What Can We Steal From Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava?

Title of Work and its Form:  The Language of Baklava, creative nonfiction
Author: Diana Abu-Jaber (on Twitter @dabujaber)
Date of Work: 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was released in hardcover and paperback.  You can purchase it online or at your favorite local bookstore.  If you live in Oswego, New York, consider buying the book from The River’s End.

Bonuses: Here is a very sweet interview in which Ms. Abu-Jaber discusses cooking for children.  Here is a 2004 interview that is very interesting in spite of its age.  Here is a Washington Post review of her most recent novel, Birds of Paradise.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Ms. Abu-Jaber’s book is a particularly pure example of one of the primary uses of literature.  As you read The Language of Baklava, you learn all about Jordanian culture and how a second-generation Jordanian American reconciles the two traditions in her own life.  More importantly, this kind of literature teaches us that we’re all pretty much the same, no matter where we grew up.  Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the story of her childhood in a chronological manner, from the time she was approximately six through her adulthood.  Ms. Abu-Jaber spends a great deal of time introducing you to her close relatives and extended family and even describes her own experience living in Jordan.  The book is not jam-packed with extreme experiences or heartbreaking trauma.  Instead, Ms. Abu-Jaber weaves a comforting tapestry of memory and emotion that truly add up to a meaningful expression of her identity.

The book and its author hold a special place in my heart.  Ms. Abu-Jaber attended Oswego State University…just like I did!  (Am I the only one who admires the successful writers in whose footsteps I hope to follow?)  When I was in grad school, The Language of Baklava was chosen as the Ohio State freshman book, so I had the pleasure of leading a brief discussion with some randomly chosen young people who read the book.  While I got the occasional thrill out of recognizing some of the places described in Baklava, you certainly don’t need to know the Central New York area in order to enjoy the book.

Ms. Abu-Jaber begins the book in a felicitous manner.  When she was a small child, Ms. Abu-Jaber sat in the audience of The Baron Daemon Show, a local children’s show that aired on Channel 9 in Syracuse.  (I happen to have grown up in the Syracuse area, but slightly later than Ms. Abu-Jaber did.)  These kinds of programs once dominated Saturday mornings across the country.  A local host—a vampire, a clown, a railroad conductor—would entertain a live studio audience of children and kids across the viewing area would join in on the fun from their living rooms.  The hosts, of course, would interact with the children in the studio.  Well, Baron Daemon (portayed by newsman Mike Price) greeted the children in the audience.  Immediately deciding the proper pronunciation of the name was easy for the host when the children were named Bobby Smith or Debbie Anderson.  Then the Baron got to Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family: “Farouq, Ibtissam, Jaipur, Matussem.”  Upon seeing “Diana” on the name tag, the Baron must have felt relief.  Then he “crashed” into Ms. Abu-Jaber’s last name.  Not surprisingly, the Baron chose to speak to the author: “Now Diana, tell me, what kind of a last name is that?”  Ms. Abu-Jaber laughed as she shouted, “English, you silly!”  The one-page anecdote establishes the tone of the book.  Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family were and are both American and something else.  The host of the show certainly didn’t mean any offense in being unable to work through the Jordanian names, but the incident, especially in retrospect, is a reminder that cultural identity is not as simple a thing as we might think.

Here is the Baron in action, in case you’re curious:

So the opening scene introduces the theme in an entertaining manner.  Immediately thereafter, Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the scene of a family picnic in a Central New York park.  The reader meets all of the characters and learns about the food, the family conflicts (both internal and external) and allows Ms. Abu-Jaber to insert the first of several recipes that form the backbone of the book’s structure.  In the space of a few pages, the author has immersed the reader in the world of Jordanian Americans and in that of her family.  (If only it were that easy to be comfortable when you meet a significant other’s family!)

When I first read the book, it didn’t take me long to realize that Ms. Abu-Jaber, well, she is the protagonist of the book and she isn’t.  By necessity, this memoir is structured around her memories and her life, but I love that the author, at times, allows herself to be a part of the ensemble instead of the star.  This seems like a strange thought, doesn’t it?  If you pick up Amanda Knox’s memoir, you darn well better read about how she was arrested for murder in Italy, right?  She better be the focal character.  Baklava is about family and culture, both institutions that are focused on the intersection between the individual and the whole, so it makes sense to modulate the importance of the author in the narrative.

Let’s talk about those recipes.  Each chapter features at least one recipe drawn from Ms. Abu-Jaber’s life.  When we experiment with form, we must ask ourselves whether we are serving the overall story.  Shouldn’t this be our top priority?  While the reader may not rush out to Wegmans to pick up all of the ingredients, the recipes in the book certainly do contribute to the narrative.  Food is a fascinating element of culture; people all over the world have pretty much the same ideas about food, but the little differences in climate and population and so on have resulted in culinary diversity. (Every culture has something resembling a dumpling.  Every culture combines sweet and savory in different ways.)  Ms. Abu-Jaber also ensures that the recipes have a meaningful purpose.  For example, Chapter Seven begins with a family party and lots of people are on their way.  Therefore, Ms. Abu-Jaber introduces the reader to “Start the Party” hummus, the same food that is likely being prepared in the kitchen.  (It’s also interesting to think about hummus as an “ethnic” food; is it just me, or has that changed over the past couple decades?  Remember, dear reader, that spaghetti was once considered an “ethnic” food and is now as American as apple pie.  Which I suppose is pretty much a tart, the likes of which have been made in Europe for centuries. See how the recipes in the book relate so heavily to its theme?)

What Should We Steal?

  • Immerse your reader in your unique world as quickly as you can.  Ms. Abu-Jaber hits you with an anecdote that relates to theme (a person straddling two cultures) and introduces the vast cast of characters…all in the first dozen pages.
  • Allow yourself to take the back seat, even in your own story.  Depending on the scene, you may wonder: is this YOUR STORY, or a story ABOUT YOU?
  • Augment stories with tangential elements if they will help you accomplish your goals.  Storybooks have pictures for a reason, not just because the pictures are pretty.  They make it easier for the young reader to understand the story.  Business biographies often have sections filled with photographs.  These are not only fun, but they can help you keep the “characters” straight in your head.

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