Ghassan Zeineddine’s debut story collection, Dearborn (Tinhouse, 2023), paints a multi-generational portrait of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is the heart of Arab America, where nearly 60% of residents are of Arab descent. Told through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, this collection of linked stories brings readers into this remarkable town and makes them feel right at home among its many colorful characters. Ghassan and I sat down on Zoom to talk about his process in writing Dearborn, the fascinating story of the city itself, and the Arab American community that’s shaped it.
Emma Burger: What was the process like of writing this collection? Did you start from scratch, or did you compile stories you wrote over the years?
Ghassan Zeineddine: I always wanted to write a short story cycle—a collection with recurring characters, a common setting, and similar themes. I’m very interested in that form and have been teaching it for a while in my creative writing courses. I knew that was something I wanted to do when I moved to Dearborn, but I didn’t actually start until I felt comfortable living in the city and understanding it better.
The first short story I wrote about Dearborn was in the fall of 2019, and it’s the very first story in the collection: “The Actors of Dearborn.” When I wrote that piece, I knew I eventually wanted to write a short story cycle, but I didn’t have the whole picture in mind, so I had to just take it one story at a time. Over the next few years, I wrote several stories and I didn’t really know how they were going to connect, but I would just write them out first, and once I had them all down, I tried to find the links between the stories. My brilliant editor at Tin House would then go through and suggest all these other subtle ways to make the stories link.
There were a lot of stories that ultimately didn’t make the collection. Some I didn’t even show my editor because I wanted this collection to be strong. I didn’t see the big picture necessarily, but I knew I didn’t want any weak links. If a story was just repeating themes that I already had elsewhere, I cut it.
One thing I did know early on was that I wanted to write stories from a wide range of perspectives that show how Dearborn has evolved over a span of decades. Just like characters and people evolve, so do places. The Dearborn I experienced living there from 2018 through 2023 was so different from the Dearborn of the 1990s and earlier.
EB: How has the city changed, in your view?
GZ: The changes have a lot to do with the movement of people. The Arab population in Dearborn used to be concentrated in the south end of the city where the Henry Ford factory is. Slowly, the Lebanese American community started to move to the east side of town, where there were large Italian and Polish communities living. It wasn’t until the early aughts that East Dearborn started to become a predominantly Arab American community. Arab restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores started popping up.
There have been many different waves of Arab immigration to Dearborn, largely tied to political instability in the Middle East. There’s been an Arab American presence since 1914, when the Ford Motor Company started paying their employees $5 a day. That initiated some Arab immigration to the area, but it was the Lebanese Civil War starting in 1975 that really solidified that migration, as so many Lebanese fled their country for America. Then there was another wave of immigration in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Then there were several subsequent immigration waves from the Middle East. You of course have the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Syrian civil war, civil strife in Yemen. All these destabilizing political events in the Middle East end up driving emigration, and so many of us end up in Dearborn or in the Detroit metropolitan area simply because of the existing concentration of Arab Americans there. It feels so much more comfortable. People speak our language; the community feels familiar.
EB: How did you end up in Dearborn?
GZ: I was teaching creative writing and Arab American literature at a small liberal arts college in Ohio when a job opened up at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I thought it sounded like a great opportunity, so my wife and I moved in 2018 for that position. By that point though, I had already heard so much about Dearborn, and had done quite a bit of archival research about the city.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia, but we came to the States in the early 1990s and settled in the DC area. Even then, I knew there was an Arab population in Dearborn because my parents would order boxes of Arabic sweets from this famous bakery called Shatila in Dearborn. My Arab American experience was really lonely though. My sister and I were the only Arabs at school. I didn’t have any Arab friends. There was no Arab American community where we were living.
So when I moved to Dearborn, that was the first time I was in an Arab American community that wasn’t scattered at all—in fact, the area I was in was predominantly Arab. It got to the point where I’d enter grocery stores and cafes, and I wouldn’t know whether to speak in Arabic or English when I’d speak to people, which was a unique experience for me. I loved it. That has a lot to do with my comfort in writing about the city because it instantly felt like home to me, which I’d never felt in America before. Like so many others, I felt like an outsider until I arrived in Dearborn.
EB: Many of your characters discuss the phenomenon of wanting to leave Dearborn, while others never want to leave. How do you reconcile that tension, and why was it important to you that the characters dealt with it?
GZ: I wanted to play on that theme because although I do love the city, but I don’t want to romanticize it. There are conservative aspects of the city, and that can rub people the wrong way. A lot of young people I interviewed for the book, including many of my students, had this love-hate relationship with the city. They love being in Dearborn, and yet they also wanted to leave. There was this fear of leaving Dearborn and being outside the Arab American community because it felt so safe, yet there was an inherent sense of belonging that might not exist elsewhere.
EB: What was that process like of interviewing people as research for the collection?
GZ: Ethnographic research has been really important for me throughout the course of my writing career. It’s valuable to speak with people from the community in order to better understand it. It’s a way of understanding the city through the eyes of its people. I’m there to hear people’s stories, but not just so I can fictionalize them later. It’s about broadening my horizons and becoming more cognizant of stories outside my own personal experience. Listening in that very intentional way can deepen my writing on a subconscious level.
For instance, I knew I wanted to write a story about a Lebanese butcher, so I interviewed this butcher from East Dearborn. He was originally from a village in southern Lebanon called Bint Jbeil, where his father and grandfather were both butchers as well. He came to Dearborn in 1973 and bought a famous butcher shop in Dearborn. As part of the interview process, I got to spend time with him in his shop. He also took me to Eastern Market in Detroit one morning to show me where he bought his meat from the wholesale markets. Through those experiences, I got a real sense of how the industry worked. How he moved. How he interacted with his customers.
Then when I finally sat down to write the story, I decided to focus not on the butcher himself, but on a father-daughter relationship instead, where the father loves going to this one grocery store because he loves interacting with the Lebanese butcher there. I wrote about eight or nine pages before I hit a wall and couldn’t go anywhere with it. I ended up putting it aside for several years. It wasn’t until much later when I was deeper into the collection that I realized just how important it was for me to find a way to represent the LGBTQ community in Dearborn. It was then that it dawned on me—what if the butcher was a queer character? And that’s how those two ideas merged and became what was eventually called “Yusra” in the final collection.
The butcher in that story has no resemblance to the butcher I interviewed except in those technical details of what it means to be a butcher. As a writer, it’s my job to convince the reader that this character really is who he says he is. It has to be believable. The character himself, however, was my own creation. I know though that I couldn’t have written that story without having learned from the butcher I spoke with about his profession.
EB: You write a lot about the post-9/11 era in Dearborn. The FBI raids, the heightened Islamophobia, the pressure to blend in and assimilate quickly to white America. Given the genocide in Gaza, how concerned are you that the Arab community in Dearborn may be under similar threats now?
GZ: A lot of people are saying it’s just as bad as it was right after 9/11. Those same sentiments are coming up again, and with the current conflict going on, I think a lot of Arab Americans get the sense that we don’t count because we’re people of color. If the conflict involved Westerners instead, I’m sure a ceasefire would’ve already been called for by now. Early in the conflict, Biden launched an initiative to combat Islamophobia and none of us took it seriously. It just felt like an attempt to try to save the Arab vote. As if to say, “We care more about your vote than we do your voices.”
There have already been violent acts committed against Arab Americans. There was a poor six-year-old boy stabbed to death in Chicago. There was an attack on three Palestinian American college students over Thanksgiving break. There’s been a lot of physical violence, and there have also been a lot of online threats to Arab American writers, scholars, and academics. What gives us some hope here in the States though is that it seems like the younger generations are coming together. It’s a collective not just of Arab Americans, but also Jewish Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other non-Arabs who are educating themselves on the conflict. It’s not just Arab Americans calling against occupation and colonization.
EB: Many of the characters in this collection are writers, actors, and artists, yearning to feed their creativity while doing what they need to survive in this world. What made you interested in exploring the tension between the desire to make art, and the practical requirements of our society?
GZ: Like other immigrant communities, there’s a resistance from many older generations in the Arab American community against their children pursuing the arts, because there’s this fear that it’s unstable. I don’t mean to generalize, but there’s this idea that “we didn’t struggle for you to also have to struggle.” As a result, there’s a push for younger generations to pursue more supposedly practical majors like business and engineering.
When I moved to Dearborn for that job with their English department, there were declining enrollments in humanities courses in general, as well as very little demand for creative writing. It was really heartbreaking because it wasn’t that students weren’t interested in creative writing. In fact, I came across many students who said they loved writing but had to major in something outside the arts. I wanted to explore that in this collection. Many of my characters do embrace the arts but are pushing up against others who try to discourage them.
One of these stories is called “Zizou’s Voice.” In it, the main character is this aspiring novelist, who’s worked a series of dead-end jobs so he can pursue his writing. His parents can’t understand his particular ambition and just want him to pursue a more “viable” job, like his brother, who’s a successful real estate agent. Or in another story, “The Actors of Dearborn”, the protagonist was an aspiring actor who didn’t make it in New York City and returns home to take a job at Ford that he can’t stand.
My interest in this tension might also have to do with the fact that my dad was an engineer, my mom is a pharmacist, yet I pursued a career in writing, and my sister in acting. Fortunately, they were very supportive of me pursuing my dream. Less so for my sister, who’s a few years older than I am. They wanted her to study something more practical. For me though, I think they had this fear that I just wouldn’t excel in other subjects, so they figured as long as I was doing well, that was all that mattered. I was terrible at science. I wasn’t very good at math. So English it was. Still, I see that attitude a lot in Dearborn from the older generations. They have this drive for their children to pursue safer career paths, but we need the artists to tell these stories.
EB: You write very convincingly and compassionately from a woman’s perspective. Several of your stories explore traditional gender roles, and particularly how they play out in terms of expectations surrounding relationships, marriage, parenthood, and domestic life. How did you approach writing those narratives, particularly those told from a women’s point of view?
GZ: It brings me a lot of joy because I’ve always been interested in different experiences and different voices. When I started planning the course I was teaching on the ethnic American short story cycle, I thought a lot about how best to represent a community and a diverse range of voices. It was very important to me that I was representing many different voices from different generations, genders, sexual orientations. I wanted to show that there was no one defining experience of Dearborn. As a writer, I of course draw from my life, which sometimes filters into my work, but I’ve never had any interest in fictionalizing my own experience. I have no interest in myself.
In terms of why I felt comfortable writing from different points of view, I think that has to do with my mother’s side of the family being dominated by women. There are very few male members on that side of the family, and all the women are very strong personalities. Just to give you an example, my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side had six sisters and one brother. My wife and I have two daughters. My dad’s side of the family is also dominated by these really strong women, so that’s what I grew up with, which may be why it felt natural to write from that perspective.
I always encourage my students not to be afraid of exploring different voices. One interesting aspect of that though is the idea of cultural appropriation. In Dearborn, nearly all the main characters are Lebanese. But Dearborn is actually quite diverse in terms of different Arab ethnicities. Yes, there’s a Lebanese population, but there are also thriving Iraqi, Yemeni, Palestinian, Syrian, and Egyptian communities. I wanted to show all those different ethnicities. I acknowledge that even though we share many cultural similarities, there are many differences too. Being Lebanese myself, I felt most comfortable writing from a Lebanese point of view. That’s why I told the story of Dearborn almost exclusively through the eyes of Lebanese characters. I wouldn’t want to tell the Palestinian American story, because I would want a Palestinan American to tell that story.
The way I approached the challenge of representation without appropriation in this collection was by including these subtle nods to other Arab communities, like having a minor character who might be Syrian or Yemeni American appear in the story. There’s a scene in the story titled “In Memoriam” that takes place at a real Yemeni coffee shop called Qahwah House, which is one of my favorites. That was an attempt to show the Yemeni community in Dearborn without writing an entire story from a Yemeni point of view.
EB: What writers have been influential for you, both for this story collection in particular, and in general?
GZ: There are so many writers who are influential for me, and it changes quite a bit over time. I go through phases. Early on, in my late teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with John Irving and Gabriel García Márquez. They have a lot in common. They both share this comedic approach to writing whimsical characters. I was very much attuned to Jeanette Winterson too. Then I started delving deeper into the ethnic American short story collection. Amy Tan was influential for me there, with The Joy Luck Club. Several of Jhumpa Lahiri’s collections. Edward P. Jones with All Hagar’s Children. That collection was really instrumental. I learned so much about how different writers represent their respective ethnic American communities through those collections. Reading them was incredibly inspiring.
Ghassan Zeineddine was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the Middle East. Dearborn (Tin House) is his debut story collection. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College, and co-editor of the creative nonfiction anthology Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Ohio.