The Center for Fiction was thrilled to welcome writers Zein El-Amine and Hala Alyan to discuss their beautifully insightful stories of complex human experience under the shadow of war. In Zein El-Amine’s Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?, he invites readers into a world where love, war, and trauma collide with the desire to consume life—or be consumed by it. In seven short stories spanning war-torn Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, a hedonistic man eats himself to an early death with the desecration of the city of Beirut forming the backdrop, a young man, a young woman, and a mistreated monkey unite in a bid to survive, and fresh snow compels a sacrilegious undertaking from a father much to the shock of his children. The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan (Salt Houses) is a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East and an indelible rendering of how we hold on to the people and places we call home; In Beirut, amidst the changing landscape of refugees, religious tension, and political protest, The Nasr Family wrestles with their own secrets—lost loves, bitter jealousies, abandoned passions, deep-set shame. Lambda Literary Award winner Zeyn Joukhadar moderated this conversation on survival, love, sorrow, betrayal, and joy.
Presented in partnership with Radix Media and Mizna.
Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?
By Zein El-Amine
Published by Radix Media
Is This How You Eat a Watermelon? invites readers into a world where love, war, and trauma collide with the desire to consume life—or be consumed by it.
Here, a dozen boarding school students find themselves stranded at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. A young man, a young woman, and a mistreated monkey unite in a bid to survive. Even Israel’s war on Lebanon cannot stop an old woman from getting her fix of nicotine. A young Lebanese student on a visit to Bahrain is wrongly implicated as a terrorist and placed in a prison with other political prisoners where light and hope is absconding. Fresh snow compels a sacrilegious undertaking from a father much to the shock of his children. Shared trauma takes the shape of spectral phantoms. And in the titular story, a hedonistic man eats himself to an early death with the desecration of the city of Beirut forming the backdrop.
Proficient and empathetic, these seven short stories span war-torn Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States to tell stories of transit and survival. With commitment to the vulnerability of the human experience and a fierce loyalty to characters bearing the trauma of war, Zein El-Amine’s collection is joyful and devastating, daring the reader to look away.
The Arsonists' City
By Hala Alyan
Published by HarperCollins
From the award-winning author of Salt Houses, a rich family story, a personal look at the legacy of war in the Middle East, and an indelible rendering of how we hold on to the people and places we call home
The Nasr family—a Syrian mother, a Lebanese father, and three American children—is spread across the globe. Still, they’ve always had their ancestral home in Beirut. But following his father’s recent death, Idris, the family’s new patriarch, has decided to sell. They convene in Beirut, united against Idris in a fight for the house. They all have secrets—lost loves, bitter jealousies, abandoned passions, deep-set shame—that distance has helped smother. But in a city smoldering with the legacy of war, the changing landscape of refugees, religious tension, and political protest, their secrets ignite, imperiling the fragile ties that hold this family together.
Teeming with wisdom, warmth, and characters born of remarkable human insight, award-winning author Hala Alyan shows us again that “fiction is often the best filter for the real world around us” (NPR)..
Zein El-Amine is a Lebanese-born poet and writer. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Maryland. His poems have appeared in Wild River Review, Folio, Beltway Quarterly, Foreign Policy in Focus, CityLit, Graylit, Split This Rock, Penumbra, D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology, and Ghostfishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. His latest poetry manuscript A Travel Guide for the Exiled was recently shortlisted for The Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück. His short stories have appeared in the Uno Mas, Jadaliyya, Middle East Report, Wild River Review, About Place Journal, and in Bound Off. He resides and teaches in Washington DC.
Photo Credit: Jen Lemen
Hala Alyan is the author of the novel Salt Houses, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award and a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. Her latest novel The Arsonists’ City was published in March 2021 and was a finalist for the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize. She is also the author of four award-winning collections of poetry, most recently The Twenty-Ninth Year. Her work has been published by the New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, LitHub, the New York Times Book Review, and Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter, where she works as a clinical psychologist.
Photo Credit: Elena Mudd
Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of the novels The Thirty Names of Night, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award, and The Map of Salt and Stars, which won the Middle East Book Award and was a Goodreads Choice Awards and Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize finalist. His work has appeared in Salon, the Paris Review, [PANK], and elsewhere, has been included in anthologies such as Kink, This Arab Is Queer, and others, and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Joukhadar guest edited Mizna’s 2020 Queer + Trans Voices issue, serves on the board of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and mentors emerging writers of color with the Periplus Collective.