Saturday, April 2, 2022

Q&A with Diana Abu-Jaber




Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the new novel Fencing with the King. Her other books include Crescent. She teaches at Portland State University, and she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 


Q: In your author's note, you write, “Fencing with the King is fiction, a work of imagination, but in the way of so many novels, that imaginary world takes its inspiration from aspects of the real world.” How did your family history factor into the creation of this novel?


A: My father’s experience as an immigrant to America was one of the great defining features of his personality – it created a kind of rift in his identity. He often felt torn between his two countries—where to live, where he belonged.


As a so-called third culture kid, I was fascinated by this rift – the way people could be defined not only by where they were but by where they were not. On the one hand, your life is bigger because you get to know two countries, on the other hand, you’re no longer fully one thing or the other.


The notion of a split identity is a big thematic element in several of my books, but it’s especially important in Fencing With the King because Amani convinces her father to return to his homeland with her in search of what was left behind.


Immigrants usually have the life they lived before and the life after– for their children, their parents’ life-before is a kind of mystery story, and that’s how it functions in this novel.


Amani has questions about what really happened to her grandmother—as opposed to what she was told—and these are much like the questions I grew up with, about grandparents I never got to meet and a family history that seemed both impressive yet troubling.


Q: In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you said, “I didn’t even know that Dad knew how to fence...That kind of thing used to happen with Dad a lot, where we would get these surprises. We were at a dude ranch once, and he jumped onto a horse and galloped off, and we were all like, what?” When did you learn about your father's ability to fence?

A: I was at a party in Amman, Jordan, 1995, the same place and time that Fencing is set. My uncles were gossiping about my father—the only one of the brothers to remain in the States—and I heard one uncle saying that Dad had been King Hussein of Jordan’s favorite sparring partner. I was astonished. Dad had never mentioned fencing and certainly nothing about this royal bff.


This sort of thing often happened with Dad—he would turn out to have experiences and hidden skills that none of us ever even suspected. I remember thinking at the time—wouldn’t it be fun to write a story about the king inviting his old partner back for a rematch, years later? The idea got a grip on me and eventually I jumped into writing it.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: This novel probably required the most research of any of my books—everything from the history of the Ottoman Empire to Islamic inheritance laws to falconry, camel races, and, of course, fencing.


I learned so much in this process—for example, how progressive Islamic law is toward the rights of women and children. I learned about amazing environmental initiatives in the Middle East, about the disappearing Bedouin culture, and ways that the Christian community has sometimes helped mediate between Arab and Israeli people.


And there were so many quirky and unexpected details that came up too. One of my biggest surprises was to learn that when jetting between events, certain elite trained falcons travel with passports. First class.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I feel like the American media still struggles with fair and truthful representations of Arab and Islamic countries. I’m interested in mutuality and humanity, finding the ways that people connect across international lines, in giving a human face to a new narrative. And just telling a great story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve got a couple of short stories in the works, but I’ve also got a novel cooking–about the notion of physical recovery—that I can’t wait to get back to.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want my readers to be entertained, to be moved and engaged. If they learn something in the process, that’s a wonderful bonus.


Fencing With the King is set in a country that may be new to a lot of readers, but it’s also got elements of action and adventure. I love great literature but I also love Indiana Jones--just like my father loved Zorro--and I hope some of those exciting elements resonate here as well.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Diana Abu-Jaber.

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