Bedouin Tales, Guilt–Free Escapism and Multiple Crushes

Voice of America’s Kristen Larsen interviews Jessica Jiji, author of “Diamonds Take Forever”

Kristen Larsen: How would you like to be referred to?

Jessica Jiji: A straight–up chick–lit author. I know that Avon is also interested in the ethnic angle but I think it’s also just something that applies to all.

KL: Now as far as — like you said, the cultural angle, what is the importance that has in a romance novel?

JJ: Well, I think people like to visit a new culture and learn something that they don’t already know. I’ve found with mine, I just started writing and the background was my background, which is Iraqi, and Jewish — which is unusual but I didn’t set out to teach any lessons, I just wrote what was colorful. And the editors and agents that read it just said, “More of this, more of this, more of this.” So I proceeded to exploit my family members and all the funny stories that I had about them and hoped that they wouldn’t read the book and threw it in there.

And not only that but I went to my father for more stories: “Oh, who was that fortune-teller that Nana used to consult? ” and, “What did she do with those magical stones that she threw on the ground?” and, “Were her fortunes correct?” and, “What are these quotes from these Arab poets that you always used to quote at us, and all of this philosophy that you had about the Bedouins?”

I became enamored of it and fascinated, and let’s face it, in this day and age there’s a war going on in Iraq, and this is — not that I wanted to instruct anyone or be pedantic or politically correct, but it’s nice to know that there’s more to Iraq than Saddam Hussein.

KL: Some people say that romance novelists become great historians, that the love of a culture, even people that just start picking up romance novels, they become enamored of the culture, the history, the period because they love it and there’s such an emotion associated with it, it makes them want to learn more. Do you feel that that’s true?

JJ: I think so. If there’s a loving portrayal, then you might become interested in something and it’s an easy pill to swallow. It’s a romance novel, it’s not a textbook, so this is a nice entry into another world, and I think that’s wonderful. My mother always said to me, “You know, you can travel anywhere through books, ” and it’s true.

KL: How important do you think escapism is in our culture, in any culture?

JJ: Well, let’s not put it down. I work at the United Nations, that’s my full–time job. I deal with a lot of body counts. I write about AIDS, refugees, wars — the worst blights on the planet, and that?’s how I came to chick–lit, because when I got home, I really didn’t want to read an analysis of the genocide in Rwanda; I wanted to read Cosmo. And that’s what I did. And that was such a guilty pleasure — finally I followed the reviews in those pages to chick–lit and became addicted to that instead, but I think it keeps me sane.

KL: It’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people, and why do people feel that there’s that shame associated with just enjoying that escapism? Why do you think there is?

JJ: Well, like I said, our country’s at war. There are people that are giving their lives for what they believe in; there are people that are dying on the other side as well. It’s tough times that we live in. I woke up the other night from yet another nightmare about terrorism. So, you know, sometimes I think we feel like we have to grapple with the heavy, philosophical subjects of our day but that’s not necessarily true; not everyone can be Joan of Arc all the time. It’s okay to indulge yourself a little in some sort of escape. And I think even the troops want to read something that’s not war.

KL: Some people say that romance novels, they are another way of expanding humans as they are, and love. Do you think that’s always important no matter what’s going on in the world?

JJ: I think the best romance novels are the ones that really dig down deep, and really expose our vulnerabilities and our difficulties, and our challenges, our problems. So in that sense I think readers can find, at least in mine, I tried to just expose all the emotion, whatever: good, bad and ugly. And that’s where you get the triumph, because you can relate on a certain level and then you identify with the heroine, you want her to win, and when she does, it’s your triumph too.

KL: You work at the United Nations. Does any of those world experiences filter into your romance novels, or is it just pure escapism and family history?

JJ: Oh, I’d be lying if I said they didn’t. I mean my character’s best friend is an African from Cameroon who is modeled so almost exactly on my African friend from Nigeria that it’s again embarrassing that I’ve revealed so much about our friendship. I mean every time he greets her he says, “My treasured sister,” and my real friend always says, “My golden comrade.” It’s beautiful to work in a place where you can encounter cultures from around the world. I feel tremendously privileged, and so if any of that comes into the novel, then I’m happy.

KL: Now of course there’s the emphasis on modernism as well. Is that part of your take on romance novels?

JJ: I would have to add the word “urban,” although it’s a little technical, maybe “city;” you know, it’s city life, it’s busyness, the Blackberry that’s always on, it’s always being tapped in, it’s always running around, it’s multitasking like crazy. My character skates to work. It’s like you’re crazy — take one big breath in the morning and you don’t exhale until you go home at night. It’s very busy, modern life, yeah.

KL: So do you think that what you encounter in the city comes through, and that energy is something that would appeal to people even in urban or rural areas?

JJ: I think even more so in rural areas. I know for myself I used to love watching “Melrose Place;” look at all those crazy rich people. And I think people like to see, again, another world. It doesn’t have to be Arabic, it can just be, “Wow, she’s working in the Empire State Building!” or something like that. You get to travel, again.

KL: What do you love about romance novels?

JJ: I’m a romance junkie. I love falling in love, I love crushes. I married my true love, I’m still very happily married, but that doesn’t mean I don’t fall in love about twenty times a day. So I never get sick of it.

KL: Could you tell me a little bit more about your process, like how many books you come up with a year?

JJ: Well, I started out by writing screenplays. I wrote three screenplays that were tremendously entertaining but I think the budgets were in the tens of millions of dollars so I decided to become a little more realistic. My writing process — because I work full–time, and I have two kids, and I lead a busy life, and all those crushes keep me busy as well — I find myself writing any chance I get. Other people do crosswords or play solitaire or something like that; if I have one minute I’ll write one sentence, but I just squeeze it in wherever I can. I write absolutely as much as I can; I’m an addict.

KL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JJ: Just that I’m really privileged to work with Avon, and this is just an incredible publishing house and it’s been the most delightful and exciting journey of my life. And I hope readers enjoy the book and I hope I can continue to write.

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