Sahar Mustafah’s novel, The Beauty of Your Face, is the story of Afaf Rahman, the middle child in a Palestinian American family struggling to make its way in Chicago. It’s bookended by a terrorist attack on a Muslim school for girls, with final chapters that are likely to leave you discomfited, but the heart of it is a coming-of-age journey among characters both unexpected and recognizable. Published in April by W.W. Norton, it’s the first novel for Mustafah, whose collection of short stories, Code of the West, came out in 2017. (She’ll discuss it at a Women & Children First virtual event at 7 PM, August 5.) Here’s an edited version from a phone interview last week.
Deanna Isaacs: This is a story steeped in Palestinian American culture, but it’s also a real Chicago book; how did that happen?
Sahar Mustafah: This is not autobiographical, but the settings are obviously super familiar to me. I was born in Chicago, and I went to St. Simon the Apostle, on the south side; it was the neighborhood Catholic school. We were the only Arabs and the only Muslims in that school. When I was ten years old we went overseas to Palestine. We were there five years, which was formative and probably the first time I felt like I belonged. There were many expats like me; we all went to an incredible school founded by American Quakers. I came back to Chicago as a sophomore at Gage Park High School, and graduated from there.
Afaf has trouble at school and more trouble at home; her stomach “knots up” when she thinks about her mother. What’s up with that character?
She’s not the kind of mom that a child deserves. I was imagining her as someone incredibly broken. She’s displaced from her country when they immigrate, and then she loses her firstborn. So grief takes its toll on her, and that trickles down to the relationship with Afaf. She comes off as incredibly harsh, but what I intend to do with almost everything I write is to have readers understand where characters are coming from. I’m not interested in justifying behaviors. I’m interested in what are the choices that we make, the forces that carry us along? And that can be said for the shooter, which is why I include him. I’m also defying that trope of the Palestinian mother who tends to suffer and is basically abused by a domineering husband.
That’s just one of the ways in which this is not the story readers might expect; did that make it hard to find a publisher?
In the industry it’s important for publishers to package books—they’re only letting in certain narratives. Books by Arab American writers are relatively limited; I felt a responsibility. I just didn’t want to continue to inflate the stereotypes. I’m heartened by readers who’ve reached out to say they hadn’t read this before.
Without going into spoiler territory, can you talk about the ending?
I’m an optimistic person, but I’m also resisting making audiences, particularly white audiences, feel hopeful and good. My endings are always in service to the experiences of my characters. I had rejections with notes about how I needed to drop the shooter, which really infuriated me. I thought it seems like the industry’s just going to reject it because they don’t want me to tell this story. I don’t give the shooter time; I don’t allow him a confession. I think it’s wrong to even speculate beyond “OK, here’s how he became radicalized.” I don’t have answers. I’m not trying to solve the problems of the world. But I like to think that after reading this a reader is going to have shifted a little bit maybe in their thinking.
Will we hear more about this family?
No, at least not for the time being. I just finished a first rough draft of a second novel; it’s such a strange time to release a book, in the pandemic. Thank goodness I had this other project. I need to let this book go on its journey among readers, and I need to continue to write. v