Accessing the Sublime: An Interview with Dalia Azim

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Though I’d met Dalia Azim at various literary events—we both live in Austin—I first read her work in the Washington Post. In her searing essay, “I’m Middle Eastern, Not White,” she calls out the U.S. Census for categorizing people of Egyptian descent, such as herself, as simply white. Her argument is compelling, and ever since, I’ve been eagerly awaiting her debut novel, Country of Origin, out this spring from Deep Vellum.

Though I had a feeling I’d enjoy the book, I had no idea how deeply Azim’s words would impact me. Country of Origin explores the intersection between the personal and political as one family navigates the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the legacy it leaves behind. Told with nuance from a multigenerational perspective, this book tackles feminism, class, mental health, immigration, religion, parenthood, art, and more. My son wakes up around 5 a.m. every day, and still I stayed up past midnight to finish this novel—I couldn’t put it down. My heart now belongs to these characters.

Over the phone and through email exchanges, I spoke with Azim about her writing process, contradictions, perseverance, her day job as the special projects manager at the Blanton Museum of Art, and the hope of one day sharing her book with her children. I’m grateful she took the time to speak with me.

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The Rumpus: Country of Origin manages to be both epic and deeply intimate, expansive yet propulsive. To me, it is a book about how one forges an independent self, despite the determining forces, both external and internal, beyond one’s control. I’m curious: what was the initial spark for this project, and how long did it take to find the story’s central axis?

Dalia Azim: Thanks for that lovely interpretation. Honestly, if I’d known that one day smart readers like you would be writing about my book in this way, it would have made the process feel less hopeless and painful at times. (Though the process contained much joy and discovery as well.) Speaking of pain, it was so hard to find the book’s central axis! It was really my main struggle all the way until the end of this fifteen-year project. The characters and the world they live in were the initial spark for the book. I could write about setting and the interior lives of imagined humans all day! It was finding the novelistic momentum—what makes a reader keep wanting to turn the page—that was extremely difficult and took a long time to get right. I didn’t hit upon the right form until I changed the structure from brief, rotating sections from multiple characters’ perspectives to character sections that function more like novellas.

Rumpus: How did you decide upon the book’s four narrators?

Azim: I arrived at these four narrators quite inefficiently, but the process of getting there was part of the journey, and I learned a lot through all of its twists and turns. My first attempts at writing about this family centered around a younger generation’s experience of 9/11 in New York City, but ultimately, I wrote my way into the family’s backstory, and the contemporary stuff didn’t work or make the cut. Amena, who anchors the later part of Country of Origin, was the first character I hit upon through this literally backwards process. She is not yet a mother at the end of the book, but when I originally imagined her, her life had advanced far beyond where the narrative ends. Her parents, Halah and Khalil, and her uncle, Hassan, all came to me around the same time, when I located the heart of the story in Egypt in the 1950s. I wrote them simultaneously, in brief, alternating sections, for numerous drafts. Khalil and Hassan had another brother in earlier versions of the book, but I ended up conflating his narrative arc with Hassan’s story. Hassan was the most challenging character to write, namely because two of his most formative experiences—incarceration and religious conversion—are very foreign to me.

Rumpus: My understanding is that you grew up in the United States and Canada, though you visited Egypt—the birthplace of your parents and home of your family—frequently during childhood. When you later returned as an adult to conduct research for the novel, did you learn anything new that surprised you?

Azim: I grew up visiting Egypt with my parents almost every year. These were formative experiences for me, really opening up my imagination to other worlds and possibilities. The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I got an undergraduate research grant to write short stories in Cairo. This was my first time traveling there without my parents, and with an artistic purpose in mind. Since beginning work on the book that would become Country of Origin, I’ve traveled to Egypt three times, and each visit helped me develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the place. More than undergoing profound shifts in perspective, I got to know the country and culture better, which made my writing about Egypt richer and more real.

Though the book is predominantly a work of fiction, there are bits that I borrowed from the lives of family members who I got to know during these visits. When I could, I spent a lot of time talking to the people in question, trying to understand them and their stories better. For instance, the character Hassan in Country of Origin gets arrested under dubious circumstances during a regime change in Egypt. Disenchanted and isolated from his previous life, he undergoes a religious conversion in prison and emerges years later as a devout Muslim. One of my mother’s uncles went through a similar experience: [he was] arrested during a period of political turmoil and came out a different, much more religious man. Many people on my mother’s side of my family consider him to be, to this day, a local authority on Islam. Whenever I expressed ethical questions about the religion in the past—like why should women bear the responsibility for men’s lust, or how God could justify dooming some to sin and failure, according to the religion, if all of our lives were predetermined—my relatives would tell me to go ask Uncle Mohamad. I can’t say that I ever got to know him well, but he has a commanding and intriguing presence and left a deep impression on me.

Rumpus: In the novel, you deftly interweave historical and political context without dragging the narrative down. How did you manage to balance the essential history with forward action?

Azim: Revision, revision, revision. Many times throughout the process I would get back notes on drafts of this book from writer friends who would call out sections for being too didactic. This criticism is one I’ve always been particularly sensitive to, as it really bothers me when fiction too self-consciously tries to teach a lesson. It’s something that annoys me in other books, and when I stepped back, I could see that some of my more historical and heavily researched sections in my own work felt overdone and poised to annoy future readers. It was a very conscious effort to strip away the formal, lecture-y sections that were not essential to the story and didn’t serve the forward momentum of the book.

Rumpus: Country of Origin reveals the many contradictions individuals—and nations—carry within themselves. Characters find love amidst grief; they advocate for structural equality while overlooking the injustices in their own homes. What interests you most about contradictions, and why did you want to explore them in this novel?

Azim: I think that if we are being honest, most of us harbor contradictions within ourselves and our lives. Complex characters are the most interesting characters, so from a literary perspective exploring contradictions has always been interesting to me. In Country of Origin I was particularly keen to explore class disparity and where that rubbed against the politics espoused on the streets during a time of revolution. While Egypt’s government undergoes a seismic shift in the 1950s, essentially nothing changes for domestic workers, and opportunities for social mobility remain out of reach. Recognizing these intractable social issues is part of Halah’s awakening at the beginning of the book. This likely comes from the trouble I’ve always had reconciling the existence of the servant class that undergirds the lives of privileged families, like my own, in Egypt. I was especially close to a young woman who lived and worked in my grandmother’s house when I was a child. She began working for my grandmother when she was nine years old and never had an opportunity to get an education. (Later, the government tried to enforce mandatory education for kids throughout the country, so this practice allegedly ended.) At fifteen or sixteen she returned to the village where she was from to marry, and she died in a house fire a few years later. I loved her, and my heart broke for her long before she died.

Rumpus: The class disparities are so honestly felt in the novel—it makes sense that you drew from personal experiences and observations, especially with Halah.

Azim: I feel very fortunate to be a woman living in the United States in the twenty-first century, and, very frankly, to come from relative privilege. Being aware of my advantages certainly makes me feel some guilt, and writing with love and empathy about women like Halah is one way I’ve found to allay that discomfort. It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to have so little agency, in the way that women throughout much of human history have experienced. Creative inquiry is a way to deal with my bafflement and explore what life without choices might be like. In a way, I struggled with writing yet another story about a young woman whose life is dictated by the men in her life—first father, then husband—but then again, it’s hard to write about historical female characters without looking at the ways in which they are confined by male authority. What I love about Halah is how she challenges these constraints to shape her own destiny.

Rumpus: Some of the most tender moments of the book are when characters explore their connection to Islam. Why was it important to depict the character’s complicated and nuanced relationships with faith?

Azim: I suppose I used the writing as a way to process the discordant feelings I have about religion. There’s a beauty to the rituals, and whenever I hear the call to prayer when visiting Egypt, I find it deeply moving. And yet, there are aspects of religion that enrage me, from the countless wars waged in the name of religion, to the proselytizing of believers of all faiths and the sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority this conveys. Not to mention the decidedly anti-feminist aspects of Islam, from conservative impositions put upon women, to inheritance laws that greatly favor men. In spite of my own complex feelings and ultimate agnosticism, I recognize and appreciate the important role that religion has played in the lives of many people whom I love. My grandparents on both sides were very devout Muslims. I remember watching with wonder as they prayed, obviously transported by the ritual. In my memories, they’re often manipulating strings of prayer beads in their hands, Allah their omnipresent guide. Through my writing I try to honor the diversity of our experiences.

Rumpus: Your background in visual art (working in art museums and galleries for twenty years) shines through in the novel—some of the characters are artists themselves, and nearly all are attuned to the art and architecture around them. I was particularly impressed by how vivid your language is when describing intricate three-dimensional art projects. How did you approach writing these scenes?

Azim: My experiences in this field have been a rich influence on my life and work. Outside of religious experience, which not all of us, myself included, can easily access, engaging with art through literature, music, and myriad forms of visual expression can be a profound means of accessing the sublime. Unlike religion, I love that art is non-denominational—it can be a great unifier, and there is no dogma one must subscribe to in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I knew that I wanted art-making to be a part of Country of Origin, and early in the writing process I settled on the Land Art genre as my characters’ chosen means of expression. Creating a site-specific installation in the middle of nowhere is somewhat akin to writing a novel—who knows if an audience will ever find their way to it. I wanted my characters to build something profound on the fringes of society, as an act of faith and an ode to the ephemeral nature of life.  

Rumpus: I love that—art as the great unifier. I appreciate how the later sections of the novel explore the artistic process, such as art as an act of faith, but also the fear of failure that can pair with it. This novel took you fifteen years to complete. What helped you persevere?

Azim: I’m stubborn and did not want to retire this book into the proverbial drawer. I felt deeply committed to these characters and how their stories might add up to a book. The book has changed immensely since I began work on it in the aughts. Really, the only through lines between the first draft and the final one are one of the characters, and the fact that prior generations emigrated from Egypt in the 1950s. Sometimes I say that I spent these years writing numerous books about the same characters, until I hit on one that worked. What kept me going? A variety of things. First, and probably the biggest reason, is the self-actualization piece. I’ve wanted to write and publish novels since college, and I’ve tried to stay true to that ambitious kid with a dream. Being part of a community of writers has certainly fueled my perseverance as well. Not only am I inspired by my writer friends, but their encouragement has also been an essential antidote during more challenging times. The community of writers in Austin, including you, Shannon, has been such an inspiration in recent years; being around “my people” reminds me of who I am and what I love about books, writers, and writing.

Rumpus: Besides writing, you have many responsibilities, such as working at the Blanton Museum, raising children, surviving a pandemic, and I’m sure more. As a working parent-writer myself, I appreciate learning from others about how they manage. Would you mind sharing a bit about how the balancing act has looked like for you—or, selfishly—any suggestions you may have for me?

Azim: For as challenging as the balancing act has been, I feel like it’s been good for my mental health to have an identity, or multiple identities, outside of being a writer. The fact is, most artists need to have day jobs to support themselves. I’ve worked in the arts since I got out of college and have built a very rewarding career in that realm. It’s inspiring to spend my days around art and people who are passionate about art—that’s probably another thing that’s helped keep me going, to add to the answer above.

Being a parent is also incredibly rewarding, but also very demanding. Between work and parenting it can be difficult to find the energy and time to commit to another laborious pursuit, especially when I’m the only one putting pressure on myself to write. In this realm, I was—until I sold my novel—only accountable to myself, and yet I made myself write day after day, year after year. Honestly, I don’t feel like myself when I’m not writing; strip that part of me away, and it feels like an important piece of me is missing. I suspect that writing also brings you a sense of wholeness. The only real advice I have is to remain true to yourself while also accepting that when you’re negotiating a heavy load, the process of writing might feel slow and incremental. We’re all on our own paths, and there’s no one way to be a writer.

Rumpus: Have your children read any of the novel? I’m not sure if they’re old enough, but that’s sort of my dream, to one day share my work with my son.

Azim: No, not yet, but in some ways I wrote this book so they might have it on their bookshelves one day. I’ve recently reframed my long journey to publication as a way that I’ve modeled to my children what it looks like to follow your passion and persevere through the challenges most of us will encounter along the way. I always expected to be proud of my kids, but I didn’t anticipate how meaningful it would feel for them to be proud of me.

 

 

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Author photo by Dale Cannedy-Azim


Shannon Perri holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas. Her words have appeared in outlets such as Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Observer, Joyland Magazine, Literary Orphans, and PANK. She lives in South Austin with her husband and son, and you will often find her searching for caterpillars in her garden. More from this author →