Diana Abu-Jaber on Birds of Paradise and the Missing Ingredients in Miami's Literary Scene

On the second page of Birds of Paradise, Diana Abu-Jaber evokes local carpet salesman Don Bailey as that "thirty-foot naked man reclining, selling God-knows-what." The novel, which is steeped in the visual cues of Miami life, flips back and forth between a wayward daughter's street life on the pink sidewalks of Miami Beach and the tense domestic terrain of her parents' Coral Gables home. Abu-Jaber masters poetic nuances of modern life in South Florida -- a place where mothers know that I was up all night watching manatees in the canal is code for I was up all night with this guy doing MDMA.

As the family's relationships become increasingly fractured, the novel peaks with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. And only in its aftermath does the family -- and the community at large -- pull together again. Hear from Abu-Jaber -- frequent NPR contributor and finalist of PEN/Hemingway and winner of American Book awards -- when she reads at Bookstore in the Grove tonight. Click on for Q&A with the author.

New Times:  You divide your time between Portland and Miami. Is there a part of Miami you wish you could bring into Oregon? What aspect of Portland do you most wish you could have here in Miami?
Diana Abu-Jaber: Yes, I'm always mix and matching my two cities! I wish I could import Miami's unique culture to Portland. I love our wash of languages, races, foods-- the gorgeous electricity of that mix. Oh, and I wouldn't mind bringing a little more of our tropical environment to the Northwest too. 

From Oregon, I'd love to take the gentleness, patience, and kindness of the people. Miamians can be so rushed, harried, and prickly-- especially the drivers! Portlanders are truly sweet-- it really makes life a little easier and better.

Just like Birds of Paradise, another novel about South Florida--Swamplandia-- is divided into character POV chapters. Is there something about Miami that lends itself to this treatment?
I hadn't thought of that, but it's an interesting idea. I do think that we have such a complicated variety of people and neighborhoods here that writers and artists have to do whatever they can to create a larger "canvas" to paint on.

By shifting among the points of view in the Muir family, I wanted to give readers more insight and empathy into their experiences-- especially from the perspective of people that we might not ordinarily encounter-- a pastry chef, a corporate lawyer, a teenage runaway, etc.

The founder of a new poetry festival in Miami remarked that our city lacks a strong literary community due to its dearth of public transportation, reasoning that spontaneous pedestrian interaction is a key ingredient to good fiction. Do you agree?
That's a fascinating theory. I do think that mass transit and walkable town centers are very powerful and strengthening to the core of a city and its sense of community. If you have to drive everywhere, it keeps people isolated from each other, even at odds.

I'd add to that, too, that I think Miami could pour more time, love, money into their literary scene. In addition to the wondrous Books & Books, and the Bookstore in the Grove, we should be able to support more independent book stores; we should have city-based writing grants and fellowships; city-based writing awards, a reading series.

The writing scene has been growing and improving since we arrived nearly ten years ago, but we still need more coalition-building with the libraries and colleges and other arts centers in other Floridian cities. And maybe we could deescalate some of the constant "sexy" hype of Miami in TV and film, quit selling ourselves as the capital of glitz, and let others see that this place has a real heart and mind as well.

Birds of Paradise feels so incredibly layered. Did you start with one character's story and then top off with the other narratives? If so, which character emerged first? Which character gave you the most trouble?
I started with a very strong image of a woman's back: she had strong arms and shoulders and she was wearing a chef's apron--I knew she was a professional pastry chef: this image was the start of the novel for me, the character of Avis Muir.

I knew she was in a lot of pain and that I needed to find out what had happened to her. The character that I labored over the most was probably that of her husband, Brian Muir. A real estate lawyer, his profession was something I knew very little about at the start and almost instinctively tended to mistrust. I had to interview a lot of lawyers and educate myself and write and rewrite a great deal to allow his humanity and genuine personality to come through.
You left your family at age 16. Is there anything in Felice's life on the streets that's autobiographical?
I should probably qualify that-- I actually went off to college, so technically not running away, but that very real experience of leaving home too soon was something that I really drew on for Felice's runaway experience-- the rawness and shock of being on one's own in the big, grown-up world.

Like Felice, I took a lot of risks, went to crazy parties, encountered the drug culture, and basically thought I was a whole lot smarter and savvier than I was. But there are also a lot of differences between us-- Felice is really living hand-to-mouth on the streets and she exposes herself to truly horrendous danger. She encounters many of the sorts of deeply frightening things that I talked to street kids about, news stories I read about, and thankfully, never had to experience first-hand.

After we hear one of your characters call Miamians "so very un-American," we learn that her family changed their name to mask their Arab nationality. Being of Jordanian descent, have you observed anti-Arab sentiment in Miami?
Not really, if anything, I've seen a great deal of tolerance and acceptance of cultural difference--whatever it might be--in Miami. For all the tensions between the different ethnicities, people here don't ask me things like where I "got" my last name, the way they do in other places. Half the time, the Cuban and Latin immigrants I meet here will turn out to have some sort of Lebanese or Palestinian relatives in their family tree. I love and treasure that deeply international sensibility.

Your descriptions of the urban landscape as well as local flora and fauna are ridiculously good. But if limited to five words or less, how would you describe Miami?
Eros asleep in the sun.

Which writers made you want to write?
Many, many, many. A few that I loved when I was starting out: Toni Morrison; Louise Erdrich; Maxine Hong Kingston; Philip Roth; and Khalil Gibran!

What are you working on next?
It's a follow up to my earlier memoir, The Language of Baklava. This one, which I think will be called Grace at the Table, addresses my journey toward becoming a writer and, years later, toward becoming a mother.

I'm looking at the ways that I was told, by a number of mentors and advisors, that because I was a woman, that I'd have to choose one identity-- writer or mother-- and how I ended up trying to bring them both together. And again, like the earlier memoir, I've scattered lots of recipes and dishes throughout-- cooking is one of the big metaphors that helped me define these journeys, as well as a sort of life line that helped me get through it all.

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