In Amreekiya: A Novel, author Lena Mahmoud deftly juggles two storylines, alternating between Isra’s youth and her current life as a married twentysomething who is torn between cultures and trying to define herself. The chapters chronicle various moments in Isra’s narrative, including the volatile relationship of her parents and the trials and joys of forging a partnership with Yusef. Mahmoud also examines Isra’s first visit to Palestine, the effects of sexism, how language affects identity, and what it means to have a love that overcomes unbearable pain. Featuring an authentic array of characters, Mahmoud’s first novel is a much-needed story in a divided world.
Lena Mahmoud was nominated for Pushcart Prizes for her story “Al Walad” and her essay “The Psyche of a Palestinian-American Writer” and was shortlisted for the OWT Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sinister Guru, KNOT Magazine, Pulp Literature, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Sukoon.
What first drew you to writing? Was there a specific moment or experience that made you want to become a novelist?
As a child I had a very active imaginary life. I often played out stories in my room or
backyard, but I didn’t start writing until I was eleven. I wasn’t much of a reader before that; I didn’t like most of what I read in school because to me it was boring and so homogenous, but when I read Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, about a girl who lives in many foster homes after her mother’s imprisonment—something much different from the cookie cutter chapter books I had been assigned in school—it made me think that knowing someone else’s story can enrich a reader’s life and make them see things differently. I thought that it would be such a great thing if I could do that, and I had always liked thinking up stories and acting them out. When I wrote them, though, I found that I could also make the story better by revising or rewriting it, so I have stuck with it for almost two decades now.
The dual narrative structure is one of the most intriguing facets of Amreekiya. Why did you choose to juxtapose the story of Isra’s childhood alongside her life as a married woman?
Isra’s adult chapters were the first part that I wrote, and I always intended to somehow explain the backstory of her losing her mother and being abandoned by her father. In the early drafts, I wrote out prologues and epilogues to give this backstory, and they just didn’t work for the novel. Then I started to explore Isra’s past more and more. I thought that showing how she and her husband Yusef first met and what it was like growing up with Amu Nasser and Amtu Samia really made the novel more developed. I didn’t want to do it as a completely linear narrative because the past never really goes away; the memories cling to our minds and influence our decisions. By having the two narratives happen concurrently, it more clearly revealed how the past affected the present.
Explain the significance of the title.
While the word “Amreekiya” technically means American in Arabic, it is often used colloquially to mean “white girl” or “white women.” In the novel it’s most often applied to Isra’s mother, but sometimes to Isra as well. I think, ultimately, that it represents a concern that a lot of the characters have: how “American” should they be? It’s most obvious in the case of the younger generation like Isra and Yusef, who wonder about how they would be judged for using birth control, but the older generation also must confront this issue, like Amu Nasser does when he returns to Palestine and is judged for how “American” his children act.
How have your personal experiences inspired or shaped Isra’s story?
I am mixed like Isra is, and a lot of the narratives I saw about people who were part white/part any Middle Eastern ethnicity seemed to always be about that person shedding their ties to whatever Middle Eastern culture s/he belonged to and trying to be as white as possible. I thought that was both unrealistic and dangerous standard to set for people like Isra and me, so I wanted to write a story to show that it’s more complicated and that it’s not necessary to choose between the two cultures, though that is often what others pressure mixed people to do. I didn’t want to write a memoir, though, because I wanted to show what it must be like for someone who does not have any friends or family who understand that sense of in-betweenness. In my case, I have three full siblings who are mixed like me (as well as five siblings from my parents’ previous and subsequent relationships), and I had the advantage of growing up and knowing my parents much better than Isra ever had a chance to know hers. Isra does have close connections to some people like Hanan, Sana, and Yusef, but they see her as being just like them without truly acknowledging that Isra’s ethnic background and experience are somewhat different. Of course, there are people at the other extreme, like Amtu Samia, who see Isra as being completely different, which is even more detrimental.
Amreekiya deals extensively with the intertwined issues of race, class, and gender. Did you set out to confront these topics, or were they a natural outgrowth of the story itself?
Yes, it was my intention to demonstrate how race, class, and gender affect the characters, especially Isra, because I think that too often we think of those as being abstract social or political constructs without considering that they have a strong influence on our everyday lives. Like many writers who come from marginalized communities, I have often heard from various people in the literary community that highlighting these issues make it less universal, but I do not agree with that view. Even if we are unaware of how our place in society or a particular community affects our lives, it still impacts what we become and what sort of lives we lead or will lead, so it much more accurately depicts our lives to see how race, class, and gender play role, rather than making it as invisible as we possibly can. With that being said, I also didn’t want to make Amreekiya a novel that had a heavy-handed political message telling my readers what to think. Instead, I wanted to tell a story that raised questions for my readers to think about.
Isra’s story is left fairly open-ended at the conclusion of the novel. Why did you choose to leave the status of Isra’s marriage and future ambiguous? Do you see yourself ever revisiting her narrative?
At one point I had a tidier ending for Amreekiya, but in all the years of revising and rewriting it, I thought that it didn’t make sense for Isra to have her life figured out by twenty-four. She still has the conflict of trying to figure out which options would be better for her. Should she live on her own? Should she resume her life as it was with Yusef or possibly pursue a different path with him? Of course, there are still all the expectations of the people around her as well, which is a force that will never go away. As for revisiting Isra’s narrative, I don’t have any plans to do it now, but I do sometimes find myself considering what she would be doing now, so I haven’t ruled that out.