Interview with Dima Alzayat

Interview with Dima Alzayat

Dima Alzayat was born in Damascus, Syria, grew up in San Jose, California, and now lives in Manchester. She was the winner of the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2019, a 2018 Northern Writers’ Award, the 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize and the 2015 Bernice Slote Award. She is currently an associate lecturer at Lancaster University. Alzayat’s debut story collection, Alligator, offer us a window into the lives of those alienated by history, race, gender or cultural mores. Many involve immigrants trying to assimilate in an unfamiliar culture and the Syria’s shadow hangs over the stories. As Black Lives Matter dominates the news once again, Alzayat’s titular story ‘Alligator’ could not be more timely. She explores the complicity of the US police in the shocking murder of a Syrian immigrant couple in Florida in 1929. At the same time, she lay bare the US state’s contempt for its indigenous people, ‘undesirable’ immigrants and ongoing racism. I wrote to Alzayat during lockdown to talk about her inspiration and creative process and find out what’s she’s going to pursue next.

I wanted to interview you to mark Refugee Week. I know you don’t write about the refugee experience per se but you cover similar issues – alienation and loneliness in particular. What do you hope readers will take from your stories?

The Irish short story writer and critic Frank O’Connor wrote that the short story is often concerned with a ‘submerged group’ or ‘the outsider’, so in other words, about alienation and loneliness. I don’t categorically agree with O’Connor’s definition of the short story, but I do think there’s truth in it, in that although I didn’t set out to write a book focused on these themes, most of the stories in my collection do feature characters who are often on the outside looking in, or in between places and don’t feel like they wholly belong to either, whether that’s a culture, a workplace, a religion, a family, or something else. I think this feeling of not quite fitting in is something most people can relate to. What some of my stories explore and perhaps lead readers to question is the cost of fitting in. Is it sometimes not worth the cost? What is being compromised? Is there a different way to belong?

Several of your stories are set in the US and involve Syrian people. How personal are the stories you tell?

The Syrian American characters in the collection are fictional, but many are probably amalgamations of people I’ve known or heard about. I’m quite a people-watcher. I pay attention to people’s gestures, ways of speaking, their habits and peculiarities. So, a lot of that makes its way into my writing. I’m also interested in the stories people tell about themselves. Along those same lines, I’m interested in the myths that families or even whole communities or cultures tell about themselves. This mythologizing is definitely true of my family, for example, or of the particular culture I come from. And that informed, if not the content, then the mode of storytelling in stories like ‘Daughters of Manāt’ or ‘Once We Were Syrians’, which rely on oral storytelling and to some extent mythologizing as a way to transmit history and identity.

Many of the stories in this collection are about displacement. In ‘Ghusl’, a sister prepares her brother for burial. She remembers their childhood together. Their father and grandfather had met violent ends and, together with their mother, they had sought sanctuary in a new country: “A place where name had no meaning.” And yet it is here, in apparent safety, that her brother too is murdered. What are you implying with this story?

This particular story is concerned with loss, the kind that’s too heavy to bear and that will certainly shape those who have to carry it. And in this instance, it’s the loss of a family member, this brother, after this family had gone to great lengths to keep him safe. In the end, of course, danger exists everywhere in different forms. In some places, it’s a despotic regime or a violent police presence, and in others, it’s xenophobia or armed zealots, and so on. The protagonist in this story, the sister preparing her brother to be buried, had perhaps at some point believed that by leaving their home, her family could find sanctuary of some kind, but has come to learn the hard truth that each place will be unsafe in its own way.

As Black Lives Matter dominates the news once again, your story ‘Alligator’ Is particularly pertinent. You being with the shocking murder of a Syrian immigrant couple in Florida in 1929 and use this story to illuminate the US state’s ongoing racism. Why did you want to write about this?

I had come across a case study of this lynching, of a Syro-Lebanese American couple in 1929, as part of research I was doing for a PhD dissertation. The story stayed with me, and I found myself wondering what had happened to the couple’s children and grandchildren, growing up in a place that had marked their ancestors as so ‘other’ that they had to be killed. Would they have held on to their Syrian heritage, or would their assimilation be so complete as to erase the event from family history? Would they have become ‘American’ and, therefore, perhaps also ‘white’? I set out to imagine this family’s history and future, and in the process, I found that there was no way to talk about this lynching and its accompanying trauma without considering the thousands of African Americans lynched, the white supremacy that facilitated such lynchings, and how that ideology also enabled the genocide of an Indigenous American population. So, even though I had set out to write about an Arab American experience, the story began to expand. It became not only an attempt to recover the experience of U.S. racial violence by early Arab American communities, but also how racialisation made Arab Americans both victims and perpetrators of such violence.

Why did you decide to combine fact and fiction - newspaper cuttings, characters’ memories and witness statements?

The form was born of the content. My aim in bringing together such different fragments – the newspaper articles, the imagined witness testimonies, and even plays and television scripts – was to make a unified, knowable truth, or conclusion to the story, impossible. I hoped that including a diversity of voices would refute the possibility of finite meaning or one true history. I included, for example, a fictionalised letter, written to a state governor, in which an anonymous resident bemoans the unjustifiable killings of the Syrian American couple and lays the blame on the town’s police department. This letter is then directly followed by several newspaper clippings about various lynchings of Black men in Florida at that time. My goal in positioning these clippings after the complaint letter was to complicate the meaning a reader might have derived from the letter. While a reader might consider the letter-writer honourable and sympathetic for attempting to stand up for the murdered couple, the images that follow question if the letter-writer has ever done the same for any of the Black men lynched in their state. If the assumption is that they have not and would not, then why was this particular couple more valuable to the writer, and their deaths more offensive than the deaths of so many others killed in the same manner?

Do you believe trauma is inter-generational? In what ways?
Yes, definitely. There’s been a lot of interesting research done in that area, and many people better equipped to discuss it. But in my understanding and experience, trauma can be transmitted to later generations both biologically and behaviourally. Behaviourally speaking, if a parent has experienced violence, racism, food insecurity, or anything powerfully negative, really, that is going to inform how they approach the world and their projection of fear, anxiety, anger, etc. onto their immediate environment. These cues can greatly shape how children then approach the world, how trusting or suspicious they are, how safe or unsafe they feel.

You also write about orphans, supressed sexuality, and not belonging. Do you believe that fiction can help encourage empathy and change mindsets? If so, how?

Human beings are naturally drawn to a good story and that’s regardless of the medium, whether that’s writing or film or something else. I think fiction can help readers see ways of living and thinking that differ from how they live and think, and, at the very least, this can make them more open to or understanding of difference. For me, a good story puts the reader in someone else’s shoes and taps into a reader’s own experiences and emotions in order to connect them with those of a protagonist. I would agree that this might encourage empathy. But I don’t write with the intention to change mindsets or anything like that. I’m not a fan of heavily didactic writing. But I am invested in helping a reader connect to a protagonist in a deep and meaningful way, and if that connection leads to self-reflection or a broader world view, then great.

‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ is a brilliantly nuanced #Me2 story about a young woman of colour trying to get by in Hollywood? It’s inevitably going to be harder for women of colour to navigate a sexist, patriarchal society.

Yes, of course. All we have to do really is look at who calls the shots in any industry, and in this particular story, it’s the film industry in Los Angeles. There are very few women of colour, and Black women specifically, who yield power in that industry. That’s not by chance. We see that lack replicated in really all industries, both in the U.S. and here in the U.K.

A question about writing style. I love the opening of ‘Disappearance’: “The summer Etan Patz disappeared, New York was burning something fierce.”  How do you go about crafting that all important first line? Do you construct your story around it or does it come later?

It depends on the story, because I definitely do both. In ‘Disappearance’, I thought I wanted to write a story about the true-life disappearance of this six-year-old boy Etan Patz in New York City in 1979, and what I ended up writing about was how I imagined other children living in New York at that time to be impacted by his kidnapping. But that first line came before I had figured any of this out. Usually when I begin a story I’m thinking about character. Who is telling the story and what does their voice sound like? What kind of language do they use? For this story, I could hear a seemingly street smart but ultimately naïve boy talking, and he uses phrases that he’s maybe heard adults say but whose full meaning he doesn’t fully understand. For example, the next line in the story is a bit of dialogue that his father speaks and that the boy relays: ‘It’s hotter than a hooker in hell’. It’s quite an adult thing to say, and pretty misogynistic at that, and the narrator, this boy, definitely doesn’t understand the weight of its meaning. And this speaks to the larger theme in the story, the violence of adulthood and the end of childhood innocence.

 ‘Summer of the Shark’ describes a moment in a busy office when workers witness on screen the attack on the twin towers in New York. Where were you on 9/11 and how did it impact on you and your family who were living in the US at the time?

For me and many other Arab Americans, 9/11 didn’t so much birth anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. as bring them explicitly to the forefront of political and cultural discourse and make them harder to ignore. Older Arab Americans had already very much experienced that racism during the first Gulf war in the early 1990s, the Arab-Israeli war in the 1970s, etc. Even as a child I felt that orientalist binary of us, the Americans, versus them, the Arabs and Muslims at play, even if I didn’t have words for it yet. So, 9/11 didn’t birth this racist discourse or introduce it to me, but it definitely amplified it and made it impossible to ignore. It became very clear to me how negative my particular location in the United States’ racial hierarchy was and probably always had been.

In ‘Once We Were Syrians’ – the grandmother wants to share their family’s stories with her granddaughter. Again that mention of name: “There used to be a time when our names mattered, when being Syrian meant something else.” What is the significance of “name” in this context?

The story is in part about investigating this significance. Names play an important part in many of the stories in the collection. In the title story, for example, names act as a clue to connect narrators across different generations. In ‘A Girl in Three Acts’, the protagonist is unnamed, and is referred to only as ‘Girl’, which is in itself significant. So, I hate to explain the significance of name in ‘Once We Were Syrians’, as I’d like a reader to navigate this particular story and come to their own conclusions. But some of the possibilities include ‘name’ as family, as country, as culture, as history.

Who have been your biggest literary influences?

When I first began to write short stories, I was influenced by writers like Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to explore the short story form and to experiment with what it could do. It was at this time that I became really interested in poetry and its focus not only on language and rhythm, which I am heavily invested in, but also its form, its visual layout, use of white space, and how these things contribute to a reader’s experience. Here, I can point to Etel Adnan and Claudia Rankine as two of the poets who inspire me to think about these things. More recently, I’ve been obsessed with a lot of Irish women’s writing, including Eimear McBride, Anna Burns and Anne Enright. They’re so inventive in how they use language and they’re able to articulate difficult emotions so precisely.

Who are you reading now and who offers you comfort during these difficult times?  

I’m reading a lot of poetry, currently Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. I’m also reading Actress, Anne Enright’s newest novel, as well as a collection of letters Audre Lorde and Pat Barker wrote to one another in the 1970s and 80s. These letters are forty, fifty years old, but touch on many topics writers grapple with today, including how to cobble together a living as a writer, how to make sure you’re not compromising yourself in the process. The letters are also pretty humorous and capture the love and support these two important poets showed one another.

How has lockdown affected your writing and what are you working on next?

I’m thinking a lot and somewhat working on what might become a historical novel set in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. It deals with the failures of immigration and the myth of the American Dream. Ideally, I would say that I’ve had a ton of time to write during the lockdown. But the truth is that the uncertainty as to what life will look like when the lockdown lifts, and if it’ll even be all that safe then, and the great sadness that comes with knowing how many people have died, many unnecessarily, makes it difficult to focus on immediate projects. I know that this period will make its way into my writing in some way, but probably after I’ve had time and distance from it. 

Originlly published in The London Magazine