In my Multicultural American Literature course this semester, we are reading Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream. As I was constructing my syllabus for the course, I was looking for graphic memoirs, and I came across Gharib’s book. I scanned a few pages on Amazon and though, “This is great.” So, I ordered it, read it, and assigned it for the course. I reached out to see if Gharib would be able to Zoom into my class and speak with us about her book. She was unable to do that, but she graciously agreed to chat with me about her work. This post is the conversation I had with Gharib about I Was Their American Dream.

During our conversation, Gharib and I talked about a myriad of topics ranging from the importance of graphic memoirs to the the various themes that occur throughout her book from her search for her identity to the similarities between cultures and individuals. One of the things that stands out to me from our discussion was the interactive aspects of I Was Their American Dream. I’ve read graphic memoirs with interactive elements, and when I asked Gharib about her incorporation of flash cards a reader could cut out, a page a reader could cut out to make a small zine, and paper doll Malaka Gharib’s that a reader could cut out and dress, her answer really made me think. She said that these elements were things that she did when younger and that they, specifically the paper dolls, allowed the reader to literally “play” with her. Gharib’s response really interests me because, in a book that focuses on her search for her identity and on the preconceived perceptions that others place upon her, having us, as readers, “play” with her by dressing her and providing accessories really brings these themes into sharper focus because she places us within the text, not just through the words and image but through our own tactile interaction with paper that represents her.

Here are the questions I asked Gharib, and of course, we moved from these at certain points, but I wanted to share them with you here.

1. I Was Their American Dream is a graphic memoir, using the juxtaposition of text and visual illustrations to convey the narrative. Why did you choose to present your story as a graphic memoir rather than a prose narrative? What are the benefits of presenting a story as a comic?

2. Throughout I Was Their American Dream, you have countless interactive activities for readers to engage with. These include teaching readers how to make their own little zines, paper doll cut outs, recipes, and more. What was the impetus for some of these activities? How are graphic memoirs uniquely positioned to provide readers with these types of interactive experiences?

3. I Was Their American Dream details your own journey towards embracing your identity, and in the process, you point out a lot of the fallacies that we learn here in America, most notably the myth of the American Dream and the glorification, through media, of whiteness as the standard for beauty, success, and more. Can you talk some about the ways that you interrogate these themes throughout the book?

4. As a white, male Southerner, albeit from Louisiana and not Tennessee, I love the page where you talk about your observations of Southerners and then point out some of the similarities between Southerners in the United States, Filipinos, and Egyptians. You do this as well with the checklist of Filipino, Egyptian, and American cultures early in the book. Can you talk some about these moments and about the importance of us recognizing that just beneath the surface of what many perceive as differences in cultures we will find strong similarities?

5. When I reread I Was Their American Dream, I kept thinking about a quote from Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,” an essay she wrote in 1909 where she discusses her own identity as the daughter of a Chinese mother and a British father. At the end of her essay, she writes, “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality.” I thought about this, most notably, when you discuss the question that one would ask during high school or college. That question is, “What are you?” Can you talk some about that question and the ways in which Far’s quote illuminates your own experiences?

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.

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