Diana Abu-Jaber's new memoir, Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family, celebrates the author's cross-cultural heritage and examines how she built a whole life out of the different parts of family, marriage, career, and motherhood.
Diana recently answered questions for Rose City Reader:
You’ve written four novels and a previous memoir, The Language of Baklava. How did you come to write this new memoir, Life Without a Recipe?
It started with the title. When my daughter was still a baby, I was telling a friend about how much I was looking forward to cooking for Gracie. She stopped me and said: there’s the title of your next book -- Cooking for Grace. I ended up with a different title, but the idea of the book took hold right away. My first memoir was all wrapped up with my father and his cooking; I realized it was time to claim my own recipes, in a sense, to write my next life chapter. Life Without a Recipe is my grown up story -- about my attempt to create a creative life -- as a writer and a parent -- to see if I could begin to make my own path.
Your memoir is intensely personal, dealing as you do with your three marriages, the death or loved ones, and your decision to adopt a child in your forties. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
Oh yes! There was a time when my editor and I were calling it Three Weddings, Four Funerals, and a Baby. When I first started writing this memoir, my father-in-law and father were both still alive, my daughter was still a baby, we hadn’t moved, I hadn’t been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and so on. About two-thirds of the book’s contents happened while I was still writing it. And each of these big life events required me to undertake a kind of mental negotiation. At first, I didn’t even consider addressing my father’s death. Then it was sort of like, well, what if I just wrote about it for myself? Or my family? Through writing the book, I began to understand that it’s exactly the most difficult, elusive, private things that become the most central to one’s project. Any writer worth her salt knows the first rule is to dig deep, be brave, be honest. Otherwise, what does any of it matter?
Did you think of turning your own experience into fiction and writing the book as a novel?
Well, my novels generally come from story ideas -- a sort of what-if approach to story-telling. Eventually, certain kinds of thoughts, experiences, and characters may filter in from “real life,” but more as a way of enlarging the whole. My memoirs, on the other hand, are descriptions of lived experience. They’re such different animals to me, when I embark on one I feel committed to that genre and that approach.
Can you recommend any other memoirs that deal with major life issues with the kind of heart and humor you put into yours?
Thank you! There are so many memoirs I admire, but just a few of my favorites are:
- Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
- Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites by Kate Christensen
- Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
- The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
- The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
- Pretty much anything by MFK Fisher
What are you reading now?
These days, I’m always reading a novel and some sort of health or nutrition book at the same time. Since I’ve started trying to control my blood pressure, it’s become a sort of hobby of mine. So right now I’m alternating reading The Little Red Chairs [by Edna O'Brien] and Controlling Heart Disease. A bit of a bipolar approach, I suppose, but the books are equally fascinating in their very different ways, they provide me with different literary nutrients, if you will -- mental and physical.
You have a terrific website and are active on twitter. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your books?
I wish I knew. For my own purposes, I love social media because writing is such solitary work, Twitter and other such sites provide a way to feel quickly and easily connected to others. And I enjoy how uncomplicated it is -- at least, my approach is. For those of us who don’t have to report to offices, sites like Twitter in particular can function as a sort of virtual water-cooler. As for selling books -- hmm, seems like the jury’s still out on that one.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I’ll be speaking at the Orlando Book Festival today, June 18th; Murder On the Beach Bookstore in Delray Beach, FL on August 10th; at Wordstock in Portland, OR, on November 5th; and the Miami Book Fair in mid-November. I try to keep my website events page updated with new events also.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author? What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as a new mother?
- Read as much as you possibly can. Read the sorts of books you aspire to write.
- Trust your instincts. Nobody’s happy unless Mommy is happy.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Freedom of the mind, the imagination, the spirit. The sense of making something new and personally meaningful is deeply gratifying and difficult. Writing stretches you -- it’s hard in all the ways that feel essential and most rewarding.
How many books have you written? Do you have a favorite?
Life Without a Recipe is my 6th published book, and I always seem to feel like my most recent work is my best. Second place would have to go to my novel Birds of Paradise, which required an enormous effort for me as a writer and artist -- when I finished that novel, it felt like I’d somehow written the sort of book I’d wanted to write for years.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
Always. I have a young adult fantasy called SilverWorld which should be coming out next year. And I’m at work on the next novel, but it’s still too soon to unveil!
LIFE WITHOUT A RECIPE IS AVAILABLE ON-LINE AND AT MAJOR BOOKSTORES, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL STORE TO ORDER IT!