Author Malaka Gharib on Finding Her Own ‘American Dream’

Reading Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir feels a bit like reading her teenage diary.

There’s a story of her childhood crush, Jorge, who had frosted tips.

Credit: Ben de la Cruz
Malaka Gharib in her home art studio in Washington, DC.

Summers in Egypt, eating falafel sandwiches on the balcony with her family.

Applications to universities in New York, far away from her family in Southern California.

Gharib grew up the daughter of immigrant parents, and as a kid, spent a lot of time code-switching between her family’s Filipino and Egyptian customs, as well as white culture, to try to fit in.

Her book, “I Was Their American Dream,” is about trying to find herself, amid great expectations from her parents, who had come to America with their own dreams.

“When I was growing up, my mom would always say: you have to be better than us,” she wrote in the book.

“She never explained what she meant by that. But I understood. I had to somehow rise above my parents’ life in America. But how?”

Rewire spoke with Gharib, now an artist, journalist and writer in Washington, D.C., about what it was like to revisit her childhood, and how her ideas about identity have changed as an adult.

Reprinted from “I Was Their American Dream” Copyright © 2019 by Malaka Gharib. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Rewire: You talk about code-switching growing up, and about trying to to “repress your brownness” in your first job. When did it get better?

Malaka Gharib: If I was around Arab people, I’d perform the Arab culture, Islamic greetings and phrases. And I’d code switch with my Filipino family, and then my American family.

When I was at work I’d feel like I had to put on this white persona and not make waves and not stand out.

Now I try to lean into all things that make me different and put my life experiences at the table in all aspects of my life.

The thing that I worry about now is I don’t even know what that is. I feel that I may have overdone the needing-to-assimilate thing, and I don’t know who I could have been if I hadn’t overcorrected. And that is a great loss.

Reprinted from “I Was Their American Dream” Copyright © 2019 by Malaka Gharib. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Rewire: You’re a journalist, but this is a graphic memoir. How did you get into cartooning, and why take this route?

MG: I have always been doodling since I was a kid, and writing in journals, and I would often reflect about things that happened to me through cartoon format.

I told (“Amelia’s Notebook” author Marissa Moss) about my book, and she gave it a review.

That was a huge honor, because so much of my illustration inspiration from when I was a kid was taken from the “Amelia’s Notebook” books.

That’s what I was going for, this easily accessible type of format. I always make zines and cartoons in my artistic life, so I wanted something to feel very personal and handmade.

Rewire: How did you revisit your childhood memories?

MG: I did fact-check everything. I did treat it like I would a memoir.

I called a couple of classmates from high school just to make sure that the slang that we used was the slang I remembered. And I also wanted to make sure the slang we were using wasn’t derogatory without me realizing it.

Like, “We were saying ‘ese,’ as the word ‘homie’ — that was normal right?”

Rewire: In the book, you mention that families like yours weren’t in books or on TV growing up. Who do you hope reads your book?

MG: I think it would be nice for (people of color), or first-generation Americans. Just to know, it is not weird, you’re not alone, other people have had a very weird upbringing too, balancing different tensions and cultures.

It was a prolonged adolescence of awkwardness.

This is a story that I wish my white friends would know about me. I feel like I hid so much of that throughout my life and my life experience because I was ashamed of it, and I was also embarrassed by how not normal it felt.

But now we’re living in an amazing time when we’re embracing our culture and our unique experiences, and in that vein I wanted to showcase my own story.

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Rewire: The book is about the “American Dream.” How has that idea changed for you as an adult?

Cover of Malaka Gharib's book "I Was Their American Dream."
“I Was Their American Dream” by Malaka Gharib

MG: My parents, they always tell me that they’re very proud of me now, actually, and it’s kind of rare that they’d tell me that growing up.

Stuff like that they don’t really say out loud in Filipino culture.

I think that my mom is proud of me.

The American dream, I think that we’ve all learned, takes many many forms. We think that it’s one thing when we come to this country. We accept this canned message white picket fence, house and stuff.

In the end, it’s personal freedom to be whatever you want to become.

And I think that the ability to become what I wanted to become, which is an artist and a writer, was my American dream.

It’s also about the struggle to be the person that my parents wanted to be, growing up and letting go of that and sort of trying to forge my own path the best that I can, with the things that they taught you.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.