An Interview with with Graphic Memoirist Malaka Gharib

15 November, 2022

 

It Won’t Always Be Like This, a graph­ic mem­oir by Mala­ka Gharib
Pen­guin Ran­dom House 2022
ISBN 9781984860293

 

Rushda Rafeek

 

It Won’t Always Be Like This is pub­lished by Pen­guin Ran­dom House.

For Mala­ka Gharib, say­ing a lot with a lit­tle is the key to cre­at­ing good comics. Even when her thoughts and draw­ings run free on the page, they should suf­fice with­out addi­tion­al expla­na­tion. Look­ing deep­er, it seems evi­dent that the style she has cho­sen is akin to the work of New York­er car­toon­ist Roz Chast, though heav­i­ly off-beat and fresh for the eyes. But Gharib points to Maris­sa Moss, the pop­u­lar children’s book author, as her inspi­ra­tion. What is then under­stood is a rit­u­al car­ried on since child­hood: jour­nal­ing. This sto­ry mech­a­nism influ­enced by Moss is employed in many of Gharib’s com­ic strips, aside from the strik­ing facial expres­sions and fine­spun hilar­i­ty that pop up when least expected.

In truth, it’s dif­fi­cult to shake off the work she pro­duces as fic­ti­tious — which is why read­ers find them­selves stuck in between a quick chuck­le and some tears. Gharib’s inte­gra­tion of both texts and images reflects the life she has lived, be it the sting­ing divorce of her par­ents or try­ing to fit in with Arab cousins who smoked hookah and ate stuffed grape leaves.

It’s more than help­ful to keep in mind how her expe­ri­ences prompt impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions not just among adults but chil­dren alike, who come from intri­cate back­grounds. In her lat­est graph­ic mem­oir, It Won’t Always Be Like This, Gharib — born and raised in the US to an Egypt­ian father and Fil­ipino moth­er — returns to Egypt where she spent the sum­mers with her Mid­dle East­ern fam­i­ly. She finds her­self in the thick of mir­ror­ing a cul­ture that would have oth­er­wise remained nigh obscure in the mod­ern genre of com­ic lit­er­a­ture. Above all, offer­ing a bird’s eye per­spec­tive of diverse rep­re­sen­ta­tion is what scaf­folds her nar­ra­tive. Add to this, the will to defy soci­etal accep­tance as a young girl is an expe­di­tion in itself. Yet, Gharib can­did­ly han­dles such top­ics in spite of the grief and teeth-grit­ting over mar­i­tal fis­sures among her loved ones with­out the obvi­ous censoring.

Despite hav­ing a hec­tic sched­ule dur­ing the weeks sur­round­ing the book’s release, Gharib gen­er­ous­ly grant­ed The Markaz Review an inter­view, which was con­duct­ed over an email exchange.

 

 

As a graph­ic mem­oirist, you have access to both kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: writ­ing and draw­ing. Do you draw or write first?

I write first. It’s much eas­i­er for me to fig­ure out what I’m try­ing to say in words before I adapt my ideas to draw­ings. I’ve tried it the oth­er way around — draw­ing in sketch­es or thumb­nails first — and let’s just say it’s a lot of wast­ed paper!

So what was the process like when you start­ed It Won’t Always Be Like This? When did you real­ize this sto­ry had the full poten­tial to devel­op into a book-length mem­oir? Have you thought about Ara­bic and Taga­log trans­la­tions of it someday?

It Won’t Always Be Like This start­ed out as a two-page non­fic­tion essay called “The Cig­a­rette,” that I wrote in 2017 for myself, about my adult rela­tion­ship with my Egypt­ian step­moth­er, Hala. That essay was about one par­tic­u­lar trip to vis­it her and my dad and fam­i­ly in Doha, Qatar, and how I real­ized that she was deeply unhap­py in her mar­riage with my dad. I lat­er adapt­ed that into an eight-page com­ic. I then adapt­ed that com­ic into a mini zine called “Lisa Loeb in the Sinai,” about my first encounter with her as a nine-year-old girl. I showed some of these works to a col­league and she encour­aged me to explore it for a book, because it was clear that Hala had a strong influ­ence on my life — which is what the lat­est mem­oir is all about. No plans yet for translation!

I’m also drawn to your car­toon­ing tech­nique which has a more car­toony spir­it than an art­sy one. How did you fig­ure out col­or atmos­phere to devel­op pace?

My style is very open, airy, and light, and I find it very fun to draw using the fewest lines pos­si­ble to express an emo­tion or an idea (in the world of car­toon­ing this is called econ­o­my of line). I am inter­est­ed in mak­ing sure that every stroke of my pen con­veys real emo­tion or adds to the feel­ing of the draw­ing, and that there are no wast­ed strokes or strokes that have no purpose.

The good thing about car­toon­ing is that it is more impor­tant that the artist con­veys emo­tion than get­ting the draw­ing fac­tu­al­ly per­fect or life-like. I pre­fer draw­ing in black and white, so for my past two books, I have worked with the illus­tra­tor Toby Leigh, who is based in Lon­don, to bring my draw­ings alive with shad­ow and color.

What inter­ests you about Egypt or Egyp­tians? Why do you want peo­ple to lis­ten to the voic­es of those who speak a lan­guage you bare­ly know?

I spent near­ly every sum­mer of my child­hood in Egypt, I have an Egypt­ian father, I have an Arab name, an Arab fam­i­ly his­to­ry, and Egypt­ian sis­ters and broth­ers — so it is impos­si­ble to not be inter­est­ed in that part of my her­itage. For many sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Egyp­tians who were born out­side of Egypt, it is com­mon not to speak Arabic.

I don’t think that negates our con­nec­tion to Egypt or our Egypt­ian iden­ti­ty. The per­spec­tives of the Egypt­ian dias­po­ra and their off­spring deserve exam­i­na­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion — we are our own cul­ture in and of itself, and we are push­ing the bound­aries of what it means to be Egypt­ian — and for me in par­tic­u­lar, what it means to be Egypt­ian in the Unit­ed States, a coun­try that has a con­flict­ed rela­tion­ship with Mus­lims, Arabs and the Mid­dle East.

 

Divorce, Diaspora and the Imagination to Cope

 

Mala­ka Gharib is a writer, jour­nal­ist, and car­toon­ist. She is the author of I Was Their Amer­i­can Dream: A Graph­ic Mem­oir, win­ner of an Arab Amer­i­can Book Award and named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Pub­lic Library. By day, she works on NPR’s sci­ence desk, cov­er­ing the top­ic of glob­al health and devel­op­ment. Her comics, zines, and writ­ing have been pub­lished in NPR, Cat­a­pult, The Sev­enth Wave Mag­a­zine, The Nib, The Believ­er, and The New York­er. She lives in Nashville with her hus­band, Dar­ren, and her dog, Sheeboo.

I sensed a great love for humor in your works. But there’s a much big­ger mat­ter in ques­tion being con­front­ed as you said else­where: “of feel­ing dis­placed with­in the fam­i­ly con­text” that belongs to Arab soci­ety. Could you talk a lit­tle about that?

This is the sto­ry of a first/second gen­er­a­tion Fil­ipino Egypt­ian Amer­i­can kid who is spend­ing time not with her Egypt­ian fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca, but with her Egypt­ian fam­i­ly in the Mid­dle East. That’s many degrees of sep­a­ra­tion in terms of com­fort. She grows up in a Fil­ipino Amer­i­can con­text in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but is pulled into a whol­ly Egypt­ian con­text — Cairo, embed­ding life not just with her dad, but her new stepmom…who doesn’t speak very much Eng­lish. You can imag­ine how com­plex that sit­u­a­tion is!

Pret­ty much, yes. Fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion is still a crit­i­cal issue of our time. We come across homes where chil­dren have had a hard time bond­ing with their (step)parents grow­ing up. But, in the book, you reveal how you and your step­moth­er Hala shared quite an ami­able dynam­ic. Can I use the word “ami­able” here or were there chal­lenges between the two of you?

Hala tried very hard to be a good step­mom to me. She was empa­thet­ic to my sit­u­a­tion — I was a lit­tle girl, grow­ing up with­out her dad — and she want­ed me to like her and feel com­fort­able around her. I nev­er sensed that she didn’t want me to be there in the sum­mer. And for those rea­sons, as a child, I took a gen­uine lik­ing to her — I could feel her authenticity.

Of course, there were sev­er­al moments that were dif­fi­cult. I think the age gap between my sib­lings and me was stress­ful for Hala. I was a grumpy teenag­er when Hala was run­ning around tak­ing care of an infant and two young chil­dren, plus clean­ing the house and cook­ing. I don’t think I was very help­ful around the house or with the kids dur­ing that time, which prob­a­bly led to some resent­ment on her part. But if she ever felt that way, I didn’t know about it!

Because it is intense­ly per­son­al and tack­les tweenage while steer­ing through a painful chron­i­cle of divorce, I have to ask: did the fear of giv­ing away too much to the pub­lic get to you — being that Arab and Asian com­mu­ni­ties believe such mat­ters are bet­ter dealt with behind closed doors?

In the Arab world, as you know, we like to show our best face — we want the out­side world to see that things are going great. So I was afraid to tell the sto­ry of my dad and Hala’s divorce because I didn’t want to make them look bad. But it was a crit­i­cal part of the sto­ry I want­ed to tell about my rela­tion­ship with them and my sum­mers in the Mid­dle East. To get them on board, I wrote the man­u­script of the book and sent it to each of them to get their feed­back. I paid my lit­tle broth­er Ahmed, who is in col­lege, to trans­late every chap­ter of the book [into Ara­bic] and for­ward it to Hala. Both dad and Hala had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to give feed­back on the text — and only then after they were both hap­py with what I wrote, did I sign the con­tract to turn it into a book. My fam­i­ly is far more impor­tant to me than my art.

You’ve had dif­fi­cul­ty pro­nounc­ing your name. In I Was Their Amer­i­can Dream I noticed car­toon Malaka’s attempt at self-intro­duc­ing to a white per­son as “I am Mala­ka! Like Mon­i­ca with an L.” There seems to be a strug­gle to fit in unless non-white names are Angli­cized. Your thoughts on this? 

I actu­al­ly pro­nounced my last name as “Gharib, like Arab” until I was in my ear­ly 20s — when a col­league told me, “you know, you don’t have to do that — you can make them pro­nounce your name as it sounds.” So only then did I change the pro­nun­ci­a­tion from “Gharib, like Arab,” to “GHA-reeb.” Peo­ple don’t get the ghain right, but that’s okay. I’m work­ing on get­ting peo­ple to pro­nounce my first name right now — but what makes me sad is that it is even hard for me to pro­nounce with my Amer­i­can accent: MEH-leh-keh. I pro­nounce it the way my Fil­ipino moth­er says it, almost as if it was a Taga­log word: MA-la-ka. In Taga­log, “malakas” means “strong” and “mala­ki” means “big.” So I don’t mind that pronunciation.

Apart from the works you cre­ate, you’re also an edi­tor at NPR who has con­tributed bite-sized comics for their Goats & Soda sec­tion. What role does diver­si­ty play in the com­ic world today?

I’m actu­al­ly an edi­tor and a jour­nal­ist for Life Kit, an NPR pod­cast that offers tips on how to make your life bet­ter. It’s fun­ny peo­ple asso­ciate me with my NPR comics, but that is only some­thing I have start­ed doing in my career in the past few years. My bread and but­ter is edit­ing and writ­ing stories.

Your books are now taught at Amer­i­can schools in Egypt. And some chil­dren there iden­ti­fy as a prod­uct of inter­ra­cial mar­riages. Care to com­ment on the edu­ca­tion expe­ri­ence or its impact on them as young read­ers or the next gen­er­a­tion perhaps?

It’s wild to me that there are kids in Egypt who are read­ing my book. I hope it helps show Egyp­tians that there are many dif­fer­ent kinds of Egyp­tians out there — and our voic­es all deserve to be heard. And for those fel­low half-Egyp­tians out there, I hope you know that your expe­ri­ence as an Egypt­ian is just as valid and wor­thy as oth­er Egyp­tians — and you are enough. 

Last ques­tion, this one’s about music since you men­tioned lis­ten­ing to “cool punk bands.” Are you some­one who depends on music to get you in the mood to write/draw? If yes, any favorites from the Arab world?

Music is a real­ly crit­i­cal part of my emo­tion­al land­scape when I draw. It helps set the tone and mood for my draw­ings, and I can’t draw with­out a good sound­track! I rely on Dan­ny Hajjar’s Sub­stack newslet­ter Sa’alouni El Nas for new Arab indie music. And right now I’m super into some bands he rec­om­mend­ed: Luay Hijazeen, Tayar, and Kabreet. I also real­ly like Mus­lim and Hamza Namira.

 

Rushda Rafeek’s poetry was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize (UK) in 2017, nominated for the Pushcart Prize (USA) twice, the winner of Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize 2018 (USA), and was selected for the Best Asian Poetry Anthology 2021 (Singapore). Her chapbook manuscript was a finalist for the Glass Poetry Chapbook Series (USA). She tweets at @ryushha.

Arab Americanbandes dessinéescomic novelcomixEgyptianIslammemoir

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