Patricia Dunn’s young adult novel, Rebels by Accident, deals with romance, revolution and the efforts of three women to balance their disparate worlds. Through the eyes of Mariam, a patriotic U.S. teenager of Egyptian ancestry, and against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Dunn reveals how Mariam, her best friend, Deanna, and her sittu (grandmother) learn to let their “freak flags fly.”
The former managing editor of Muslimwakeup.com, a popular U.S.-based online magazine, and a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College, Dunn’s previous work has been published in web journals and anthologies. In this successful foray into YA literature, she brings the same clarity and insight to her characters as she does the gathering masses in Tahrir Square. While Mariam experiences her first kiss, Deanna discovers nerve that rivals that of her high-powered attorney mother back home in New York. Most remarkably, Dunn explains Sittu’s ability to hold onto the traditions of her beloved country with one hand, while checking her social media accounts with the other.
Dunn took some time to discuss her fictional journey to present-day Cairo and the creation of her trio of quick-tongued rebels.
Was there anything that made you feel different when you were younger—and how did you learn to move through that stage in a positive way?
I grew up in the Bronx, in a neighborhood where most were born on what was referred to as the “other side,” meaning southern Italy. My family is also Italian—but my parents were born here, so we were the “Americans” on the block. Sometimes it was frustrating, especially when everyone was speaking a language I didn’t understand....I learned how to read people, understand body language. As we know, people don’t always say what they mean. Since those days, I’ve traveled around the world, and this skill has come in handy. It was probably the feeling of being the “outsider” that pushed me toward writing.
Why did you choose two American teenagers as protagonists for a novel that takes place during the uprising in Tahrir Square?
Teens are tough, and whenever I tried to go back to a more adult narrator, Mariam kept fighting her way back. I knew that the recent Egyptian revolution was part of her story, so with help and encouragement from my editor and agent, and after many revisions, this version emerged. Deanna is a lot like me. At 16, I was very passionate but not always good about considering the possible consequences of my actions.
Your descriptions of traveling to the suburbs of Cairo, navigating the language and people, give the book great depth. Have you spent much time in Egypt? Were you there for the Arab Spring?
My in-laws lived in Egypt when my son was younger, and we visited there many times. I lived in the region as well. I wasn’t there during the revolution, so to get the feel for a lot of the scenes at Tahrir Square, I spent hours looking at YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter, asking everyone I knew who was there or who had family there at the time for details. I made sure that the Arabic translations, as well as all other facts, were checked and rechecked. I wanted the transliteration to be true to the way things are said in Egypt as opposed to other Arabic-speaking countries. Then there was all the research around social media. It was amazing how the youth in Egypt were not only using Facebook to share news about fashion or friends, they were using it to organize also, to change the world.
With the drafting of a new constitution, there are fears about the rights of women, like Mariam’s sittu, who have struggled for the equal rights preached in the Quran. What do you think Mariam would find on a return trip to Cairo in 10 or 20 years?
A revolution, with real change, doesn’t happen overnight or over a year. The United States Constitution was adopted in 1787, but women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920! I don’t think the women in Egypt will be patient for long. This revolution had as many women behind it as it did men. And there are also many men in Egypt who know that if there isn’t equality for women, there isn’t equality for anyone. So, I can’t say what Mariam will see in 20 years in terms of government, but I know that she will find many strong and self-determined women like her sittu. She may even decide to live there for awhile, maybe do a year abroad at the University of Cairo. Or maybe her children will.
Tom Eubanks is a writer and editor. In publishing for over two decades, he also represents authors and artists. He's currently working with fashion icon Pat Cleveland on a long-anticipated memoir. He lives in NYC.