“I grew up inside the shape of my father’s stories. A Jordanian immigrant, Dad regaled us with tales about himself, his country, and his family that both entertained us and instructed us about the place he’d come from and the way he saw the world. These stories exerted a powerful influence on my imagination, in terms of what I chose to write about, the style of my language, and the form my own stories took.”
Diana Abu-Jaber was born in Syracuse, New York to an American mother and a Jordanian father. When she was seven, her family moved to Jordan for two years, and she has lived between the US and Jordan ever since. The struggle to make sense of this sort of hybrid life, or “in-betweenness,” permeates Abu-Jaber’s fiction.
Her first novel, Arabian Jazz—considered by many to be the first mainstream Arab-American novel—won the 1994 Oregon Book Award. Jean Grant of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs wrote, “Abu-Jaber’s novel will probably do more to convince readers to abandon what media analyst Jack Shaheen calls America’s ‘abhorrence of the Arab’ than any number of speeches or publicity gambits.”
Her second novel, Crescent, inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, is set in contemporary Los Angeles and focuses on a multicultural love story between an Iraqi exile and an Iraqi-American chef. Lush and lyrical, suffused with the flavors and scents of Middle Eastern food, Crescent is a sensuous love story as well as a gripping tale of commitment and risk. It won the PEN Center Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award, and has been published in eight countries.
“Food is such a great human connector; it’s so intimate. And Middle Eastern food, when it’s done well, is amazing. I thought…let the food be a metaphor for their experience.”
Again using food as the fulcrum of her narrative, Abu-Jaber’s next book—the culinary memoir The Language of Baklava—chronicles her own experiences growing up in a food-obsessed Arab-American family during the 1970s and 80s. O, The Oprah Magazine called The Language of Baklava “a fascinating memoir of confused exile, great food, and home truths” that explores the rootlessness and constant pressures of assimilation. Each chapter of the memoir is developed around one of her father’s traditional Middle Eastern recipes. Entertainment Weekly described The Language of Baklava as “a feast of words and images from [Abu-Jaber’s] Arab-American experience…[she] recounts a textured immigrant tale filled with heartfelt dishes…rich, dense, and flavorful.”
Origin, a page-turner set in the author’s hometown of Syracuse, explores issues of memory and identity. Origin was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. Abu-Jaber’s next novel was also an award-winner: Birds of Paradise, which won the National Arab American Book Award and was named a top book pick by The Washington Post, NPR, The Chicago Tribune, and The Oregonian, is a deeply moving portrait of a family falling apart after their teenage daughter runs away.
Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family is Abu-Jaber’s most recent memoir, that Amy Driscoll of The Miami Herald called “about a lust for life, about the jumble of joy and fear and surprise and even pain.” Funny, touching, and smart, Life Without a Recipe is a celebration of improvisation, of unexpected detours, and of living life on one’s own terms. Ruth Reichl has called it “indispensable to anyone trying to forge their own truer path.”
Abu-Jaber’s latest is Silverworld, her first novel for children. Inspired by the stories she was told growing up, the story follows a Lebanese-American girl’s adventure into a looking-glass world to rescue her grandmother. Sami’s Lebanese grandmother, Sitti, has been ill for a while, slipping from reality and speaking in a language only Sami can understand. Her family thinks Sitti belongs in a nursing home, but Sami doesn’t believe she’s sick at all. Desperate to help, Sami casts a spell from her grandmother’s mysterious charm book and falls through an ancient mirror into a world unlike any other–Silverworld, an enchanted city where the tentative harmony between light and dark creatures called Flickers and Shadows is starting to fracture. To save Sitti and Silverworld, Sami must brave adventure, danger, and the toughest challenge of all: change. Kirkus called Silverworld “an exciting fantasy with familiar elements—magical creatures, high stakes, and courage—rich with Lebanese texture.”
Abu-Jaber received her MA from the University of Windsor, where she studied with Joyce Carol Oates. She later attended SUNY-Binghamton for her PhD. She has taught creative writing, film studies, and contemporary literature at the University of Nebraska, the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon, UCLA, Portland State University, and the University of Miami.
Her stories, editorials, and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, The Kenyon Review, Story, Good Housekeeping, Ms., Salon, Vogue, Gourmet, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. She is frequently featured on National Public Radio and wrote and produced an hour-long personal documentary for NPR entitled The Language of Peace.
Abu-Jaber and her husband Scott divide their time between Miami, Florida, and Portland, Oregon. For more information on Diana Abu-Jaber, please visit dianaabujaber.com.