Considering authors who write about African American, Latino, Arab or Muslim Americans, Native Americans in my state of Indiana has uncovered a true wealth of authors. It’s a bit funny to see such richness in this state when Indiana in YA is usually seen as the last place on earth. But, to those teens who live here, Indiana is the center of the universe.
Elsa Marston is an Indiana writer who expands the universe of all young readers. She’s very active in the world of YA lit, whether she’s hosting a listserv chat, speaking at a local conference or
writing another book that focuses on the people and cultures of the Middle East. Elsa has written over 20 children’s and young adult books including Santa
Claus in Bahgdad And Other Stories About Teens In the Arab World and Figs and Fate: Stories About Growing Up In the Arab World Today. Her most recent book, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria has won the following awards.
Where did you grow up?
I’m a New Englander from way, way back; I grew up in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; and then my parents moved to a small town on the Massachusetts coast, Duxbury, just north of Plymouth. It’s a beautiful place, with beaches, marshes, pine woods, and fascinating houses from the 17th-19th centuries. I still feel steeped in the culture and history of New England. One of my current works-in- progress is set on the coast of Maine at the start of the American Revolution.
How did you end up in Indiana?
So I’m not a Hoosier at heart. But Bloomington has been a great place to live! I came here with my husband, Iliya Harik, who was Lebanese (I met him when we were students at the American University of Beirut). He taught Middle East government at Indiana University for his entire career, with occasional leaves overseas. That made it possible for our family to live in such places as Cairo, Beirut, and Tunisia . . . wonderful inspiration for my writing. But it was always nice to come home to Indiana. (I have three sons: Ramsay, a secondary-school teacher of religious studies in Austin, Texas—and my first-line reader! Amahl, proprietor of a fitness-training studio in Providence; and Raif, a computer guy in Austin. And grandchildren Savannah, starting health-care studies, and Kahlil, a 2-year-old ball of sunshine.)
What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?
I grew up in a book-filled home—my dad was a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston—so becoming a reader was as natural for me as loving to climb trees. From my very young childhood I remember Barbar the Elephant, and in grade school I loved the E. Nesbit books and Mary Poppins—delightful blendings of fantasy and realism.
What three things would you like to add to a list of world treasures?
Oh my, I’ll probably have some brilliant ideas tomorrow—but here’s what I’m thinking today.
The coast of Northern California, for the sheer beauty of its long, wide beaches, golden grass-covered slopes, redwood forests…..
Two or three piano concertos by Mozart—although I dare say he’s already on the list.
The translucent alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, every inch covered with tiny hieroglyphs painted a heavenly blue—for the beauty and sheer amazingness of the thing. (It’s in the Soanes Museum in London.)
What book(s) are you currently reading?
One I read recently that made a big impression on me was Big Fat Disaster by Beth Fehlbaum (Merit Press, 2014). It’s about a girl in Texas, a compulsive eater, whose dad—a rising politician—has just been hit by scandal; he abandons the family and they have to move, virtually penniless, to another small town. So Colby has a lot to feel bad about, and she handles it by gobbling sugar. What I especially liked is that Colby is not particularly likable: she’s irritable, irrational. But we always care about her and hope that eventually she’ll find the strength to become the confident, sympathetic person that’s hiding inside all that baggage.
When did you realize that you are a writer?
My dad was a writer and a storyteller, who made up bedtime stories for my sister and me. I think that gave me the idea that I could tell stories, too. At the age of eight or nine, I started to write two “novels,” one of them set in ancient Egypt. Naturally neither got beyond the second page, but I enjoyed them while they lasted. And discovered, many years later, that my novel The Ugly Goddess, set in a fascinating period of ancient Egyptian history, was the realization of that very early dream! It may take 40 or 50 years to realize your dreams—but it can happen!
What stories do you most enjoy telling?
I like to tell stories about young people who face challenges or troubles and somehow manage to end up in a better place. When I started writing, wanting to use the unusual places I’d had a chance to spend time in (Cairo, Carthage, Greek Islands), I wrote rather complicated mystery/adventure stories about young Americans in those settings. But at a conference the well-known author Avi once told me: “I think you should write stories that move people.” I now feel that the stories in my collection Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World best express what I want to do and perhaps can do best. They still have an “exotic” element, being set in a variety of contemporary Arab societies, but my main concern is to depict young people trying to deal with the lives they were given, and make the best of it.
How did you decide to write about the Middle East and North Africa for young adults?
Since early childhood I’ve been intrigued by “other times, other places,” so I always had an international bent. A Rotary Foundation fellowship took me to the American University of Beirut, and my marriage to the young man I met there—and the combination of his work and my own lifelong interests—led naturally to specializing in that part of the world.
But there’s another reason. The Arab world is badly misunderstood, rejected, and disparaged in this country—even though Arab-Americans have always been exemplary as an immigrant community. Since the founding of Israel in the Arab country of Palestine, in 1948, this prejudice has been drastically hardened by political complications, which are harmful not only to Arabs but to the interests of the U.S. and ultimately, I believe, to Israel. I feel a mission as a writer to counter some of the ignorance and politically motivated prejudice by presenting the people of the Arab world in ways that Americans can comprehend and relate to sympathetically.
You’ve described the whole Arab/Muslim world as invisible through use of the term “people of of color” and through their lack of representation in children’s literature. Could you mention a few of the significant events, authors or books in children’s lit relating to books by and featuring Arab/Muslim Americans of which we should be aware?
Until the mid 1990’s there were very, very few books for young people with a positive Arab viewpoint—largely, I firmly believe, because of the prejudice mentioned above. The door started to open with the publication of two very successful books by an already successful writer, Naomi Shihab Nye: the novel Habibi and picture book Sitti’s Secrets, both about Palestine. This showed publishers and writers that it was possible to produce books that give a favorable view of Arabs—without a storm of criticism. Two other picture books published at about this time, by Florence Parry Heidi and Judith Heidi Gilliland, The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Egypt) and Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Lebanon), were also important “door openers.”
Since then, we’ve seen a slow but pretty steady increase in accurate, fair, and sympathetic books about Arabs, by British, American, and Israeli authors. But very few Arab or Arab-American writers! Although there are many Arab novelists, poets, and essayists, the idea that literature for children is an important and worthy use of literary talent has been slow to catch on. Books for kids have been published in Arabic for years in such countries as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Kuwait; but they very rarely attract attention for translation and publication in the U.S. I keep hoping!
I keep a list of recommended books, mostly fiction, mostly about the Arab world, which I think is as comprehensive a list as you could find, going back to the 1970s. I’d be happy to send it electronically to anyone who gets in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) Besides the ones mentioned above, here are some that I especially recommend:
Ibtisam Barakat, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood
Anne Laurel Carter, The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Palestine)
Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground (Palestine)
Zeina Abirached, A Game for Swallows (Lebanon)
Alalou, Elizabeth and Ali, The Butter Man (Morocco)
Carolyn Marsden, The White Zone (Iraq)
Mary Matthews, Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Egypt)
Jeanette Winter, The Librarian of Basra (Iraq)
Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me; Does My Head Look Big in This? (Arab-Australians)
Claire Sidhom Matze, The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky (Egypt, Egyptian-Americans)
Cathryn Clinton, A Stone in My Hand (Palestine)
Maha Addasi, The White Nights of Ramadan (Gulf States)
What does diversity mean to you?
Talking about books, I take diversity to mean inclusion of good books about the Arab/Muslim world! But of course I would include all cultures and countries—and encouragement of good writing and storytelling, that will hold up well in translation and publication in diverse societies. I also welcome positive attention to all sorts of human conditions. It’s wonderful to have books that broaden our understanding and appreciation of different experience—whether social, gender, religious, occupational, or virtually any other walk of life.