I finally had a chance to read this interview over at Salon with Alicia Erian, the author of a new novel, Towelhead. Here’s a snippet.
Speaking of complicated reactions, did you choose the book’s title?
I did choose it. Under duress. [Laughs]
How did that happen?
Originally, it was called “Welcome to the Moral Universe.” Daddy has a speech where he tells Jasira something about the moral universe, and I liked the speech. Probably, I also really loved the movie “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” [Laughs] My editor, who’s a very sharp woman, didn’t say anything until I completed the manuscript, and then she was like, “OK, time for a new title!” So I was flipping through the book — when I find titles, I try to find them in the text first — and there’s only one word that’s coming up repeatedly. And I passed it over a million times and I thought, you know, you cannot call a book that. That is horrifying. And so I go all over the book, and it’s the only thing you can call it. A lot turns on the use of this word. And then I started thinking, you know, this is what a title is supposed to be: a little rough, ideally one word, and something that will get people’s attention. And it didn’t feel like a cheat because it really is of the book. So I wrote to my agent and said, What do you think of this? And he said yep, and I wrote to my editor, and she said, yep, and then we had this bizarre discussion about whether it should be “Raghead” or “Towelhead.” [Laughs] I talked to my [now ex-]husband and he said, “Tell them it has to be ‘Towelhead,’ because ‘Towelhead’ is funny. ‘Raghead’s’ not funny. There’s whimsy in ‘Towelhead.'” [Laughs] It’s the stupidest slur! There are better slurs. If you really want a powerful slur, that’s not the one you want.
The title is likely to set off alarm bells for a casual reader who doesn’t know anything about the book. Did you worry about that?
Sure. It’s offensive. I hope the fact I’m half Arab allows me to use that title. Which I assume it does. It’s not like I’m some white person who’s calling the book “Towelhead.” I think that would cause a lot more trouble.
It could just be me, but when I hear ‘towelhead,’ the word ‘funny’ isn’t the first one that comes to mind. In fact, I find it obscene to make light of the slur when you consider that there are people who have lost their lives because of it (men like Adel Karas or Ali Almansoop or Abdo Ali Ahmed, whose only crime was to be Arab in a post-September 11 America.)
Erian, who, by her own admission, never had to deal with the anti-Arab slur that she uses as the title of her novel, is a little misguided if she thinks that her ethnicity gives her the “right” to use it. Claiming the right means that one also accepts the responsibility that comes with such a horrendous word–do something with it, challenge it, turn it on its ear. Don’t just slap it on your book because “it’s a publisher’s wet dream.”
So, while I think Erian has the right to call her book whatever the hell she wants, I do hope that she has the courage to stand by her choice and listen up to what her audience, this ‘towelhead’ included, will have to say about it.
Tune in tomorrow for my review of the book.