A Jordanian Filipino Journalist Traverses Family Ties
by Claude Christensen
A small, predominantly Christian town in Jordan grapples with an overwhelming influx of Muslim refugees and tourists. This town is home to a large family who wrestles with their own internal conflicts, including those brought on by the arrival of Muna, a niece visiting from that strange and distant land, the United States of America.
But it’s mostly about the pig.
“Mother of All Pigs” is the first novel by Malu Halasa, the Jordanian Filipina American journalist coming to Akron November 15 to give a talk at the Akron Summit County Public Library’s Main Event Speaker Series.
A longtime London resident, Malu has written about the Middle East for such British publications as The Guardian, Financial Times and the New Statesman. She’s edited a number of magazines, written monographs and co-edited a number of anthologies including “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline,” and the “Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design.”
But Malu is also a former Akronite.
Although born in Oklahoma, her family moved to Akron’s Firestone Park when she was eight. It was at Revere High School that Malu began to take writing seriously when her English teacher began working with her on creative writing projects.
Malu has a large extended family that is Jordanian, Filipino and also Chilean. But as a child growing up in the United States, she wasn’t able to read about families like her own, families of mixed cultural heritage that extended across national borders.
“In the books that I read, I never saw a family like my family,” she says.
But in “Mother of All Pigs,” which will be published the 14 of November, Malu describes a family very similar to her own. For Malu, that family, the Sabas, are emblematic of many Arab families, “no matter their religion.”
She’s been working on “Mother of All Pigs” since the ’90s, but Malu’s glad that it’s getting published now, with the rising global interest in the area.
“It’s a better story now,” she says. “For things to really work, they must meet their right time.”
One of the biggest concerns Malu had in writing “Mother of All Pigs” was ensuring that her characters are sympathetic to a readership unfamiliar with the Middle East, without diminishing the unique perspective they have.
Through her family, but also her own experience as a freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East, Malu knows “it’s not just a place of war.” She sees life in the Middle East as similar, in many ways, to life in the US and elsewhere and she’s come to know the Middle East as a place “where people have interesting lives filled with serendipity and real humor.”
Which is why “Mother of All Pigs” starts not with the perspective of the American-born niece, a character with whom a readership outside the Middle East might be easily inclined to sympathize with, but with the family members who were born and live in Jordan.
In so doing, she is able to prevent her characters from falling prey to stereotypes that would strip them of their own subjectivity. In fact, in the novel, it is the American niece who struggles most with misconceptions of her country of birth, as well as the cultural differences she is unaccustomed to.
But her Jordanian family is willing to examine those differences with her. Culture aside, they care about their American niece, who is family. And that’s one of the many ways Malu humanizes her characters.
“Each of my characters has a burden of memory they struggle with, a burden they must free themselves of,” says Malu. “Otherwise, how can they move forward?”
Mother of All Pigs won’t be Malu’s last piece of fiction. She’s working on a number of short stories, and almost certainly on more nonfiction. She’s curious what the response to her novel will be like and hopes it moves perceptions of the Middle East closer to reality.
Malu says the publication of her first novel only the day before she talks for the Main Event Speaker Series was a happy coincidence, a thing of serendipity. And she’s so glad it happened this way.
Malu Halasa can’t wait to talk in Akron.
The Main Event Speaker Series: Malu Halasa (FREE)
November 15, 7-9pm
Akron-Summit County Public Library
60 South High Street
Claude Christensen can mix two kinds of cocktails: gin and tonics, and Moscow Mules. He’s got a lot to learn.
(photo of Malu Halasa courtesy of Omid Salehi)
(cover for Halasa’s first novel, Mother of All Pigs, designed and typset by Jaya Nicely) .