Author Q&A: Diana Abu-Jaber

  • November 3, 2011

Sarah Vogelsong's Q&A with the author of Birds of Paradise

The Independent’s review of Birds of Paradise is here.

In Birds of Paradise, the Muir family grapples with the arrival of the eighteenth birthday of its youngest daughter Felice, who ran away from home five years prior to live on the Miami streets. Her mother, the talented but highly strung pastry chef Avis; her father, real estate lawyer Brian; and her brother Stanley, an entrepreneur in the organic and local foods movement, must reconcile themselves with the tragedy of their past and find ways to reforge family bonds that have been broken. On the verge of adulthood, Felice too must revisit her motivations for taking to the streets and come to terms with the family that she left behind.

Sarah Vogelsong’s Q&A with Diana Abu-Jaber

In the past, much of your literature has focused on Arab culture, both within and outside the United States, whereas Birds of Paradise centers around Miami and its diverse white and Caribbean communities. What inspired you to place your novel in this city?

My husband and I had moved to Miami in 2003 and I was immediately taken with its extraordinary landscape. After years of living in Portland, OR, I found the subtropical environment both shocking and invigorating. I loved the palm trees, the wild exotic birds, the profusion of new scents and fruits. At the same time I was taken aback by the intensity of Miami residents and communities—every one of the neighbors on our block, for example, are from different countries. Suddenly, I was learning about Latin America and the Caribbean and seeing the formation of this new kind of America within America. It was irresistible material; gradually all those details and personalities began to spill into the pages of my novels. Miami is such a rich stage for the social currents that swirl through this country, making America a richer, more international place.

One of the novel’s concerns is how development has changed Miami’s neighborhoods over the past few decades, with the character of Brian, the sort of “ethical voice” for a development firm, being at the center of that debate. How do you think Brian illustrates the ambivalence of modern large-scale development?

Brian is caught between a desire to do the right thing and the drive for wealth and status. He knows that what helps him privately may hurt the greater good. He works for a big developer—a special breed that came into preeminence during the real estate boom—especially in Miami—and his job requires him to defend his employer and make their greedy over-development possible. I think that Brian is fundamentally a “good” man, but his conscience often runs counter to his professional best interests. So he’s trying to find a way to moderate between the two. He tries to have it both ways, even while a little nagging voice at the back of his head tells him that this may not be possible.

Given its attention to political subjects such as unrest in Haiti and the global agricultural trade, would you consider Birds of Paradise to be a political novel? How integral do you think politics are to the development of the story and its characters?

I think Birds of Paradise is a politically-charged novel told through an intimate story. What happens to the Muir family is something that happens to American families all the time: the parents are subsumed by work, the kids feel disaffected, one of them runs away, becomes a part of the street kid culture. At the same time, they’re surrounded and affected by larger political issues—the environment, the economy, American foreign policy and actions in developing countries. But “politics” in itself is a fairly abstract idea, which can be deadly to a novel—I think stories have to stay rooted in the personal in order to stay vibrant and meaningful (something that a lot of pundits don’t seem to get.) I want to be entertained first when I’m reading a book, and engaged by the characters—if some sort of other questions or ideas happen to slip in there, well that’s great, but it’s not the thing that draws me to the page.

The politics of sugar in particular are widely discussed throughout the novel. How did you become interested in this subject? What kind of insight into the world today do you think we can gain from our relationship with sugar?

I thought I’d combine these two because my answer is connected. I became interested in the politics of sugar because I was interested in eating sugar. My grandmother was a very serious baker—she transformed her apartment into a bakery every year and gave herself over to the massive production of holiday cookies and cakes. Which was interesting to me because she gave me such mixed messages: she was a staunch feminist and insisted that it was important that I not learn certain traditional gendered tasks, like ironing and typing; but somehow she exalted baking. To her it was a form of pure pleasure—both its creation and consumption. As I grew up, I slowly began to understand there was more than one way of looking at sugar. A number of my relatives have diabetes, several of them are overweight. Through my work in food journalism, I learned about the problematic ways our food industry relies on cheap labor and cheap goods. As a worker in early food co-ops, I learned about alternative ways of relating to food and eating.

I do think the more we learn about where our food comes from, the more we know about the world. We import so many of our foods, relying on migrant labor and plantation work for staples like sugar, coffee, tea, and a whole slew of produce. But sugarcane is a very difficult crop in terms of labor and environmental impact. And it’s sneaked into almost all our processed foods—along with sodium. Much of the time we’re not even aware that we’re eating it. Sweetness is a wonderful, innate flavor preference—we crave it and struggle to control it and it can quickly take on all the dimensions of an addiction.

Cooking and food have been themes in your work since the beginning of your career. In what ways does food inform your writing?

I never consciously decided to make food a primary element in my writing, but it seems to keep coming back to me. I was raised in an immigrant family by a parent who used cooking as a way to teach us about ancestry, so food seems a natural filter to me, a central metaphor for all sorts of relationships and experiences. In my memoir, The Language of Baklava, food is less mediated, more simply itself—a pleasure, a communal experience, a bearer of memory. In my novels, Crescent and Birds of Paradise, food is a way for characters to speak to each other, to connect—or reject—each other, and their feelings about food becomes a way for readers to see into the characters.

In Birds of Paradise, food seems to take on a double role—it’s both an indicator of home for the whole Muir family, but it’s also Avis’s way of escaping her family and a symbol of maternal smothering for Felice. How were you playing with these ideas in the novel?

With Avis’ career as a pastry chef, her work with food is evocative of her own biases, hopes, and fears. She’s obsessed with physical beauty, and classical French pastry is an artifact of that obsession. Avis loves her children yet she doesn’t quite “see” them; instead, she tries to shape, control, possess them. She adores her daughter’s physical loveliness, yet never sees through it to the innocent child. As I wrote, I was thinking about the “foodie” culture that encourages a kind of food worship, instead of simple enjoyment and nourishment, the lifestyle approach that lures people into boutique shops, to buy gorgeous utensils and cookbooks, yet never actually cook anything.

How did your own experiences as a teenage runaway inform your portrayal of the thirteen-year-old runaway Felice?

I skipped a couple grades of school and left home when I was barely 16 to go to college. I wasn’t actually a “runaway” but I did experience going into the world at a young age and when I thought about Felice the runaway daughter, I drew a lot on those early thoughts and feelings. There was a sense of newness and excitement that seemed intertwined with anxiety and uncertainty—it was an endlessly exhilarating and frightening time. For me, though, it was a good thing to do—I was too confined by my traditional father and I needed some breathing space. Felice is running away from a personal trauma, as well as a kind of emotional neglect—the vacuum of her family home. So she has to go into the world to try and find the solid relationships—and sense of self—that she craves.

How did you do your research into the distinctive street life and culture of Miami?

That involved a lot of foot work. I realized right at the start that simply living there wasn’t going to be enough for this book: I drove all over and walked all over, trying to absorb the physical details of the place. I wanted to try to get at both the big and small pictures of Miami—it really is a big city made up of little neighborhoods—both geographically and psychically. I talked to neighbors, police, local historians, I took lawyers out to lunch, emailed school administrators, sat in the kitchens of nearby bakeries, and logged days in the library. I went to places that I’d never before imagined going—a few pretty rough spots—and spent lots of time watching and talking to street kids on Miami Beach. It took over three years to write the book and I’d guess at least half of that time I was involved in research.

Can you talk to us about the character of Stanley? He seems to be more peripheral than the other characters, but is obviously a key member of the family. How does he fit into the themes of guilt and reconciliation that pervade the novel?

Stanley doesn’t get a major perspective in the novel because, in many ways, he’s the most stable one in the bunch. The other characters really have to push themselves to new places, to become bigger and braver than they were, in order to try and regain their family. Stanley has essentially raised and created himself out of his own faith in his work with food. His great challenge doesn’t really come until the last section of the novel, when he must return to some of the big unanswered questions of his childhood. Stanley was as much a “missing child” as his sister was—only he stayed right at home. Instead, his family ran away from him in their quest for his sister, Felice. If anyone is owed an apology in Birds of Paradise, it’s Stanley. And until he grants his forgiveness then none of the others can really be redeemed.

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, VA

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