RAISING MOTHERS: What inspired you to tell this story?
MALAKA GHARIB: I wanted to know: how did spending my childhood summers with my dad’s family in Egypt shape my worldview and personality? I grew up going to Cairo every year from my home in Los Angeles from the age of 9 to 23.
I spent a couple of years exploring that question and I came away with new understandings that surprised me. I learned that my father did the best he could to include me in his new chapter of life in another country. And that I learned a lot about relationships – that it takes love but also effort. Writing a book is like free therapy.
RAISING MOTHERS: What did you edit out of this book?
MALAKA GHARIB: You can’t include every detail of your life in a book, otherwise that wouldn’t be a story – it would just be a diary! The specific anecdotes I chose to tell, for example, the first time I smoked hookah with my cousin or the time I was sexually assaulted on a beach, serve to illustrate challenges I faced as a young person and how I overcame them. Every story must have a purpose. If you know the point you’re trying to make first, it makes it easier to figure out which stories to include and omit.
Because even if you didn’t sell as many copies as you’d hoped, you’ll always know in your heart that it was meaningful to you that you did it.
RAISING MOTHERS: How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
MALAKA GHARIB: I knew I was done when I learned a major lesson about myself: That I had spent so much of my childhood dreading those summers in Egypt, and just when I had begun to appreciate it, it was all taken away from me. My dad and stepmom got a divorce, and I had graduated from college with no more summer holidays off to go visit my family. That’s just how childhood is – it ends eventually, and what you get is what you get. When I came to that realization, I knew that I had hit on what I had been trying to explore in my many months of writing.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was your agenting process like?
MALAKA GHARIB: I messaged my agent Daniel Greenberg and told him that I had an inkling of an idea that I wanted to explore in a book – my summers in Egypt – and he actually sold it to a publisher before I even wrote it.
So then the pressure was on to write the book and actually make something I was happy with and also my family would be OK with. My publisher Ten Speed Press and my agent were kind enough to let me finish my manuscript and have my stepmom and dad read it before I signed my contract!
RAISING MOTHERS: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
MALAKA GHARIB: Most of my advance money for this book went to creating a support team in addition to my awesome editor at the publishing house. With the funds, I paid for the consultancy of my sensitivity editor Rhonda Ragab, my visual editor Ben de la Cruz and even a few read-throughs with the screenwriter Seth Worley to make sure that the book had strong characters and a story arc. Because I invested in the craft of my book, I was confident that I would come away with a good story.
RAISING MOTHERS: How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
MALAKA GHARIB: I’ve been on family leave because I gave birth to a baby in February, and I promised myself I’d use my free time to spend with him, without a screen in front of my face. But in general most of my ideas for comics or stories are formed in my imagination first and I will chew and think about it for days while I’m going on walks, cooking, doing laundry, breastfeeding. And then it will all come out in one go when I have a moment to write it down or pitch it.
Right now, for example, I’m trying to come up with a zine about how to live a more romantic life. I already have a running list of ideas in my head: Put a vase of flowers in your bathroom, use real napkins when you eat dinner. But nothing’s been put to paper yet.
RAISING MOTHERS: What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
MALAKA GHARIB: Writing helps you understand what you’re trying to say. Write until you figure out where you’re going.
It’s OK to have an idea all in your noggin at first – but there comes a point where you’ll have to sit down and write the whole thing out.
If you don’t feel in the mood to write, give yourself a creative appetizer to get you in the mood. Freewrite for 10 minutes. Make a comic. Write a short poem or make a tiny zine. That usually gets me in the spirit!
You can’t include every detail of your life in a book, otherwise that wouldn’t be a story – it would just be a diary!
RAISING MOTHERS: What does literary success look like to you?
MALAKA GHARIB: Being happy with what you’ve written. Because even if you didn’t sell as many copies as you’d hoped, you’ll always know in your heart that it was meaningful to you that you did it.
RAISING MOTHERS: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
MALAKA GHARIB: I’m friends with lots of cartoonists on social media, if that counts! I’ve learned a lot from my fellow cartoonist Kristen Radtke (author of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness). She taught me a lot about the writer business and how to balance a day job with a robust creative writing life – and how to make sure that we as women are fairly compensated for our work.
RAISING MOTHERS: Who are you writing for?
MALAKA GHARIB: Always myself. I write to understand what I’m going through, and when I share it with others, it’s always in the hope that they might relate, then I won’t feel so alone.
Malaka Gharib (she/her) is a journalist, cartoonist and graphic novelist. She is the author of “I Was Their American Dream,” winner of the 2020 Arab American Book Award, and “It Won’t Always Be Like This.” By day, she works as an editor on NPR’s Life Kit podcast.
Her comics and writing have been published in NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Catapult, The Nib, The Believer Magazine and The New Yorker. She has been profiled in The Washington Post and The New York Times. She lives in Nashville, Tenn.