Schedule: BinderCon LA, March 19-20

January 22nd, 2016

I was overjoyed to learn that I’m a scholarship recipient for the next BinderCon, a professional development conference to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers. This has been a hugely supportive group of women, I loved BinderCon NYC last autumn, and I can’t wait to meet more of these powerhouse writers in person and share experiences.

What: BinderCon, hosted by Out of the Binders

When: March 19–20, 2016

Where: UCLA, Los Angeles

See you there!

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Holy objects

January 21st, 2016

My grandmother, Millie Kanaan, wasn’t big on giving gifts. She kept a wad of cash in a bathrobe pocket, and crinkled fives and tens made their way into our hands for birthdays, departures, holidays. She bought us sweets, or sent us home with fushettes–fried Syrian bread dough and homemade chocolate icing. Five years ago, she gave me one of her rings and made sure it fit: I’ve worn it every moment since, except when swimming in open water. It wasn’t the first time she talked about dying, but it was the first and only gift she gave me for the purpose of remembering her when she was gone.

And now that she is gone–her body, her house, a whole material universe of her presence in the world–I found myself drawn to mementos not of her, but of her mementos of others; basically, memories of memories, symbols of people and places sixty years removed. What I don’t know or didn’t ask makes me sad. This feeling of regret over lost history is probably, largely, a universal one. (I hope it is, because even shared grief is lonely enough.) But I like to think of her using these objects, looking at them, thinking about someone she loved or missed or about a place beyond the pink-carpeted rooms of her old age.

  •  The family ring, seven small diamonds to represent my grandparents and their five children;
  •  Her father’s rosary and its tin box, shaped like a bible;
  •  Her red Orthodox prayer book, with her husband’s obituary card in the back cover;
  •  Her husband’s WWII Army Air Corps unit photograph;
  •  A Heinz pickle pin (small and green, a cheerful object to Pittsburgh natives);
  •  Carved wooden giraffe, a gift from her son-in-law after his trip to Ghana;
  •  The smaller pair of binoculars, used for birdwatching and deer-watching from her kitchen window;
  •  Plastic wall clock, which ticked loudly in her room in the nursing home.

The last isn’t sentimental. But it was one of the first and last things she looked at every day for her final year. Among other assets, my grandmother was a punctual and practical woman. And really, at the heart of all these mementos, is time: shared, lost, turned back, erased, treasured, limited.

Obituary, Millie Kanaan (January 29, 1924–January 15, 2016)

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Maybe Merry

December 21st, 2015

As the year ends, it’s easy to focus on the ways in which this holiday season could be better. The health of grandmothers is too present: mine and her sadness in the face of her first major holiday in a nursing home; my wife’s grandmother on hospice; the neighbor’s who passed away suddenly two days ago, which I learned when I opened the front door to a street full of Oakland Police cruisers.  A dear friend recently lost her grandmother, too.

These are the women who created Christmas literally from the sugar in their kitchens and the yarn in their hands. As I hang three of my grandma’s treasured hand-blown-glass icicles on our tree, our own plans are fragile as a skiff of ice–rushed between work projects and the likelihood of an emergency bereavement flight to Texas.

I’m thankful for so many things, though–my wife, my family, my work, my job, my health. That these blessings are obvious to me makes them feel even more like dumb luck. But I had to prod myself to remember these last night as I cleaned a litter box in the rain. I couldn’t think of a worse, more angering chore to conduct at 10 p.m. under a broken porch light–especially after having just spent four bone-chilling hours in an outdoor pool for a swim class. Erin had gone to bed, my work was overwhelming me, and I couldn’t stop sneezing. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to grasp what’s actually, specifically good about obvious blessings, so I focused on one other thing I have always been grateful for:

I was thankful for having an appetite.

My history with food is long, warm, and undiscriminating. I came inside, dried the rain off my hair and sweatshirt, and poured the rest of the leftover chili over rice. I ate two pieces of cornbread while it heated up. I opened a beer. I finished the chili and beer and made hot chocolate, pausing just to feed some marshmallows to the dog. Then I ate the leftover tortellini and meat sauce and took a dessert of dark chocolate to the couch. This is normal enough. This is how I feel happy and taken-care-of in the depths of any dark mood or piece of ambivalent holiday news.

In my family, food is love. My grandmother learned to cook from her mother-in-law, a widow from Lebanon, and when we cousins were children she would bring us a sample of whatever she was cooking: a little thumb-sized lump of food in a napkin that she called a “mouse.”

My favorite kind of mouse was kibbeh niyeh–raw lamb with bulgur wheat, salted and served cold. Its flavor was mineral and oddly refreshing. But I loved any sort of food she gave us, and it was easy to do partly because she made the best stuffed grape leaves on this side of the Mediterranean, and mostly because it was the one time she didn’t mind us gathering around the kitchen doorway with our appetites and bad jokes and bottomless hunger for her attention. She never refused a hug, and whenever I went home, she always dropped whatever she was doing and stood in her driveway, hand on her hip, and waved goodbye to the car until she couldn’t see it anymore.

Last night, satiated and growing warmer, I sat on the couch in a room lit only by my computer screen and the Christmas tree. I let the calico cat pick over the crumbs on my plate. (I forgive this animal too quickly, Erin says.) The glass icicles refracted the colored lights. I missed my grandmother–she’s still alive and I saw her last week, but she is 92 and in wobbly health, and I only see her twice a year. Christmas is a milestone that looks further away every time.

“I’ll see you in May,” I told her.

“It’s too long.”

“I’ll talk to you on the phone a lot between now and then.”

Still, she’d labored up from her chair and set aside the pork loin and grape leaves I’d brought her, and walked me all the way to the front door of the nursing home. She clomped her walker over the doorframe and struggled out to the porch. Erin and I drove around the roundabout and tooted the horn, and she stepped away from her walker long enough to wave goodbye. When I checked the rearview mirror, she was still waving.

Holidays or not, this is my grandmother’s tacit wisdom: the equivalence of food and affection. You feed someone if you love them. If you love them, you feed them. It’s no wonder that the first gift I ever gave Erin was a container of homemade chicken noodle soup.

So, here’s my wish. May you always have someone to feed, and someone to feed you.

 

Grants!

October 20th, 2015

Thanks to Lizette Wanzer’s amazing grant workshop at the San Francisco Grotto, I spent some time putting myself out there for new writing opportunities this year.

I’m beyond pleased to say that two of these grant applications were approved. One is a Creative Capacity Fund Quick Grant that will enable me to attend BinderCon in New York next month. The other is a Key West Literary Seminar Writers Workshop scholarship to attend Diana Abu Jaber’s weeklong class in January.

Writing a novel is a notoriously slow and solitary process, so it is gratifying–even life-giving–to gain support along the way. I look forwarding to meeting others on the same path, and to learning from the best.

New freelance piece published in Publishers Weekly

October 20th, 2015

This article exists behind a subscription wall, unfortunately, but if you can, check out my latest freelance piece in Publishers Weekly. After a lot of editing and the help of an amazing editor there, we managed to get my trip to London and about seven interviews to fit into a 650-word article. I still have so much good information from my research that I’m thinking about how I might use more of it in another piece.

If you don’t have a PW subscription and would like to know something specific about upcoming Arab speculative fiction, feel free to contact me.

Beyond One Thousand and One Nights: Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015-2016

Genre fiction is gaining ground in the Middle East—and, slowly, the books are moving West…

Publishers Weekly

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