Sahar Mustafah’s piece “Public Pool” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 23, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Chicago. The city and its suburbs of Illinois are teeming with Arab Americans. Next to Detroit, the Chicagoland area has been a first home for Arab immigrants. I write about the experiences of first and second generation Arabs living in the Midwest; this region is a central setting in my stories.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Though we share a collective label of hardworking and salt-of-the-earth folks, I find the Midwest startlingly and richly complex among its communities.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places — such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head — play a role in your writing?
The Chicago of my childhood is right under my skin. The experiences I had on the Southside feel like nostalgic fiction. I grew up with other first-generation kids – Poles, Italians, Mexicans. We all came of age in two worlds. I do find it easier for me to fictionalize those memories. Other times I explore these experiences in fleeting memoir, so to speak.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Though I dream about writing for a whole summer at a lake house I can finally afford to rent, I’ve learned that my writing space is not as important as my head space. If I’m fired up, I’m writing – in the kitchen, in bed (my favorite place), at a cafe, at my desk between teaching high school classes.
For inspiration, I still read for pleasure. That is to say, I try not to read as a writer and perpetually compare my own style to brilliant others. This keeps my work separate and valid, rather than agonizing and hard to look at.
No such thing as writer’s block, my MFA professor once proclaimed. Just write about what you are doing in this moment. You will soon find your way back to your current project or you will have started a new trail.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I read my work aloud several times. When I don’t stop to fill in a detail or sharpen an image, the work is done.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Can’t do it! So many compelling voices out there! I’m particularly drawn to female writers of color like Amina Gautier, Laila Lalami, and Chimamanda Ngozi Aditchie. They remind me that there’s always room for a Palestinian American writer like me. Their work also demonstrates that a hyphenated or marginalized writer still needs to be a really good writer; in fact, we must fight harder than our white counterparts to be published.
What’s next for you?
My short story collection, winner of the 2016 Willow Books Grand Prize for fiction, will be published next year. I’m currently at work on my first novel if I can pull myself away long enough from the short story form which I simply adore.
Where can we find more information about you?
www.saharmustafah.com or @saharmustafah