By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
I am pleased to announce the Being in Community Book of the Year for 2017! When you read Irene Noor’s debut novel, Yet, Home, you will agree that this book deserves the title and more. (Click here for the 2016 book of the year.)
Once I picked up Yet, Home, I couldn’t put it down. In an adult “choose your own adventure” story, Noor takes us through the two different paths Tayib could have taken if had decided to emigrate to Australia or stay in Egypt. We are introduced to Dalia, the daughter he would have had if he emigrated, and Layla, the daughter he would have had if he stayed. The book follows their lives from Tayib’s childhood through the seemingly inconsequential but crucial incidents that lead him to take different paths.
Noor expertly weaves the story together with authentic characters that any reader will be able to identify with. As a first generation immigrant, I easily identified with Dalia’s experiences, and as a mother of young children, I lived the exact struggles Layla goes through in trying to find her own path. Noor paints vivid pictures with her words of all the settings her characters live in – London, Cairo, Lisbon, Australia – I could see, hear, and even smell the sights, sounds and scents through her descriptions.
In addition to the engaging story, Noor intersperses lucid commentary on family and community life in a changing world. These words from Tayib struck me in their accuracy:
I have been abroad enough times to know that families in Western countries suffer from their own poverties: there never seemed to be enough time for a leisurely meal or an unscheduled conversation with an old friend, at least not in my experience … I fear my own beloved country has made a fatal decision, leaping to achieve material abundance at the expense of its abundance of spirit.
My own visits to Egypt confirm those words, as life has become busier for so many people. Traces of that “abundance of spirit” remain, testified by the tears my children shed whenever we leave.
Yet, Home is a perfect book club book. When I finished it, all I wanted to do was discuss it with someone. The fictional story provokes discussion not just on the immigrant experience but also on the universal themes of decision-making, family, community life, parenthood, and love. Subscribers to my email newsletter will have access to a discussion guide developed by Irene Noor and me, and one reader will receive a signed giveaway copy of the book from Irene Noor herself! To enter, comment on the blog below, sharing a pivotal decision you have made in your own life.
I had the pleasure of interviewing author Irene Noor about the book herself over email:
What inspired you to write this book? What gave you the idea of creating two possible lives for Tayib?
Writing is something I’ve dreamed of doing since 5th grade, but life was always too busy, or there were more pressing priorities. Then, in 2014, my husband and I decided to move our family to Australia temporarily, for the experience of living abroad. I quit my job, and we lived in Queensland, Australia for 18 months. It was during that time that I finally had the time and space to write.
As for why I chose parallel lives for Tayib, I wanted to explore the question of how the decision to immigrate shapes one’s life and that of the next generation: a question I think most 1st generation immigrants can relate to. Having the same person immigrate and not immigrate was my way of examining this question. The challenges of each path are unique, as are the gifts, and I hope that came through in the book.
Who is your favorite character in the book – the one you most identify with? Why?
Oh wow. Tough question! In the end, I don’t identify fully with any of the characters, but I think there’s strains of me in each of the main characters (Tayib, Layla, and Dalia), but most especially Layla and Dalia. Like most professionals who are also mothers and want to do both well, I feel a constant guilt/ internal conflict. How do we fulfill our own vocational and life goals while also being fully present and committed to our kids’ upbringing? Layla allowed me to explore that balance a bit–although her interests and personality are not at all like mine–while Dalia allowed me to imagine a fully career-driven life.
What would have happened if Tayib had succeeded in the challenge his father gave him as a child? Why would his father give him this challenge, and why didn’t he succeed?
If he’d succeeded, he would have found out as a young man about the gift his father was leaving him, as opposed to finding out at the end of his career, as he does in the book. (That would have had its own ramifications, of course, and made for a very different life–and book.) Tayib was his father’s first and only son, and I think, as was typical in Egypt at that time, his father had high hopes for his son’s success and its reflection on the family. This is why he gave him this challenge, knowing he was probably asking too much … and indeed, Tayib failed because he was just a child who made a child’s mistake. I don’t think his father was disappointed, and Tayib did learn a lesson. The significance of this event, of course, is the series of reactions it set off.
I loved the observations your different characters make about family and community in Egypt versus England and Australia. Do these observations reflect your own experiences and/or the experiences of your family?
Yes. None of the experiences in the book are exact accounts of experiences that me or my family or friends have had, but I did take artistic license with some true accounts and create scenes that I think are very likely.
You paint vivid pictures of all the places your characters have been – Egypt, London, Lisbon, Australia. How are you able to do so – have you visited all these places?
I’ve visited or lived in all the places except Lisbon, and for the Lisbon scenes I did a lot of reading and research, and relied on Google Maps and Photos–and stories from a friend of mine who has lived there–to get a sense of the city.
Many Egyptians, even those living outside of Egypt, tend to marry within their community. Why did you decide to have both Layla and Dalia have romantic relationships with non-Egyptians?
With Dalia’s story, I intentionally had her be involved with an Australian man because I wanted the focus to stay on her, and I knew that if she dated/married a member of the Egyptian immigrant community, it would introduce a whole other set of issues: do they, as a couple, have to have comparable levels of assimilation into their adopted country for the relationship to work? And if they don’t, how do they resolve the issues that raises? How do they decide, if they have kids, how much of their Egyptian heritage to raise those kids with? Plus I think Dalia is herself someone who was very assimilated into Australian culture, even though she remained very close to her parents.
With Layla, honestly, it’s just what she chose. I know that sounds hokey, but I was typing along one day, and there she was, meeting this British guy. It was simply one of those times that the character chose for herself, and I stepped aside and let it happen.
What are you working on now? When can we expect your next book and what can we expect?
The book I’m working on now is about an 18-year-old who loses her entire family in a shipwreck (save an older brother who is off having his own adventures somewhere else). In the six years that follow, she is trying to figure out what her life is about and how she can live the life she wants (something most of us at that age can probably identify with). The twist is that she is constrained by the limitations that a woman of that time and place (1880s Ireland) would have faced.
It is my first historical fiction. The shipwreck is real, the survivor is real. The story of how and why she chose to live as she did is my own. I’m currently rewriting it, but I expect it will be completed sometime next year.
I cannot wait for Noor’s next book. Get updates on her Facebook page here, and in the meantime, I know my readers enjoy Yet, Home as much as I have! Purchase your copy here, and consider it for your next book club read – you won’t be disappointed.
Subscribers to my email newsletter will have access to a discussion guide developed by Irene Noor and me, and one reader will receive a signed giveaway copy of the book from Irene Noor herself! To enter, comment on the blog below, sharing a pivotal decision you have made in your own life, and click here to subscribe to my email newsletter. Giveaway closes on November 31st, 11:59 pm EST, US addresses only please.
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