Loosely Based

A novelist reflects on the perils of writing about family

| July-August 2010

  • Loosely-Based

    Courtesy of Randa Jarrar.

  • Loosely-Based

One of my father’s favorite activities was to stalk writers. He’d grown up in a shack on the side of a mountain, in the West Bank, and fled at age 17. He lived on a pension in Jordan and smoked cigarettes. When the Egyptian president made education free to all exiled Palestinians, my father joined his brother in Alexandria, where he lived and studied engineering in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. He stalked famous poets and novelists and playwrights, wrote bad poetry, and wooed my knotty-haired mama, a soft-spoken pianist.

After I was born, the writer stalking continued. Here, in this photo, we are at a café in Alexandria and my baba is presenting my diapered body to Tawfiq el-Hakim, the Arab world’s Molière, Chekhov, Proust, and Ibsen all rolled into one. Years later, when I enrolled in a Middle Eastern studies program, I discovered that el-Hakim was a huge misogynist whose female characters have no agency and no positive traits. When I called my father and told him this, he hung up on me.

My father always wanted me to be a writer. When I showed promise in dance and music, he shook his head and said, “Who wants to be a singer when you can be a novelist?” I did, but that didn’t matter. I was meant to write a novel about the history of my family and our struggles. That’s what my father always told me.

In this photo, his body is still svelte and solid. My father has, alongside his outward obsession with writers, a secret obsession with his body. He has spent my entire life on diets and exercise regimens. When I was a child, he went off to “fat farms” and came back pounds slimmer. I thought all men were like this until I left home. Even after I succeeded at writing and publishing, my father was obsessed with my zaftig-ness. At a library once, he asked me if I saw myself as beautiful. When I said I did, he told me I was wrong. We were flipping through books and I got up and left in tears. A week later, I saw a man my father’s age sitting in the same seat by the new-fiction collection. I had to resist the urge to ask him if he thought I was pretty.

Most recently, my father has stopped talking to me. He did this once 13 years ago, when I got myself pregnant. This time, he’s not speaking to me because I wrote a novel. In the novel is a writer-obsessed failed poet, loosely based on my father.

I can see him on the treadmill now. He is shaking his head and woefully thinking, I should have let her be a singer.

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