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First Writer@Grinnell, Randa Jarrar, maps home

By Fabiola Barral

barralfa@grinnell.edu

This week, Writers@Grinnell hosted novelist Randa Jarrar, a writer who was introduced by Professor Bakopoulos as having “great energy in her work along with political undercurrents.” It did not take very long for audience to see how spot on Bakopoulos’s description was.

Randa Jarrar, this semester’s first Writer@Grinnell, speaks on Thursday night in JRC 101. Photograph by John Brady.

“Jarrar has an amazing voice present in her writing: this blend of slightly twisted humor, slang and honesty. Her reading was a breath of fresh air, unpretentious and fun,” said Lauren Sheely ’14. “You could see that she wrote the way she spoke, not afraid to make fun of herself or tell the truth. She certainly has lots of style.”

Randa Jarrar is a Palestinian-American Chicago native. She was raised in Kuwait and Egypt until she moved to New York at the age of 13. Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home, won a Hopwood Award and an Arab-American Book Award and was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes and Noble Review. Jarrar describes this novel as one that is very close to her own personal experience, but also largely fictionalized.

“My life and my character’s life are similar, but also, in other ways, they really differ. People who read the book assume that because my character moved to Texas after the first Gulf War, I did too, but that’s not the way it went. I moved to a really stuffy part of New York and Connecticut. I didn’t want to write about that,” stated Jarrar in an interview with Zocalo Magazine.

Jarrar opened by reading an excerpt from A Map of Home, which has been translated into over half a dozen languages. The oration she provided described a teenage girl writing her various college essays that her Arab parents pushed her to write in advance. The reading was filled with slang and down to earth writing, one that made listeners connect with the narrator, regardless of the narrator’s race and religious affiliation.

The second reading was Jarrar’s short story “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwar the Halfie”.  The short story is a humorous account of a half human, half Ibex—a “halfie.” An Ibex is a wild mountain goat found in many regions of Asia. Through the usage of a literal halfie, Jarrar also incorporates her experience as being torn as an American and as a Palestinian. As in her novel, Jarrar’s voice remains strong and direct, tugging at controversial topics such as sexuality and familial acceptance.

Aside from her critically acclaimed novel, Jarrar is also known for her short stories and her published articles. Many of her works are centered on her experience as a Palestinian-American. One such work is “Imagining Myself in Palestine”, an article written for Guernica magazine that describes her recent flight to Israel. On her way to Israel, Jarrar is detained and sent to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, a place dubbed the “Arab Room” for its notorious detentions. Throughout the article, Jarrar describes her history with her Palestinian identity, and highlights her confusion on what exactly her place is with her family’s homeland. Jarrar’s works however, including the two she read for Writers@Grinnell, convey a sharp honesty, one that strays away from conventional depictions of being Arab with a fiercely youthful and modern voice.

In an interview also with Zocalo Magazine, Jarrar said, “There is also I think an expectation that an Arab American writer is going to tell sort of whimsical, magical stories, that Arabian Nights, genie-in-a-bottle sort of stereotype that an Arab American is an adept storyteller. That is what people expect, fantastical stories about ridiculous stuff, just bullsh*t.”

Jarrar currently resides in Austin, Texas and is working on her second novel.

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