CHAPEL HILL — Krista Bremer movingly describes the challenges of connecting different worlds when she writes about her relationship with her husband, Libyan-born Muslim Ismail Suayah.
"I was raised in a Southern California suburb by tan, fit parents who rejected organized religion and challenged the status quo," says Bremer, who is tall, with a lean athletic build.
"My husband was raised in an impoverished fishing village on the coast of Libya by illiterate, devout Muslims."
When Bremer fell in love with Suayah, a systems engineer for a software company, she accepted a bicultural relationship with many challenges. But all relationships require similar navigation, she says.
"At their core, every relationship is bicultural because it contains two people with different languages, rituals and experiences of the world," she explains. "This is true whether you marry someone from the other side of the globe or someone from your very own hometown."
Bremer is an essayist, associate publisher of The Sun magazine and, most importantly, she says, mother to Aliya, 8, and Khalil, 4.
On Thursday she received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award, given annually to six women whose writing demonstrates excellence early in their careers. The $25,000 award, she says, offers women "A Room of One's Own," as Virginia Woolf described it: freedom from family and work obligations to develop one's writing.
"In this economy, when finances are so much more constricted, this award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation is an amazingly generous and utterly unexpected gift," she says.
Bremer, 37, moved to Chapel Hill from San Diego in 1998 to pursue a master's degree in journalism at UNC. She had been a longtime fan of The Sun, a magazine of personal essays, interviews, fiction and photography, and she was determined to work there.
Publisher Sy Safransky said Bremer started as an unpaid intern and quickly impressed him with her intelligence and enthusiasm.
"Over the years, my respect for her has only deepened," he says. In 2002, he hired her.
As a personal writer, Bremer shows an unflinching passion for raw truths as she juxtaposes her Western expectations and her husband's Muslim traditions.
Her essay on straddling a precarious cultural and religious line, "My Accidental Jihad," won a Pushcart Prize in 2008. She takes the reader through her struggle to accept the rigid rules of Ramadan -- rules imposed upon her husband for a month of fasting, sunup to sundown.
"This is a time when our differences seem the most stark," says Bremer when describing the difficulty traditional holidays can bring to a bicultural relationship.
Suayah says that for him Christmas was a difficult holiday to understand.
"The first time Krista convinced me to put a tree in the house for Christmas, I started dismantling the tree on Christmas morning, after presents were opened," Suayah says. "Krista thought it was crazy, but I just didn't know how long the tree was supposed to remain in the house."
Bremer says communicating to her husband why a holiday had importance to her clarified the deeper meaning behind her Western rituals.
"We've spent many years trying to learn how to celebrate Christmas together. In my efforts to explain to Ismail what the tradition meant to me, I came to the difficult realization that it was largely about the presents."
Surprised in Libya
In 2005, pregnant with son Khalil, Bremer visited Suayah's family in Libya for three weeks.
Bremer was well-traveled, because her parents had spent most of her childhood working abroad for the United Nations. Still, her experience in the Muslim North African country intrigued and confounded her.
"I was overwhelmed by how completely different it was from anything I had ever known."
Some of her female in-laws were illiterate tribe women. Bremer was surprised to feel envy and discomfort about aspects of their lives.
She will use her Jaffe award money to go back to North Africa and dig deeper into her Western preconceptions about femininity and freedom for women.
In her essay, "The First Cut," Bremer writes about her arguments with her husband over circumcising their son.
"When I offered what I thought were compelling reasons to forgo circumcision -- the trauma, the risk, the unnecessary violation of our son's body -- he stared blankly at me, as if I were speaking a foreign language," she writes.
Bremer's willingness to share her fears and frustrations could be difficult for her husband. But Suayah says he is lucky to be the first one to read his wife's work and that in doing so, finds the opportunity to discuss their struggles.
"I always encourage her to tell the truth as she sees it, and I can handle that -- even if the truth makes me uncomfortable," he said. "Coming from a country where one is not allowed to speak freely, I greatly value her freedom of expression."
Each day is a challenge for Bremer and Suayah, but Bremer says the rewards are significant, as she learns to expand her world view through humility and humor, "and a deepening awareness of what Muslim and Western cultures have in common."
Suayah puts it simply:
"If she speaks the truth to the world, something good will come of it."