WRITERS TELL ALL
The Question Behind the Story: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar on Writing and Understanding What Helps Us Survive Trauma
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Jennifer! It’s so nice to get to talk to you about your magnificent, epic, and extremely timely novel The Map of Salt and Stars. Before I get into the heavy hitting questions, I obviously have to ask: how did this novel come to you? Clearly it contains a serious message, but also a beautiful and intricate plot, so I’m always interested in wondering with novels like these—which came first: the message or the story? This novel focuses on so many strong themes that seem so relevant today in the world we live in—which themes did you feel most drawn to when you began writing, and were there any themes you found yourself incorporating later, perhaps even unaware? And how did it eventually develop to where it is today?
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: For me every novel begins with a question I want to explore, and from that question comes the story. In The Map of Salt and Stars,I wanted to explore whether and how the stories we tell ourselves allow us to survive trauma and take with us the places and people we are forced to leave behind. Other themes emerged later: sisterhood, judgment, and the redefinition of home among them.
MT: You have some extremely complex characters and an incredibly complicated and compelling plot. What do you think is so important about entertaining readers in order to relate a message to them? What is the main message that you would want the reader to walk away with?
JZJ: I think of telling a story as a promise you make to the reader—that you respect them enough to tell them what they need to know. I don’t think so much about relaying a message to my readers as I do about showing them the world as it really is: the difficult things, the beautiful things, friendships, hardships, processing grief. And I want to let my characters lead us both, driving the plot because of who they are as fully fleshed-out people who grow emotionally over the course of the book.
MT: This is a human story, but it’s also a story about storytelling. Whether good or bad, true or false, what do you think are some of the most important stories Americans tell themselves, and in what significant ways do you think these stories affect our culture?
JZJ: That depends on how you define American and which community you’re talking about; Americans aren’t a monolith. America as a state, however, does tell itself certain stories—for example, the false narratives of American exceptionalism and the necessity of American imperialism, though there are many others—that do more damage than good.
MT: Speaking of stories, what are your favorite stories—novels, short story collections, epic poems, etc? When speaking of writers, who are your favorites—the ones who inspire you, the ones you turn to frequently, and especially your contemporaries, the writers who are struggling to make changes through literature in the same America or world as you?
JZJ: There are so many writers I love that it would be impossible for me to do them justice here. My favorite short story of all time is “The Archivist of Baghdad” by T.L. Khleif, which first appeared in The Normal School; it’s masterful, magical, and has one of the most adroit endings I’ve ever read. I’m inspired by lots of writers, especially emerging ones whose first books I’m anxiously awaiting (shout out, loves; you know who you are), and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Arab American writers who paved the way for the work I’m doing, particularly Rabih Alameddine, Randa Jarrar, and many others. Other big influences on my writing (and life) have been Octavia Butler, Gabriel García Márquez, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks.
MT: I usually don’t ask this question because I know it makes a lot of authors uncomfortable, but with a novel that is, directly or indirectly, as politically charged, beautifully written, and with as powerful a message as The Map of Salt and Stars, assuming you were able to deliver a copy of this book to the current president, what message would you want him to take away from this? And what book that you haven’t written yourself would you give him in the hopes of making great change in the world? Why is this book so significant?
JZJ: I wish it could be that simple, but I don’t think it is. I believe books can inspire empathy, but readers have to be ready to receive it. If someone views refugees, immigrant children, Muslims, and people of color as less than human, my book isn’t going to change their minds, because empathizing with my characters first requires an acknowledgment of their equal humanity. But I hope to reach those who are ready to listen and that they, in turn, will pass what they’ve learned along to those who are less willing to hear directly from me. Together, our voices are more powerful than we think.
MT: When plotting and outlining your books, what is your process like? This is clearly one of the most intricately and carefully plotted novels I’ve read in quite some time. How many versions of this book were written before the final copy that so many of us have read and enjoyed today?
JZJ: Like most writers, I do a number of revisions before anyone else sees the book. My process for every book is different, but with this novel I plotted both timelines together, making sure they each had complete plot and character arcs on their own. It was important to me that the events of each story happened at the right time so that the stories would echo, mirror, and contrast each other, creating a sort of third story in the tension between the two timelines. That process took a number of drafts to get right.
MT: There’s this saying attributed to many famous authors about writing the book you have always wanted to read but never found. Is The Map of Salt and Stars the book you’ve always wanted to read, or is there another book you’re dreaming of that is that book?
JZJ: I didn’t see myself or my family represented in the books I read growing up, and while literary representation for marginalized folks has increased in the last couple of decades, we still have a long way to go, particularly for Muslims and for queer and trans folks of color, who deserve see ourselves on the page written with love and joy and sensitivity and celebration. There are hundreds of books I’d love to read but that haven’t been written yet. This book is one of them, and there are many, many others, and I hope to write as many of them as I possibly can.
MT: What do you think is the most important quality a writer can possess, especially when writing a novel as human as The Map of Salt and Stars?
JZJ: Persistence. Don’t give up, and don’t look away, not even from the ugliest and most painful places.
MT: In all honesty, what was the hardest or most difficult part of writing this phenomenal novel? Did you ever find yourself stuck—for whatever reason—or at a point of nearly giving up?
JZJ: I considered, before I began writing it, whether this book was going to devour me. I had to carve out space in myself to hold some very difficult realities while I was writing, and it was the hope in the story—which was born out of seeing it in real people—that kept me going. Writing this book made me a humbler and more empathetic human being, and for that I’m grateful.
MT: Has any of your own life, your own experience, your own personality ever bled into the pages of this book in particular? If so, would you mind elaborating on this?
JZJ: The book is entirely fiction (with the exception of al-Idrisi, King Roger, and the creation of the Tabula Rogeriana), so it isn’t based on my life or that of any one person. As writers, though, our personalities and feelings always find their way into what we write, so that we can portray the emotions of our characters with authenticity. I also gave Nour synesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon that I also have, in which sensory perceptions (for example letters, numbers, sounds, smells, and/or tastes) produce sensations of color. In the text, Nour sees the same colors I do.
MT: What would you advise fans of this novel—for whatever reason they loved it—to read after finishing The Map of Salt and Stars?
JZJ: I would suggest that readers seek out the writing of Syrians and refugees in their own words—books like Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin, Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar. Other anthologies and projects I found moving and informative include We Crossed a Bridge And It Trembled and Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak.
MT: How did you go about learning and adapting to the voice of the narrator of this novel? What was the most important aspect of writing the protagonist’s voice and taking on the personality of this character that you kept in mind and stuck to throughout the entire writing of the novel? What is the trick to writing a narrator with a voice that will pull in the reader?
JZJ: Whatever narrator I’m writing, I work to make their voice as authentic as possible. In The Map of Salt and Stars,I was writing a child narrator, so I had to remember what it was like to be that age, how I perceived the world and my parents and the situations I found myself in, particularly how I dealt with trauma and the narratives I relied on to get through loss.
MT: What do you feel is the significance in giving a solid ending to a story like this, while also recognizing that so many people who, in real life, are so similar to the characters in your novel, have no ending to their stories? So many people suffer through these same issues, fighting to live and survive and prosper, and their stories aren’t neatly wrapped up? What would you say is the importance of providing an ending to a story which so many real people experiencing similar stories will never fully conclude or wrap up tidily?
JZJ: I’m not sure that Nour’s story wraps up tidily. Without giving spoilers, the ending of The Map of Salt and Starsis bittersweet—respite and safety are found, but at the cost of immense and permanent loss. I think it’s important to remember that for every person or family who finds a safe place to land, it’s only after a long and harrowing journey and huge personal cost, and that there are many others who did not make it.
MT: Obviously, our readers are all big fans and are dying to know, what is next for your career, Jennifer? Do you have another book already in the works and if so, what might it be about? Can you give us any hints or clues?
JZJ: I’m currently revising my second novel, which, in a nutshell, deals with the history of New York City, the history of Syrian immigration to the United States over the past century, and what life is like for queer folks of color, particularly Muslims, in the US today.
MT: Jennifer, it was such an honor to be able to interview a talent and writer as amazing as you. I have read your novel so many times I’ve lost count. I’d love to keep asking you questions but we both know you have most stories in your and many more books to write. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and would love to hear from you again with your next publication. Please, feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or ideas that you haven’t felt you’ve been able to express already. And thank you again, Jennifer.
JZJ: Thanks so much for having me, for your kind words, and for reading!