GETTING HERITAGE IN WRITING: This Month’s Aramco World Cover Story

These are just some thoughts of mine after my third visit to Cape Town, this time to write this month’s cover story for Aramco World Magazine https://www.aramcoworld.com/en-US/Articles/March-2019/The-Handwritten-Heritage-of-South-Africa-s-Kitabs

Cape Town's Bo Kaap

Celebrating Heritage Day in Bo Kaap

The first time I saw the Western Cape, I thought “This looks just like Los Angeles,” and then I thought, “This looks just like Lebanon.”  I’m not just talking about the magnificent mountains and endless sea. The townships remind me of the camps in Lebanon, certain Cape Flats areas remind me of Compton, and Simons Town, with its dramatic cliff homes and a local museum hosting a meditation workshop with Tibetan chanters, reminds me of Santa Monica.  But South Africa’s landscape is all its own, mired in a history all its own. Historian Joline Young has been digging through Western Cape Archives for 20 years to recapture the town’s history, as the archives had been closed to non-whites during Apartheid. As we were walking through Simon’s Town one Saturday afternoon, “We have generations of trauma in our genes.” While that’s not biologically possible, you see a lot of people chasing their genes. That afternoon we ran into a 50-year old woman, Shirleen, whose mixed-race family was relocated (forcibly removed from Simon’s Town) during the Group Areas Act.  This was her first time here, and she and her husband were trying to figure out where her uncle’s fishing restaurant would have been.

Simon's Town

Simon’s Town’s Harbor

Zainab Davidson, better known as Auntie Patty, would have had an answer.  She literally mapped the whole town from memory, which inspired her to turn her family home, Amlay House, which was confiscated during the Group Areas Act, into the Simon’s Town Heritage Museum, dedicated to preserving the Muslim heritage of the town. She is part of the story in “The Written Heritage of South Africa.” She was 60-years old then.  She’s 84 today, and lives above the museum with her husband.

I sat down one day with a sheet of paper and I drew a map of Simon’s Town, all the roads, just to see if I still remembered who lived here.  I remember the old fisherman, and the old Dutch church, and I remembered lane by lane the cottages, and bigger houses over there.  And I took all lanes and went house by house until I had this whole map of our community here in Simon’s Town and it ended at Simons Town Station. Yeah.  And then I said to my husband, man I want to start our own museum. –Zainab Davidson (Auntie Patty), interviewed at Amlay House in September 2018

ABC.COM’s Michelle Goodman on the Freelance Life & Art

Recently, Michelle Goodman, the author of “My So-Called Freelance Life,”  a must read cautionary and inspirational tale for those contemplating  chucking it all to pursue their own dreams, interviewed me and two other writers for her column on ABC.com.  You can read for yourself how we all learned about the glamorous life of writing.

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/artist-heart-michelle-goldmans-reasons-day-job/story?id=11287370

Love Notes From Fatima and Scheherazade

Debutante’s Ball is a website of a bunch of fun authors with upcoming books.  Alicia Bessette, whose novel is coming out in

Love Notes

August and who’s one of the webmasters asked me to write a bit on love, and here you go, and I think Fatima and Scheherazade would approve:

Some Love Notes for Debutantes  http://www.thedebutanteball.com/?m=20100213

The Sacremento Book Review & The Night Counter

http://sacramentobookreview.com/modern_literature/the-night-counter/

The Night Counter

Posted by Editor at 8 September, 2009, 9:25 am

night-counterBy Alia Yunis
Shaye Areheart Books, $23.00, 365 pages

When the immortal storyteller Scheherazade gives Fatima Abdullah 1,001 nights to tell the great stories of her life, Fatima begins to prepare for her death. Between getting her affairs in order, Fatima spends most of her 1,001 nights reminiscing about Deir Zeitoon, the home in Lebanon she left for America, and the home she longs to return to. She only spends her last eight nights reliving her life in America and her many disappointments.

The Night Counter is a multi-generational tale of an Arabic family adjusting into the American culture and the disappointment Fatima experiences when she realizes her children have assimilated and all but forgotten their Arabic heritage.

Alia Yunis’ debut novel is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly crafted. She provides not only Fatima’s perspective, but also the perspectives of Fatima’s children and grandchildren, and the individual struggles they each face as an Arab in a post 9/11 world. Familial relationships are perfectly captured and each character is real and relatable, making The Night Counter an engrossing read.

Reviewed by Jenifer Carter

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

During my tour of The Night Counter, I was often asked either “What writers have influenced you the most?’ or “Who are you favorite writers?”  I have no

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

answer for the first because to say Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced me is to say that I’ve made some conscious choice to use his style or tone in my own work, which I haven’t, nor would I be comfortable implying that by being influenced by him my work stands should-to-shoulder with his.  I’ve been saying One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book since I read it for the first time 20 years ago, long before I’d ever contemplated writing a book myself.  I’ve said that based on that ‘wow’ feeling I had reading it.  But in recent years, it seems like nearly every other person I meet mentions it as his or her favorite.  My favorite book had become a favorite book cliché.  I felt every time I said that people were thinking “well, she’s just taking her cue from Oprah.”  I’ve taken my cue from Oprah on several occasions, but when she chose it for her book club, I didn’t pull it out again.  I don’t tend to re-read a lot because I love reading so much and there is so much more for me to get to.  But as my tour began, I started feeling like literary cheese mentioning One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It was a book I’d randomly picked up at a bookstore, nothing I had studied in school. When I read it then, I had barely ever had a job, hadn’t finished all my education, hadn’t been to the many places that did indeed influence me, and hadn’t met the many people who would yes, influence my life, for better or worse, hadn’t seen babies grow into adults, watched marriages end under a multitude of circumstances and new ones begin, and hadn’t watched global events change the dynamics of the world I lived in.  It was also before the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, and so many other things that have affected our attention spans and the speed at which we get information, including fiction. Twenty years is a lifetime ago, let alone one hundred.  And then there are all the other great books I’d read since then, although none ever seemed to roll off my tongue as easily when the word “favorite” comes up.

So I decided to read it for a second time, the first fiction book for grown ups I had done that with in almost as long as I can remember.  I found my old copy and discovered my first revised reaction: I could no longer read without strain the small print like I had before.  Rather than consider getting reading glasses, I purchased a new copy with bigger type and began reading. The first couple of pages sucked me in as before, but now I had more demands on my time, and so couldn’t devour books for the long periods I used to, and reading a book over several days or weeks is not the same as in two or three days.  Nor was my memory as clear as before:  The first time I read it, I didn’t have to keep referring to the family tree to keep the Aureliano Buendias and Jose Arcadios straight, but unlike before I realized, having had to name a large cast of characters in The Night Counter, the repetition of names symbolized the families repetition of life’s mistakes. The book is also paced at the pre-Internet speed, indeed at the speed of a small village in the middle of nowhere South America, a little slow for me now.

There were parts of the book that made my stomach churn in ways that it had not before, particularly what now seems an almost cavalier depiction of incest.  On the other hand, although I had lived through war as a kid, I did not appreciate the truth in the cavalier way he treats the death tolls of war and plague as I did in this reading.  And I had not battled insomnia to appreciate the humor in the village that no longer sleeps.  Magical realism was not a word I was familiar with back then, but the mastery with which he wove it in is even more of a marvel to me today as a writer.  I could go on but suffice to say it’s still a brilliant book, but parts of it strike me differently.

Would I still say it is my favorite book?  It was still an undisputedly unique, original transportation into a tragically magical place, a clearly allegoric third world town, with obvious comparisons to South American but also the Middle East realities. (Qaddafi anyone?). But with time I’ve learned that when it comes to things and children, it’s best not to have a favorite soda, a favorite shade of lipstick, or as I’ve discovered a favorite book. Today it’s one of my favorites, along with Anna Karenina, Cry the Beloved Country, Pippi Longstocking and a host of contemporary novels.

Just like homes, maybe with books too, you just can’t quite go back, at least not the same way.

The Night Counter Sells Out At Book Soup

Book Soup

Reading at Book Soup

With Paul And Scottwith Abbie

Book Soup and The Night Counter

Book Soup and The Night Counter

Thank you to everyone who came to yesterday’s reading at Book Soup.  You didn’t leave a copy in the store!  (More books are on their way)  When I first moved to LA many years ago, it was a terribly clunky move, with lots of test and trials that were not easy, in fact, often very painful.  One of my great escapes was of course the movies, even though it was the movie business I was often trying to escape.  The other was Book Soup, which a very long walk from where I was living at the time, and I liked that walk, even though my roommate said I was just asking to be labeled a tourist walking that walk when I could have just taken my car (small problem there being that someone had nearly totalled that car three days into my arrival in LA and it was out of commission for a while).  Book Soup is one of those bookstores where you can spend hours roaming around and looking up and down the walls at a truly eclectic mix of books.  In fact, aside from picking up The Night Counter, people at the reading also picked up an odd assortment of other titles, from quirky quick reads to oddly-themed coffee table books (David Lynch collection of people shot in shadows, anyone? Or how about the 600-something page book of Tom of Finland I stood next during most of the reading) that reminded me again of what a little oasis Book Soup is–and it is on Sunset Blvd. amongst all the famed clubs, shops and restaurants, so it also gives reading, so sidelined these days, a hipster kick.  It was extra sweet to read from the first chapter of The Night Counter, which is set in West Hollywood, just a few blocks (at least in my imagination) from Book Soup.

At A BOOKSTORE SOMEWHERE IN LA

A Bookstore Somewhere in LA

A Bookstore Somewhere in LA

Or How Not To Buy Your Own Book. The first day The Night Counter came out, my friend Natasha promptly bought it at Barnes and Noble in New York, and another friend did the same in Nashville.  So I thought I’m going to go buy my own book, too.   Just to see it in a bookstore, you know.  I went to the nearest bookstore and looked for it on the new books table.  It wasn’t there.  Nor was it anywhere around any hard cover books.  My heart sank.  It must have showed because suddenly there was a concerned store employee at my side.   “It should be here,” I boldly began.  “The Night Counter.  My friend got it in New York.  I heard it’s really good, and if New York has it, shouldn’t L.A.?”  I could feel my face turning red.  “Yeah, for sure…The Night Counter,” he said and started banging computer keys.  “Great title…hmm…I bet you it’s about someone counting nights as they go by.  What do you think?”  “Yeah, probably.  It’s supposed to be something clever like that,” I replied, turning even redder.

That’s when he looked at me carefully and smiled.  Oh, no.  In general, I don’t lie, as I can’t do it without getting flustered.  Nor would it be totally inconceivable for me to get flustered around a cute actor dude in L.A. standing in my personal space.  He was used to the latter, rather than suspecting that it was dealing with an author going undercover.  And there’s nothing like a flattered actor. “I’m going to find The Night Counter.  This just isn’t right.”  And he went off, with me in his wake, telling me about how he came out here from Ohio for this acting and liked meditating.   “I could just come back tomorrow,” I said.  “Really, it’s no big deal.”  “No, it’s supposed to be in the store, and we’re going to find it,” he said, with great actorly drama, almost running into a Japanese couple, clearly ESL students.  “Please, please, can you help us?’ the young woman said.  “I’m busy right now,” he announced.  “Looking for The Night Counter. What do you need help with?”  “We’d like to buy some books,” she whispered.  “Well you’re in the right place,” he nodded, and then we were off again, with him explaining I had good energy, just like him.  “Tell me you’re not sick of men with no energy,” he winked.  “Really I can come back,” I answered, my face turning redder because I kept thinking of all my hard work buried somewhere in this store.  “You know this book must still be back in the storage,” he decided.  “Just wait on me.  I’ll be back. Look at some books or something.”

And so I stared at all the other new releases that were all carefully and tenderly laid out.  Until my phone rang.  “I’m at the Barnes and Noble at the Grove.  The book has good placement, but I’ve moved a copy over to the Twilight section, so it gets more traffic,” shouted my friend Elizabeth, normally a refined, high-powered executive.  As I hung up the phone, my book knight appeared. “Ttill stuck back in storage, as I suspected.  The Night Counter by Alia. Yunis,” the actor beamed, handing my book to me with flourish. “You’re going to bring the others out, right,” I said.  “Soon, I’m sure,” he answered.   I wondered if he were on to me or just amused by increased flustering.  I prayed he wouldn’t look at the back flap and see the author photo and notice a resemblance, even without the make-up.   “You’re good people, seek out other good people,” he advised me, not opening the book.  “Me and you, we got those Midwestern roots.  We know good people.”  “Okay,” I promised, turning redder as I nearly crashed into the hard cover new releases.  “You know…um…you should put all The Night Counters out here in this new books section.” “Yes, indeed,” he agreed.  I backed all the way to the cashier, thanking him.  He seemed willing to chat more, and I suppose I could have chatted up the book, but at this point I was so horrified by my charade, I just wanted to pay and go.  At the checkout, the cashier checked my credit card signature with my signature on the receipt. But she never checked my signature with the author’s name.