Memoir: a way into understanding self and others

The Language of BaklavaThe Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read that each vignette was to be related to a food, I thought, This isn’t going to work; I’m going to be bored quickly. However, food was so important to Abu-Jaber’s father, his family, and culture, that it did work. I was soon caught up in the narrative and the organizing device slipped into the background. I would be reminded with each recipe, then it would again retreat.

I have read about first-generation dual-culture challenges, but this is the first second-generation memoir I have read. Not only the push-pull of old-country Vs. new-country values and expectations, but also parent expectations Vs. peer expectations added to the complexity of Diana’s growing up. In spite of narrating teen-ager frustration and rebellion, Abu-Jaber presents a sympathetic portrait of her father. Her mother, though mentioned less often, is still a dominant figure, also presented sympathetically.

Abu-Jaber’s descriptive language pulled me into the appeal of each culture, periods of confusion, times of identifying with where she was, and times of missing where she was not. Making the transition from living in New York state to Jordan, she describes her first ride through town: “The sidewalks are not like the orderly, straight-line sidewalks of our old neighborhood. Here, they wind around and roam this way and that, as if they’ve decided to go where they pleased.” On returning to a Jordanian city after visiting Bedouin relatives, she ponders ” . . . a larger, more formless question, something about whether people have to decide exactly who they are and where their home is. Do we have to know who we are once and for all? How many lives are we allowed?”

The book was well paced. I didn’t have any moments of “when will this end?” that sometimes occur about three quarters of the way through a memoir. It is not only a good read, but opens a necessary window on immigrant experience, on insights of identity formation, some of which are transferable to non-immigrants.

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3 responses to “Memoir: a way into understanding self and others

  1. dezertsuz

    “Do we have to know who we are once and for all?” I like that question, because I think it’s one we all ask – or ought to. “What will you be when you grow up?” and the answer is, “It depends on what day of the week it is.” =) I like the fact that human beings have the ability to change. We are not set in stone unless we allow ourselves to be. We aren’t ever going to be the same person next year that we are now or were last year, so why lock ourselves in to certain expectations? This sounds like a book that provokes thought. Thanks!

  2. Maureen in Portland

    I loved this book when I read it with my book group when it first came out. The author is a PSU professor, and she’s going to be featured at the Multnomah County main library on Tuesday:

    A Day in the Life: The Language of Baklava
    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 – 6:15pm
    Multnomah County Library Central Library, U.S. Bank Room, 810 SW 10th Avenue
    Featuring a discussion with Diana Abu-Jaber, author and Portland State University Associate Professor of English

  3. Cher

    still reading, so did not read all of your post…guess I won’t be making the library meeting…enjoy

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