"I was always in this purgatory stage of 'otherness,' neither here nor there," she says. "My name never seemed to get pronounced right. And people would make these really strange comments to me. I remember a boy in my first-grade class, when he found out I was Arab, asked me how many camels I had and how many wives my father was married to. It was shocking.
"All these years later and I still remember this comment. It wasn't with malicious intent, but I find it mind-boggling that he asked it."
Halaby's own experience navigating dual cultures is at the heart of West of the Jordan (Beacon Press, $13), her debut novel. Her characters each tell their own story--a shared one about the challenge of independence, identity, loyalty and loss.
"They're very alive in my mind," admits Halaby of her characters--four young women, all cousins, coming of age and straddling a variety of cultures.
"I find I think about them a lot. If I weren't a writer, I suppose I'd be institutionalized for imagining them as so real."
Saraya, who Halaby says is the character she feels most connected to, is trying to adjust to the fast culture of California youth. Mawal is the stable one steeped in the security of Palestinian traditions in the West Bank. Hala is torn between the pull towards Jordan and her reality in Arizona. And Khadija is terrified by the sexual freedom of her American friends and by her father's abusive behavior. The novel opens a window into this rich and complicated bicultural landscape.
"I hope people read the book and begin to
understand that these are people that cry like they do, love like they do. It's a peek into their world."
The book's cover offers a visual glimpse into the challenges Halaby refers to. It's a beautiful photo of a young, obviously Arab-looking woman whose sad eyes stare back, catching the reader in a seductive hold.
"She's a Palestinian who lives in Brooklyn whose image was part of an article in a Saudi publication about Arabs in the States," explains Halaby.
"I don't know her personally, but she conveys something akin to what my characters are going through. It's the duality, the conflict of her very Arab-looking countenance, but she's wearing a T-shirt, an American shirt.
So, is this somber woman the amalgam of the four women in the novel?
"I write about loss to some degree," responds Halaby. "But mostly I'm writing about identity, which is also to talk about loss."
Nearly a dozen years ago, Halaby returned to live and work in Jordan, studying folklore on a Fulbright scholarship for a year. It was on that trip that a good deal of inspiration for her novel was generated.
"I had this amorphous plan to study in Jordan. But it's odd. There I was--a young, Arab woman alone. Though I was accepted, it was still strange for me. Luckily a fellow teacher's family sort of adopted me. Their lives and stories are definitely woven into the book."
The braiding of stories, real and fictional, is not surprising, considering how Halaby describes how she works.
"I write. I've always written. I see something and it gets in my head and won't leave until I get it out. So when I was in Jordan, I had time to just write and write. All these separate stories worked themselves into this novel."
It took a decade to go from story genesis to the novel's publication this month. Halaby says she spent a couple of years actually writing the book. But a catalyst for finally pushing it through to publication came with a singular event.
"For the most part, the book was already written before Sept. 11. But I felt an obligation to introduce my characters to the world since everything's happened. Ironically, the book takes place in the late '80s and early '90s, a very different time for Arabs and Arab Americans."
She adds, "I couldn't write this book now. Maybe it's that I'm 10 years older and more jaded. It seems so innocent a novel."
West of the Jordan has landed in a world very different from when it was conceived. Halaby remembers back to before she became a writer, a time when her confusion and innocence reigned about her own cultural duality.
"I remember a teacher asking me what my father's name was. To me it was a funny-sounding name, so I said that I didn't know. How odd for a child to say such a thing."
For Halaby, exploring identity now means mining her culture for the gems, exploring who her parents are and where she's lived--the stuff of life and novels.
Laila Halaby reads from her book on Friday, May 23, at 7 p.m., at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. The reading and discussion that follow are free. Call 792-3715 for details.