KGB: Behind the Book - Alia Malek and Ellen Umansky

May 11, 2017
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Alia Malek’s acclaimed narrative nonfiction book, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, is a profound personal journey from when the author returns to her family home to Damascus at the Arab Spring’s hopeful start.  Restoring her family’s home as the country comes apart, she learns how to speak the coded language of oppression that exists in a dictatorship, while privately confronting her own fears about Syria’s future and ultimately delivering an unforgettable portrait of the Syria that is being erased.  A journalist and civil rights lawyer, she is the author of A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives and editor of Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustices and EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees.  Her reportage has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, The Nation, McSweeney’s, Guernica, and other publications.  Her reporting from Syria earned her the Marie Colvin Award in November 2013.  She was a Senior Writer at Al Jazeera America, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute, and in residence at the MacDowell Colony.  In November 2016, she was honored with the 12th annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities.

“In THE HOME THAT WAS OUR COUNTRY, Alia Malek masterfully weaves together the personal and the political, and in so doing creates an unforgettable portrait of modern Syria in all its complexities and tragedies. Malek renders multiple generations of family, friends and neighbors vividly but unsentimentally, and what emerges is a portrait of a great people held back by tyranny. As Syria suffers through its darkest days, she reminds us of the humans behind the statistics. Completely engrossing and lucid, the book explains Syria’s devolution better than anything I’ve read.”
— Dave Eggers

Ellen Umansky’s deeply humane and engrossing debut novel, The Fortunate Ones, travels from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.  Tracing the fate of a missing painting by famed expressionist Chaim Soutine, the novel connects the lives of Rose, a refugee who escaped the Holocaust as a young girl on the Kindertransport to England, and Lizzie, a lawyer whose father just died, and their mutual search for meaning in tragedy.  Ellen has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp.  She has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker, The Forward, and Tablet.  She grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

“Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

* * * * *

Behind the Book is a small literacy nonprofit that gets kids excited about reading by connecting them with contemporary writers and illustrators.  Working with low-income students in the 1st-12th grades, we bring authors and their books into individual classrooms in curriculum-based programs that incorporate direct and sustained interaction between students and authors.  In workshop fashion, students do original writing; in elementary school, students create illustrated books.  All students receive copies of authors’ books to keep as their own.  Our goal is to build a new generation of readers and writers.  Since our founding, we have worked with nearly 13,000 students and donated more than 18,000 books to students and school libraries.