by Diana Abu-Jaber, appearing at Wordstock, Borders Stage at the Oregon Convention Center, Saturday April 23, 11 AM
Memoirs are by definition self-indulgent. Someone is so fascinated by their own personal history, so convinced that their childhood was more interesting than my childhood, that they insist on publishing a book about it--one generally lacking in the humor and pathos that my own autobiography will possess. The Language of Baklava is a rare exception: though it pains me to admit it, author Diana Abu-Jaber's childhood actually was infinitely more interesting than my own. Her book is a lyrical account of the minutia of a childhood spent straddling the vast cultural chasm between the U.S. and Jordan.
This lavish autobiography follows young Diana from upstate New York to Jordan and back again, as her restless Jordanian father struggles to find a place that really feels like home. Though uprooted by circumstance, she remains grounded by her love for food. Meals were of primary importance to her displaced Jordanian family, evoking community, comfort and stability. Abu-Jaber, a former food critic for the Oregonian, has a knack for describing the sensual aspect of eating. In one beautifully worded paragraph, a bite of knaffea (a pastry made from phyllo dough and cheese) becomes a quasi-religious experience: "It is so rich and dense that you can eat only a little bit, and then it is over and the knaffea is just a pleasant memory--like a lovely dream that you forget a few seconds after you wake." In a culture like ours, where meals are far too often rushed, avoided, or the source of massive dietary guilt, Abu-Jaber's joyful appreciation for food is almost subversive.
Abu-Jaber describes childhood as skillfully as she does food. Her generous, perceptive prose is infused with wit, and peppered with odd, accurate details: to a child, clouds seen from an airplane window are "walkable"; champagne is a "mockery of perfectly good ginger ale." Such descriptive insight and inventiveness pervades every page of The Language of Baklava--like Abu-Jaber's knaffea, this book should be savored.