We talked to New York-based writer Amira Pierce about being born in Beirut, moving more times than she can keep up with, finally finishing a novel and giving up on escaping. Amira was born in Beirut, Lebanon.
She received her MFA in writing fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She is working on a novel set in Beirut and Northern Virginia about finding love in a broken world. You can read her short story, “The Model,” on Miracle Monocle, and she has a new short story, co-written with Shannon O’Neill, on being Lebanese-American coming out from The Asian American Literary Review this fall.
You were born in Beirut. Is that important to you?
It’s a big part of how I see myself. I went back to Lebanon every summer as a child and, after six years away, I was lucky enough to spend a month there this summer, staying with my aunt and her family and reacquainting myself with the country and other family there. It was intense! And amazing. Many of my first memories take place there, where my mother grew up in the south, and I’m thankful for that.
You’ve already told me where you’ve lived over the years, but I lost track. Can you refresh my memory?
Ok, in order, after leaving Beirut at less than one month old: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Khartoum, Sudan; Falls Church, Virginia; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Falls Church again; Surabaya, Indonesia; New York City, Manhattan then Brooklyn; Cairo, Egypt; San Francisco, CA; Richmond, Virginia; and now I’m back in New York, in Astoria. And I’ve been many other places for weeks and months here and there—always going back to Lebanon and Virginia.
Does one place stick out more than the others as home? Whatever that means.
Lebanon and Virginia stick out. New York is a big one too, especially since I’m back here now. I’ll never be able to say I’m fully from any one place; it wouldn’t feel right.
How often do characters from the places you’ve lived pop up in your work, like Mustapha from Cairo in The Model?
Pretty much always—but my characters are never exact copies of people I’ve known. It’s all a recreation. I write about places I know or have heard a lot about. I write about people I’ve known in those places but I change their names and mix up their stories. To me the craft of writing is putting together the pieces of things I’ve known remembered to make new things.
Do you feel, like Mustapha, that New York is oppressive? Shouldn’t it theoretically be the perfect place for someone with no single culture to be?
You caught me! I do find New York oppressive in a few specific ways—for example, its lack of green spaces (particularly in more affordable neighborhoods) and its exhausting and soul-sucking go-go-go I’m-so-busy-look-at-my-calendar mentality that is partly necessitated by how expensive it is to live there. These two things I’ll attribute to a culture of individual success and capitalism that of course is present all over the country and the world but finds very fertile ground in New York. But, also, I see another side to New York, which you mention in your second question. New York’s diversity is absolutely unparalleled, especially in a neighborhood like Astoria. When I am walking home from the subway and hear languages I don’t even recognize, that makes me happy. When I am able to take time from my daily routine of work and everything else to enjoy food I’ve never tasted before, see art I’ve never dreamed of, listen to ideas that at once seem so foreign and so familiar, I am floored, thrilled, feel lucky to be alive in a city of such imagination and possibility.
Do you feel a need, a pressure, to tell stories that are outside of the countries you know so well?
I don’t feel I know any place “so well” and feel hesitant about stepping too far outside of what I have observed and experienced in my writing. I do, however, feel a need to visit places I have never been before and will continue to do so whenever I can. And, eventually, those places will make themselves into my writing and the number of settings I represent will grow and grow and…
You’ve received awards for your work, you teach at NYU, but it strikes me that you don’t see those as achievements. What would be a true achievement for you?
All those things felt really great when I heard I got them, for sure—that feeling of having received about a million rejections and then finally reading the email or answering the phone and getting good news and then realizing, wow, luck and hard work have finally combined and wow! wow! wow! and then immediately calling my family and my close friends to let them know. Then a cool award or a new job goes from being exciting news that jogs you out of your daily reality to being a part of you. With the job I got lucky since it’s a great cooperative environment and I am excited about what future semesters hold. As far as awards and publications go, that’s harder. Of course I’d like to win some more things and see my work in more places, so I try to submit stuff regularly, but I’ve slowed down a bit. It’s more of a priority now to just keep writing, and the next true achievement will be finishing a book, my book.
Novels are notoriously hard to complete for any writer, how far along do you feel yours is?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. You know it feels like I jinx it enough when I talk about it in person but writing about it here feels even scarier. Let’s just say it’s farther along than any of the previous three novels I’ve started in the past decade. My characters have gotten into some intense existential and cultural dilemmas as I’ve spent a lot of time writing them this summer. I don’t really know how it all ends up for them yet, but I look forward to finding out sooner rather than later.
Staying put in New York? What’s next for you?
New York for now, but, you know, I feel it’s an oppressive place, so we’ll see. Ha. The question is whether one deals with oppression by facing it or running away, and of course we all do some combination of both. This multi-cultural life I’ve got going on sure lends itself to running away, but also every time you move somewhere new you realize again that this running away thing doesn’t mean a clean break from anything, really. Mustafa definitely learned that the hard way and so have I, again and again.