structure that it brought to her life. Then there is Samir and Nagla, first generation Egyptian-Americans, who didn’t seem interested in maintaining their faith. Finally, there is Khaled and Fatima, second generation Egyptian-Americans, who are both working out what their faith meant to them during the course of the novel. Why did you choose to craft the dynamic in that way?

RH: I think the grandmother represents a typical grandparent for any immigrant family. She didn’t choose to come to the US; she’s just visiting. And she’s older, so it makes sense that she would be the one who holds on the most to these values, rituals, and superstitions. A lot of the stuff that she does is really more superstition than religion. I thought it was just a realistic representation and it also helped me to negotiate the themes of identity, because I wanted someone who would represent the old country that they had left.

I had imagined Samir and Nagla as more secular in general. I didn’t think that religion would play a huge part in their lives, and that’s somewhat typical for their generation if you look at Egypt’s history.

The kids are interesting because you’d expect them to be totally Americanized, totally away from the old culture. But when I got the grandmother there and had her interact with them, start developing those relationships, I saw how she would have an influence on them. I like that because the kids are not necessarily struggling with the same identity issue as the parents. Because they are second-generation, the kids would be more comfortable in their own skin being Americans. They know they’re Americans; they were born and raised here. I think, paradoxically, that opens them up a little bit more to the older culture. In their minds, it’s not like, Okay we have to reject everything that’s Egyptian in order to fit in, because they already see themselves as fitting in.

5. Could you talk about your process for writing In the Language of Miracles?

RH: The very first time I thought of this book was a couple of months before I started my master’s degree at Marshall. I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree and I was studying with Dr. Jane Hill, writing short stories in an independent study with her. I pitched the very basic idea for In the Language of Miracles as a possible short story. I told her I wanted to write a story about a son who commits this crime, and there’s a memorial service for his victim, and whether or not his family will attend. Dr. Hill said, ‘That’s great, but that’s a novel, not a short story.’ That immediately opened up the possibilities in my head. Right after I graduated, I started my master’s and knew I would be writing a creative thesis because I had a creative writing emphasis. I decided I was going to write this novel for my thesis, partly because I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Marie Manilla, who is the most generous and wonderful West Virginia writer. I got to work with her and meet once a week for an entire year. Because I got that chance, I knew I had to make the most out of it.

I ended up beginning to write the novel a couple of month into my master’s degree. It took me a year of work with Marie to have a presentable draft and I revised it afterwards. Upon the completion of my master’s degree, I had a version of the novel. Then after I graduated I took six months off to work on final revisions.

6. West Virginia is somewhere that has a really strong sense of identity and place. Those two things seem to be imported to you as well. So what is it like living as a Muslim woman somewhere that has such a sense of community?

RH: My experience has been extremely positive. When we first moved here, we were coming from Los Angeles and people kept telling us, ‘Oh, you’re going to West Virginia and you’re not going to fit in. People are going to be mean to you.’ But it never happened. People here have been very welcoming. Mainly, they’ve been somewhat curious. Some of the people I’ve met have never even met an Egyptian before, but they were all very kind and very nice. I actually made friends here, and I hadn’t made close friends in the eight or nine years I had spent in the US before that. It’s been a positive experience, positive enough for us to decide to stay here.

7. In regards to the curiosity people here have toward you, in my previous conversations with Muslims, they say there’s a lot pressure, especially in place where there’s not a lot of Muslims, that at any given moment they are the spokesperson for their entire religion and culture. Did you feel that same pressure writing this book?

RH: I did. I do agree that there is this pressure. When someone who has never met a Muslim before talks to me that’s exactly how it feels. If I give then the wrong impression or say something that they don’t approve of, that’s going to be their impression of the entire religion.

So I did feel some of that pressure writing the book. There’s also the pressure of knowing that I’m writing about an Egyptian Muslim family that is, by all means, not perfect in any way. Part of me was afraid I would offend other Muslims and another part of me was afraid that I’d give the wrong impression. At the end of the day, what helped me was to just remember that it’s fiction. It’s a story and there’s craft involved, and the craft dictates certain rules. I had to follow these rules in terms of character development and plot and just hope that people who read it will be mature enough to differentiate between what a particular character is doing and what the majority of Muslims do.

8. In your experience, is there a pressure to defend your culture common among Arab-Americans? Because, in the novel, when Samir was looking for housing in New York, he faced the internal conflict of accepting or rejecting his community with the choice between living in Bay Ridge, close to the Arab community, or in Flatbush, away from the Arab community, in order to kind of carve out his own American identity. So is that something you’ve experienced or seen?

RH: Not necessarily with the living arrangement, but in terms of where you fit in with the similar community is something I’ve often seen. For immigrants in general, there is a spectrum. You see people who come in and huddle together, who will only socialize with people who have the same background and culture. It’s almost like you’ve taken a tiny community from Egypt and planted it here. Then you see the immigrants who are more willing to integrate with society, or you see the people who really, really want to integrate to the extent that they don’t want anything to do with people who share their background.

There’s a spectrum, and I thought it was important to show where the Al-Menshawy family stood on that in terms of their ambition, in terms of their willingness to integrate, and in terms of how they see themselves. That’s why I addressed that. It’s not something I’ve personally experienced, but it’s something that I’ve witnessed.

9. Central to the theme of identity is the monarch butterfly, a species that has a two-way migration pattern wherein the new generations of butterflies are able to instinctually find their way back to the homelands of their parents and grandparents. The novel concludes with Khaled returning to a ‘home’ he’s really been. What is it about place that is so strongly tied to identity and how was that informed by the butterflies?

RH: The reference to the monarchs developed out of my desire to pay tribute to Vladimir Nabokov because he’s a Russian-American writer who originally wrote in Russian. English was not his native tongue but he became one of the most respected writers in the English language. He was my beacon of hope. Not that I would ever been as good as he is, but it gave me hope that it has been done before. He and Conrad did it, and others, too. When I was developing Khaled character, I wanted to give him specific interests. I wanted him to be kind of nerdy. So I got him into entomology and butterflies as my own personal tribute to Nabokov, who loved butterflies. He wrote papers and did respected scholarship in entomology.

I started researching and came across the monarch migration, which was perfect. I hadn’t known that butterflies migrated nor the idea that butterflies that come back are different from the ones that actually start the journey. That just fit the theme of immigration, home, and place so well. When I was writing the novel, I gave that interest to Khaled then began to realize that that was one of his main struggles because it is a struggle of identity tied to a certain place.

Toward the end of the novel when he goes back to Egypt and pretty much mirrors the butterfly migration, that was my commentary on the attachment that even second- and third-generation immigrants can still feel towards their land of origin if they have the same kind of relationship that Khaled had with his grandmother. In his particular case, his grandmother’s influence made this connection, this yearning, possible. It also mirrors the yearning that someone like me, a first-generation immigrant, feels even after I consider myself a totally integrated American. There’s always a yearning that I will feel to the place I live in as a child.

10. What is Islam’s view of miracles?

RH: I could talk for a very long time about this. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a history of miracles that we accept happened. We believe that Jesus raised the dead. We believe that Moses split the sea. Interestingly, we don’t necessarily believe that Muhammad had any specific miracles, at least not similar to those—there are two minor exceptions, but nothing as grand a splitting the sea, for sure. We refer the the Quran, the book itself, as his miracle for linguistics reasons, and for the fact that Muhammad didn’t even know how to read and write; he was illiterate.

The religion acknowledges that God can interfere and essentially cause a miracle to happen. That becomes problematic in my view when people start expecting it as a solution for all their problems. I think there’s a huge difference between the story of Moses as a means of teaching us certain things and expecting that God, now, would interfere to solve, for example, the problem of extremism, which is the biggest plague facing Islam at the moment.

The religion acknowledges that miracles have happened before. I’m not qualified to speak for the entire religion, but my personal understanding is that the time of these huge miracles has passed. Perhaps there are still minor miracles that anyone who believes in God could experience. Many, many things can be classified under miracles, even the idea of faith itself—the connection that people will feel towards God if they are true believers in any religion. But I think problem is the that culture, especially back in Egypt, often still expects those miracles as a solution for problems and that hinders people from actually taking steps to solve the problems themselves.

The miracles, in my mind, relate to Khaled in particular. If you think of the memorial service scene at the end, it’s the expectation of divine intervention. The expectation that something will happen to solve this huge problem that he’s in. Then the realization that, actually, nothing will. I think the miracle is that people can actually know that, move past that, and still have faith, and still believe in whatever religion. They can realize that maybe that’s not the purpose of a religion—that I can be a true believer without expecting something in return.

11. What is Islam’s view of miracles?

RH: I could talk for a very long time about this. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a history of miracles that we accept happened. We believe that Jesus raised the dead. We believe that Moses split the sea. Interestingly, we don’t necessarily believe that Muhammad had any specific miracles, at least not similar to those—there are two minor exceptions, but nothing as grand a splitting the sea, for sure. We refer the the Quran, the book itself, as his miracle for linguistics reasons, and for the fact that Muhammad didn’t even know how to read and write; he was illiterate.

The religion acknowledges that God can interfere and essentially cause a miracle to happen. That becomes problematic in my view when people start expecting it as a solution for all their problems. I think there’s a huge difference between the story of Moses as a means of teaching us certain things and expecting that God, now, would interfere to solve, for example, the problem of extremism, which is the biggest plague facing Islam at the moment.

The religion acknowledges that miracles have happened before. I’m not qualified to speak for the entire religion, but my personal understanding is that the time of these huge miracles has passed. Perhaps there are still minor miracles that anyone who believes in God could experience. Many, many things can be classified under miracles, even the idea of faith itself—the connection that people will feel towards God if they are true believers in any religion. But I think problem is the that culture, especially back in Egypt, often still expects those miracles as a solution for problems and that hinders people from actually taking steps to solve the problems themselves.

The miracles, in my mind, relate to Khaled in particular. If you think of the memorial service scene at the end, it’s the expectation of divine intervention. The expectation that something will happen to solve this huge problem that he’s in. Then the realization that, actually, nothing will. I think the miracle is that people can actually know that, move past that, and still have faith, and still believe in whatever religion. They can realize that maybe that’s not the purpose of a religion—that I can be a true believer without expecting something in return.

12. What did you personally discover through writing this novel?

RH: A lot of things. I think that’s my favorite part about writing. You start out writing this story then you end up with a totally different story than the one that you had first imagined. I think a lot of the themes about belief and religion that I’ve ended up including in the novel were things that I hadn’t thought about that deeply before. Writing the novel led me to these personal, tiny moment of epiphany in terms of my perception of the role of religion in peoples’ lives.

I also learned a lot about the process of writing itself. Again, it’s a huge thing to take away from that experience because I had never written a novel before. It gives me confidence that I’ve done it once and hopefully I can do it again.