Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile's Journey by Joyce
(Feminist Press 2008) chronicles this author's quest to find a sense of
home among people, foods, and places as far from her native Cairo as
Oklahoma and Katrina-stricken New Orleans.
After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, newlyweds Felix and Nellie Zonana flee Cairo with their infant daughter Joyce, ending up in Brooklyn. Growing up, Joyce swiftly realizes that her Jewish family and their Egyptian culture are neither typically American nor typically American—Jewish; they eat kobeba instead of kugel and speak French instead of Yiddish. Struggling with her feelings of isolation from other Americans and frustrated by never getting full access to Egyptian-Jewish culture, Zonana sets out on a life-long journey to find her place in the world.
She meets her extended family living in Colombia and Brazil and travels to Cairo to get a glimpse of her parents’ past. After she and her mother survive the devastation of Katrina, Zonana comes to see that “home” is not a location, but a spiritual state of mind. Her heritage and quest are also evoked in numerous photos and family recipes.
Joyce Zonana first presented her book at Levantine Cultural Center
at the start of her book tour on August 29, 2008, where she was joined by poet/translator Niloufar Talebi, who read from her new book Belonging.
“Joyce Zonana’s memoir is a lush and beautiful read--a picture of the exotic (Egypt, Brazil), the mundane (New York), and the devastating (New Orleans after Katrina). Zonana writes gorgeous prose, full of spices and senses and sounds, while telling the story of a bookish girl who, like all of us, wants independence and love and great food.” —Emily Toth, Professor of English and Women’s Studies, Louisiana State University.
About the Author Born in Cairo and raised in New York City, Joyce Zonana earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) in 2006, she taught for 15 years at the University of New Orleans, where she was also Director of Women’s Studies. Several chapters from her new memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile's Journey (Feminist Press 2008), have appeared in journals and books, including Meridians, International Sephardic Journal, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, and Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women.
A Blog by Joyce Zonana
How does one know when one has finished one’s book, especially a memoir? Life is continually evolving, there’s always something new to say. Still, I thought I had brought Dream Homes to a satisfactory conclusion with my chapter, “Ahlan Wa Sahlan,” recounting my first visit back to Cairo.
Dream Homes opens with my desire for more knowledge of my heritage. In the first chapter I express my longing for the tangible objects that would have constituted the place of my birth; my deeper longing is for a sense of relationship and connection with the larger community of my homeland. I found that connection when I traveled to Cairo in 1999 and met contemporary Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Egyptians. I also found an ancient synagogue that seemed to be the home of my deepest dreams.
So I wrote a chapter, entitled “Welcome” in Arabic, that described the fulfillment of the quest I began in the first chapter. The book would have nine chapters, I decided, in homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “unscrupulously epic” nine-book autobiographical poem, Aurora Leigh. I had it all worked out. Just as Barrett Browning’s poem describes the gestation of a woman writer, so my memoir would not-so-subtly have a nine-part structure to evoke my own process of self-birthing and homecoming.
Florence Howe, the extraordinary founding editor of the Feminist Press, thought otherwise. When she read the manuscript in the summer of 2005, she told me by email that she liked it, but that it seemed incomplete. There were too many unfinished threads in the narrative, she said, too many unanswered questions. “What about your relationship with Kay?,” she asked, “What is the ultimate point of your story?”
I thought the point of the story – seeking and finding home – was clear, but Florence still felt there was something missing. At her urging, I began to think about a new closing chapter. I didn’t want to violate the structure I had thought was so perfect, I didn’t want to have to write about the messy end of my relationship with Kay, but I trusted Florence’s literary intuition. She was my ideal reader, and I wanted her to be satisfied. So I decided to write about the beautiful new house I moved to after our breakup in 2002, my true dream home on Venus Street in New Orleans.
And then. On August 29th, 2005, everything changed. Hurricane Katrina transformed the moral and physical landscape of New Orleans. My neighborhood was flooded with over six feet of water, and would remain uninhabitable for three months. I had evacuated two days earlier, taking my cats and my computer, thinking to spend a few days at a friends’ house out of the storm’s path. My mother had remained in the city, sure that I was overreacting. Two weeks later we were both in New York, uncertain of what to do next. I called Florence, and we met, for the first time, over lunch in midtown Manhattan. We both knew, without saying it: I had my new last chapter.
It took a year to write that chapter, the story of my evacuation from New Orleans and my resettlement in New York, but when it was done, I was sure that this time, truly, my memoir had come to its conclusion. I was able, easily, to pick up all the narrative threads introduced in the first chapter—my relationship with Kay, my longing for furniture, my ongoing experience of exile—and I had an “end” that was, quite fittingly, a new beginning.