Huda Al-Marashi’s memoir, First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story is a fresh take on immigration, love, and virgin sexuality. Huda meets Hadi, the boy she will ultimately marry, when she is six years old. They are the American-born children of Iraqi immigrants, growing up in California. Although Hadi considers Huda his childhood sweetheart, the first and only girl he’s ever loved, Huda wants to be successful by both American and Iraqi cultures’ relationship standards—to uphold her religious traditions while also experiencing the kind of love story that would prove to her American friends her marriage was not arranged. First Comes Marriage follows Huda on her journey to reconcile her culture’s pragmatic ideas on marriage with Western notions of love and romance. It’s a tender and heartwarming portrayal of an Arab, Muslim family that not only debunks stereotypes but also challenges the trope of the rebellious child of immigrants, ready to shuck off tradition in order to fit in with mainstream society.
I first met Huda eight years ago through a mutual friend. Together, the three of us formed a literary friendship centered on critiquing work and encouraging each other through the ups and downs of the writing life. From the very beginning, Huda’s writing drew me in with its honesty, humor, and ability to illuminate critical cultural issues through the personal lens. Excerpts from Huda Al-Marashi’s memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women and Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women and Extreme Religion. Other works have appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times, al Jazeera, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Cuyahoga County Creative Workforce Fellowship and an Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellowship.
Huda and I recently discussed via Skype and email the publication of her memoir, the power of diverse love stories, and the value of a bicultural identity.
The Rumpus: What inspired you to tell this story? Did you have a specific audience in mind you hoped to reach and engage in conversation about your experience?
Huda Al-Marashi: I started writing seriously post 9/11 and during the Iraq War. At the time, I was following the Iraq Body Count, and I wished I had a way to put a face to this horrific number that was rising every day. I started with the story that was closest to me, and I thought if I could introduce people to my family, maybe I could make that number hurt just a little bit more. However, over the years, I realized that I wanted to do more than challenge stereotypes and humanize Iraqis for American readers. I also wanted to speak to my own community of Muslim readers. There was a dearth of stories that reflected us in our everyday lives, and I felt like there was a population of young Muslims growing up in America who needed to see themselves in a story specifically related to love and relationships. That was something that we didn’t talk about enough, and it’s so easy to make the leap that I had, that nobody was telling those stories about Muslims because we didn’t have any relationship stories worthy of telling. I really wanted to change that misperception, so I tried to think about what a love story from within our community and within our traditions would look like. And, it was also really important to me to do so while challenging the trope of the immigrant child, rebelling against their parents.
Rumpus: One of the things I really admire about your story is how it explores when a person’s ideals about love and marriage come into conflict with the reality of those experiences. There is a moment in the book where you wrote, “Why did everything have to be so different from how I imagined it?” and that is such a universal experience and feeling. Can you talk more about the collision of idealized love with the reality of love?
Al-Marashi: I think expectations are poison in a relationship, and we all come into this kind of conflict because we enter relationships with images and stories of what our romantic future is going to look like. Now, I’m watching my twenty-something nieces and cousins in the process of actively creating these myths. They tell stories to each other about how they imagine their future relationships and spouses, and I see this cycle perpetuating. My mother’s generation, on the other hand, they had expectations, but they were also really grounded.
Rumpus: Expectations more rooted in practicality?
Al-Marashi: Yes. My mom raised me with this very basic understanding. You find a good person and that’s all that really matters. I grew up very torn between these really stark ideas. The American ideal was so wonderful. How could you not want that story, where you have a soulmate and all your dreams are going to be realized with this person? And then there was this other side that has no expectations for love and desire and tells you as long as you married a good person, you can make things work. I’m sure there is a happy medium in between those two ideas, but the potential for harm and dissatisfaction is so much greater with the idealized image of marriage.
Rumpus: You talk in the book about marriage being the great equalizer. What do you mean by that and why was that an important discovery?
Al-Marashi: What I was really hoping to show, towards the end of the book, is my narrator coming to understand that this dichotomy she created in her mind is not as defined as she thinks it is. She shares so much more with women of all backgrounds than she could have ever imagined. Yes, she had a very different story leading up to her marriage, but once she started becoming friends with other American married women, she realized everyone was arriving at the same destination and dealing with the same exact things. Just because they had gone on dates with their spouses that they had picked from anybody in the world, they still had to negotiate who was doing the laundry, who was cooking dinner, and they still had to figure out how to communicate with their partner. It was really eye-opening.
Rumpus: Were there other discoveries you made while working on this book?
Al-Marashi: I started almost backwards. I sat with where I had arrived, and I thought about how to make the narrative fit. I was building up to that idea of marriage as a great equalizer for a very long time, but it wasn’t until later drafts that I was able to show how my narrator arrived to this understanding by the end of the story. But, first, I had to sit down and define the singular desire that was driving my character, and I also didn’t figure that out into later drafts either—that this was really about a girl who wanted to uphold Muslim traditions while also being successful according to American standards love.
Rumpus: There is a reflective voice that adds a layer of meaning to your narrative. Were any of the reflections a revelation to you? I’m thinking in particular of a moment where you note of your husband, “Surely, Hadi was carrying his own special brand of expectations into his first relationship with a woman, but I did not have the maturity to recognize that. His extraordinary sentimentality only baffled and frustrated me.”
Al-Marashi: Yes, that is a good example of a realization that was really born out of the process of memoir. Doing this work made me think about all these moments I’d frozen in memory and consider what they had meant for my spouse, especially, but also for different members of my family. I hadn’t realized how much I had stereotyped my parents and my in-laws. I hadn’t given them the chance to have been motivated by other things besides our culture. I hear my American mom-friends joking about their kids getting together all the time, but I couldn’t let my mother and my husband’s mom be normal best friends chatting and plotting this thing together. Which indeed they were. But because we have this history of a certain kind of arranged marriage in our culture, I couldn’t see how much of this was really just hopes and that our mothers weren’t really certain this was going to happen. I took their hints for truth because kids believe in adult authority far more than adults believe in it. Our mothers had no idea how much I had internalized that pressure and how seriously I had taken those suggestions that my husband and I were meant for each other. At any point I could have said, “No, I don’t want this,” and that would have been okay.
Rumpus: I was struck by your Author’s Note, where you include important details about the choices you made when telling the story. You write, “A memoirist must make countless trade-offs between what moments to include and exclude and this very deliberate negotiation creates its own version of the truth.” Can you speak about this negotiation?
Al-Marashi: That was an important discovery that I made along the way. This deliberate choice of what I was going to show and not show was me actively crafting the truth. My life, at that time, was so much wider than the events I’ve shown you. There were family members who had a much bigger role in my life but who were not relevant to this particular story thread so they were omitted. There were friends who also played really big roles in my life who do not appear here. Part of what inspired that author’s note was thinking of all these people who’d been left out on the page, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to be edited out of someone’s life. But at the same time, the work of memoir is to illuminate a particular time around a particular theme. It’s not straight recall. It’s not my autobiography.
Rumpus: How does your husband see himself in your work? What has been his response?
Al-Marashi: My spouse is such a big part of the book that it was not fair for me to pursue this without his consent. We had readings at several different junctures where I was just getting his permission to move forward. And, it was and still is hard for him. This is not something he’s comfortable with, but I shared my purpose with him, and because he’s not much of a reader, I had to explain to him what books mean for people who are avid readers. Because I was that little girl who was a bookworm and having a book with a character who looked like me or was from the same background as me would have changed my life. Even in my twenties, when I was living out this story, I remember thinking, “If there was just one book that I could read about a woman like me, in a situation similar to mine, I would feel seen. It would fix everything.” But there wasn’t. I couldn’t even find a single self-help book that didn’t address relationships from the angle of somebody who’d had multiple partners and had been in multiple relationships. It almost made me feel more isolated. More invisible.
Rumpus: It is interesting to hear you talk about wanting to read a story that related to your experiences but finding none. I wondered if there were any books or authors that you looked to as influences as you worked on this story.
Al-Marashi: I spent many years reading the widely discussed memoirs that were coming out while I was drafting— work by Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jeannette Walls, and Alexandra Fuller—and although I was reading these memoirs with an eye to understanding the experience that gets to be considered “universal,” I also really loved all of these books. I found something in all of them that I could connect to. But at the same time, I was also reading some of the foundational memoirs from writers of color, like Maya Angelou, and Maxine Hong Kingston and Esmeralda Santiago, and then of course, I spent even more time focused specifically on reading memoirs by Middle Eastern women. There were Persian memoir writers like Azadeh Moaveni, Tara Bahrampour, Marjane Satrapi, Azar Nafisi, and Jasmin Darznik, and Arab writers like Diana Abu-Jaber, Hanan al-Shaykh, Fay Afaf Kanafani, and Elmaz Abinader, and it was here, in conversation with other memoirists of color, was where I really started to do the work of figuring out how I wanted to situate myself in my own memoir as an Iraqi, Shia, woman growing up in California.
Rumpus: Your story is such a good example of this and how something very personal can speak to these larger themes and conversations.
Al-Marashi: For me, that’s when I feel the most successful as a writer, when I get feedback that a reader related to my story and could see the universal elements. When I feel the most unsuccessful and the most troubled is when I get feedback that can’t get past the particular, that keeps making mention of my identity markers. And this happens not just in reader comments but also in the editorial feedback I was seeing when on submission. That was a really hard thing to see because I have this idealized notion the people who work in publishing are this kind of enlightened breed, but it drove home how if you don’t have to stretch yourself to constantly identify with people that look and feel different from you, yes, then maybe it is harder to see yourself in Iraqi, Shia girl who grew up in California. But I grew up reading Sweet Valley High, and I had to make do with relating to Jessica and Elizabeth—
Rumpus: The blonde twins!
Al-Marashi: Yes! And even as I was reading it and thinking, “I’ll never have a life like this,” I could relate to the emotions they were feeling on the page. I don’t always get that same kind of intellectual stretch. I remember a comment I will probably never forget, that my story was just too particular. Whose story is ever too particular? No human is too niche. We are all equally niche human beings, but this was coming from a person who probably didn’t have to identify themselves with their niche.
Rumpus: If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself while working on this book?
Al-Marashi: I would tell myself not to sweat how long it was taking. I spent close to five years drafting and then another five years revising and trying to land an agent, and I was always fighting this constant sense of urgency and angst. Now, looking back, I realize that it takes as long as it has to take. The only thing we can control is our persistence. Our work is to not give up, to sit down and try, but the part that involves getting picked by an agent and then landing a book deal, is largely out of our hands. So you have to take the long view, that whatever little bit you got done on any given day, is all adding up to something.
Rumpus: Do you have advice for other writers who are trying to render their experience on the page?
Al-Marashi: It is really important to get clear with yourself on your intentions. I really believe you have to write memoir with a full and loving heart. When you have an ax to grind about your own experience, it shows up on the page. You have to embody some sort of generosity to all of your characters—even the ones that have done terrible things to you. That kind of complexity only makes the writing more compelling.
Photograph of Huda Al-Marashi © Greg Cali, The Cali Life Photography.