Congratulations on your new book, “It Won’t Always be Like This.” Can you share a little bit about this book? What is it about?
It’s about how I used to spend almost every summer of my childhood in Egypt with my dad. I recount my life growing up in Cairo, trying to fit in with my dad’s new family, my Egyptian stepmom who spoke very little English and my half siblings. During these summers, I learned a lot about life: that it’s possible to communicate without language, to belong in a country that isn’t really yours – and that once your childhood is over, it can never really come back. I’m excited for people to read the book and find out more.
What led you to write this book?
I wanted to understand how it’s possible to establish deep connections with someone even though you don’t see them very often or have a shared language, culture or sense of place. And I found my relationship to my stepmother Hala to be a very good example of that, so I wrote this story to fully unpack this sentiment. She and I would cook together, run errands together, make up silly little games together – and slowly through all these things, I observed things about what made her her, and I am sure she learned what made me me.
Can you share your family’s migration story from Egypt? When did you leave? Where did you end up?
My father moved to the U.S. in the 1980s from Cairo. It was his dream to come here. He tried to make a life for himself in America. He was here for 17 years. But his marriage to my mom didn’t work out and he found better prospects for his future back in Egypt, so he moved back in the mid-90s and remarried and started a new family there. I visited him from Los Angeles every one or two years from age 8 to 26. It was very important to my dad that I visit and have a regular connection with my family in Egypt. I’m grateful that he pushed me to do that, otherwise I wouldn’t have the ties I do with my family now.
How does your connection to Egypt make its way into your writing?
I always wanted to know how all those months spent there had an impact on my worldview and my relationships with my family and myself, so that’s what It Won’t Always Be Like This is about. But I’ve written and made art about the country in several different ways, like this essay on why I love (and hate) the scent of oud: https://theseventhwave.co/the-scent-of-oud/
Other times I like to test how far my memory of Egypt can take me. Sometimes I picture a particular place — say, my father’s childhood bedroom in Heliopolis — and see how much of the room I can remember in my mind, which I drew in this picture. While recreating the image, I realized that nothing that we experience ever really disappears, because our memories are always with us.
What does Egypt mean to you?
It is the country of my father and generations of my family. I have a picture of my grandfather when he was in college, smiling and wearing a tarboush next to two friends. He came of age in Cairo in the 1940s, was an English teacher and a writer of radio programs. I look at that photo and sometimes it feels so foreign to me as an American. How is this person a part of me? And then I remember: it was this person who encouraged my dad to dream big, to move to America, where my dad had me. That makes me feel connected to him, and therefore connected to my roots in Egypt. And whatever kind of life I make here for myself in America, as an Egyptian Filipino American, is my version of the Egypt in me.
You’ve also written another fantastic graphic novel “I Was Their American Dream.” Can you share some details about this novel as well? What brought you to writing it?
It’s about being second-generation Filipino Egyptian American. I wrote it to deconstruct how I felt about my race and identity.
How has your work been received in your immigrant communities?
Very well! I’ve spoken to all kinds of people, from Middle Eastern middle school students to Filipino young professionals in Washington, D.C. to older people in a mostly white town in Iowa. People always tell me they learn a lot from my book, which I am so grateful for!
What do you find most rewarding about what you do?
Probably figuring out what I am trying to say as a writer. Looking at the story at the end and finding where I arrived. I didn’t realize, for example, how much I was suppressing my Filipino and Egyptian heritage in favor of whiteness because that’s what I thought I had to do to be American. That was a major discovery for me while writing I Was Their American Dream. I had to go to therapy to process that. But it also encouraged me to reconnect with my culture. I took Arabic language classes at the Embassy of Oman and I joined a young Filipino professionals group in D.C., for example.
What were some of the surprises and challenges you faced on your writing journey?
You might not like what you learn about yourself while writing.
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join or support the organization.
Malaka Gharib is a writer, journalist, and cartoonist. She is the author of I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir, winner of an Arab American Book Award and named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Public Library. She works on NPR’s science desk, covering the topic of global health and development. Her comics, zines, and writing have been published in NPR, Catapult, The Seventh Wave Magazine, The Nib, The Believer, and The New Yorker. She is based in Nashville.