Concordia professor launches her debut novel, Arabic for Beginners
Despite the relentless rain on Thursday, April 6, about 50 people came to support Concordia professor Ariela Freedman for the launch of her acclaimed debut novel, Arabic for Beginners.
The bookstore Drawn & Quarterly hosted the intimate gathering, with many of Freedman’s friends, family, colleagues and readers present to show their support.
“I love publishing, and I rarely enjoy it more than when I am in a position to launch a first novel and introduce a new voice in literary firmament,” said Freedman’s publisher, Linda Leith, when introducing her at the event.
Arabic for Beginners tells the story of Hannah, a Jewish woman from Montreal who spends a year in Jerusalem. She becomes fascinated by group of mothers from her son’s daycare because of the cultural differences she notices. Upon meeting Jenna, a Palestinian mother, Hannah begins to reassess her own beliefs about motherhood and Israel.
The idea for the novel came about when Freedman traveled to Jerusalem in 2008 for her sabbatical year. She had spent time in the city during her youth, but it was during this return trip with her family that she found herself looking at Israel from a different perspective.
“Coming with young children made the country open up for me and brought me into contact with people I would have never met otherwise,” Freedman told The Concordian.
The novel explores themes of motherhood, friendship and nationality.
During the launch, Freedman read a passage from the book where Hannah is in a car with Jenna and her daughter. “Jenna smoked, drove and nursed,” she read. At this point in the novel, Hannah’s friendship with Jenna forces her to revisit her own assumptions about parts of her life, including parenting. The character contrasts Jenna’s behaviour with those of her “puritan” friends in Montreal who all quit drinking and smoking after having kids, and who buy organic foods and use water filters.
Freedman confessed the reason parenthood was a central theme in the novel is because of her own initial worries, confusion and curiosities surrounding it.
“In the first flush of motherhood, I couldn’t figure out how to keep space in my head for my own identity and ideas,” she said. “I was afraid I would vanish into this consuming role as so many women have.”
Freeman said it was also important for her to explore the Israel-Palestine conflict in her novel. Set during the Gaza war, the friendship Hannah and Jenna form is atypical because of their different cultural backgrounds. Freedman described the present-day political situation in Israel as “kaleidoscopic” and said “capturing it factually is elusive.”
Freedman said she wanted to tell the familiar story of the Arab and Jewish conflict but she did not want to focus on men and wars. Instead, she explored it through the small gestures and ordinary domestic tasks of women’s lives.
“By focusing on the characters and their relationships, I tried to not let the themes overwhelm the story,” Freedman said. “I like stories that seem constrained, but have dimension, like those old View-Master stereoscopes that you would peek through to simulate binocular depth perception.”
Freedman has written reviews and poems for several publications, including magazines such as Vallum, Carte Blanche, and The Cincinnati Review. In 2014, she was given a writing mentorship with Elise Moser by the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF). That was when Arabic for Beginners was really able to take off. That being said, Freedman recalls it was difficult to start the novel.
“At a certain point, I decided that, if I wanted to write fiction, I just had to go ahead and do it without standing in my own way,” Freedman said.
Freedman said she sees herself as a reader first and a writer second. She wrote fiction as an undergraduate student, but went into literature in graduate school.
“That demanded a lot of my writing energy, but it also made the critical part of my mind so dominant that it became hard to produce creative work because I was always aware of where I fell short,” she told The Concordian. “Writing fiction has involved letting go of that critical voice.”
Freedman is currently working on another story that has potential to turn into a novel.
“The next thing I’m working on so far seems to be set in New York,” she said.
The author has lived in Calgary and London, but New York, Montreal and Jerusalem are three cities she said she particularly loves living in. “[They] provoke feelings of intense ambivalence,” she said. While Freedman said she would like to write a book set in Montreal, she remembered Margaret Atwood once saying it is easier to write about places from a distance.
Freedman also wanted to share some advice to aspiring writers: “I guess I’d add—for students who are writers—that it can be really useful to share your work, and to look for the people who can help you get it into the world.”