This interview was originally published on PaperCut http://jgpapercut.blogspot.com/2015/08/interview-with-weam-namou.html
JG: Today I’m sitting with my friend and fellow author Weam Namou. She is the author of the booksThe Mismatched Braid, The Feminine Art, The Flavor of Cultures, and, a poetry collection entitled I Am a Mute Iraqi With A Voice. Because of the great success of that collection, she started the Iraqi Americans book series. So far she has two books published of this series: 1) The War Generation; 2) Witnessing a Genocide. Welcome to Papercut. Thanks for taking some time to chat with me and my readers. Tell us a little about yourself.
WN: Thanks for inviting me.
JG: Your first book is The Feminine Art. Would you mind sharing your experience both the writing and the publishing aspects?
WN: It took me two years to complete The Feminine Art, and then in 1996, I attended a local writer’s conference at Oakland University where Frances Kuffel, then a literary agent at the Jean Naggar Agency, critiqued the first chapter of the novel. She loved it, asked me to send her the finished manuscript, and soon we signed a contract. Frances was my literary agent for a number of years. Her belief in my work allowed me to start and finish a second novel, The Flavor of Cultures.
Frances went on to become the vice president of the Maria Carvainis Agency in New York. She was still my agent, but then in early 2003, she published her first memoir, Passing for Thin, and left the agency. No longer having representation, I was advised by a number of friends, professors and authors, to independently publish my book. The 2003 US-led invasion had just begun and they felt that my book had a timely appeal. They were right. Within six months of publication, I did over a hundred nationwide radio interviews. I also received a number of newspaper and magazine jobs, requests for poetry submissions, speaking and reading invitations, and even my own column for a local paper.
JG: How long have you been writing? What is your earliest recollection of writing?
WN: My first attempt at writing a book started about twenty-four years ago, at age nineteen. My earliest recollection of writing a story was in fifth grade, shortly after I arrived to America. I had to write a personal story and I wrote about having to leave, in secrecy, my friends and school in Iraq and moving to a foreign land. My English teacher asked me to share my story in front of an audience of parents at a school event. This was my first “published” piece.
JG: You’ve been engaging in multiple mediums for some time now. Tell us about the articles you write.
WN: I live in the city of Sterling Heights, nicknamed “Little Baghdad,” so I’m surrounded by material which is easily translated into different types of literature. Writing articles about high profiled Iraqi Americans, mostly Chaldeans, as well as covering events about the community has introduced me to people and subjects that I would not have discovered on my own. These encounters led me to come up with the idea of the Iraqi Americans book series. Each series will include a different subject matter about the Iraqi American community.
JG: What’s it like to write a screenplay?
WN: Green Card Wedding was a short film I made for my thesis at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. After graduation, I spent two years turning it into a feature script. The process was entertaining because a number of people were involved. My younger brother and my nephews, who were in their early twenties, came over every week to critique the material I had written. Because the script was a light comedy, we had fun playing around with the scenarios. The creative energy in my living room was great, and it led us all (including my husband and one year old daughter) to go to L.A. in 2007, to find actors for the film. Lance Kawas, an accomplished filmmaker who was one of my instructors in film school, really believed in Green Card Wedding and worked with me to attain funding.
Then in 2010, a family approached me to write a story about their daughter, Dawn Hanna. Dawn was in federal prison at that time, accused of conspiring to broker telecom equipment to Iraq during the sanctions. Unbeknownst to her and the jury which tried her, her coconspirator was actually a CIA operative. The project was sponsored by the United States to listen in on Saddam and his men. I put the film on hold and for the next four and a half years, worked on the Dawn Hanna story, which I named The Great American Family. I completed the book last year and currently, I’m searching for a home for it.
JG: How do you organize your day?
WN: During the school year, I write once I send the kids to school. I will take breaks in the late afternoon, during which time I cook and do light housework. The evenings are for research, interviews and marketing. In the summer, my writing hours in the daytime are shorter because I like to spend time with the kids and enjoy the warm weather that does not last too long in Michigan.
JG: Have you been to writing festivals? Do you have an opinion regarding them?
WN: No, I haven’t. I feel that interacting in any literary community is healthy and inspiring for writers. However, some writers spend more time in writer’s groups and conferences than they do writing, or honing the craft of writing, and that’s not going to move the book forward.
JG: What are you reading now?
WN: Maria Theresa Asmar’s Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (audio)
The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work
JG: What is your job as a writer? Who is your audience?
WN: I freelance, mostly for the Chaldean News and right now I’m concentrating on the Iraqi Americans book series. The next book will be about the lives of artists, and it will be released in autumn 2015. My audience is intellectuals who like to read history, politics, biography and literary fiction.
JG: You are Chaldean. Can you explain what exactly that means? How does being Chaldean inform your writing?
WN: Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis who trace their roots to Prophet Abraham since he was from Ur, the biblical land of the Chaldees. When I began to learn about my heritage, I felt empowered by the richness of my ancestral land, where writing was invented. But I was also bothered by how little the world knew of these people’s achievements. Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, was a woman from ancient Iraq. I came across her name by accident and I could not understand why our Chaldean churches and the general educational institutions did not highlight her achievements.
Then while covering a story in 2012, I learned that almost two hundred years ago, a woman from Telkaif (my parents’, grandparents and great-great parents’ once Christian village in northern Iraq) had written a 720 page memoir. Maria Theresa Asmar was a Chaldean woman born in 1804 when the Ottoman occupied Iraq. She ended up traveling to Europe by herself, met the Queen of England (even dedicated the book to her), and described in the book her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. She died in France. An English version of her book was published in 1844 and was well received in England. Yet very few people in our Chaldean community know about her work.
JG: You are a wonderful writer. I’m a huge fan, as you might’ve guessed. I think that you are the Chaldean equivalent of Jhumpa Lahiri. Would you agree or disagree?
WN: I’m honored. Thank you. I read Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” when it first came out, and she and other ethnic writers such as Amy Tan showed me the possibility of telling my ethnic stories through the English language. Although, as I write this, I remember my former agent, Frances, and an Iraqi American book critic, after reading The Feminine Art, had compared my writing to that of Jane Austen because of my attention to small details that are the thread of family relationships.
JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?
WN: From early morning until late afternoon, every day, unless I’m out of town.
I used to love writing at coffee shops, libraries and bookstores. When you have kids, however, it’s not easy to just get up and go. You have to depend on the schedule of those who will watch your kids, and that dependence takes away your freedom to write how much you want to write.
I live in the same house my husband and I bought ten years ago when we got married. From the start, we made the family room my office. While I loved it spaciousness, it took years for me to get used to working in an atmosphere that was either very quiet (when the kids are asleep) or very noisy (when they were up). But over the years, I renovated it to create the right writing atmosphere for myself. I began to enjoy the window view I have while writing – the squirrels, birds, cats and rabbits that visit our backyard and nibble on food that is left behind from the previous night’s dinner we had on the patio.
For some years now, this has become my favorite and preferred place to write.
JG: What does Weam do when she is not writing?
WN: When not writing, Weam is mostly taking care of the house and kids and doing various family activities. I’m also currently helping care for my mother, who lives with me. I come from a big family (six sisters and four brothers, nearly 35 nieces and nephews, etc. – not to count my husband’s side) so much time goes into extended family as well as my own family.
When I have free time, I love to spend it in physical activities such as yoga, walking, and swimming. Once in a great while, I’ll have time to go to the movies.
JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?
WN: My great-grandmother Maria was a well-known healer. My father, who headed the accounting department at Baghdad’s railway station, was also a bonesetter for family and friends and whoever needed that free service.
Since it’s in my genes, for many years I have been studying spiritual work through different teachers. I’m currently a fourth year apprentice of Lynn Andrew’s school. Lynn Andrews is the bestselling author of the Medicine Woman series. Over twenty-five years ago, she founded Lynn Andrew’s Center for Sacred Arts and Training, a four year spiritual and healing school.
I want to continue to use my storytelling abilities to do work similar to that of my great-grandmother, my father and other family members.
JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?
WN: Dead: Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou, Henry James, Nora Ephron, Saddam Hussein (I have a lot of questions to ask him), Layla Al Attar (a famous Iraqi artist), Maria Theresa Amar
Alive: Woody Allen, Al Pacino, Robert Di Nero, Meryl Streep, Michael Moore, Stephen King, Kahtim al Sahir (famous Iraqi singer), President Bush Sr. & President Bush Jr. (I have a lot of questions to ask them too).
JG What projects are you working on now?
WN: I’m in postproduction of The Great American Family, based on the book with the same title.www.thegreatamericanfamilydocumentary.com
JG: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
WN: You are responsible for your own success.
JG: Any advice?
WN: A friend of mine once said to me that if she wanted to, she could write a book in a week. This woman had a master’s degree in business and was successful in her field, but she is a very impatient person and the one thing you need to have to write a good book, especially if you’re starting out, is patience – while writing the book, while finding an agent/publisher, and after the book is published, then when writing the next book, and so on.
Along this journey, it’s important that you keep your priorities straight and have a balance rather than obsess over your writing. What’s the use of having a great book if you have a lousy life? These days, especially, having a great life can easily translate into a great book.
JG: Opinions about MFAs?
WN: It’s a matter of preference and opportunity. If one can go, why not? If one can’t, that should not stop them from being a writer. Many famous writers never went to college. Maya Angelou never even took a writing class. William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Jack London, and H.G. Wells dropped out of high school nearly from the time they enrolled.
JG: How did you land your agent?
WN: As I mentioned earlier, I met my first agent, Frances Kuffel, at a writer’s conference at Oakland University in Michigan. I met my second agent, Cicily Janus, in 2012 at a writer’s retreat in Colorado. At that time, she worked at Folio Literary Management.