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This Great Democracy: An Interview with Huda Al-Marashi

credit Donna Wheatley Photography

In 2006, I was still searching for a literary community in my adopted city of Cleveland. That’s how I found myself attending a public writing workshop every Wednesday night at a nearby university. At the time, I was drafting some of the stories that would make up my first book—though I didn’t know that yet—and I was also about to spark a friendship that would have a lasting impact on me both personally and as a writer. I didn’t know that yet, either.

In the early days of that workshop, Huda Al-Marashi’s writing stood out to me immediately. She was working on a memoir surrounding her identity as an American-born Arab growing up in California while negotiating the contrasting cultures of her American homeland and her parents’ Iraqi roots. Huda’s writing was vivid, fresh, and funny. I knew right away she was someone to watch out for.

Huda and I eventually developed a critique partnership and then a friendship. Together with a mutual friend, we spent countless hours writing in one another’s company. We offered each other feedback, encouragement, and camaraderie—not to mention commiseration whenever a rejection rolled in, which was a frequent occurrence for all of us. Over the course of our ten-year friendship, I watched Huda’s memoir develop, deepen, and change. Now framed to detail how her dual Iraqi-American identity influenced her marriage, I think this memoir is stronger—and more relevant—than ever.

Excerpts of Huda’s in-progress memoir have appeared in Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women and Extreme Religion. She is the recipient of a Cuyahoga County Creative Workforce Fellowship and an Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellowship. Huda was born in Michigan but raised in Monterey, California, where she and her family now live (a move that was undoubtedly Cleveland’s loss—and mine, as well).

I spoke with Huda recently to learn more about her work as an Iraqi-American writer during this contentious political landscape, how her memoir has progressed over the years, and what advice she might offer other writers willing to take risks.

In recent months, you’ve published essays and op-eds surrounding your identity as a Muslim American and your family’s immigration stories in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera, and Refinery29. What do you hope to accomplish by publishing these pieces?

I didn’t set out planning to write those op-eds. Instead, each one was a reaction to something that happened in the news. I felt I had to act, that I’d feel remiss if I didn’t try to respond.

After the election, writing op-eds helped me to focus my energy, which made me feel less helpless. But as time goes on, it starts to feel more risky [to write about these issues]. It’s one thing to call out candidate Trump, but with President Trump, the rules are changing—look at the pushback journalists have been getting. And because I write from the place of a mother, I want to protect my children.

Let’s talk about those concerns. In your Refinery29 piece, you wrote, “I find scenarios I once considered implausible constraining my plans for the future,” and went on to cite fears surrounding vandalism, internment camps, and being barred from entering the country after traveling internationally. Have similar anxieties seeped into your writing process?

I view my writing as a way to exert my First Amendment rights, to participate in this great democracy, and to use my voice for change. But I also recognize that if someone wants to construe that information differently, it can turn you from a citizen to a criminal.

My parents never wanted me to be a writer. My mother’s take was, “Writing is a dangerous act.” When you’re living under a dangerous regime, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, you don’t pick up a pen. Here in the United States, we don’t have the same level of concerns, but things are surfacing nonetheless. I see Muslim-American lawyers posting warnings online—they’re saying, “Don’t get complacent in your rights as a citizen. What you say can be used against you.” It’s unsettling.

Writers are often advised not to read the comment sections when their essays are published online. Do you read the comments? If so, what do they reveal to you?

I try to make a point to not read the comments, but I’ll scroll through and scan the first lines to get a feeling of what’s being said. One of the most common negative comments I receive is: “If you don’t like it here, go back home.” That’s so fundamentally wrong. I was born here. I’m an American. Just because I’m talking about this other perspective doesn’t mean I have another home.

People from a white American background are allowed to criticize [what’s happening in our country] and are never told to “go home.” When do we stop becoming second-class citizens who can’t complain about what’s going on? I also get a lot of “It’s your own fault” kind of comments from people who equate Muslims with terrorists. But one type of response I tend to sympathize with is when people express a version of “Don’t tell me my fears are illegitimate.” I recognize this is coming from a place of anxiety. One man emailed me to say, basically, “Don’t take my fear away from me.” It’s sad.

What would you like these readers—or anyone who views Muslim Americans as a threat—to know?

I feel there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what it is to be different, to be from a different background, or to be an immigrant. The argument is framed around what immigrants are taking away—jobs, resources. But from my perspective, I only see what immigrants are giving to our country. The vast majority of people coming to America are here to study, to work, to settle and build a new life. They offer us a different way of looking at the world.

In California, I see tech companies full of employees from different countries. I also have several family members in the medical field, so I see hospitals filled with doctors from all over the world. Our universities are staffed with academics and researchers from other countries. And so I see contributions here rather than drain.

I wish those who feel afraid would take the time to get to know an actual Muslim and have a conversation with us. Muslims are not a monolith, of course, and you can’t have a relationship with one and generalize, but it’s a start.

I’d also like people to know that in most Middle Eastern countries, the tendency is, by far, toward co-existence between Christians and Muslims. If you go into an average American town with a Middle Eastern community, you’ll see our immigrant communities are mixed—Arab Christians and Arab Muslims from different sects, doing business and living together. There’s no animosity between these groups. In fact, we’ve come together even more now because people can’t tell the difference between an Arab Muslim or Christian and so we are all discriminated against equally. A lot of our families are also intermarried; several of my family members have married Christians, and there’s no requirement for Christians to convert. A big misconception is that there is only one type of Muslim. It’s not that one-dimensional.

What was it like for you to follow the news of the immigration ban?

It’s physically painful. When I heard the news, I felt as if there was something squeezing my chest.

It’s been ten years since my grandfather’s passing. [Huda has written about her grandfather here and here.] He had a green card—he waited ten years to get that green card, so there’s no question he was thoroughly vetted—and then got his U.S. citizenship. He was very proud to be in this country. But I’m almost glad he’s not here to see what’s happening now.

Recently, at a dinner of extended family, my sister looked around said, “Imagine if the ban had been in place [previously]. All these people wouldn’t be here.” And it made me think, why do our bodies have less of a right to be here? I don’t want to play into the “exceptional immigrant” myth—it’s problematic to suggest all immigrants need to be exceptional to earn their place in America—but I looked around the room and everyone there really was exceptional. It’s so hurtful to see that you’re working so hard and trying so hard, that you’re giving back to your community every day, but no one around you sees it.

And I worry for my kids. I grew up to know a different America, but it has been so much more anti-Muslim since they were born.

Your in-progress memoir, I know, touches on some of these issues relating to immigration and how Muslims are regarded in contemporary American culture. Why did you begin writing this book, and how has it changed over the years as you continued working on it? What do you hope this work might accomplish, and why do you think this kind of memoir is necessary right now?

When I began working on this memoir, I was largely writing in response to 9/11 and to combat ill will toward Muslims. As the years passed and I was still not done, I often worried that the relevance of my manuscript might die out, but in reality, the problems [for Muslim Americans] never went away. Instead, they shifted and escalated.

I set out with the intention of humanizing Muslim-American stories—I wanted to write a relatable coming-of-age immigrant story. Early on in the process, an agent advised me that the “coming to America” story has been told before, so the manuscript needed a specific hook. I decided on a love story—the story of how I came to marry my husband—because love stories are often the most humanizing.

When you read a book, those people become a part of you. I wanted to do what books did for me, which was introduce me to different kinds of people, religions, or ways of life. As minorities, we consume books and movies of the dominant culture constantly and thus we have intimate insight into that dominant culture, but the opportunity to do the reverse isn’t always there. I wanted to correct that balance a bit. I remember what it was like to never see myself reflected in what I read, and I wanted to change that for other Muslim Americans.

If someone from outside the fold—someone who’s afraid of Muslims—read my book and came away from it with a different perspective, I’d consider my life well lived.

I met you in 2006, when you were working on a much earlier draft of this memoir. Following a decade of revisions and rewrites, you recently signed with a literary agent. How do you feel about 1) the fact that this process took longer than you originally expected and 2) the possibility of publishing the manuscript in this political climate?

I’m so glad I waited and didn’t rush the manuscript. In every revision, I grew as a writer, and the manuscript is better for it. One thing I’d tell other aspiring writers is that even if people aren’t reading your writing yet, there’s still merit in the work you’re doing in your notebook and on your computer. All those drafts will eventually add up and become something.

And when it does come together, it really is about connecting to the right person for your work. I didn’t realize how true that was until it happened for me. I knew as soon as I started talking to my agent that she understood exactly what I was trying to do with this book.

In terms of potentially publishing the book in this climate, it makes me feel hopeful—worried, too—but hopeful. I also have the selfish need to feel as though I’m doing something. I think that’s something a lot of people are struggling with right now.

What advice do you have for aspiring Muslim-American writers right now?

We need you. Your voice matters. This is how we shift the conversation if we don’t like what people are saying about us. We have to take back the narrative.

At the same time, it’s not enough to write from this place of being a Muslim in America—you also need to know your craft. Take care to learn the craft of writing and put your best possible work out there. Don’t rush it. Put something together worth reading.