The Language of Baklava (Diana Abu-Jaber)

Literature of the in-between or, if you must, liminality, will always have the same basic plot – the tensions, both internal and external, that come with having one foot in two cultures. What was new here (for me) was that one culture was Jordanian. The other piece that appealed to me was it seemed like it was a kind of food memoir. Indeed, Abu-Jaber includes recipes that speak to the section of the book you’ve just read.

The book starts slowly. Very slowly. The scenes from childhood are largely sketches and together, there is no real driving force, no narrative momentum. I felt like I had to re-start every few pages. Her childhood visit to Jordan is the one exception because everything there was new to me.

Given that they are more recent, it is unsurprising that the latter half of the book is more compelling. If she’d submitted this to me as a first draft – and I really don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do this – I would have told her to go through the first half and see what she really needed to keep and work it in as flashbacks or asides in the latter half. I am not sure, for example, how many examples of her father’s mercurial behavior that we needed.

This would probably have helped her gain more control over her voice. It’s not surprising that the adult Abu-Jaber reflects on the perceptions of the child Abu-Jaber, but it is disorienting when it happens in the same paragraph.

So skim the first half, read the second half, and then invite me for dinner based on her recipes.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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