It’s about my coming of age immigration with my family from Beirut, Lebanon to the United States when I was fourteen years old. The news I’ll be traveling to America excited me to no end. What I didn’t realize when my parents told us we’ll be coming to America, was with limited English skills, it was going to be a tough road for me. I struggled as I tried to learn new customs, make friends, and adapt to a different culture. In Beirut, my family was well established, I had many friends, and was surrounded by lots of relatives. We all, relatives and friends, lived within walking distance from each other in Beirut. In Albany, N.Y., our first home in America, we were unknown nobodies. When I started in ninth grade, not only I couldn’t converse in English, none of my schoolmates knew anything about my history. I literally had to start all over.
As I strove to adapt, I read voraciously, becoming increasingly interested in religion and philosophy. Books became my “American friends,” and reading soon prompted me to ask deep theological questions about my family’s Lebanese Protestant roots, my mother’s conversion to Catholicism, and the contrast between the Protestant and Catholic faiths. This ultimately led to my Catholic conversion.
Despite the many frustrations and difficulties, my goal was to become a successful American. I pressed forward pursuing my adolescent desire, which I announced to my family at the dining room table in Beirut, to strive for my place in the “realm of the mind.” Eventually my search lead me to social activism among New York City’s poorest. And, in time, to graduate studies, where my desire was to improve the human condition through information technology.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon and immigrated to the United States with my family in 1960 at the age of fourteen. My family made Albany, N.Y. our first home in America where I attended a private Catholic high school through my Junior year. After three years in Albany, we moved to Iowa City, Iowa, when my father accepted a professor position at the University of Iowa. I finished my senior year at Iowa City High School, then went on to the University of Iowa where I got a Bachelor of Arts degree. After college, I spent a year as a social worker in New York City. Deciding social work was not for me, I went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Michigan where I got a Ph.D. in 1973.
I spent the next thirty years at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and today I am Emeritus Professor of Computing at Georgia Tech. During my tenure at Georgia Tech, I was an international consultant specializing in designing technology to enhance the human experience.
I authored numerous technical papers, co-edited the book Directions in Human Computer Interaction and authored the book Shaping Web Usability: Interaction Design in Context. My memoirs, Looking West, is the story of my coming of age immigration to America and subsequent conversion to the Catholic Church.
Today, my wife and I live in Providence, R.I., near my son and family, where I lead an active volunteer life, in service to the community.
How did you decide to write the memoirs? What motivated you?
Well, it all started after my father passed away in 2010. As I mentioned in the book, my father could not come with us to Albany the first three years of our immigration. He had work commitments in Lebanon the first year; the next two years, he lived in the (Belgian) Congo where he was the economic advisor on Congolese Economic affairs to the then UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold. When my father passed away at the age of ninety-eight, my sister Maria, who lived with my parents, went through his file cabinets and found a considerable amount of papers and documents that he had accumulated over fifty years. Among these were a large collection of letters that my mother, my two brothers and myself had written to him between 1960 and 1963, our first years in the US. The majority of the letters were from my mother, who wrote to him at least once a week detailing the voyage by sea and telling him about our daily life in Albany.
After I read and reread all the letters and decided to start writing, I spent many delightful and enlightening hours conversing with my mother about our life in Lebanon and our American adventure. These conversations were at times bittersweet. Every time she would start telling an anecdote involving my father, she would weep. When she’d cry, tears would fill my eyes as well. My wife, Barbara, and I explored a large trove of photos from my parents’ files and albums as well as our own collection.
The more I wrote and as the immigration narrative in recent years became front and center in the national discourse, I felt compelled to tell my story to all those interested in modern immigrant narratives.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
Actually, I started writing when I was a sophomore in high school. I wrote several pieces for the school newspaper, the Vincentian. Socio-political issues of the day interested me at the time and I wrote about them. In graduate school, I coauthored several papers with my Ph.D. advisor, and that’s when I learned the art of scholarly writing. The papers were published in highly reviewed journals. Then as a professor and academic researcher, I wrote many papers published in technical journals in my field and authored a book as well as parts of books. After I left my academic career, I wanted to write the memoirs. When I would first write and show it to people, for example in my writing group, they would say to me, “you write more like your trying to prove an argument or explore a set of points.” I guess they felt what I wrote is dry and lacks personal expression. It didn’t take me long to figure out creative writing is very different from scholarly writing, and I enrolled in continuing education courses on creative nonfiction at Brown University. We had to write a new piece for every class session, and got valuable feedback, mainly by the instructor, but also by participating students.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I had decided on the timeline for the memoirs before I wrote a single word, starting before immigration and ending with my first visit back to Lebanon fourteen years after immigration. I wanted to begin by describing my life in Lebanon to allow the reader to contrast it with my life as immigrant in America. Then, when it came to writing, I would do research and then write a section, then research and write, and so on.
How many drafts did you write before publishing your most recent book?
After I finished the first draft of the manuscript, I had seven more drafts including rewrites and revisions. But before I finished the first draft, each chapter had several rewrites.
What software do you use to write? Or do you prefer to write longhand or dictate your work? What made you choose the method you use?
I use Microsoft Word to do all my writing. There are some people who can write and not need to edit and make changes until they finish the entire piece. I write and rewrite the same paragraph, sometime the same sentence, and edit continuously. Being able to use a word processor makes my writing and editing much easier.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would do much more research at the beginning, visiting cities and towns of my journey and talking with family, relatives and friends early on. I did all of that, but did it while writing and sometimes after writing resulting in rewrites.
Do you read reviews?
I learned long time ago, as an academic author, peer reviews of journal articles can be vicious. In academia, you have to publish to survive, and you have to read the reviews in order to satisfy the journal editor or book publisher. So, after thirty years of having to go through both negative and positive reviews, I learned to let the negative ones roll off my back. I enjoy reading the positive reviews like the ones about my book on Amazon today.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Get an editor. After you finish the first draft, give it to a developmental editor and be ready to do lots of rewriting, restructuring and multiple revisions. When you finish with a developmental editor, go to a content editor. Then, if you have a publisher, be willing to listen to the publisher’s editors, and be humble.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
I think I have two audiences for this book, people who are interested in modern family immigration narratives, and readers who are looking for spiritual conversion stories.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?