Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Last Chapter

How does one know when one has finished one’s book, especially a memoir? Life is continually evolving, there’s always something new to say. Still, I thought I had brought Dream Homes to a satisfactory conclusion with my chapter, “Ahlan Wa Sahlan,” recounting my first visit back to Cairo.

Dream Homes opens with my desire for more knowledge of my heritage. In the first chapter I express my longing for the tangible objects that would have constituted the place of my birth; my deeper longing is for a sense of relationship and connection with the larger community of my homeland. I found that connection when I traveled to Cairo in 1999 and met contemporary Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Egyptians. I also found an ancient synagogue that seemed to be the home of my deepest dreams.

So I wrote a chapter, entitled “Welcome” in Arabic, that described the fulfillment of the quest I began in the first chapter. The book would have nine chapters, I decided, in homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “unscrupulously epic” nine-book autobiographical poem, Aurora Leigh. I had it all worked out. Just as Barrett Browning’s poem describes the gestation of a woman writer, so my memoir would not-so-subtly have a nine-part structure to evoke my own process of self-birthing and homecoming.

Florence Howe, the extraordinary founding editor of the Feminist Press, thought otherwise. When she read the manuscript in the summer of 2005, she told me by email that she liked it, but that it seemed incomplete. There were too many unfinished threads in the narrative, she said, too many unanswered questions. “What about your relationship with Kay?,” she asked, “What is the ultimate point of your story?”

I thought the point of the story – seeking and finding home – was clear, but Florence still felt there was something missing. At her urging, I began to think about a new closing chapter. I didn’t want to violate the structure I had thought was so perfect, I didn’t want to have to write about the messy end of my relationship with Kay, but I trusted Florence’s literary intuition. She was my ideal reader, and I wanted her to be satisfied. So I decided to write about the beautiful new house I moved to after our breakup in 2002, my true dream home on Venus Street in New Orleans.

And then. On August 29th, 2005, everything changed. Hurricane Katrina transformed the moral and physical landscape of New Orleans. My neighborhood was flooded with over six feet of water, and would remain uninhabitable for three months. I had evacuated two days earlier, taking my cats and my computer, thinking to spend a few days at a friends’ house out of the storm’s path. My mother had remained in the city, sure that I was overreacting. Two weeks later we were both in New York, uncertain of what to do next. I called Florence, and we met, for the first time, over lunch in midtown Manhattan. We both knew, without saying it: I had my new last chapter.

It took a year to write that chapter, the story of my evacuation from New Orleans and my resettlement in New York, but when it was done, I was sure that this time, truly, my memoir had come to its conclusion. I was able, easily, to pick up all the narrative threads introduced in the first chapter—my relationship with Kay, my longing for furniture, my ongoing experience of exile—and I had an “end” that was, quite fittingly, a new beginning.

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