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Anissa Rafeh on Going from Beirut to the ‘Burbs

Anissa Rafeh discusses her sidesplitting new book about adjusting to life in suburban America after living in thrill-packed Beirut for 18 years.

There’s hardly a dull moment in Beirut, where never-ending surprises and socialising with picture-perfect looking people are part and parcel of life. Anissa Rafeh, a Lebanese-American, fell in love with the city when she moved there, inspiring her to write, “Miss Guided: How to Step into the Lebanese Glam Lane.” However, fate had the author and blogger moving back to the US 18 years later, resulting in her second book, “Beirut to the ‘Burbs: Adventures of a Suburban Misfit.” It hilariously details how she settles into life in the suburbs, learning how to shovel snow without chipping her nails included, after all the glitz and excitement Beirut offered.

Rafeh chats to us about about the transition that steered the book, the authors who have inspired her and laughter being the best medicine.

This is your second book. How did publishing your first book change your writing process?
I was a lot more organised this time around. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about and developed a pretty detailed chapter outline before starting to put the book together. But unlike with my first book, this time I was not self-employed. I had to fit in writing with a full-time job, which was a bit more challenging.

Do you want each book to stand alone, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
They definitely stand alone as they are different genres. When I become the next J.K. Rowling or George R. R. Martin, then I’ll want them to be connected (wink!).

In the book, you mention how difficult it was to get a job when you first moved back to the US. Which other major difficulties did you initially encounter?
Adjusting to life here in the US in general, after living in Lebanon for so long, was difficult. I was living with my sister and her family, so not having my own home or my own things was not easy. I really liked my routine in Beirut, and as someone who is Type A (according to my business coach), having to re-establish a daily schedule made me feel discombobulated, I guess that’s the best way to describe it. You know, that feeling like something is off, but you can’t really pinpoint what exactly? That’s what my first few months felt like.

You also mention how you never felt alone in Lebanon and miss always having someone around to help you out. What else do you miss about Lebanon?
In the beginning, you miss everything – and I mean everything – even the bad things, like traffic and having to ask if there’s mayy sukhneh (hot water) every day before you shower. But then you get used to the way regular life should be, like having 24-hour electricity and not ageing before your time whenever you want to drive some place. So then you start to miss specific people, specific places and specific foods (oh yes, definitely the food). Sometimes, it hits me unexpectedly, like when I went to the Lebanese food festival here in Richmond a few days ago. They had a dabke performance and when the dancers came out carrying the Lebanese flag, my eyes started to water. I literally held back tears. I realise now that I will always have a profound longing to go back home to Lebanon.

You not only moved countries, you went from living in a bustling city like Beirut to life in suburbia. What has surprised you the most?
Suburbia is so boring; there aren’t any surprises and that’s the problem! Well, maybe my deep, uncompromising love for… Netflix! No, really, my brother bought me a year’s subscription for my birthday. When I got the email notice, I was like, “Ew, what kind of lame present is this?” After 30 seconds, no exaggeration, I was like, “Best present in the history of presents.”

It was a challenging time. Do you feel writing about it was cathartic?
Yes, definitely, laughter really is the best medicine. I know I am very fortunate, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel down, or depressed, because your life didn’t quite go in the direction you had planned. So being able to share those experiences while making people laugh (hopefully!) really helped me see the lighter side of things, no matter how down in the dumps I was feeling.

Which chapter was the hardest to write?
Oh, good question, I think the one about making friends, because I didn’t really have that many when I first started writing. I know, I’m so unbelievably charming and entertaining that that’s hard to believe. But it’s true, it takes time to build relationships when you’re not in school, so it took me a while to have any kind of social life. So, I actually wrote that chapter last, once I had actually made a few friends.

What got left out in the final draft?
Nothing, I am a perfect writer! But seriously, there was only one story I didn’t include because I didn’t want the person it was about to realise it was about them. 

Tell us about the cover.
All credit goes to the illustrator, who came up with the concept and the design. I think she captured the spirit of the book, and I love the end result.

Does writing usually exhaust or energise you?
Writing only exhausts me when it’s a chore. When it’s something I actually want to do, it lifts my spirits immensely.

Which books do you believe have made you a better writer?
I am a huge bookworm, so I could spend pages and pages listing all the great writers that have impacted me, from J.K. Rowling to Jane Austen. But I have to say that “Bossypants,” by Tina Fey, was the main inspiration for this book. She has an amazing wit that I truly admire.

Famous authors are known to have quirky writing rituals. Do you have one?
Unfortunately, I am not that interesting, unless you consider writing in my PJs quirky. Oh wait, I do have one: I ‘reward’ myself after completing a chapter by reading Hollywood gossip columns. I allow myself one article after each chapter. As a result, I know a lot more about Benedict Cumberbatch than I should.

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