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Born in Damascus and raised in San Jose, Dima Alzayat explores the complex identities and lonely voices of submerged populations in her debut story collection, Alligator and Other Stories. Originally published by Two Dollar Radio in 2020, Picador has just released a paperback edition in the UK. This conversation took place on February 25, 2021.
Cindy Withjack: Before I ask you any questions, I have to tell you how much I really loved reading this.
Dima Alzayat: Thank you so much, Cindy. Thanks for taking the time to read it.
CW: What has it been like promoting Alligator and Other Stories during the COVID pandemic?
DA: It almost felt like a non-promotion in a way. I was supposed to do the Edinburgh Book Festival and a short story salon at Blackwells in Manchester. We had all of these events planned, and I was really excited. Obviously, all of those fell through. In a way it’s felt like I haven’t promoted it very much. It surprises me, even now, when people tell me they’ve read it or if they’ve seen it anywhere because I haven’t even seen it in a bookshop myself, physically. So, it’s really weird to know that it’s out there during this time. Of course, you wonder how the experience would’ve been different or how the book would be doing if these were normal times. So many book dates were pushed at the beginning of the pandemic and everyone thought, Oh, it’ll just be a few months, and we can release these in the summer. Initially I was thinking that maybe it would be better if I had done that, but now we know it would’ve made no difference. And maybe I don’t have any business sense. I know there are many writers who are upset they didn’t get to hypermarket their book – and it sounds weird saying this because I’m not shy – but I’m not the best self-promoter. It makes me really anxious to be the centre of attention in that way. So, in a way, even if it has maybe hurt me, I’m also a bit relieved that I don’t have to do a lot of those things.
CW: You mentioned the paperback will be out soon?
DA: It will be out in April.
CW: And you’ve finished your PhD at this point, right?
DA: Yes. All done. Thank God. Yeah.
CW: [Laughs.] What was it like writing this collection in concurrence with a PhD programme?
DA: At first, I found it really challenging because I did a 50/50 (critical/creative) PhD. I was warned by both of my advisors that the danger there would be that I would end up writing two PhDs, and for a while that was definitely what I was doing. I had taken on this really massive thing in working on a PhD while writing this collection, and I could see the connections, but it wasn’t cohesive. It was like two different projects. It was a lot of work and really stressful. What I had to do for a while was work on one for a stretch, just the critical or just the creative. It was really only, I would say, in my third year that I started to come at it from a different place. Maybe I just needed to do all that reading and look over things with fresh eyes to see how my critical research was manifesting in the creative work and vice versa. It took a long time. I got a lot out of it, but I would hesitate to recommend it to a creative writer. I think a lot of times I wanted to work on my stories, and I didn’t want to overthink them or overanalyse them. The only way I could do that was to ignore the critical work for long stretches of time, which isn’t great when you need to be productive. It was very hard, but I know for a fact the collection would not be what it is if I had not taken on so much critical research. In the end, I know that it really benefited me. I’ll also add that I went into it with the mindset that it’s best to let art be art and not to mess too much with the artistic process. But now I don’t think that holds at all, and it probably never did. I was just tricking myself into thinking that. I think whatever we write is so informed by where we find ourselves and what we know, and there’s no way to separate those things. It helped me grow as a writer to know that you’re not just coming to your work from some pure artistic place, that you know you were influenced by your society and your politics and whatever it is that you subscribe to ideologically. In that way, it has led to a necessary maturity as a writer.
CW: I read one of your short stories in a workshop a few years ago. I noticed it wasn’t included in the collection. If I remember correctly it involved a child? A son?
DA: Wait, that’s not what I thought you were going to say. I thought it was a story titled ‘Progeny.’ It was a really intense story.
CW: Yeah, it was dark. Someone dies in the kitchen?
DA: The narrator’s father is dead in his kitchen, and he proceeds to skin him.
CW: Oh shit, yes, that’s what I’m thinking of.
DA: I shouldn’t be laughing about this. For whatever reason, it’s funny right now.
CW: Did it not fit into the collection in the end? How did you decide which pieces would make it into the book, and is the book different from what you had submitted for your thesis?
DA: What ended up being submitted for the PhD was pretty much what ended up being in the collection. There were two additional stories. One of them is the one you read in that workshop, which didn’t make it into the collection. I had submitted it to the workshop because I was interested to hear people’s feedback on that story specifically. When I had submitted an early draft of that story to my agent, she had suggested taking it out of the collection because it was very visceral, which I agree with. It is a very violent story. I also did agree that it wasn’t necessary for the book. It wasn’t a piece where I felt like I needed to fight for it to be included. There are stories in the collection that I would never exclude, but that one I was always on the fence about. What I liked about it and why I wanted to include it initially is that it wasn’t explicitly about an Arab person. That was important to me. There’s a story in the collection called ‘Disappearance’ that is not explicitly about an Arab-American person or family. There are references there that a reader may or may not pick up. And, you know, maybe you can relate to this, but there’s something about reading a book that is about a non-white American person, and it’s like their ethnicity has to be front and centre on every page of the book?
CW: [Nodding knowingly.]
DA: Of course, me being Arab informs who I am, but I’m not walking around all the time thinking about how I’m Arab. So, I wanted some stories in the book to not always centre on the ethnic background of the characters.
CW: Speaking of ‘Disappearance,’ I found that within the collection it felt different from the others. How do you feel it fits into the collection?
DA: It was one of the earlier stories that I wrote, not the first but maybe the second or third. In a way I think it sounds different because I was a different writer at that point. Also, I think in that story…not really consciously, but now that I look at it, I think I was trying to write an American story. If that makes sense? I feel like when I read that story now, as a reader, what I see is a tone of Americana that I absorbed growing up. At the time I don’t think I consciously understood that that’s what I was doing. I was writing a short story in the way that I thought an American short story might sound. In comparison to the rest of the stories, I think I was really challenging myself to find my own structure or form. With each story, I was trying to do something beyond or more than the last story that I had written. I think I get bored as a writer, so I couldn’t write every story just like ‘Disappearance.’ I wouldn’t have been able to keep my own interest in the book. I do think that’s why the styles and tones of the stories differ. There are so many short story collections where the stories are all really similar in style, and as a reader that doesn’t work for me or sustain my attention. I need variety as I’m going through a collection, and the same thing applied to my writing process.
CW: I’m glad I asked about this because it didn’t feel out of place, it just felt somehow different to the others. I also noticed with ‘Disappearance’ that I was almost holding my breath while I read. It felt very bodily. When I finished that story, I had to put the collection down for a bit.
DA: That’s a good response, I think?
CW: I’ve seen the collection referred to as a ‘migrant experience,’ a ‘Syrian immigrant experience,’ and a ‘Syrian-American experience.’ I read some discourse recently on Americans outside of the United States being called ‘expats,’ but those entering the United States are called ‘immigrants.’ What are your thoughts on this?
DA: I don’t think I was surprised that the book was readily received or being read as American. I think growing up as a first-generation Syrian-American, I wasn’t read as American, personally, in a lot of spaces. I did expect that to a degree. I think what was surprising, though, is that even when it was being submitted to American publishers there was this kind of real inability to engage with it as American. I expected that from maybe some readers, but it just felt like the industry as a whole decided that certain stories are going to be American and certain stories are going to be others. There’s a slot for each of these things. What happened is the book was being read as not American, and it was competing then with books that were more clearly other. And it really couldn’t compete in that space. Or it was just very confusing. There was some feedback: ‘We don’t understand what this is?’ I found that really surprising. They’re short stories. They’re really not confusing, you know? The confusion was about who I was, it seemed like, and what space I occupied. To go to your first point about expats and immigrants, that is something I’m definitely aware of. I lived in Colombia for a little bit, and in Colombia all of the Americans get to call themselves expats, but Colombians in the US don’t get to call themselves expats. You know what, I’m going to go off on a tangent. Let me stick to the book.
DA: I will point out, too, there is this conflation between Arab and Muslim that happens very readily and easily, and it’s very Orientalist. Some of how the book has been received has been like, ‘Oh, this is the voice of Muslim Americans or Muslims.’ That is indicative of how reductive the industry can be of people in the US who aren’t white – in that you don’t get to be nuanced in the same way. You do end up having to represent, whether you want to or not. What I was interested in was, OK, if this book was going to be representative then I was going to complicate representation, and I wasn’t going to spoon-feed culture to an assumed white reader. I was going to write these characters how I wanted to write them. I wasn’t going to over-explain their background or religion. Because I think that it’s boring to me as a writer, and also I do have more faith in readers than I think some of the publishing industry allows. I think readers do want to be challenged and engaged, and they don’t necessarily want to be spoon-fed. So maybe I am writing for a particular type of reader, but I think that’s fine.
CW: During a recent reading with Layla AlAmmar (Silence is a Sense), there was a brief discussion about language – specifically italicizing words. And I’m loath to bring up Junot Díaz, who has truly wounded me as a Dominican-American and as a writer. But Junot Díaz has spoken on this when asked if he thinks his use of Spanish alienates readers. Basically, the conversation was about Spanish and Elvish. Can you speak more on your decision not to italicise or translate in your own work?
DA: Junot Díaz hugely influenced my very early writing and his talking about the way he uses Spanish I also found very interesting while I formed my own thoughts on the subject. I think that when you italicise a word it labels it as exotic. Like here’s this thing that stands out from the rest. I read a really interesting piece in Catapult a few weeks ago, ‘The Case Against Using “Foreign” Words.’ The writer was using Indian and Indonesian dishes as an example. And saying how masala wouldn’t get italicised in English, but lesser-known dishes, like nasi goreng, would get italicised. I think by doing that what you’re insinuating is that there’s an assumed reader who will not understand what this Indonesian dish is, so you have to label it as exotic. I’m an Arabic speaker; Arabic is not an exotic language to me. I’m not assuming that the only readers I will have will be people who have no familiarity or understanding of Arabic. I think if I’m comfortable with reading words that maybe I’m not familiar with in English texts, then I think my readers can do the same. I also think, again to go back to trusting the reader, it’s a more interesting reading journey when maybe you don’t understand every single reference on a first read. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get something out of the reading. Maybe sometimes you have to dig a little deeper. That’s fine. I also think that the larger question about cultural translation is that authors of colour in the US, at least in the past, have been marketed as ‘native informants.’ So like, ‘If you want to understand the Dominican experience: read this book!’ And now you understand the Dominican-American experience.
CW: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
DA: That was definitely a conscious thing that I was doing: not wanting to be representative of the Arab-American or the Syrian-American experience. I didn’t want to explain religion and culture in that way. Religion and culture inform my characters, or most of my characters. I also wasn’t assuming that a reader would not be familiar at all with that religion or that culture.
CW: I don’t speak Arabic, but I wasn’t distracted or confused. I just kept reading. Before our interview actually, I went into some of the texts I have by Junot Díaz – I don’t speak Spanish, either – and, again, I didn’t find it distracting. And yet, it’s this constant conversation that I think is masked as accessibility, but it’s really something else.
CW: In considering collective trauma, I noted that some pieces in Alligator and Other Stories are literally connected, with a character called Zaynab appearing in multiple narratives. Did you set out to write a short story collection, or had you considered writing a novel?
DA: I will say that you’re the first person to talk about the reappearing character. It’s actually the name that reappears. What happened is – I know this will sound bizarre – I kept using the same name for different female characters, then I thought: Oh, this is going to be a problem. I should change the name. There more I thought about it, though, I realised there’s a reason I was doing it, and I’m just going to leave it as is until I figure out what that reason is. Maybe I’m putting meaning on it in retrospect, but why I did ultimately keep it that way was because these are all imagined Arab-American experiences and identities. The name is Zaynab. I thought if Zaynab could be this person, she could also be this person. It tied into my aim to complicate what an Arab-American could be. But you know what? Not even my editor has said anything about this. Literally you’re the first person to ever say anything about it, which is wild.
CW: It’s all the close-reading I’ve been doing for my own PhD.
DA: To answer the second part of the question: I knew that I was writing a short story collection. I didn’t set out to write a novel. The only time that came into question was when I was working on two of the stories – when I was working on ‘Alligator,’ and I think it was Jenn [Ashworth] who said, ‘This could be a novella or a novel.’ And I agreed, but I thought also I might go crazy trying to do that. There was a second story that didn’t end up going into the collection that I did write into a novella, which I then tried to condense into a short story.
CW: Now that you’ve said this, I understand why they’re not the same character. For example, there’s the story where a character is talking about her Aunt Zaynab and she has nine or ten children, but when Zaynab appears again in another story she says she doesn’t have any children. I was like, ‘What’s happening?’
DA: [Laughs.] Oh, no.
CW: I really like what you’ve said about them not being the same person, and I’m glad that I asked about it.
DA: I think you are definitely my closest reader maybe ever.
CW: Can you elaborate on your stylistic decisions – including the poetry in ‘Daughters of Manāt’ and later the collaging in of some factual documents in ‘Alligator’?
DA: I was actually looking at ‘Daughters of Manāt’ recently and the formatting in the UK and US editions are a little different. I think it makes a difference in reading because there are three narrative threads in that story. One is centre-aligned and the more poetic thread. Second is the narrator who is talking about her aunt, and that is left-aligned. And in the third thread, she is focusing more on herself, and it’s right-aligned. I wrote the central thread first, on its own. There were no characters or narrators, just these voices that were in different tenses and from different perspectives, and it was very lyrical. The story was initially called ‘Woman,’ and I was trying to write this experience of womanhood, then it just led to me anchoring a particular story to a particular woman that would tie into the existing central thread. My formal decisions felt like I was braiding threads. When I was editing it, I actually had them all cut up and on the floor. And for ‘Alligator,’ it was also very much a physical act. At one point I was cutting it up, and it covered my entire living room floor where I just moved pieces around as I thought about how they looked. I was also interested in how they mashed up against each other. There are sections of prose and historical documents and scripts that I wrote and images. I saw these very much as a collage, like you said, and I was interested in what the effect would be if I put different texts together. How would it change if I moved things around like a puzzle? What would the reading experience be like if I did this or that? I was interested in the power that could hold – the ability to read a section, then for that section to be undermined by whatever comes right after. I really liked that possibility because then they were in conversation with each other, and something new was born. I had never done anything like that before, but it came very naturally. I felt that I understood storytelling in that particular way. We bring whatever we know into what we’re reading. Intertextuality is always there.
CW: I did find it really interactive. I would read something and flip back to what I had just read, understanding Oh, these characters are related, and flip forward. I think that really speaks to the collection as a whole, having these interwoven threads of displacement, loss, and death. How do these themes relate to the collection’s larger concerns with belonging and identity?
DA: I guess, it’s hard to be human. I am interested in that hardship. I’m interested in that place of not belonging, of being on the outside, or the margins of something, and being able to kind of see in. I think that is part of the human experience. It’s something, I think, all people can relate to, to some degree. Frank O’Connor wrote that the short story is always about the lonely voice, the outsider, the submerged population group. While I don’t wholly agree with O’Connor, there is some truth to that. It applies to all of the stories in my collection. Identity maybe becomes clear, sometimes, when it’s excluded or when it’s in opposition to something or when it’s oppressed; that is when identifications become clearest or when people step into those identities, whether they want to or not. I don’t think that the feeling of displacement is separable from the notion of identity. If we’re talking about writing identity, then that space interests me the most. When is it that you have to identify as this or the other? It usually is when you’re coming up against something that is telling you you’re different or that you don’t belong. With that said, I don’t look at it as a negative thing. I think there is a lot of agency in that space. You can see more clearly when you’re not on the inside. You can maybe see what the price of belonging actually is and whether or not you’re willing to pay that price.
CW: Wow – yes. Several reviews and blurbs about the collection speak exclusively of the women in your collection, but I found the chapter about a man named Farid to be particularly poignant. The piece is written in the second-person and shows Farid struggling with his sexual identity. Can you tell me more about ‘In the Land of Kan’an’?
DA: That story was actually born not from any one specific person I know but from knowing young men who identify as Muslim but were either out and gay or were in a kind of tumultuous place regarding their sexuality. That story was a result of those friendships and thinking a lot about what that space would be like and how difficult it would be. I was envisioning what that might look like 20, 30, 40 years down the road to someone like that. Before I even decided to write that story, I thought a lot about this imaginary character of Farid, and he made me so sad. I really thought a lot about the kinds of things he would have to come to believe, to arrive at a place where he had to live such a suppressed life. The story references that he’s watching videos of these religious figures talk about his sexuality as something to be ashamed of, and I had gone down this road of watching loads of videos and attempted to put myself in that space. I could personally understand that heteronormative pressure exists, not just in Arab cultures. I had felt that as a teenager, growing up in my own life, the pressure to be straight. So, it was something that came from a personal space, not just from people I’ve known, but also my own sexuality.
CW: It felt incredibly lonely. I think it says a lot about the price you pay, sometimes, to belong or to adhere to certain standards.
CW: In ‘Alligator,’ there are many references to passing and race. There’s a clip you included from a Syrian newspaper that says Syrians are more desirable than other people of colour. And there’s a point after a Syrian-American is shot that another character says, ‘It wasn’t right, a white woman dying like that.’ Then much later a black character says: ‘Everyone wants to identify with the struggle of the Black man, the Black woman, the Black child … He might’ve thought himself a white man, heck, he might have actually been one for a time, but he died like us and he won’t even know it.’ I found that to be a really powerful quote and, unfortunately, relevant in a Black Lives Matter climate.
DA: I started writing ‘Alligator’ because I was reading about how Arab-Americans came to be racialised, officially, in the US. For example, in the US I have to click that I am a ‘white American’ whenever I fill out documents. Of course, Arabs aren’t thought of as white in the social or political sense in the US. There’s a ton of really interesting research on how that came to be. Briefly it was because Arab-Americans had to prove they were white in order to qualify for citizenship when citizenship laws, at the beginning of the 20th century, were very much steeped – even more so than now – in ideas of race. Unless Arab immigrants were white, they weren’t going to be American. There’s this really interesting history of Arab-American national belonging very intertwined with whiteness and needing to be white. What I was interested in with that story was considering how someone ‘becomes’ white and what that means for Arab-Americans specifically. I wanted to track that process because I think the value in doing so is the revelation that whiteness is a leaky concept; it’s very constructed, and it’s something that we count on to be invisible so that we don’t have to talk about it. Making it visible takes away some of its power, and it depends on power. In that whoever has power gets to name what whiteness is. In this story these characters who were killed were white in certain spaces and when it didn’t serve the powers that be, then they weren’t white and they were killed. In that story the Romys, the couple that were killed, their aspiration for American belonging very much depended on whiteness. I wanted to look at how that myth wouldn’t serve you – when it came down to it they were still killed, right? I was interested in who Arab-Americans oppress in their aspirations for American belonging, therefore upholding white supremacy. In this way they’re oppressing other people of colour, especially black people. I didn’t want to just paint Arab-Americans as victims, I wanted also to consider their position as perpetrators in the kind of violence that oppresses them – willingly or not. I wanted to challenge both things: the white supremacy that killed this couple is the same white supremacy that was upheld by this couple and later their progeny in the years to follow. That actually it’s very easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor. Being a person of colour doesn’t give you a free pass. It doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of upholding white supremacy or the oppression of others.
CW: That says so much about accountability. I could picture so vividly the youngest character of that family line. I thought to myself, I know this guy. I grew up in Pennsylvania – I know that guy. I really appreciated how you addressed the microaggressions that he put into the world. Especially in that conversation that began with, ‘Where are you from?’ Because that’s never really what they mean, right? But now I’ll stop asking intense questions.
CW: What are you reading for fun?
DA: I’m reading The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. She’s a British-Arab writer. It’s her first book – it’s five-hundred pages or something. She’s so impressive. It’s brilliant so far. It tracks one Palestinian man who moved to France as the Ottoman Empire was breaking up. I’m also reading Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power by Ijoema Oluo. It’s nice because for the PhD I read so much race theory. It’s nice to read something that isn’t as heavy but is still discussing those topics in a way that connects to contemporary events and culture and history. So, I guess I’m still doing the same kind of reading I was doing before but … light. [Laughs.]
CW: I’m sure even when the PhD ends, it’s difficult to pull yourself out of that academic mindset and space and actually read something for fun without writing a paper about it.
DA: Yes! For a while I would still pick up a pencil whenever I was reading to take notes.
CW: You’ve been in academia for quite a while. Did you go right from your MA into your PhD?
DA: I took two or three years in between.
CW: I don’t know if you feel this way, but even after having many full-time jobs throughout my time in academia, I’ve always felt most comfortable in a university-setting. And now, when my PhD ends, there aren’t any more degrees to get.
CW: So, I have to ask you the dreaded question.
CW: I know, I hate asking it. What are you doing next?
DA: I am freaking out! I’m trying to write. I’m trying to make money. The answer right now is, honestly, I just try to make it to the end of the day without having an existential crisis.
CW: That’s so comforting to hear. I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s comforting. You’re so not alone in that.
DA: I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s tough. So many have it much harder than me, so I don’t mean to complain about it. I’m just trying to hold it together until the next thing happens.
CW: Thank you for your honesty. You know, I keep seeing this fucking meme, or tweet, they’re basically the same now, that says something like Oh, during Shakespeare’s time these horrible things happened, and he still wrote Romeo and Juliet! It’s this constant barrage of ‘What are you doing with this precious time we’ve been given?’ We’re in a pandemic!
DA: Exactly. I’m just trying not to lose my mind.
CW: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I could easily continue talking with you for hours, but those are all my – well, actually, can I sneak in one more question?
CW: In ‘Daughters of Manāt,’ there are several quick and deliberate sentences. I thought this was a great contrast to the calm thoughtfulness of a character who is about to die by suicide, as she takes the time to brush her hair, do her make up, and even worries that if her death is too bloody, it will disgust or inconvenience others. This felt so telling of women’s conditioning – the idea that women should be both attractive and unimposing at all times, regardless of their mindset.
DA: I don’t know how much I can talk about it as a super-conscious thing I did. What you’re talking about comes up in other places as well – there’s the roommate who gets beat up by some guy and ends up in the hospital, and the narrator notices that her roommate’s toenail polish is chipped as she is lying in the hospital bed. There’s another section when the narrator has an abortion, and she calls one of the doctors pretty and another ugly. She also shaves her head, and her grandmother says, ‘Now no one will marry you’ and later her mother says, ‘Thank God your hair is growing back.’ I was thinking a lot about what women have to navigate in terms of their physical presentation and appeal and the importance that is placed on it. And how sad it is when you measure it against the real things that women contend with in their lives and the pity of it, I think. In that bit you mentioned, this person is going to throw herself out of a window, she’s going to die, and the gravity of that is so huge, but she’s thinking, Oh, I hope I don’t offend anyone with how I look. It is a really extreme example, but it is an example of how, maybe even when there are these weighty things happening in a woman’s life, she can be reduced to an image. How we judge a woman is based on her presentation even when there’s all of this other stuff going on.
CW: I’m so glad I asked that question. Thank you again for this interview. I really loved reading your work. I don’t get much time these days to read for pleasure and reading Alligator and Other Stories was a bit of time I was able to spend reading something enjoyable and beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing it.
DA: Thank you, Cindy. Thank you for really great questions. I really enjoyed this.