AMAL AWAD is a journalist, screenwriter and author whose novels include, Courting Samira and The Things We See in the Light. Her latest novel Bitter & Sweet is a moving story about family, love, culture and food. Good Reading caught up with Amal to discuss her new novel.
What inspired your novel?
I’ve always wanted to write a story set in a restaurant. The chaos and creativity, the night-time element – there is something seductive and romantic about it. Food is not neutral, but it does not belong to any one place or culture either, and I felt that it was a worthy occupation for my main character, Zeina. Zeina and her best friend, Noor, are characters I began writing it over a decade ago, and I found them again one afternoon during one of Sydney’s lockdowns. So, it all came together from there. The story offered a way into the past, an opportunity to explore the experience of growing up in a migrant household in the ’80s, and the legacies of that childhood. How did it shape people of that generation?
Were there any personal experiences or real-life events that influenced your story?
I think the major commonality is that, like Zeina, I didn’t grow up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, and that made me feel at times like even more of an outlier than I already was as a third culture kid. Nasser’s restaurant, Casablanca, is also a nod to a different time in Sydney’s history. I love the cluster of old-school Arabic restaurants you can still find around Surry Hills and the Inner West. I indulged in some nostalgia for this other time. I wanted to share a rarely seen migrant experience. We haven’t really talked about our parents’ experiences outside of memoir and there is so much to work with – the joys and hardships, the inner world of the migrant child who genuinely loves amal AWAD their culture but is also at odds with it.
Food from Zeina’s childhood is key. What’s your own connection to food?
When I think of my heritage, food is a central component. My mother’s cooking, the scents of the kitchen, the ingredients tucked away in the kitchen cupboards … all of these were a connection to a place I am invisibly but inextricably linked to, and to this day, tea with sage sends me back to Palestine. They are reminders of who I am, where I come from, and the beauty of my culture.
What ideas or messages do you hope readers take away from your story?
An authentic life may seem too scary or challenging but an inauthentic one is exhausting and unsatisfying. Try to pay attention to what is truly happening or calling to you and course correct before nature does it for you in a more destructive way. Perhaps a well-lived life has shades of experience; it cannot all be a high or a low. But I don’t think we are here to suffer.
Can you tell us about the significance of your book’s title, Bitter & Sweet?
I felt it so beautifully captured the essence of the book – with bitter loss there is also sweet victory – but it also gives a nod to the culinary aspects of the story. Zeina and her ingredients; food as a character; the way culinary creations demand variations, just as our lives do.