“Eventually, I hear footsteps crunching along the side of the house through the glazed snow and my mother’s navy blue sigh through the frozen air.”

from The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber, p. 75

Can a sigh be navy blue? Diana Abu-Jaber’s unusual way of using color to describe bodily movements, appearances and sounds is what impressed me most about her beautiful memoir of growing up with a food-obsessed, flamboyant, exasperating and nevertheless lovable Jordanian father. This book was the February reading of my memoir workshop at StoryStudio Chicago, and as we often fit a little writing into class as well, I devised an exercise to test out Abu-Jaber’s “color challenge.”

I created a bunch of white and yellow paper snippets. On the yellow snippets I wrote colors like “gray,” “orange” or “pink,” on the white ones body traits like “shrug,” “grin” or “gait.” Then I folded the snippets so you couldn’t see what was written on them. Each student was asked to pick a yellow and a white snippet out of a box and then try to write something about the combination they ended up with.

I got “gray handshake.” Can a handshake be gray? Indeed it can! I immediately knew that a gray handshake felt like a cold fish, meaning someone who doesn’t grip your hand heartily. It would be a gray person, i.e. bland and seemingly uninteresting, who gives a “gray handshake.”

Other combinations we ended up with:

pink chuckle (someone joked that this sounded like a cocktail–it kind of does, doesn’t it?)
silver smile
azure gait
orange shrug

I found it fascinating that pretty much all these combinations worked, that we could stretch our writing muscles and our imaginations to discover what a color symbolizes in connection with a physical trait. I doubt I will attain Abu-Jaber’s mastery in using colors to characterize people, but I am grateful that she introduced me to this unusual way of creating prose.

Feel free to try the color snippet exercise yourself and let me know what you come up with! Does it work? Can a “shrug” be “orange?”