Interview with Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar + THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS giveaway
I’m so thrilled to welcome my friend Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar to the Debutante Ball this week! Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is the author of the novel, The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2018) and a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and of American Mensa. Joukhadar’s work has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review Daily, The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. Joukhadar is a 2017-2020 Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Literary Arts Fellow and a 2019 Artist in Residence at the Arab American National Museum.
The Map of Salt and Stars: It is the summer of 2011, and Nour has just lost her father to cancer. Her mother, a cartographer who creates unusual, hand-painted maps, decides to move Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. But the country Nour’s mother once knew is changing, and it isn’t long before protests and shelling threaten their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety. As their journey becomes more and more challenging, Nour’s idea of home becomes a dream she struggles to remember and a hope she cannot live without.
More than eight hundred years earlier, Rawiya, sixteen and a widow’s daughter, knows she must do something to help her impoverished mother. Restless and longing to see the world, she leaves home to seek her fortune. Disguising herself as a boy named Rami, she becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, who has been commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to create a map of the world. In his employ, Rawiya embarks on an epic journey across the Middle East and the north of Africa where she encounters ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.
A deep immersion into the richly varied cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, The Map of Salt and Stars follows the journeys of Nour and Rawiya as they travel along identical paths across the region eight hundred years apart, braving the unknown beside their companions as they are pulled by the promise of reaching home at last.
Jennifer Zeynab is giving away a signed copy of THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS to one reader who shares this interview on FB or Twitter (details at the end of the post)! Thank you so much for being here!
Devi: Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
JZJ: Reading Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati was eye-opening for me because I’d never seen Arab oral storytelling traditions employed in literary fiction before, as well as the fantastic mixed in with the real and the contemporary, story threads weaving in and out of each other. I was like, you can do that?? The fact that Alameddine writes about the lives of queer characters with frankness and humor was also a breath of fresh air. It made me believe that I could also write about queer characters of color, which I hadn’t really seen represented in a book growing up. I still haven’t seen all of my identities represented in the same character, but I’m working on providing those mirrors I didn’t get as a kid, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see more queer and trans characters of color in literary fiction in the future.
Devi: The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
JZJ: My path to publication started in an unconventional way, with the #DVPit pitching contest on Twitter for marginalized writers. I ended up connecting with my agent through a referral from a requesting agent during #DVPit. My agent is amazing; it’s really important to have an agent who will help you navigate the publishing process and who gets your work, someone who shares your vision for the book.
As The Map of Salt and Stars made its way toward publication, there were times I had to push back against the narrative that the market expected of me–particularly narratives of violence and dehumanization, which are all too commonly expected when talking about refugees, about Syria, about people of color in general, and so on. But it was really important to me to not center the book on pain and trauma, because that would have been a disservice to my subject matter. People continue to live their lives and find joy and resistance even in the midst of war, oppression, and displacement; I’ve seen this in countless folks who continue to create art and beauty even when they are facing impossible circumstances. It was important to me that I put that hope and that resistance at the center of the book. For me, hope is at the heart of the story I wanted to tell with The Map of Salt and Stars.
Devi: Share one quirk you have that most people don’t know about.
JZJ: For starters, I based my protagonist’s synesthesia on my own! Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where sensory inputs like letters, numbers, sounds, smells, and tastes produce colors, predominantly in the mind’s eye. These colors become fixed early in childhood and remain constant throughout life, though every synesthete’s colors are different. I have multiple types of synesthesia, and I gave these types–and their corresponding colors–to my protagonist, Nour. So when you read The Map of Salt and Stars, you get a little taste of what my (colorful) inner world looks like.
Devi: Have you ever tried writing in a different genre? How did that turn out?
JZJ: In addition to novels, I’ve also written short stories, essays, and poems. Writing short stories has helped me to hone my storytelling skills, to be succinct, and to make every word justify its existence, because in short form work, you simply don’t have the space for purple prose. Poetry, I find, is even more this way–and being the shortest form, I find it the hardest, but also sometimes the most rewarding; you can express things in poetry without necessarily saying them, simply by presenting an image that carries the emotion you’re trying to impress on the reader. I also enjoy writing creative nonfiction, though as someone who predominantly writes fiction, it can be hard to take off that fictive mask and bare oneself for inspection.
Devi: What’s your next big thing? (new book, new project, etc.)
JZJ: I’m currently revising my second novel, which will focus on the history of Syrian immigration to the United States and the Syrian American communities that have existed for over a hundred years, from New York City’s once-vibrant Little Syria (demolished to build the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel) to Midwestern cities like Toledo, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis. The novel focuses on two friends separated when one of their families immigrates to the US in the 1930s, leaving the other behind. More than half a century later, a descendant goes looking for their grandmother’s long-lost friend, and the story unfolds from there. I wanted to talk about the various experiences of Syrian Americans in the 1930s compared to more recent immigrants, and what it’s like to be a Syrian American and a Muslim living in the US today.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win A MAP OF SALT AND STARS! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, Dec. 7. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
“In Joukhadar’s intoxicating debut, the past and present are brought to life, illuminating how, in exile, neither can exist without the other. With clear, exquisite prose, Joukhadar unspools a brightly imagined tale of family and grief, mapmaking and migration. This important book is a love letter to the vanished—and to what remains.” (Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses)
“E. M. Forster taught us that ‘fiction is truer than history because it goes beyond the evidence.’ Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s magic first novel is a testimony to that maxim. We’ve all been aware of the plight of Syrian refugees, but in this richly imaginative story we see one small family – both haunted by history and saved by myth – work their way west. It’s beautiful and lovely and eye-opening.” (Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of The Flight Attendant and The Guest Room)
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