WILLIAMSTOWN -- Let's forget, for the moment, that this country is a melting pot, because it isn't. The heterogeneous stew of the 1900s has been traded up for a more realistic cultural dish, and if it were up to author Diana Abu-Jaber, that dish might be include a healthy dollop of labneh, maybe some baklava, and olives, naturally.
Although Abu-Jaber is "American born," her heritage (like most Americans) reaches to the far corners of the globe, particularly to Jordan, her father's homeland. (Her mother is German-Irish.) The delightful result of this cultural mash is a collection of novels and stories that Abu-Jaber has fluidly put forth for the last 20 years.
She will read from her 2004 award-winning novel "Crescent" at Williams College on Tuesday at the ‘62 Center. While "Crescent" is a work of fiction -- and fairytale, and food, and love, and identity -- Abu-Jaber has always used her real life experiences as the rich roux of her work.
"The characters are inspired by my friends, my family, my imagination," she said in a phone interview from her Miami home base. "Of course, I draw a lot from the people around me. It's a combination of habits, traits, gestures, eye color, how they hold their head. I don't usually just take someone's story. They are compasses. Inevitably these things write themselves."
There is a plethora of material to draw from when you're looking at what Abu-Jaber calls "the culture in-between" which, in the case of "Crescent," is the Arab-American community of Los Angeles, or affectionately, Tehrangeles. Here is where the heart of the novel resides in the vibrant Turkish butcher shop, the throngs of Arab college students and Um-Nadia's cafe where people of every nationality come for a bite of ful (tangy fava beans) and a sip of lemon-zest coffee. The chef, Sirine -- a golden-haired beauty of Iraqi and European descent -- is the main character. Through her we learn of the constant push-pull of identity and the need to find home.
"There are tribes of expatriates and the children of immigrants and the children of Holocaust survivors," Abu-Jaber said. "And tribes within tribes. It's amazing how small yet how powerful these tribes can be within the larger community. It takes a long time to find the people in your tribe, especially if you're not part of the mainstream culture."
Opening up the dialogue about culture, especially Arab culture and especially in the current political climate, is a necessity according to Leslie Brown, a professor of history at Williams who co-directs Williams Reads with dean Sarah Boulton.
"Crescent" was required reading for this year's incoming freshman class (2017) because, Brown said, it touches on nearly every aspect of the cultural experience, both within and outside of the Arab community.
"There's so many things we could pick from this book," she said. "The immigration issue which is really important for us to understand. Food is everywhere in the novel. Gender roles. Arab-American issues, especially after 9/11. The Middle East and it's many diverse cultures."
Brown also touched upon the issue of Syria -- and Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other "foreign wars" -- and the value of refocusing historical perspective to include understanding the past and the present on "global terms."
"History isn't about the right answer," she said. "It's no longer about this unified narrative of progress. There are similarities and differences that happen at the same time. We can't hang on to stereotypes. People tend to conflate Middle Eastern cultures and throw them all together in one pile, not knowing anything about a given cultural background."
Abu-Jaber hopes that sharing her experience, and her novel, will continue to break down barriers and misconceptions about the "gap" communities that buzz just under the surface of mainstream American culture.
"I hope it might reach some people," she said. "Maybe become part of the larger conversation. Maybe people will take time before they make up their mind about invading other countries. There are so many in-between spaces in this country, and tensions. The question is how do we cobble these things together make the conversation happen."
If you go ...
What: Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber to discuss ‘Crescent'
When: Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Where: Mainstage, ‘62 Center, Williams College, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
Admission: Free, tickets required
What: Williams DisagREADS: A critical look at ‘Crescent' -- SpeakFree and the committee for Diversity will discuss the book from many perspectives
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, at 8 p.m.
Where: Goodrich Hall, 683 Main St. Williams College