An Interview with Alumna Serene Taleb-Agha

Posted on Apr 24, 2015

By Adam Jernigan

Serene Taleb-Agha (fiction, January ’12) was born in California. A recipient of the MFA Grant from Friends of Writers and Levis Funds from the MFA Program, she lives in Roswell, Georgia, with her husband and three children. Her writing has appeared in Azizah Magazine and is anthologized in Love Inshallah: The Secret Lives of American Muslim Women. She is currently at work on her first novel.


 

You studied engineering at Berkeley, correct? As you pursued a degree in the sciences, were you drawn at the same time to literature? Or did writing come later? Are they (engineering and MFA) mutually exclusive to you, or did you find a place where the two meet?

I have always loved books and literature. As a kid, reading was practically a matter of survival. I remember writing my first adventure stories at the age of ten, and I kept a journal and a suite of pen pals for years until school, and then work, took over my life. But I also had this logical, analytical side that really enjoyed science and engineering. So while I’ve turned away from it as a career, figuring out how the interlocking pieces of the universe fit and come together has always been a big part of my thinking. The struggle to figure out the world we’re born in, even while there’s all this ordinary drama complicating our lives—that fascinates me.

On the other hand, it took me a while to take seriously the side of me that loved words and stories and literature. My dad was an engineer and subconsciously I modeled myself after him. I considered writing as a side hobby, and as such I never got to it. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized it had to be priority number one, or it wasn’t going to happen at all.

 

You say it was much later, years after receiving your engineering degree, that you realized your writing needed to take priority in your life. Is that when you applied to Warren Wilson? Or had you found another way to make writing such a priority?

I mentally started to take writing more seriously after I gave birth to my daughter (now 16) and quit my job. I thought, Yay, now that I’m at home, I’ll finally have time to write! What I quickly realized was that though I did have time, I did not have uninterrupted time. This was especially true when I had my son two years later. I needed that uninterrupted time to warm myself up, to get into the writing trance. But being interrupted every ten minutes from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to sleep, every single day—that just didn’t happen. So I didn’t practically take writing seriously until I’d had my third and last child, and he was attending school.

 

Were you in Syria at the time you began searching for MFA programs?

By then, I was living in Syria. For a short while, I was lucky enough to meet two other English-speaking women who were also writing, and we had an irregular critique group for a time, until one of them moved back to the US. So for the most part, writing was an art I shared mostly with myself. And I really wanted a community of writers. That was my original reason for applying to Warren Wilson, where the community I found was so much more intelligent and encouraging and welcoming than I could have hoped.

 

It’s often taken for granted that most students of low-residency programs have full times jobs that demand as much, if not more, time and energy as the program. But then there’s someone like yourself who has the other enormous job as Mom of Three. Would you say a bit about your experience as mother and student during your time in the program (and living in Syria to boot)?

By the time I began the program, all three of my children were at school. And though I was an international student and had to travel a very long distance to get to the residencies, in some ways it was easier because I lived in Syria, where it doesn’t break the bank to hire a maid, for example. Every local grocery store used to have home delivery. While I did not have some of the modern conveniences that we take for granted in America (we line-dried all our laundry, and we froze our own vegetables and baked everything from scratch, etc.), I definitely had more of that crucial, uninterrupted free time. I did all my writing when the kids were at school, and once they were home, I was busy with them till bedtime.

 

You graduated in 2012. Since then, how have you managed to keep writing a priority in your life?

Mostly by still following the same rhythm I found as a student. Though now that I’m back in America, I seem to have developed a much more active social life that I’m trying to reign in!

 

I’m interested in the role Islam plays in your writing; it seems to be an element in your characters’ live but not theelement—that is, a part of life without totally defining it. You use a light touch, I think, that doesn’t sacrifice any of the narrative’s momentum by stopping to explain some term or practice that you describe. Writers constantly make choices about how much to explain, and I wonder what that choice is like for you when writing, in America, in the South, in English, about Muslim characters? (I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to get at with this question: Perhaps audience? or identity? or maybe the peril of the two sometimes making a writer feel the need to be a spokesperson?)

Let’s see if I understand your question. I would say the Muslim American experience—if I can even use that in the singular—is central to all my stories, but especially at the beginning, I had a paranoia of being didactic. I wanted to write fiction, not anthropology. I admired writers like Ursula Le Guin, who wove her Taoist philosophy into action-packed stories of wizards fighting dragons and evil spirits. I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen in high school, and that had a big impact on me, because while it focused very squarely on a religious community—Hasidic Jewish in this case—it is really a story about a boy’s relationship with his father. One of the things that Warren Wilson taught me is how tell a story while also taking the time to let the readers into a world that might not be very familiar to them. Because while my goal is always and ultimately to write a good story, it is also an act of sharing and forging bonds. When people of different backgrounds and beliefs read each other’s stories, we learn to enjoy being in the presence of each other’s minds. It is a form of friendship. I know I’m getting abstract here, but I believe this to be true. So if you ask me what the peril is, it is that my story is not inviting enough for people—especially people outside my community—to want to share in its company.

 

You seem able to give the reader as much credit as possible, allowing your story and characters to exist unimpeded by any “teachable moments.”

I trust my readers because I want other writers to trust me.

 


 

Friends of Writers provides a range of financial support to students in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Follow this link to add your support to Friends of Writers: http://friendsofwriters.org/donate/

 

Adam Jernigan (fiction, January ’15) received The Carol Houck Smith Scholarship in July 2014. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

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