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.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"What Will Your Mother Say?"

“What Will Your Mother Say?”

My friends asked me this as I was writing Dream Homes, and I asked it of myself, constantly. My mother is a central character in the book, and I do not always portray her in a flattering light. One chapter, “My Mother’s House,” is entirely devoted to her and to our difficult relationship. As I wrote—and rewrote—the passages describing her, I thought of Maxine Hong Kingston and Vivian Gornick, each of whom has succeeded, in Woman Warrior and Fierce Attachments, in giving loving voice to their conflicts with their mothers. Would I be able to do the same? For much of my life, my mother had dominated and silenced me: Would fear of her judgment keep me silent once again, unable to speak the truths of our lives? Or would I find the courage to write what I wanted (and needed) to say?

It’s a question one hears often in writing workshops and autobiography classes: How will our friends and loved ones react to our versions of the stories in which they play prominent parts? How far can we go? Should we tell our whole truths? I’ve heard people say they’ve waited until key figures in their lives were dead before publishing their memoirs; I’ve seen others completely paralyzed by their anxiety about family members’ responses. Some tell all the truth, but tell it slant—writing fiction rather than memoir. And then there are those who, in their own defiant words, “could care less.”

I’ve tried to walk a middle path, respecting both my family and myself, honoring the beliefs and experiences that led each of us to make our various life-choices, even as I tell the truths I feel I must. Egyptian-Jewish culture is a Middle Eastern, shame-based culture, and my family was especially concerned with respectability, with acting, as my parents’ put it, “comme il faut”—as one should. I was raised to be a “good” girl, une fille bien elevee—and telling family secrets was certainly not part of the plan. But I had already wandered far off the grid when, at eighteen, I rented an apartment by myself. I had gone even further when, at thirty-five, I came out as a lesbian. “You are killing your mother,” one of my relatives told me when I was eighteen, and her voice has haunted me for forty years—until I was finally able to write and publish my story.

My mother, eighty-seven now and with a slight touch of Alzheimer’s, has read Dream Homes several times, and she tells me she loves it. I kept it from her until the bound galleys were out, until there was no further chance to cancel a line or soften an adjective. “If you never want to talk to me again,” I joked as I gave it to her one evening, “I’ll understand.” But I called her early the next afternoon, anxious to know what she thought. She had already read the whole book.

“There were a few things in it I didn’t need to know,” she said. “But I understand why you put them there. It made me very sad to read about all you went through that I never knew about.”

“Do you mind that other people will read about these things?,” I ask, thinking about the larger community of relatives and friends who will learn about my breakdown during my first year of college, about my complicated sexual history, about our family dynamics.

“Not at all,” she says, “I’m just sorry that we didn’t communicate better earlier.” The words I had been so worried about writing proved to be the very words that allowed my mother and I to speak to each other more honestly than we ever had. I cannot say that every mother would be happy to read her daughter’s story, and my mother wasn’t exactly “happy” either. But she had come to know me, and isn’t this what we all, ultimately want? To be known?

Just the other day, my mother turned to me gently. “It took you a long time to write this book,” she said quietly. “Maybe now you’ll write one every few years.”

Now that I’ve experienced firsthand the true power of words, not to kill but to heal, perhaps, indeed, I will. What my mother said will sustain me for many days to come.

Joyce Zonana
August 2008