In her debut graphic memoir, “I Was Their American Dream,” Malaka Gharib delivers an honest, thoughtful and oftentimes laugh-out-loud coming-of-age story about navigating life as a first-generation American in the pre-Internet era. The Lily talked with Gharib via email about the writing process, her family’s response to her memoir and what she hopes readers learn. Below, you’ll find Gharib’s responses, which have been lightly edited for clarity, and a short excerpt from the book, which was released Tuesday.
The Lily: What were the hardest parts to write?
Malaka Gharib: The hardest parts to write were my reflections of my life now as an adult — so the last chapters of the book. In a lot of ways, I’m still going through the process of unpacking what it means to be the daughter of immigrants in my everyday life: working in Washington, hanging out with my friends and expressing my Egyptian and Filipino culture at home. I felt like examining those frustrations was like creating fresh wounds with real people in my life in real time — realizing that something that a friend had said to me a few months ago was kind of racist, or that maybe I had whitewashed myself so much that I wasn’t a person of color anymore, and perhaps learning Arabic as a 31-year-old was a desperate attempt to reconnect.
TL: What do your parents think of your memoir? Did they have any reservations about how open you were about your upbringing?
MG: I tried to include them in the process of retelling their stories. Some of the questions were hard: Why did you and mom get a divorce? What did you fight about? Hopefully that gave them an idea of what would be included. They were very skeptical about the book during the process and a little mad after reading it. My mom was like, “I didn’t know that this book was going to be so much about us.” Eventually they came around. My dad said, “I was going to tell your brother, [who grew up in the Middle East and is moving to the United States for college in August] to try to blend in with American culture. But now I’ll just tell him to be himself.”
TL: How does it feel to have your memoir out in the world?
MG: I feel excited. This is the story that I wish I could have read as an impressionable young person. Then I wouldn’t have felt so weird, or tried so hard to be someone who I wasn’t. And this is the story I wish I could tell white people. I’ve spent so much time trying to understand and fit into your world. Please try to understand mine.
TL: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
MG: Exactly what my dad took away from it. POCs and first-generation fam: Just be yourself. That’s the beauty of living in America — what it’s supposed to be, at least.