2016 American Book Awards – Acceptance Speech

Acceptance of 2016 American Book Award for A Curious Land: Stories from Home

October 30, 2016

San Francisco Jazz Center

It’s a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you so much to the Before Columbus Foundation for this honor. This book took me eight  years to write, and I feel so grateful that my attempt to celebrate the voices of Palestinians and Palestinian Americans is being recognized with this award.

Palestinian-American literature is still growing as a genre, and I’m happy about that. Growing up, I had a hard time discussing my Palestinian heritage, mostly because people easily equated Palestine with things like terrorism. You could see it on their faces – I would say that I was Palestinian-American, and their expression would show: “Palestine… PLO…. terrorism.” That was it.

I had a college professor tell me once that there was no such thing as Palestinian people, that it was a “made up” nationality that Palestinians conveniently invented after 1948. This book is my answer to his comment, so many years later, because at 19 years old, I didn’t have the words.

And of course, as a kid I could never find Palestine on a map of the world — I still can’t — and say, “That’s Palestine. That’s where my parents came from. Right there.” That hurt in many ways, as if indeed it were something that wasn’t real.

Being a Palestinian Christian was also challenging, and still is. We get painted with the same “terrorism/ sharia law” brush as Muslim Americans. The ignorance astounds me sometimes. There is a weird disconnect from history on the part of Western Christians, who want to stereotype Arab Christians — this ancient community — people who come from places like Nazareth (Nasra), Bethlehem (Beit Lahem). They don’t understand our community but they’re ready to stereotype us.

I had a woman ask me once if I was Muslim, and I said, no that I was secular but my family was Christian, and she looked stunned and said, “Did they convert?” And I said, “No, you did.”

And of course, the elections are just a week away, and we’re breathing in the toxic air of this climate. We’re seeing more than ever, that the denigration of Arabs and Muslims is an efficient tool for politicians and some media personalities, to get noticed. To get a boost in the polls and the ratings. For some candidates, it is their entire platform, along with the denigration of our fellow Americans.

Here, I want to pay special tribute to African American writers, whose work has always served as a model for me. When I was starting out, there weren’t many examples of Palestinian American writing that were available, and I looked to African American writers to find ways of expressing my identity. The title of my boo, A Curious Land, comes from an essay by WEB DuBois, who said of the deep South in 1901, “How curious a land is this… how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter…” This quote speaks to me about Palestine as well, a land people don’t really know.

I’ve learned that, in order to change the narrative, you have to seize the narrative. And that is why this award is so special. Palestinian and Arab writers have been seizing the narrative for some time now, and the Before Columbus Foundation is one of the few organizations that has always recognized them.

Thank you to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which awarded my book the Grace Paley Prize, which led to its publication, and to the members of my writing group – four wonderful women who read and edited every word of the original manuscript.

Thanks to my parents, who reminded me that you can love your culture but also question it, to my children, who are my source of joy, and to my husband, Elias Darraj, who has supported my writing for the last sixteen years, before I ever published anything or won anything.

Thanks to the Foundation, and to all of you. Congratulations to my fellow award winners. It’s my honor to be here with you.