Malu Halasa is on new ground.
A journalist and author of numerous non-fiction books on the Middle East, Malu Halasa has just published her first novel, Mother of All Pigs. Born in Oklahoma, her Jordanian Filipina heritage gave her a unique perspective from the beginning. After growing up in Ohio, she attended Barnard College in New York and now lives in London. From this vantage point, she’s taken on the fascinating world of the Middle East and has worked hard to expand the number of voices heard from that area.
Throughout the conversation we explore the tricky thing that is “American Literature.” When she first began working on this novel in the 90s, Malu didn’t expect to publish it because there didn’t appear to be a market in the states for Middle Eastern narrative. People were willing to read non-fiction, but not a novel. As she looked on bookshelves she wondered “where is my family story?” Luckily for us, she wrote it herself.
It is my hope that more people do the same. If a story is missing from the shelves, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be included. We need to challenge the publishing status quo by supporting fiction that expands our boundaries and helps us learn. I hope you are inspired by listening to this episode to think about what story you have to tell that isn’t currently getting heard. I can’t imagine how many stories we aren’t reading that need to be read. If you have a story like this, listen to this episode and then write your story. We want to hear your story, too.
Discussed in Episode 81 with Malu Halasa
- Grew up in Ohio, worked at Rolling Stone magazine, went to London to write about music and then culture.
- Became editor of Prince Claus Fund Library.
- Wrote non-fiction on the Middle East before turning to her novel.
- As an editor of Middle Eastern writers, she wanted to create a platform that felt contemporary and not rooted in older, stereotypes of oriental rugs and such.
- She wanted to write a family story to see how readers would react to the Middle East if their entrance was fiction.
- “In the west, people are used to looking at the region through politics.” On writing a family story set in the Middle East.
- Readers, in general, don’t expect modern, contemporary voices to come from the Middle East.
- Her non-fiction books have reached important and influential readers but not through a story.
- “I wanted to go beyond those reductive images.” On writing about contemporary women in the Middle East.
- “Being there on the ground, peoples’ lives really opened up to me.” On reporting her non-fiction work in Syria.
- The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie
- “I think that all families keep secrets.” On the universality of family stories.
- “Or even the pig.” On the capacity of all characters to keep secrets.
- “The pig is also a chaotic stranger.” On the influence of outsiders on family stories.
- “I don’t go to my relatives’ house and start talking about sex.” On how much of herself is in her characters.
- Started working on her novel in the 90s. But there was no real market in the States for Arabic fiction.
- “Why was I working on something I didn’t even know would get published?” On writing her novel in-between non-fiction books.
- She is of the generation that thinks of novel writing as a higher artistic achievement than non-fiction writing. She doesn’t agree with this, but is aware of it.
- Novel is more dense because it was written over a longer period of time. Every time she went back to it, she was able to see it with fresh eyes.
- “Where is my family?” On looking for representations of herself in fiction.
- “Stories belong to all of us.” On the variety of stories that are starting to be told.
- “I am on totally new ground.” On turning her novel over to an editor and publisher.
- She is not planning on going back to non-fiction, even though there is demand for more of her work. When she started doing that work, she was one of a very few women looking at Middle Eastern art and culture. Now there are many. Her voice isn’t as needed.
A gift before you go...
Get your Copy of Meangingful Units, an eBook and Worksheet to get your draft done along with Footnotes, weekly literary love delivered right to your inbox.