Unique Voices in Literature



hi welcome to my show today my guest is Rihanna showoff and I'm so excited that he's here because he's came to the United States for a visit all the way from Malta he's a very interesting person and an author as well so welcome Ryan thanks very much well I'm happy to be here well I'm happy to have you because you have such an interesting story and as I told you yesterday when we talked I'm looking forward to a memoir one day today we will talk about the book that you just released just literally a month ago yeah I'll have to live longer and do more stuff to be able to write a memoir but for now yeah this is this is my first book and as you as you know it's it's a novel so it's fiction when all else fails right you want to tell us a little bit about this book sure yeah this is this is a novel with a Iraqi protagonist a young Iraqi man is a student at a university here in the States UCF as it happens the University of Central Florida in Orlando and his life is essentially derailed by 9/11 as you know the ripple effects of that cataclysmic event you know basically affected people not just nationwide but all over the world and this is one you know little story about a guy who ends up working from one crisis to another in the wake of 9/11 it's darkly comedic and but I'm hoping that beneath all the humor and shenanigans and such that people people find some serious themes that was that was the intention but it's up to the reader to decide whether I manage to you know to pull that off well I have not had a chance to read the book but I will read it and one of the interests that I have in it is you said is it the main character that's called an absolutely okay so that in you know intrigued me that piqued my curiosity because myself on my Chaldean and then you and I went into this whole discussion of why did you choose the Chaldean yeah you know Chaldeans but if you could just kind of share by the way so I we had a long conversation not only through emails Ryan and I but also yesterday you know we had the honor of having you over at my house and I had a wonderful conversation so he knows quite a bit and he's sitting here is telling me a lot of history about the Chaldeans some of which I wasn't even familiar with so but I'm really intrigued about that fact that you know you why you chose Chaldean and different aspects with regards to other other ethnicities of that region yes so even before I settled on a Chaldean identity for her name the protagonist I knew I wanted to make him a Christian for a couple of reasons one is simply that people might not be aware that there is such a thing as an Iraqi Christian and people meaning you know Western readers and Americans and as it happens I think that Lebanese Christians for example have greater international visibility even cops in Egypt for example and there might be reasons for this at the end of the percentage of Christians in Lebanon is is quite high and in you know in the the Lebanese population and the absolute number of cops in Egypt is is the highest when it comes to Christian communities in that part of the world and Iraq of course under the bath under Saddam Hussein was a closed country so there wasn't much going on in the way of I don't know ethnography or anthropological studies or you know this that and the other sociology especially on the part of Westerners so it might come as a bit of a surprise to some people that there are several Iraqi Christian communities with a very rich history and so I decided to but rather than turn this into some sort of historical lesson I mean oftentimes in the novel I have some fun with it you know I mean basically like some of the humor in this book derives from the fact that people automatically assume that her name is is Muslim by virtue of being Iraqi but to make him – I also you know wanted him to be a Chaldeans specifically because I felt that given the the in interesting sort of a cultural symbiosis that Chaldeans have attained between their culture and heritage and ethnicity and the sort of Arab culture and surroundings on the other hand would mean that he has sort of that he's well placed to basically move from from you know from his community into the sort of larger Arab environment and that this would be an issue in the wake of 9/11 when he comes to feel quite indignant at the fact that Arabs and Muslims in the United States are being a profiled and such he has the opportunity you see to say I am neither Arab nor Muslim so it's got nothing to do with me I can walk away but he's a good guy and he decides to stand by the the despised of our era and what what what results is oftentimes you know kind of funny and kind of unexpected because he's not really a sort of a born hero as they were he's a bumbling sort of character who doesn't really know what what he's doing but he's got a good heart sure yeah I mean I think part of it probably just has to do with the fact that the novel is written in the first person you know it's I did this and I went there and and that sort of thing but also ironically enough people who know a little bit about me might be more inclined than anybody else to think that this guy is is me because they know for example that I lived in Florida and I lived in in Lebanon and hernán himself you know lives in Florida and in Lebanon and so they might think for for those reasons that just because there are connections there are parallels admittedly that the that this guy is me whereas in fact he is a fictional character and his identity is different from mine more importantly because identity I think you know and in this is important to say in this day and age we are not the are ethnic identities it's not the be-all end-all of what we are so yes this guy is Iraqi his Chaldean he is perfectly calm being in an Iraqi Chaldean but at the same time he's a whole bunch of other things as well and his experiences are quite different from mine I wanted to make sure that I made his experiences well you know more interesting for one I've lived a rather boring life funnier for another and hopefully in some instances more more meaningful that some of these encounters he has after 9/11 in Florida and then when he moves to Lebanon actually get us thinking about stereotypes and prejudices and you know that sort of thing and and assigning guilt collectively and you know that that sort of thing for me I think that because your story in your background your parents your mother was Palestinian Lebanese Iraqi German you've been to so many countries you live in Malta so you have a certain view world wide view that I think is interesting so regardless of that particularly violence which actually even that in itself is intriguing but in our discussions yesterday I did find that your views were they were really a worldwide views in the fact that I think that's part of the reason why you are not so attached to the titles because you've been you've travelled quite a bit your parents having such diverse backgrounds you know all of that is just almost it seems like he created a healthy I think mentality and by the way we didn't mention that you're also a book critic several yeah for the Washington Post well I've only been to do sure I've contributed the occasional review to the Washington Post I've written many more pieces for four other newspapers and magazines over the year over the years from you know Paste Magazine to the Chicago sun-times francisco chronicle' in Canada The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star and also magazines like larb the millions PopMatters so anyway yeah I mean it that's true I'm a longtime book critic who finally wrote a book of his own and and the whole time that I was reviewing books even though I loved doing it I had this sort of niggling sense of self-doubt that I might not be able to write a book of my own I sure have there was an abortive attempt to some years back where yeah I wrote like almost two-thirds of a book and then I looked at it I thought it's not good enough so I didn't complete it and then there was there's a break until I finally got around to it to writing this one you're right that sometimes you know our our origins and especially if they play a role in in our sort of social acculturation that they might lead us to be more attached or less so to a particular country or community and sometimes that can be you know you have a you have the interesting take on it which is that you know this might you know prove to be an enriching sort of thing for some people is kind of frustrating because they want to pigeonhole you and stick you into one category or not so you start telling them that you're this and that and the other it's it's a bit too confusing and and people I think sometimes gravitate toward simplistic definitions and and especially when it comes to other people that they want to have somebody pegged as you know Muslim Christian Iraqi or something else and not you know like a mixture of several different things when you not you do not represent what most people would think that you should represent yeah so she and I talked quite a bit about that as women how we feel that we are were stereotyped based on the region that we were born from you know how has your experience been with that well my experience has been a sort of a low-level struggle I don't want to be milord about it because it's like nothing really bad happened to me but just a struggle to try to convince people that I'm perfectly fine with talking about my origins but they don't really sum me up like you know you want to know more about me I mean you know like we'll hang out get to know me and you can decide for yourself whether this guy is worth you know having a drink with or befriending or something because like I said it isn't necessarily indicative of one's personality that one happens to be ethnically this or that or the other and even when it comes to in this day and age your your culture oftentimes our culture's are sort of hybrid cultures you know that we you know we can be well arab-american for example you know and we can be equally influenced or or unequally influenced by this than other culture you can be for example we were discussing her name being an Iraqi Chaldean here you have you know in Iraq you have Christian communities such as Chaldeans Assyrians and SiriusXM who have their own ethnic identity really and some people would tell you that it is the same ethnic identity and irrespective of what you want to call it and that it it is separate from the from the Arab identity in Iraq as such but that doesn't necessarily that's not the extent of what her name is he is Chaldean yes but he's also arabised but he's also westernized and so I understand how that can be confusing but perhaps for a fictional character at least it can also be enriching interesting you know funny but again that's for you know that's for readers to to decide what do you think some of the things oh that's a that's a good question and in fact it strikes at the very heart of one of the the things I was trying to do with this novel which is to even though many of his opinions and likes and dislikes differ from mine there is one thing that we're on the same page about and that is that if you think about it logically the notion of virtue by association is just as unreasonable as guilt by association you know I mean like nobody should consider you were responsible for what somebody your ethnic community does in the way of a crime or something but similarly it's a bit silly for people to think to think highly of you or to look down because I mean what I mean to say is the same it's the same notion if you people think highly of you because somebody of your community has achieved stardom or something it's just a silly just as illogical as looking as as basically the testing you because you know some other member of your community has done something stupid and so in her name has this her nein understands that virtue by association is the flip side of the coin of guilt by association but the ironic thing is that in our lives often times the only way to burnish our image to sort of increase our stature in the eyes of other people and to deflect all the bullying and the discrimination and such is to play on virtue by association to say that listen you know to say to people who are bugging us or harassing us or discriminating against us that listen you know do you know such and such a person you know like in as your favorite musician did you know that you know he and I are the same religion or ethnicity or this really you know you're reminding me um there's a book that I'm writing and it has to do with parts of it my Native American friend and he shares about people's views especially Westerners towards Native Americans and he also feels a lot of it is romanticized yeah you know in some cases it's either that way or in some cases a stereotype it's really neither nor because you know there's bad people in that region and that way that do damage and there's good people so um so we've talked a lot about that and I think same thing with the Arab American community – they're still you can you know romanticize the veil or the more you can vilify it like we're not supposed to do there you are so because you know there's beauty into that and sometimes it's neither nor yeah and that's this is that's a similar sort situation I think similar to what I was talking about which is how people might think that you know basically because members of your community or people with whom you have some sort of glancing association are criminals or terrorists or whatever that you as a result also are a terrorist and and imagine if you find yourself in such a situation and people have these views toward you and you don't necessarily believe that just because there's somebody from your community who is a major star or you know famous or something that that that should change people's minds about you but you know that it will and so it's kind of sad that we sometimes resort to basically playing on the notion of virtue by association even though we know it's just as silly perhaps just as injurious in the long term is guilt by association but it's the only way to get people off our backs is to tell them and listen you know so if for example you're gay or you're being discriminated against or you're Iraqi went at a time when people think you know the Iraqis are you know terrorists or bad people you point to somebody who's who's gay or who's you know Iraqi or who's Muslim or who's whatever it is you are and somebody who is well received in the public domain and famous and there's no say did you know that that person you know and you kind of burnish your image that way yeah and you know this reminds me of a story when I was young and you know it's picking on each other and stuff and I remember this one girl she came up to me she says why do you like Michael Jackson he's gay and I said and my answer to her was I said well you like Boy George but that was I don't know that Michael Jackson is gay or not but she's trying to say because he has these feminine elements yeah but yet she totally you know did not see and sure who she admired was Boy George so sometimes it's kind of also the quickest way to kind of put a image up so that the people can see um and it does wake people up it might not be but it's the it's the easiest and quickest way to say look you know and sometimes it doesn't click like um I know I was sharing with you that the Chaldean community and the community but this happened after the 2010 incident with Isis so after that there was a lot of tension between the Arab and the Christian community the Muslim community but even not just with the Muslims but just with Arabs and yes there's Christian Arabs and part of that was just because it's just that's what they were seeing is the images that were being portrayed but when we would have conversations that's what I would say I would say well your favorite singer comments are who you go to they're his concerts he is an Arab our favorite foods are sometimes when you can use these images it kind of does things like oh okay I can associate with that and it's kind of sometimes the quickest way but of course on a deeper level is reading a book yeah that brings you into that life into that world in a different way on an even deeper level for me I feel is going into somebody's home yeah background and then you're suddenly really surprised like oh this okay this is not what I was expecting so you live in Malta for instance and I'm curious I don't know how the environment is there and that is there kind of that sense and is there a different type of relationship and or do you just mix in more easily because I'm not really aware of their social situations over there anything like yeah Malta is pretty laid-back and it's it's it's a European country where the Mediterranean sort of feel and climate and it also has an interesting history where it's been influenced by Arabs and Italians and and such and so there isn't really much that I have to deal with in the way of people kind of looking askance at me but certainly there there is an issue with migrants for example who end up in Malta and who are discriminated against and oftentimes the you know racism you know factors into the to the equation which is which is most unfortunate so I'm fortunate enough that I haven't you know I've been subjected any of this sort of thing but I am aware of it and in a sense these these kinds of things are our universe and that's why I think I yeah I think you encapsulated it very well when you said that sometimes it's the sometimes the easiest and the quickest way to make somebody aware of the the this prejudice or bias or whatever is to point to somebody who whom they like but who is a member of a community that you know they have been demonizing because then they might quickly change their minds and the thing about her nein in the novel is that he finds this sort of reasoning to be illogical he doesn't necessarily want to tell somebody that you should respect me because there's somebody from my community whom whose songs you like or who you know somebody from my community you know whose films you like to watch you should respect me because of me but we can't always engage in a pedagogical sort of lesson where we tell somebody listen you know I want you to consider me on my own merits and this and the other the easiest and the quickest way to deflect or or perhaps even the criticism or discrimination were to change somebody's mind is to to point to some to sometimes to hitch your sorry ass to somebody else's shooting star you know and then that ironically enough even though you know you haven't done anything you haven't achieved anything by virtue of being associated with you know that other person's shooting star your tormentor will end up respecting you more and that's what her name finds himself grudgingly having to do in in life in order to get people to stop messing with him to you know to stop giving him a hard time that sort of thing and I do plan to and I'm just curious if without you telling us maybe too much of it at this point but what about the issue of assimilation I know that the Arab community in general because it's an Eastern country I mean the language is so different the religion is different and in the western country there's when a lot of people when they come here they don't it's not as easy for them to assimilate because there's so many different you know it's an Eastern country it's a different Muslim country it's their totally different language you know it's me yeah the alphabets everything is so different so a lot of times they resist acclimating or assimilating right and there are ways to do so without losing one's identity or however they feel towards their ethnicity but from my observation and even you know my as a journalist for over ten years I found that that issue came up a lot with the Western community where they did notice that and I think it's accurate or they noticed that about the Middle Eastern and the Arab community they're not it's not as easily for them to assimilate yeah but again it's such a different region I mean I mean you know we have there's a very big difference between the yeah um your main character what is his role in all of this does he kind of is he trying to learn to do that or is it mostly just how he feels about how he's being observed yeah that's a that's another very good question in Hernanes case he is already westernized before he comes to the States and because he has attended American schools and the various countries he's lived in with the most recent country having been Lebanon he went to high school in Lebanon and then he came to the States for college and so he's Americanized already and you know he is his first language is English as a matter of fact but that doesn't make him American his sensibility might differ from that of most Americans and even if one is familiar and intimately familiar with say the pop culture for example and the music and and in the history for example of one's host country that doesn't necessarily mean that one is of that country and that's very much the case with her name this is a guy who is who's in Iraqi but who's a dear a sedated Iraqi so he's I was uprooted from Iraq because basically his parents ran afoul of the other regime and whisked him away as a child and so he's not really culturally a very Iraqi but at the same time even though he's culturally westernized he considers himself Iraqi he he is a sort of fish out of water wherever he ends up he doesn't really necessarily have a home or even like a particular community or social circle and this is not always an issue but in an age of identity politics and in an age certainly the aftermath of 9/11 this does become an issue for him do you think that somebody non-middle Eastern are reading this book what do you feel that maybe without giving away too much you know what would they walk away what would would there be a difference of understanding or perspective that they would walk away from the story with well you know yeah certainly somebody who is generally unfamiliar with that part of the world might find it interesting to come away with the knowledge that for example not all Iraqis are Muslim not all Muslims are religious you know etc and that there are some countries in the Arab world that are actually quite diverse on on a religious on an ethnic level yeah exactly Lebanon where I lived which is of course you know made up of several different communities religious sects and such and but I'm hoping that it's the the story and not just the sort of tidbits of information that that resonates with with people as a story about you know a guy who who finds himself in a very difficult situation and repeatedly tries to make the right decision even when making the right decision sometimes Micra down to his harm sometimes in terms of being and ending up being demonized I mean here's a guy who like I said decides that he is not going to dissociate himself from Arabs with whom he shares many cultural similarities or even with Muslims in general even though he's a he's a Christian and he's a Chaldean because that wouldn't be the decent thing to do but of course as a result that's going to make life rather difficult for him in the aftermath of 9/11 when you have people understandably indignant about what happened the terrorist atrocity who decided to allow their indignation to metamorphose into discrimination and to hatred and extremism and that sort of thing and this is a guy wasn't cut out to be a hero you know he wasn't cut out to be some sort of you know crusader for you know rights and you know anti-discrimination and such but you know he's a good guy and he ends up having several experiences that one might find funny but but also hopefully as you alluded to earlier like informative and that people might come away thinking huh I never I never thought of that I never considered that might happen so I and I just enjoy really listening to them I hope that I will find that somehow within the story somewhere I still think that you should well you know I'm certainly interested in in your feedback regarding the book we am and you know as you'll recall I contacted you out of the blue I mean we didn't know each other precisely because you know I was familiar with some of your work and the fact that you're Iraqi American and Chaldean to boot so you know here we have you know here we have like a novel that might well resonate with you more than it would perhaps you know somebody else I'm certainly hoping other people get a kick out of it and find it informative and you know and like it but it might have a deeper sort of resonance with with you and people you know who are Chaldean American or Arab American or such I just think I feel that having gotten to know you because sometimes people use my point is is just that I wasn't sure if that was just a character that was second but now seeing your knowledge and how deep you are I think this will be a great book thank you so much for coming I look forward to when you have your second book which I know you're working on that you'll come okay thank you very much when was my pleasure thank you

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