American Book Award winner Susan Muaddi Darraj among highlights of Baltimore Book Festival

During World War I, the author Susan Muaddi Darraj's grandfather was kidnapped by the Turkish army from his village in what is now Palestine. His wrists were bound with a rope, and he was and marched to Damascus behind a horse.

"Everyone in his village assumed he was dead," Darraj says during an interview at her home in Phoenix, Baltimore County.


"But somehow he escaped. He walked for three days to get back home, hiding along the way. People gave him a morsel to eat here, a cup of water there. There had to be trauma, but he never talked about it."

A century later, the author's unanswered questions about the real-life abduction became the kernel of a fictionalized account of his trek, "The Journey Home." That story in turn became the first tale in Darraj's second book of linked narratives, "A Curious Land: Stories from Home," which just picked up a 2016 American Book Award.


Next month, when the book that features residents of the imagined West Bank village of Tel al-Hilou is honored at the awards ceremony in San Francisco, this 41-year-old college professor and mother of three children will move from being a writer with a primarily local audience to one with a national readership. Literature lovers around the nation will know her name.

But Baltimoreans won't have to wait that long. Darraj will appear Saturday at the 21st annual Baltimore Book Festival as part of a panel of writers who won Individual Artist Awards this year from the Maryland State Arts Council.

The Book Festival, which runs this weekend at the Inner Harbor, will feature roughly 200 authors, including the humorist Carl Hiaasen ("Razor Girl"; noon Sunday, Literary Salon) the best-selling novelist Terry McMillan ("I Almost Forgot About You" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back"; 2 p.m. Saturday, Literary Salon) and pop culture blogger Luvvie Ajayi ("I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual"; 3 p.m. Sunday, Literary Salon.)

There will be 12 stages, more than 100 literary exhibitors, local food and beverage trucks, children's programming, workshops, panel discussions and live music.

But one of the festival's chief delights always has been discovering local authors such as Darraj who seem on the brink of becoming stars.

"It was just thrilling to hear that I'd won an American Book Award," says Darraj, who wrote her first short story when she was in the fourth grade and growing up in Philadelphia. Now she teaches writing at Harford Community College and at the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars.

"I have to write stories down," Darraj says. "It's just part of who I am. It's something that sustains me. I feel alive when I write. There's a kind of magic that happens. It's also how I understand the world."

In addition to an American Book Award, "A Curious Land" also has picked up other prizes: the 2014 Grace Paley Prize in short fiction and this year's Arab American Book Award. The collection also has been short-listed for the 2016 Palestine Book Award. The winner for that prize will be announced in London in November.


Justin Desmangles, chairman of the board of directors of the Before Columbus Foundation, which hands out the American Book Awards, said that the 11 winning manuscripts were culled from thousands of submissions. Darraj's stories, he said, stood out because of "the agility of the author's imagination."

"Her characters are rendered with such depth and emotional complexity," Desmangles said.

"She reveals the richness of their inner lives while sustaining their individual cultural identities. Susan never employs caricature. She allows her characters to be whole people, with their own contradictions, pain, joy, refusals and acceptances. She never takes the easy way out — ever."

Darraj has been fascinated by Palestine, which she visited several times as a child and young woman, since she became aware of the controversy attached to the country where her parents were born. In the 1970s and for most of the 1980s, Palestine was considered part of Jordan, and until 1991, the Palestine Liberation Organization was classed as a terrorist organization by the U.S and Israel.

"We're a really diverse community, actually," Darraj says. "A lot of people think that all Palestinians are Muslims. But, the characters I write about are Palestinian Christians."

She set her stories during specific years that were important historically for Palestine: during the calm before the storm that was the Six-Day War in 1967; in 1989 during the big uprising against Israel known as the First Intifada; and in the late 1990s, after the signing of the two Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO.


"The stories have a political point of view," Darraj says, "but I try to keep politics in the background as much as possible and focus instead on daily life: on the love stories, family betrayals and village gossip. Jewish friends of mine have read the book, and they said the characters are very familiar to them."

For example, Darraj's stories portray the effects of a rapidly growing Israeli settlement that over the decades slowly begins to strangle the life of a nearby Palestinian village. But the only Israeli individuals mentioned in the stories are portrayed positively, as good neighbors and honest businessmen.

Lisa Zeidner directs the masters in fine arts program at Rutgers University's Camden branch, where Darraj earned bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature. Zeidner has watched her former student evolve from a beginner with a tendency to be occasionally didactic into a mature stylist who writes with great subtlety about the emotional lives of her characters.

"Susan is really a writer about place," Zeidner says.

"Her big theme is how place affects who we are. You can have a man who abuses his wife with cigarettes in the Middle East in 1916, or here in 2016. Are those men the same? Or is the nature of their violence changed by the circumstances in which they're living?"

Zeidner says that "A Curious Land" asks interesting questions about what it means to be a contemporary woman residing in the Middle East.


"Susan's work talks about reconciling American feminism with more traditional Middle Eastern family structure and values, and she does it well," Zeidner says. "That's a really hot topic right now."

A publishing world truism is that there is no market for short stories, but Darraj thinks that's changing.

In recent years, a spate of story collections have won big prizes: Adam Johnson won the National Book Award in 2015, Canadian Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, and Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. The latter's book of linked stories, "Olive Kitteridge," later was adapted into an acclaimed 2014 HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand.

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"Suddenly, people began saying that the short story form is coming back to life," Darraj says, "especially linked collections like the ones I write."

This form is ideal for writers who explore shifts over time in the social fabric, because it allows different characters to take the spotlight long enough for readers to get to know them and then recede into the background. Readers end up mirroring a technique that Darraj practices in daily life.

"I'm a notorious eavesdropper," she says. "I get really mesmerized by people's conversations, what they say and what they reveal without talking. People are always hiding something. I'm entranced by that."


From her snooping, the outlines of a made-up human being begin to take shape in Darraj's head. Soon, she can't stop thinking about this invented person, whom she can see clearly in some ways but who remains mysterious in others.

"I start to imagine what his interests and problems are and who is in his family," she says, "And then I go on from there. I build an entire community around this character."

The 21st annual Baltimore Book Festival runs 11 a.m.-7 p.m. today-Sunday on the Inner Harbor Promenade, along Light Street between the Maryland Science Center and the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. Free.