Faculty spotlight on Assistant Professor of English Literature Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine

February 11, 2022

Enjoy the following Q&A with Prof. Abou-Zeineddine as he talks about the publication of his new short story and his creative writing talents.

(This Q&A was conducted by the Director of the Center for Arab American Studies Sally Howell, and first appeared in the February 2022 CAAS newsletter.)

Congratulations on publishing a new short story, "Speedoman" set in Dearborn. I see that you have published several of these recently. Tell me about what inspires these stories? Sometimes I feel like they are taken right out of the headlines, while at others I feel like they might have been inspired by a walk around the block! 

I would say both. Since I arrived to Dearborn in 2018, I’ve been obsessed with the city. What I mean by that is walking the streets, going into—this was pre-COVID—cafes, restaurants, interviewing people, and doing a lot of ethnographic research. Also, I follow a lot of Dearborn social media pages, which are often hysterical and occasionally absurd, and I read the Arab American News routinely. Through these practices, ideas come to mind. For example, with my short story “Speedoman” that recently came out, my wife and I were looking to join a gym and I thought why not check out the Ford Community Center. Almost 90% of the patrons were Arab and Arab Americans. I noticed that the swimming pool was gendered—all the men were in the jacuzzi and the women were far off in the swimming pool, and they were all covered. I thought ‘well, what if a woman also wants to use the jacuzzi?’ Then over a year and a half later, a story idea came to mind that I would set at the Ford Community Center.

I have another story titled "Yusra" that's coming out later this spring, and it's about a Dearborn butcher. In the summer of 2019, I shadowed a butcher for several days, learning about his story and trade. My initial idea was to write a story about him, but it just didn't come together. When the pandemic struck, all my ethnographic research came to a halt, but that butcher story kept resonating in my mind. Finally, I had the idea the story that’s coming out later. But this all originated from my ethnographic research.

“Speedoman" is really filled with humor - the humor of recognizing so many familiar details in the story. I don't want to give anything away here, but there are even intriguing historical references that get me excited. Tell me more about how humor works in your storytelling.

I consider myself a tragicomic writer. I always have and I can't help but write through a tragicomic lens. That’s how I view the world. I’ve always found it interesting when writers speak to the political through comedy. Comedy is disarming in that if you're able to make a reader laugh on the page, which is very difficult to do, you can get away with almost anything.

I'm very interested in weirdness and how one can write about “weird matters,” whether that be oddball characters or weird scenarios, but the important thing, for me at least, is using comedy to tell human stories. I also find that comedy is entertaining, and I’m an avid believer that art should not only move us emotionally and intellectually, but it should also entertain us. It's through entertainment that I try to write about important sociopolitical matters.

How do you know it’s a joke that’s gonna land?

I don't know! I only write what I think is funny. You can't try to be funny. It has to be organic. It's not a matter of just telling jokes; it’s a matter of humor through characters.

My story “Speedoman" is told in the perspectives of five men and their five wives. It alternates between points of view, and I'm hoping that the comedy comes through the voices of those collective narrators.

So I understand that you are planning to publish all of these stories in a book. How will that work? Are you working on a novel? When can we look forward to seeing the book between pages?

I'm working on what's called a short story cycle, which is basically a collection of linked short stories that are unified by common themes, recurring characters, and/or a common setting. My story collection is titled Dearbornites, and it traces the evolution of Dearborn from the 1970s to the present day. So far I’ve published five stories from the collection. As soon as I finish the last one, I'll then have a book. My aim is to have a complete manuscript by Fall 2022.

How do make use of your creative writing skills in the classroom? Tell me about the work you do to nurture the creative talents of your students.

I want to link this response to the idea of short story cycles. This semester I'm teaching a course titled The Ethnic American Shorty Story Cycle. I'm asking my students to write three linked short stories. I'm also having the class produce a group short story cycle about Dearborn. Every so often, I give the class an in-class writing prompt, which they respond to in the voice of a given character from Dearborn. Toward the end of the semester, I'll collect all their responses and organize them into a book. There’ll be a hard copy and a digital copy.

What are you excited about/looking forward to this year as a CAAS faculty member and UM-Dearborn professor?

I'm excited about how we keep expanding as a center. Now we have folks in the center covering literature, anthropology, health sciences, criminal justice, and history, so it’s really becoming even more interdisciplinary and that really excites me. And what also excites me is that several of us are working on Dearborn or the Detroit metro area. I'm working on my story cycle, Professor Rose Wellman is shifting her scholarly focus to the Detroit metro area, and I know that Professors Carmel Price and Natalie Sampson are working in public health, also focusing on the region. In this way, we are all serving the community through our work.