About this book
This collection of twenty stories delves into the lives of Egyptian characters, from those living in Egypt to those who have immigrated to the United States. With subtle and eloquent prose, the complexities of these characters are revealed, opening a door into their intimate struggles with identity and place. We meet people who are tempted by the possibilities of America and others who are tempted by the desire to return home. Some are in the throes of re-creating themselves in the new world while others seem to be embedded in the loss of their homeland. Many of these characters, although physically located in either the United States or Egypt, have lives that embrace both cultures.
“A Game of Chance” follows the actions of a young man when he wins the immigration lottery and then must decide whether or not to change his life. “Cumin and Coriander” takes us inside a woman’s thoughts as she tries to come to terms with the path her life has taken while working as a cook for American expatriates in Egypt. “The Top” enters the mind of a man whose immigration results in a loss of identity and sanity. These compelling stories pull us into the lives of many different characters and offer us striking insights into the Arab American experience.
About the author
Pauline Kaldas was born in Egypt and immigrated to the United States in 1992. She is an associate professor of English at Hollins University and the author of Letters from Cairo; a poetry collection, Egyptian Compass; and co-editor, with Khaled Mattawa, of Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction, now in its second edition, which won the 2005 Silver Award in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year “Anthology” category. Stories from The Time between Places have appeared in a variety of journals and books, including Callaloo, Mizna, and Ripe Guava.
“Pauline Kaldas’s The Time between Places is one of those remarkable books that lets you in behind closed doors, offering a collection of tales that illustrates what it means to leave, to start over, to live in two worlds. In lyrical prose that is powerful in its subtlety, Kaldas’s stories tell of quiet conflicts, unfulfilled dreams, and swallowed ambitions. The Time between Places is a gem.”
—Laila Halaby, author of Once in a Promised Land and West of Jordan
“Kaldas takes the short story form and makes it her own, writing with urgency and a unique understanding of the tensions which surround the immigrant experience. Here is a writer confident in her craft and imagination. These are very welcome and important stories which simultaneously test and instruct, and always leave a mark.”
—Marcia Douglas, author of Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells
Can you talk about the title of the book, The Time between Places, and what it means?
After my family immigrated to the United States, we used to call Egypt, particularly on holidays. I remember the preparation and the urgency of these calls. Egypt is about seven hours ahead of the United States. Sometimes, we had to get up especially early to avoid the rush on these days. The phone call had to be made through an operator, and the connection was not always clear. The poor connection and the expense of the call made it difficult to have a real conversation, and all we could really say to each other is “hello” and “how are you” and “happy holiday” over and over. Perhaps it was those phone calls that were the most poignant reminder of the distance between us. I always felt a sense of dissatisfaction afterwards—while there was joy in hearing someone’s voice, I was left with only the awareness of how far away we were from each other. The awareness of distance is what pulls together the stories in this collection. It is a strange feeling to be separated not only by actual physical space but also by time. My hope is that the title evokes this idea of moving away from a place and from people—the way physical and temporal distance becomes a tangible manifestation of the emotional distance experienced as a result of immigration.
Many of these stories end with a character on the verge of making a life changing decision. Can you comment on why the stories end in this way?
Someone who recently read my story, “Airport,” said to me, “you have to finish the story.” That story ends right before the man and the woman are about to meet each other, and I understand the reader’s desire to see them actually meet, to see how they will react to one another. But for me, the heart of the story has to do with what leads them to this turning point in their lives. It is what comes before that moment of making a life changing decision that interests me. In most of these stories, I think readers can figure out what the character will do next based on what has come before that moment. I try to unravel these characters’ lives, to look deeply into who they are and how they arrive at the places where we find them. Leaving them on that precipice at the end is more interesting than bringing a story to a clear conclusion.
What writers have influenced your work?
Jhumpa Lahiri, especially The Namesake—her depiction of the immigrant experience strikes a very strong chord with me. Diana Abu-Jaber, especially Arabian Jazz and The Language of Baklava—both books portray the feeling of being pulled between two cultures in such a powerful and honest way. Henry Roth, especially Call it Sleep—this was one of the first books I read that revealed the emotional and linguistic disruption that comes with immigration. The poetry of Myung Mi Kim, Mohja Kahf, and Irena Klepfisz—they have such different styles, but their exploration of identity, language, and dislocation has had a lot of impact on my work.
How does your work contribute to multicultural literature, especially Arab American issues?
My experience is grounded in being a young immigrant from Egypt. It is through this lens that I write, but I continually try to widen the lens, to see beyond my own experience. The effects of immigration and Arab American identity are what interest me as a writer. By writing out of this focus, I hope that my work can participate in the dialogue that is created through multicultural literature. My primary goal is always to write the best story I can, to create compelling characters, and to use language in a way that pulls the reader into the story. Other things relating to culture and identity come into the stories naturally; I never try to force them.
You’ve published a collection of poetry and a travel memoir. How does writing in different genres affect your work?
I love experimenting with different genres—there is something exciting about entering into a new genre, seeing what you can do with it, how you can stretch its borders, and the ways you can blur the distinction between genres. Each genre teaches me something different as a writer—with poetry, I learned to pay attention to language, sound, and image; with nonfiction, I learned to weave together a narrative and focus attention on the details that can ultimately reveal the larger story; and with fiction, I learned to pay attention to my characters, to delve deeply into their lives. Each genre allows me to tell a different kind of story.
What made you turn to writing? Why do you write?
The process of immigrating at the age of eight was difficult for me. Reading and eventually writing became a way to make sense out of my world and perhaps also to gain some control over it. That was my starting point, but as I continued to read multicultural literature, I realized how large my topic really was and how far it stretched beyond just my personal experiences. I can’t articulate exactly why I write, only that it is necessary and that it is the way I see and understand the world I live in. My hope is that I can share that vision with others through my writing.