Each week, the My America blog series will introduce you to one of the writers featured in our newest exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. Today, get to know award-winning writer Laila Halaby, who shared insights into her life, her work, and her experience as an Arab living in the United States.
Laila Halaby was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and an American mother. She is the author of a poetry collection and two novels, most notably West of the Jordan, which won the prestigious PEN Beyond Margins Award. Halaby grew up mostly in Arizona, where she first felt the pull of two conflicting cultures, eventually finding solace in the middle. “My father always lived in Jordan, my mother always lived in the States, so I’ve never felt like I’m Arab-American. I feel like I’m Arab and I feel like I’m American, but the hyphen is lost on me. Even though I feel like the hyphen is also where I live, you know? It’s funny.”
In the hyphen is also where a lot of Halaby’s work is centered. Many of her characters are Palestinian, a fact she attributes to her time spent interviewing Palestinian children about their folklore and how it is passed down, as well as a kindred spirit she feels with Palestinians based on their shared experiences of placelessness. “It’s not that I had the experience of a refugee, but I can really understand what it’s like to be denied place by situations that you can’t touch. And you just live with it. And then you find the beauty in it.”
Writing helped Halaby find that beauty, to find her place. To her, writing is where she belongs. “It’s one of those things where sometimes I’ll be working on something and I feel home. That feeling when you come home to the people in your family and you just are there. That’s how I feel when I get it right in writing.” The following quotes are from our interview with Halaby for My America. You can hear and watch more clips from this interview by exploring the exhibit in person. Plan your visit today!
Selected Quotes from My America
On Telling Stories
“I have a very complicated back story that I can’t really just say. So pretty much how I navigated that was through telling stories. Because when you write fiction, you can tell lies, you can be completely honest, and it’s yours. Whereas in real life it’s more complicated than that…my personal story’s a bit impossible, but also the global story is impossible. And so you tell it through fiction in a way that people can hear it.”
On Giving Voice to People
“My whole focus, both in writing and in the jobs that I do around writing, is to find ways for people’s voices to show or to give voice to people who often don’t have one.”
On Being Multilingual
“In terms of writing, I think [being exposed to different languages] made me so much more sensitive to the nuanced meanings in words. When I was younger there were words I would write in Arabic rather than English because it felt better in Arabic than in English. Now I just tend to write in English, and unless there’s a word that doesn’t translate I won’t. But I feel like having access to different languages texturizes the words more. And then that translates into writing.”
On Understanding Other Cultures
“After 9/11 people wanted to understand, like, what are Arabs? Or they didn’t want to understand, but there was so much misinformation. And I kept thinking, I have a whole book filled with [Arab] people and maybe if you read that then you’d have a little more understanding.”
On Being Mixed Race
“Like many people who are [mixed race], I did the pendulum. I tried out being totally American, I tried out being totally Arab, and then ultimately I think I ended up in between. But there is a sense—and I hear this so often from people who have either lived here for many, many years or who are mixed—that you’re never enough of one. So on good days I look at it like I have access to lots of worlds, and that’s amazing, and it doesn’t matter if I fit…much of my writing has to do with translating one world, one situation, for the other so that each can understand it.”