The author of Masha’allah And Other Stories, who describes herself as a shameless eavesdropper and someone who misses writing about her characters, talks about her first book, West Coast living, and where she gleans inspiration. Her book is the winner of the first James D. Houston Award.
How did you come up with the concept for the book?
It’ so funny, it started out as an investigation into underground labor. When I was in grad school in Riverside, I started thinking about it. Some people would write about their marriages or something and that’s ok, but I was thinking: don’t these people go to work? Don’t they have jobs? I wanted to write a story about people at their jobs. That’s a big part of my life and my family’s life. I kept coming back to these people and their families. These are characters demanding pay space. I also missed the Bay Area terribly, I grew up there and I have family there. It became an exploration of place and also about the people in the periphery of our lives. I realized I was not a nonfiction writer. I’m no good at it. I always liked short stories, a little slice of life. I just wanted to take a peek into these people’s lives, what drives them, compels them and haunts them. The Bay Area is so diverse; there is a multiplicity of experience. I wanted to show how different it was than people expected. The stories are about day to day choices and options and how much control they have over it. The title is Arabic for “What God Wills.” How do we invent out own choices and what are the limitations?
You’ve lived in a few different places: LA, the Bay Area and Hawaii. How does this influence or inform your fiction writing?
Living on the West Coast, living here in LA or the Bay Area or Hawaii, I never lived in one place where there is only one culture, one way to do things. I don’t write about one person or one type of experience—I think that’s boring. I write about different perspectives and different experiences interacting. I love living in LA. I will run into people from different places everyday and we can find something in common. I live in the tip top of Koreatown. I’m in the middle of it all, all the time. You can always get a Vietnamese sandwich for four dollars. My friend from the northeast asked me once ‘when was the first time you had Mexican food?’ And I was like ‘uh when was the first time I breathed?’ We’re all different but as neighbors we can get along, we can all go get tacos together.
Where do you find inspiration in LA?
I teach in both Downtown and in Inglewood. I’m constantly inspired by my students. Some come from crazy circumstances but they’re so hopeful and optimistic. I also found a community of writers in Riverside, some are local, some are from other places. We have this split insider/outsider perspective and we look at LA. I just love to walk down Western and sit at Tom n Tom’s Coffee Shop and just sit and write. There’s always something going on.