Today on the blog I’m sharing an interview I did with Rajia Hassib, author of In the Language of Miracles. I read and reviewed this book back in September and absolutely loved it! I definitely recommend it and you can read my detailed review here. Thank you Rajia for joining me today!
AZ: For the readers, can you share a bit about your debut novel?
RH: The novel is about the aftermath of a crime that the oldest son of an Egyptian-American family, the Al-Menshawys, commits. Set a year after the tragedy that leaves the son of the Al-Menshawys as well as the daughter of their next-door neighbors dead, the novel follows the lives of the family members as they negotiate their grief, guilt, and their place in a community that blames them for their son’s crime. In doing so, the novel tackles themes of identity, immigration, guilt by association, and religion, among other issues.
AZ: What was your inspiration behind the novel? Why did you feel the Al-Menshawy’s story needed to be told?
RH: The novel was a result of years of reflection on the cultural position of Muslims in the U.S. post 9/11. After Islam was used to justify such heinous terrorist attacks, I longed for Muslims to do something to rectify what I felt was a huge injustice done to my religion, but it was not until the Ground Zero Mosque controversy of 2010 that I realized how complex any attempt at redemption was. By then, I had become preoccupied with the idea of a public apology for something that one has not committed, so I decided to create a microcosm for that situation in the story of Al-Menshawys. I felt their story needed to be told because, on some level, it is the story of every American Muslim: how does it feel like when one’s own society starts viewing one with distrust and misgiving. As such, it was both a story that I longed to explore and that, in my opinion, was timely and much needed.
AZ: In your novel, you’ve split the POV’s between Samir, Nagla, and Khaled. Why did you choose not to do one or more with Ehsan, the grandmother or Khaled’s sister, Fatima? Did you feel they had already found their miracle?
RH: I love how you view Fatima and Ehsan as ones who have already “found their miracle.” In a sense, yes: both those characters were relatively static, and, as such, did not undergo enough character development or experience enough internal struggle for me to feel that they need their own points of view. Fatima had found her peace in religion and in her friend, and she was certainly under less stress than Khaled was just because of how gender expectations and stereotypes make him an easier target for people’s suspicion. As for Ehsan—who, by the way, was one of the characters I enjoyed writing the most and, as such, one who has, in fact, tempted me to give her a point of view of her own—I didn’t feel her character experienced enough in the tight five-day period of the novel to justify giving her a separate point of view. She would have had a wonderful voice, I think, but her voice was not needed to move the plot forward, nor would it have given any insight that her presence in the separate section of Khaled and his parents did not already provide. At the end of the day, I did not feel the novel would have benefited from more than three points of view.
AZ: I felt a sense of closure with the characters at the end, though different from what I think they were originally seeking. Do you think you’ll ever revisit these characters again? Has their story been told for now?
RH: I’m glad to know you felt a sense of closure! I loved the time I spent with these characters, and I will confess that Ehsan in particular is a character I would have loved to write more about, but I do believe their story has been told. As interesting as I believe they are as individuals, I think their particular struggles are so closely tied to the tragedy of the son’s crime that revisiting them would shift the focus away from that and, in the process, dilute the intensity of their situation. If we were to compress their story in a sound bite, they would be the family who had to deal with the aftermath of dead son’s crime, and they need to remain mainly that. Besides, there are so many more stories to tell, so why keep on going back to the same characters? I’d rather leave readers wanting more than feel that my characters have overstayed their welcome.
AZ: I loved reading the epigraphs in your novel. What was the idea behind this?
RH: The epigraphs did not find their way to the novel until the second or third revision. I remember working on separate chapters and thinking about sayings or quotes that would go well with them, particularly because, in dialogue, Egyptians do quite often use sayings to comment on the ongoing situation. In some parts of the novel, I would imagine Ehsan uttering those sayings, and as I thought of the English translation to some of them, I started to realize that the exact same sayings do exist in the English language, either as an identical version or, in some cases, as a version only slightly different. I thought the similarities were just as telling as the differences were. I particularly loved the juxtapositions the sayings offer between Arabic and English and, by extension, between the cultures that each language represents. So I started including them as chapter heading both to offer commentary on the chapters and to underscore the various themes the novel deals with.
AZ: You completed a BA in Architecture before getting a degree in English a decade later. What prompted this decision? Did an early draft or an idea for In the Language of Miracles exist around this time?
RH: I had always wanted to study English literature. In fact, I had decided on majoring in English at some point in high school. Once I had to choose my major, however, I went with architecture (which I also loved but which was always second to English) because it was the more practical field of study for someone living in Egypt and, to be honest, because my father talked me into it. I was eighteen and a very obedient daughter! In hindsight, I’m glad things happened the way they did, because missing out on studying English that first time was the main reason I was so determined to do it once I moved to the U.S. So I went back to school, earned a B.A. in English and then an M.A. in English with a creative writing emphasis, both from Marshall University. In the Language of Miracles first started as an idea for a short story during my last semester as an undergraduate student at Marshall, and I completed the first couple of drafts of the novel during my graduate studies. An earlier version of the novel was my creative thesis for the M.A. in English. So that particular novel did not exist before that, but the urge and need to write dates back to my childhood years. I distinctly remember walking up to my parents at some point during the summer between first and second grade and announcing that I would become a writer. It took me three decades to get there, but better late than never!
AZ: Can you tell us about your experience with publishing In the Language of Miracles? Any advice you’d like to share with aspiring writers?
RH: I can honestly say that I had an extremely positive experience with publishing In the Language of Miracles, but I would also have to say that I got very, very lucky. Through a series of events too elaborate to narrate here, I ended up being represented by Lynn Nesbit, a powerhouse of a literary agent who represents, among others, writers such as Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, and Jeffery Eugenides, and then the novel got picked up by Allison Lorentzen, a well-respected senior editor at Viking and the force behind a breathtakingly impressive list of books. I had never before given much thought to the publishing business—I was too busy learning how to write a novel to have time for that—but I now know that the publishing experience is quite emotional and personal, especially for a first time author. As such, I feel blessed to be working with an agent and an editor for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, and, more importantly, with whom I’m quite comfortable. They are the reason I view my publishing experience in such positive light.
As for advice for aspiring writers, I only have this to offer: read a lot, write a lot, and treat your writing—and your future readers—with respect. Put in the time and effort required to make your draft as good as you can possibly make it. That way, if you get as lucky as I did and find your draft in the hands of the agent and editor of your dreams, the work will hopefully show and you will prove yourself professional enough to be worthy of their time and attention.
AZ: Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on?
RH: I’m currently working on a novel set partly in Egypt and partly in the U.S. The novel takes places in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and it follows the lives of three different characters as their paths intertwine and finally merge. I hesitate to talk in detail about a work in progress, but I can share this: There is a marriage on the brink, the found diary of a long-dead mother, and a young man who yields the destructive power of one who has lost all hope. It is an intimate, complex, and passionate story, one that I’m enjoying writing very much and that I hope readers will enjoy, too.
About the Author:
I was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, before moving to the US at age twenty-three. A decade later, I returned to college to study English Writing and Literature and to pursue my life-long dream of becoming a writer. I hold a BA and an MA in English, both from Marshall University. After graduation, I worked briefly as a part-time Instructor of English at Marshall University, teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class as well as a class on Postcolonial Literature. I live in Charleston, WV with my husband and two children. Visit her website.
Some additional, potentially interesting facts:
- I hold a BA in Architecture from the University of Alexandria, Egypt.
- While I was earning my BA in English from Marshall University, I lived 88 miles away from campus and commuted two to three times per week in order to finish the required coursework.
- While I was earning my MA, I moved to Charleston, WV, and my commute got shortened to 55 miles.
- I learned German before I learned English, and was, during my teenage years, more fluent in German than English. Not any more, though.
- Speaking of German: I went to a school run by German nuns from Pre-K until I graduated high school. I give full credit to the nuns for instilling a compulsive sense of discipline in me, which, unfortunately, only extends to the professional aspects of my life. Everywhere else, chaos reigns.
- I have half a shelf in my office dedicated to discarded versions of In the Language of Miracles, all of which I wrote while I was earning my MA and working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. And yes, I’m so proud of this fact that it earned its own bullet point on this list.