Q+A with Dima Alzayat about Alligator and Other Stories
We're excited to publish Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat on May 29, 2020. The award-winning stories in Dima Alzayat’s collection are luminous and tender, whether dealing with a woman performing burial rites for her brother in “Ghusl,” or a great-aunt struggling to explain cultural identity to her niece in “Once We Were Syrians.”
Alzayat’s stories are rich and relatable, chronicling a sense of displacement through everyday scenarios. There is the intern in pre-#MeToo Hollywood of “Only Those Who Struggle Succeed,” the New York City children on the lookout for a place to play on the heels of Etan Patz’s kidnapping in “Disappearance,” and the “dangerous” women of “Daughters of Manāt” who struggle to assert their independence.
The title story, “Alligator,” is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and intergenerational trauma, told in an epistolary format through social media posts, newspaper clippings, and testimonials, that starts with the true story of the lynching of a Syrian immigrant couple by law officers in small-town Florida. Placed in a wider context of U.S. racial violence, the extrajudicial deaths, and what happens to the couple’s children and their children’s children in the years after, challenges the demands of American assimilation and its limits.
Alligator and Other Stories is haunting, spellbinding, and unforgettable, while marking Dima Alzayat’s arrival as a tremendously gifted new talent. We very rarely publish short story collections, so you know this one is special. The following is an interview with Dima Alzayat about her story collection, Alligator and Other Stories.
Q: The title story, ‘Alligator,’ floored me. The inciting event is the true case of the lynching of a husband and wife — Syrian immigrants and convenience store owners — enabled and instigated by the police in a lawless Florida town. Told in epistolary fragments, from the point-of-view of the couple’s children as they age through the years, newspaper clippings detailing the country’s treatment of indigenous populations and slaves, witness testimony, to emails and YouTube comments, the story is incredibly ambitious in scope and graceful in its treatment of these issues. What were the seeds for ‘Alligator,’ and how did the story evolve in your writing of it?
Dima Alzayat: I learned about the lynching while doing research for a dissertation I’m writing on race in Arab American literature. I found myself gripped by the story, but also by the untold stories that had to surround it – those impossible to know because they’re not documented. As in, what was it like for the couple’s children, growing up in a place that had marked their parents as so ‘other’ that they had to be killed? How about the generations after? Would they have held on to their Syrian heritage or would their assimilation be so complete as to erase the event from family history?
So I set out to fill in the blanks with imagined histories. But as I did, beginning with the voices of characters directly impacted by the event, I realized there was much more to consider. There was no way to talk about lynching without considering the thousands of African Americans lynched; no way to talk about those lynchings without thinking about the white supremacy that facilitated them; no way to discuss that ideology without considering the genocide of an indigenous American population. So, the epistolary form was informed by the content. It was impossible to tell a sustained narrative, or at least to do it ethically. It made sense to layer the fragments, to let meaning accrue, and, as much as possible, to make my own role as the assembler of these imagined histories known.
Q: The story ‘Daughters of Manat’ tells of what are described as “dangerous” women. It opens with a woman leaping from her apartment window and falling to earth. As she descends she surveys the landscape and realizes that “the earth was smaller than she had been led to believe, that only its curvature had made its parts seem discrete.” I see this with ‘Alligator’ as well and a couple other stories, the idea that what had been perceived as foreign is actually universal and human. Was this thread something you set out to pursue or did it just find its way into the work?
DA: A lot of the immigrant or diaspora literature I had read before I began writing ascribed to a liberal multiculturalism where cultural difference could be neatly packaged and sold to an imagined most-likely-white American reader. Thankfully this is changing now, but I think this book started as a push against that.
While I was writing, though, I mostly forgot about intent. I focused on characters, and when I’m building a character, I’m not thinking about how their Arabness or Americanness interact. I’m thinking about how difficult it is for them, as that specific person, to negotiate the world, of how devastating a particular loss they’ve had might be, of how they manage to hold on to some hope. And that particularism is, I think, what allows universal themes to emerge.
Q: You were born in Syria, grew up in San Jose, California, and now reside in Manchester. You are a U.S. citizen. What is it like to live abroad and observe the xenophobic rhetoric and anti-refugee sentiments gripping the United States now?
DA: In the lead-up to the 2016 election I was stunned not so much by the renewal of xenophobic and racist rhetoric as I was by how explicit it was. Being from an Arab and Muslim family, I don’t think I ever thought this level of xenophobia didn’t exist in the U.S. But while I was growing up people usually attempted to be ‘polite’ or strategic in how they made racist and Islamophobic comments. Having moved to England just after the Brexit referendum, I’ve learned how much of this rhetoric is thriving here as well. What’s most difficult to observe is how this language inevitably manifests in action, in detaining asylum seekers, in separating families, in stripping people of their dignity, in both the U.S. and the U.K.
One benefit of being far from home, and also being an outsider here, I think, allows me a somewhat clearer vision than I might otherwise have. I feel like I understand my Americanness better now – its benefits and privileges and also its failings and burdens.
Q: In the story, ‘Once We Were Syrians,’ an aunt responds to her grand-niece’s school report on the Syrian Civil War. ‘A Girl in Three Acts’ follows a girl coming-of-age whose father has just passed away, as she is left without family connection in America. Many of the stories deal with Syrians in the diaspora as they attempt to assimilate or find home in a new place. What was your experience like growing up in San Jose?
DA: It was a good place for my family to have ended up in after leaving Syria. My world, at least, seemed filled with first- and second-generation immigrants. Many of my friends in those early years spoke a different language at home. It wasn’t weird if someone’s parent didn’t speak English or spoke it with a non-fluent accent. Maybe that sense of camaraderie didn’t always protect us from being made fun of by kids who didn’t come from immigrant households, but I think it helped make those experiences less damaging. It was only when I was older and traveled more widely around the U.S. and lived in different places in California that I realized what a starkly different American experience I might have had. They were the years in which I learned most directly about the demands of assimilation, the cost of ‘passing’, the difficulty of reconciling identities.
Q: The story ‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ deals with someone aspiring to climb the ladder in the entertainment industry, which was a field you worked in for a while. What similarities do you see in terms of storytelling between film and literature, and did it inform your approach to this collection?
DA: While I’m a very visual person, I didn’t consider myself a visual storyteller. Because I’m interested in character above all else and often write stories concerned more with the cerebral and emotional state of a character than with action, I used to worry that nothing really happened in anything I wrote. But the way I structure and edit a story, I think, is definitely informed by a filmic mode of storytelling. I pay close attention to the silences, what remains untold, and what the reader has to fill in. I’m also concerned with how the language looks on the page, especially in stories like ‘Alligator’ and ‘Daughters of Manāt’ where the form is integral to accessing the story. With those stories specifically, my edits largely happened with paper and scissors, cutting up passages and moving them around to see where they made sense. In a way, it was like assembling film scenes.
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