Kelly Ryan and Cameron Phillips interview Jessica Jiji

Kelly Ryan and Cameron Phillips interview Jessica Jiji, author of “Diamonds Take Forever.” From Freestyle, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 2 December 2005

Kelly Ryan: When I was on the plane coming down here, I always have to have a book to read and I read this book – it’s a perfect vacation piece, and we should just let people know that this is a vacation for me, despite being with you right now, that Canadian taxpayer dollars did not pay for me to come to New York.

Cameron Phillips: No.

KR: No. But anyway this book, it’s called “Diamonds Take Forever,” it’s a chick-lit book, and the author actually doesn’t mind that term, Jessica Jiji.

CP: Doesn’t see it as pejorative.

KR: No, no. Jessica Jiji wrote it and it’s actually set in the CBC New York bureau.

CP: Where you are!

KR: Yeah! So here I am sitting in the CBC New York office having just read Jessica Jiji’s book set in the very same place.

CP: You are a part of literary history. Why did she set the book there?

KR: Well, her sister worked here for a time but Jessica what else made the setting seem right?

Jessica Jiji: I also worked there, actually. I was the producer on the other end of the line. And I chose CBC because frankly I think it’s glamorous.

KR: Really?

CP: We’re glamorous?

JJ: You are so glamorous, you guys –

CP: I’m blushing.

JJ: – with your fabulous studios and microphones and live interviews.

KR: So alright, as I look around here, anybody here actually characters in the book?

JJ: I couldn’t say; that’s a state secret.

KR: [laughs] And given your portrayal of some of them, you might want to keep it that way, ‘cause there’s a couple of people in the book that actually aren’t very nice.

JJ: Well, you always need a villain but let’s just say that the CBC isn’t the only place where I’ve encountered workplace bullies.

CP: Hmmm… a lot of names changed to protect the innocent, or not so innocent as the case may be. Now there’s a directory in the back of Arab terms in the book. Why did you want to include that?

JJ: Actually there’s a directory of terms of endearment in different languages. In Arabic, one expression is ainee, which means “my eyes,” and I think that the book in many ways pays tribute to my own Arabic cultural heritage, which I got from my father who is Iraqi, and manages to convey in a tender way how beautiful and rich and vast the cultural wealth of the Middle East and North Africa is – something that’s largely missing in media portrayals as you know which are generally focused on the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

CP: Now do you think because this book is set in the CBC that Canadians will be drawn to it? Were you going for that hook, line and sinker Canadian audience?

JJ: I think that Canadians might really enjoy the book because I think it gives a romantic version of Canada. I honeymooned in Quebec myself, in Montreal, and my own view of Canada is that it is a very peaceful, beautiful, healthy, happy place, and that probably also came across in the book. And it does give some behind-the-scenes at CBC. I don’t know – you guys will have to tell me how accurate I was.

KR: Well, I will say that your description of the training courses, with the bad bagels and you’re sitting there thinking why am I on this course? Haven’t I been doing this job for seven years and they finally decide to give me the basic skills training [laughs] – that’s fairly accurate.

I just want to go back to the whole Arab culture thing. What reaction have you had to that?

JJ: You know it’s really interesting because when I wrote the book I had no idea first that it would be published and second that this would be such a point of interest. I just wrote what I knew, as they say. My own background is Arabic so I made the character half-Arabic as I am, and the editors and agents all along the way really said, “More of this, we love it, please put in more about the history, the culture, the recipes and all the rest.” I ended up exploiting my family so extremely much that I’m afraid that even changing their names will not necessarily protect the innocent [hosts laugh].

But it was very heartening to me, seriously, because I think again that Americans really are thirsting, and Canadians as well, for an alternative view to what we read in the headlines.

KR: Earlier this week you did a book reading here in Manhattan and you served wine made from what you call Manhattan’s only vineyard. Tell us about that.

JJ: Well, that’s I think absolutely correct. My father grows grapes on the side of his brownstone and on the roof, and every year we harvest them and we get several hundred bottles of wine. Now many people in New York City and Manhattan of course buy grapes and make wine, but we think we’re the only ones that make wine with grapes we grow ourselves right here on the soil of New York City.

KR: How is it, that wine?

JJ: It’s very coarse, like a home-made wine should be, but it’s also fruity and light. I think it’s delicious.

CP: This might be a silly West Coast question, but a lot of people might not know what a brownstone is.

JJ: Well, that’s the closest you are going to come to a private house in New York City. But all the houses are adjacent to one another, so it’s not as though you have front yard.

KR: Right on. And a normal place to grow grapes.

JJ: No, not a normal place.  I mean it’s up on the rooftop, so it’s a bit crazy. We like to think that the soot is the secret ingredient.

KR: [laughs] Thanks, Jessica. Well I have to say, it really was the perfect plane book, a great little vacation novel if you need one. “Diamonds Take Forever” is published by Avon Trade Paperbacks.

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