“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 U.S. and Jordan ever since. Life was a constant juggling act, acting Arab at home but American in the street. 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 and prompted Jean Grant of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs to say, “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, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, is set in contemporary Los Angeles and focuses on a multi-cultural love story between an Iraqi exile and an Iraqi-American chef. Lush and lyrical, suffused with the flavors and scents of Middle Eastern food, spiced with history and fable, 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, the American Book Award, and has been published in eight countries to date.
“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 cuisine 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 1970’s and 80’s. Each chapter is developed around one of her father’s traditional Middle Eastern recipes. Entertainment Weeklydescribed The Language of Baklava as being “as delectable for its stories as for its accompanying recipes…Diana Abu-Jaber concocts a feast of words and images from her 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 childhood hometown of Syracuse, explores issues of memory and identity. Origin was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. Her 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, Chicago Tribune, and the Oregonian, is a deeply moving portrait of a family falling apart after their teenage daughter runs away.
Abu-Jaber received her MA from the University of Windsor, where she studied with Joyce Carol Oates. She later attended SUNY-Binghamton for her Ph.D. She has taught creative writing, film studies, and contemporary literature at a number of universities, including 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 book, film and food reviews have appeared in literary publications as well as in the popular press, including Ploughshares, North American Review, Kenyon Review, Story, Good Housekeeping, Ms., Salon, Vogue, Gourmet, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post and 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. Her forthcoming memoir is entitled Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family.