Frustrated by chick lit, UN news writer Jessica Jiji decides to write her own

Updated at 15:34 on January 28, 2006, EST

NEW YORK (AP) – International atrocities were all in a day’s work for Jessica Jiji, a news writer at the United Nations. Foreign policy, election results and body counts were, and still are, her bread and butter.

When she came home, Jiji needed to decompress. Fashion magazines were just the thing to relax her brain. And soon, she turned to reading chick lit, a light, easily absorbed genre of books akin to romance novels.

But the 40-year-old with a master’s degree in international relations was quickly frustrated by chick lit. She found it simple and at times poorly written. A friend suggested that instead of complaining about it, she should write her own.

At first she scoffed, but soon Jiji found herself writing. In the grand tradition of writing what you know, Jiji did just that. Her chick lit book, Diamonds Take Forever, follows the basic formula for the genre: heartbreak, the struggle to get over it and the quest for a new man.

However, Jiji’s book has a twist. Between the tales of woe and the encouragement from the ubiquitous gay friend are Arabic phrases and references to arranged marriages within an Arab and Jewish family.

“I hope to convey in the novel some of the admirable qualities in Arabic culture like generosity, warmth, hospitality and loyalty,” Jiji says over plates of hummus and vegetables at a cafe near her midtown Manhattan home.

“These are all values that my father passed on to me and is very proud of. He attributes them to his upbringing in Iraq. When you ask Americans about Iraq, I don’t think the first things that comes to mind are the ones I just named. But they are for me,” says Jiji, a small woman with long, straight dark hair and deep, dark eyes. Her exotic looks are in sharp contrast with her friendly and outgoing personality. She is happy as she speaks, even when recalling the frustrations of getting her manuscript out to agents while raising a newborn.

Diamonds Take Forever is the story of Michelle Benamou, a twentysomething who lives in Queens with her ex-marine boyfriend named Joe. Joe breaks up with her, leaving Michelle not only heartbroken, but without an apartment, a fate that can be worse than death in New York City. As Michelle tries to find a place to live, she samples some new suitors and gets on with life.

Jiji decided to make Michelle Benamou Moroccan instead of Iraqi. “Iraq is too much associated with war and terrorism right now,” the author says. “It was too complicated. The story was otherwise a frothy one. I couldn’t make her Iraqi without addressing all the other issues connected with Iraq.”

Reviewers, such as Kelly Ryan, the host of CBC’s Freestyle, have called Jiji’s book, “A perfect plane book, a great little vacation novel.”

Jiji never thought her book would be marketable. She didn’t even change the names of some of her characters, such as Gaima, Latif and Vera, all of whom are members of her family.

“It turned out they really were interested in Arabic culture,” she says.

Jiji sent her manuscript to 120 agents and was surprised at the response she got from agents and editors. She eventually signed with Avon Trade, which was looking for more ethnic stories in its line of novels geared at women. This amused Jiji, who is half Iraqi, half American and a practising Buddhist.

“Exotic for me was the blue-eyed blond girl – the Protestant whose parents didn’t have funny names,” she says.

Lyssa Keusch, Jiji’s editor, said that Diamonds Take Forever was a great find to round out the rest of Avon’s catalogue, which include novels with Latina, Chinese and Indian themes.

“With any kind of ethnic chick lit, it can be hard to get the voice just right,” Keusch said. “Maybe because of her job at the UN Jessica’s is pretty distinctive.” The book came out in November with an initial print run of 25,000 copies.

Jiji wrote three screenplays before the Diamonds was published. Although she didn’t sell any of them, the book has prompted new interest in her past work. She’s even getting suggestions for new projects. This pleases Jiji, who considers writing “a present” to herself, one that balances her journalism career and the personal life she has with her husband, John, and two young sons.

“Writing is kind of like building a collage,” she says. “I feel like I’m taking something from here and from there. I can relate to sculptors, especially found-object sculptors.”

She thinks her book also provide a glimpse at Arab culture, one that average Americans may not see.

“I think I’m a very unlikely poster child for this cause, but at the same time this doesn’t really bother me because I think it highlights the heterogeneity of the Arabic world,” she says.

“It’s not that there are Arabs and there are Jews. My father is both. Every Arab is not a Muslim and every Muslim is not an Arab. Everything doesn’t have to be moulded into one category. Look at me, I’m a Buddhist, I think that can be useful. I don’t mind really.”

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