Today was one of those days that never seemed to slow down. I drove 150 miles to Chicago and back up to the Wisconsin border, taught a class, attended a meeting, and got dinner on the table. I was supposed to go to a reading at my closest local independent bookstore about an hour after a torrential downpour descended upon my town. But none of that kept me from the reading and boy am I glad I went!
My friend Adrienne told me about Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar and her new novel, The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone, 2018). Isn’t it beautiful? As Jennifer said this evening, there hasn’t been an English novel in recent memory that includes Arabic on the cover.
She told us about her story and how she wanted to give voices to Syrian refugees, something that is never done in the US media. We hear about the refugees, but we never hear from them. This is her chance to show the world what the Syrian refugees are really going through, not just what the media wants us to think.
Her book tells the stories to two girls. Nour is a twelve year-old who is born in New York, but returns to Syria with her family just before the war breaks out. When that happens, Nour’s family loses their home and struggles to find a new one. This story is intertwined with a 12th century story of Rawiya, a girl who disguises as a boy so she can learn mapmaking. I can’t wait to read this book, but am going to give it to my daughter to read first.
The audience discussion was great. Joukhadar spoke about her family’s background–her father immigrated to the US from Syria in the late 1960s–and how the US has been home to Syrians since the 1860s, even though the media tries to make us believe that Syrians are new to the US.
One of the women in the audience mentioned that Jennifer’s characters are all strong girls and women, and wondered how Syrian and other Middle Eastern men have dealt with this. I loved Jennifer’s response. She first said that all the women and girls in her life are strong and resilient, so she was just writing about what she knows. She also told the woman that because she asked that question, her perception of Middle Eastern men is not correct. Jennifer said her book gives Syrian men a gentle voice that isn’t heard in American film, television, and literature, and very graciously said it’s not true that Middle Eastern and Syrian men are more sexist than others. If we’re talking about the patriarchy, Joukhadar said, then, yes, it’s present everywhere. And we need to look at white American Christian men (her mother is Christian) to really see where the patriarchy is the most prevalent and the most dangerous. Everyone in the audience nodded. These are things we wouldn’t have talked about a couple years ago and it’s refreshing to discuss it now.
It was great talking to her and telling her that I’m also friends with Adrienne. It’s always nice making a personal connections with authors. Most of the audience members had either read The Map of Salt and Stars or were halfway into it. Everyone raved about it and said it’s one of those books that will stay with you forever. I can’t wait to hear what my daughter thinks and can’t wait to read it after she does!