In an impulse decision in 2019, Mariana Missakian signed up for a writing workshop with author and communication trainer Kim Page at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “I don’t know why I did it ... I was trying out new things," says Missakian, who ended up writing the first 100 words of her new book, That Suburbia Lady: A Tale of a City, a Suburbia and a Leaning Bun of Mum, during that two-hour workshop. “Words started flowing, and my hand started moving – and it hasn’t stopped ever since,” she says.
That Suburbia Lady is Missakian’s debut, self-published satirical memoir, which became available in paperback on Amazon and on Kindle in October. It chronicles her emotional transition from downtown city life to the suburbs – specifically, Dubai’s Jumeirah Park residential community. Relocating from the hustle and bustle of the city was an uprooting experience for Missakian, who is Armenian but was born and raised in Lebanon. When she was 18, she eloped with her partner and the two started their lives afresh in the UAE. She has called Dubai home ever since.
Now 39 and the mother of a six-year-old son, Missakian describes the culture shock of the move to the suburbs in a collection of witty short stories that delve into the emotional toll of making the big switch from a “boss lady” working in corporate communications to a full-time mother. “I built my career by telling companies’, brands’ and entrepreneurs’ stories and, ironically, never thought that one day I would be telling my own story,” she tells The National. “I started by just simply collecting words and capturing thoughts: writing down on my phone the conversations I would have, expressions I would overhear and situations I would find myself in – all of that crazy, silly, gloomy and happy.”
Missakian's descriptions of her past city life are nostalgic and impassioned. “I lived my life mirroring the city’s growth, swinging to her rhythm, swaying with her drive, and stretching higher and further with her determination. The city encourages you, inspires you and allows you to rise with her,” she writes. She makes it clear early on that she fears how suburbia will affect the woman she has worked hard to become.
She expertly illustrates the stark contrasts between the two lifestyles, and frequently juxtaposes “Downtown Debbie”, who wears designer shoes and tailored suits, drives a convertible and eats truffle risotto for lunch, with “Suburbia Sally”, whose outfits consist of Lululemon leggings and Havaianas flip-flops, completed with an eco-friendly shopping tote. She uses terms such as “Suburbia school” and “Suburbia committee” to spin the experience of being initiated into this new community as an elaborate challenge of unlearning and relearning new norms.
That Suburbia Lady isn’t your typical, chronological memoir – rather, it’s made up of short essay-style stories that describe specific encounters and moments with other women, her therapist, her husband and her son. While her writing style is diary-like, there’s a captivating sophistication to it. Crafty literary tools are woven into her prose with more colloquial hashtags and unheard-of abbreviations. “BWP” for instance, stands for “busy with Pinterest” in the author’s new Suburbia life.
Writing the book was akin to reflective journaling for Missakian, who says that she wasn’t in any rush to finish it. “It was very important for me to let life happen as I was writing my book,” she says. “I was writing the life I was living.”
The result was therapeutic, and allowed Missakian to make sense of her emotions during this transformative period. “The process was extremely liberating because by registering my thoughts and feelings on paper I was starting to validate my feelings, to acknowledge them, to name them and to figure out what to do about them in the real world. I was releasing them and setting myself free, debunking the idealised version of what my life should be, what I was supposed to do and who I was supposed to be,” she explains.
The scenes Missakian brings to life are at times hilarious and at others, submerged in self-pity – but the relatable sort that women in similar situations can empathise with. For although her stories describe her personal situations, scenarios and sentiments adjusting to Suburbia, she believes that her book will resonate with any woman who is at an intersection in her life, and is grappling with questions of identity and belonging.
Many of her short stories reveal the inner dilemmas she faces when asked the common question: “What do you do?” It was an easy one for her to answer before: “If you live in the city, you understand that it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do, and extraordinary success is what you do,” she writes in one chapter. In another, she states: “My pause happened when I became a full-time mom and moved to Suburbia, and I could no longer explain what I did with a business card.
Business cards however, are bound by a few inches, and can’t always contain complex and ever-evolving answers. In Suburbia, Missakian feels both restricted and overwhelmed by the simplicity of the question, “What do you do?” Motherhood after all, is a multifaceted job in itself, but mothers are more than “just” mothers. The writer whom we journey with throughout That Suburbia Lady feels misplaced, disoriented and insecure as she embarks on a new chapter of life, in an unfamiliar role and environment. But writing and publishing her book helped her achieve clarity and confidence, and Missakian admits, “I now can’t wait for someone to ask me that question.”