The Wannabe Literati.

Author Q&A: Randa Jarrar


Randa Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and moved back to the United States after the first Gulf War. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, and The Progressive. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and the Eastern Frontier and was chosen to take part in Beirut39, which celebrates the 39 most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40. She has an MFA from the University of Michigan, where A Map of Home won a Hopwood Award. The book also won an Arab-American Book Award, and was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes and Noble Review.
  • A book you wish you'd written:
 Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson

  • A book you think everyone should read at least once in their lifetime:
To the Lighthouse [by Virginia Woolf]

  • The book you'd like to read again for the first time:
Jazz, Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison

Q: I consider A Map of Home one of the best contemporary pieces of Arab-American fiction - and that's saying something, considering I don't find many that fall under that genre, or they don't get as much exposure. Did you encounter difficulties while writing and getting the book published?

A: Thank you so much for saying so. The book took 2 years to sell, and 2.5 years after that to be published. During those 4.5 years, I seriously doubted it would ever see the light of day. It wasn't until I actually held the advanced reader copy that I realized it would really be available to readers, and I wept. Every journey to publication must have its arduous moments, but mine felt truly torturous. I'm glad it's out and the wait is over.

Q: Nidali is one of the most memorable narrators I've read in my 20 years of existence (okay, a bit of an exaggeration - my earliest memory of a book I read was around the time I was seven), and while reading the book, I can't help but think that she's actually you, and this is actually your story. Was A Map of Home part memoir, part work of fiction? Which of your personal experiences did you incorporate in the book?

A: The novel is a fiction. Like all fiction writers, I used parts of myself to inform certain characters, but I had to do lots of research about the Middle East, the geography of Kuwait and Egypt, and the 1st Gulf War.

Q: One of the things that struck me most about Nidali is her potty mouth - and her no-nonsense approach to talking about sex (I still can't get over the bidet, haha). She's brought up in Kuwait then moved to Egypt, where I think the majority of society still hold conservative views when it comes to women. But not Nidali - she reminds me of Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Has anybody told you this, or am I crazy in comparing Nidali to Caulfield?

A: People have mentioned that in reviews. The funny thing is, I've never read The Catcher in the Rye. I thumbed through it in high school but it didn't appeal to me. I was more interested in poetry then, anyway, but I think I understand the connection. Nidali came to me like that; profane and rebellious. I'm not interested in being a good girl or writing about good girls. ;)

Q: I like how you decided to use the first-person voice instead of an unseen narrator because that made it easier for me to relate to her and how she's feeling. Was this how you initially wrote the book? Were there other revisions in the story, like a subplot that got cut or a part that got revised?

A: Nidali was always a 1st person voice. I can't imagine the book any other way. I'm glad it helps the reader relate to her, but that wasn't a conscious choice on my part. I just wanted to write in a voice that interested and entertained me!

Q: What's your favorite scene in the book?

A: Probably any of the scenes set in Alexandria. I love the romanticized version of that city, the version that lives in my mind.

Q: Are you working on a new book right now? Will we be reading what happens to Nidali after A Map of Home?

A: I don't think I'll ever write a sequel, because Nidali stopped narrating her story years ago. I *am* working on a new book about a young woman, she's about 19. She's just as sassy as Nidali was, but her journey is very different.

Read my review of A Map of Home here. Find out more on Randa Jarrar's blog. You can also follow her on Twitter. ☞ [buy the book]

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