On Sept. 24, Diana Abu-Jaber gave a lecture about her experience as an Arab-American and her novel, Crescent, as part of this year’s Williams Reads program.
Sponsored by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads presents a new book annually to create opportunities for students, staff, faculty and community members to generate, engage and foster connections through a shared reading experience geared to stimulate challenging conversation. “Williams Reads hopes not simply to engender encounters, but also to provide material for those encounters,” Leslie Brown, associate professor of history and co-chair of the Williams Reads program, said. “In this way, the project does not require participants to agree with the author or each other, but invites them to see how our differences can generate some of our richest conversations.”
While a Winter Study initiative since 2007, Williams Reads expanded in 2012 to a year-long program in partnership with the deans’ office, the library, the Junior Advisors (JAs), student organizations and interested faculty and staff. Since 2012, Williams Reads now provides the selected book to incoming first-year students and then generates integrative programming around its themes. This year the program continued as a First Days project that offers a way for first year students, the JAs and participating faculty and staff to begin the kinds of substantial conversations that shape and are shaped by students’ experiences before, during and after orientation. “Here it becomes students’ first encounter with academics: Faculty assess the work and then in small groups, students discuss what they thought of the book,” Brown said.
The incorporation of the program into First Days began last year with Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative study of income inequality and its effects on lower wage workers. This year, the book was Crescent by Abu-Jaber, a fictional account that seeks to describe experiences using food and the senses. “Both this year’s book and all the other books are intended to spark conversation,” Bolton said. “We are particularly interested in books that might allow the reader to ‘step into the shoes’ of someone whose history, identity or experience may be unfamiliar.” However, this is where the similarities end. “Every Williams Reads is different depending on the book,” Brown said. “We recreate the Williams Reads project every year.”
According to Bolton, Crescent “addresses questions of what it means to leave a home and what it means to develop identity in a new place – themes that are very present for most first-year students when they arrive on campus. It also speaks to not only the experiences of immigrants, particularly Arab- and Iranian-Americans, but also the experiences of all of us as we move from place to place throughout our lives.” These themes and ideals created discussion both for and against the book during First Days and were the topic of the lecture on Sept. 24 by Abu-Jaber.
In this lecture, Abu-Jaber was introduced by Brown as an award-winning, best-selling author whose novel, Crescent, stimulated challenging issues around the meaning of home, leaving home and recreating home. In the lecture itself, Abu-Jaber discussed her life as an Arab-American, how the book came about, and the progression of its development.
At the beginning of the lecture, the author discussed attempting to write a hard-hitting, nonfiction book in the three years before she began Crescent, which she described as a “flop” that “no one would publish.” “I was trying to make art,” Abu-Jaber said. “Instead of writing my own truths and my own feelings, I was trying to make art.” This is what led to Crescent. “I stopped writing the book I thought I should write and started writing the book I was meant to write,” Abu-Jaber said.
What this meant was a novel incorporating her experience as an Arab-American that explored food, senses and the meaning of home. However, with an American mother and a Jordanian father, Abu-Jaber does not see her identity as a “hyphenated experience” or between worlds. She described her life growing up as “overlapping worlds, inside both worlds.” “My family was not two warring countries,” Abu-Jaber said. “It was one culture, our culture, that we made the way each family makes their own home.”
She discussed how, even though she is a Muslim, Christmas was a big celebration in her home. Her father would go to pediatric wards dressed up as Santa around this time and kept up the act and responsibilities around their home. Abu-Jaber described her father as a “pastiche Santa” that “ho ho ho-ed” a bit too enthusiastically and gave speeches as well as political diatribes about American-Arab conflicts before they could open presents.
A professor by trade, she also shared her experiences in the classroom. In particular, she talked about receiving pamphlets asking for the removal of all Arabs after Sept. 11 and about a time in a mostly Arab classroom when students became outraged after learning that so many celebrities were hiding their Arab heritage, as if it were a source of shame. As an author, Abu-Jaber discussed her book tour in Jordan, which was celebrated in the country. The experience was saddening to her personally because many people came up to her and asked, “Why do they hate us?” – the same idea often discussed from the other side in this country.
At the end, Abu-Jaber talked about Crescent. She discussed how she tried to anchor thoughts and feelings in sensory details to connect them to the reader as well as the parallels to Othello in the sense of epic, failure, flawed heroes and grief. Abu-Jaber also talked about how the end diverged from this tragedy as the meditation on grief and loss of faith prevail until the end where faith is rewarded by love.
Events concerning Williams Reads will continue throughout this school year. “The upcoming events will likely do more to broaden the dialogue … [and] explore various issues that the book raises,” Brown said. Thus, in terms of the cultural identification and the idea of home, there is definitely more to come.