When we think of Diana Abu Jaber, we think of delicious, warm, sweet things.
Her first novels – Arabian Jazz, Crescent, and The Language of Baklava – touched upon issues of Middle Eastern identity and family, intermingling traditional recipes with homespun wisdom and densely layered characters. Abu Jaber, who splits her year between a teaching gig at Portland State and enjoying the sunshine here in the 305, is currently basking in the praise for her latest novel, Origin, which is neither warm nor sweet. It’s a chilly thriller with a Caucasian protagonist, set in the bleak tundra of Syracuse. We caught up with the author in Buffalo, where she was making one of several appearances at bookstores in upstate New York.
New Times – Tell me about Origin, it’s been getting fantastic reviews!
Abu Jaber – It’s my first foray into writing a thriller. So that’s scary… I don’t know how people will receive it because it’s very different from my other work. It doesn’t have the traditional tie-in to the Middle Eastern component, either. It’s really a straight-ahead detective story with a fingerprint specialist as the hero. In the sense that it is a Diana novel, it’s very much concerned with issues of identity. The idea of the fingerprint being the place where our identity comes from is very strong in the book. And also the main character doesn’t know her biological parents, so that becomes a huge question mark in the book and she has to solve the mystery of where she came from. I tried to put some good twists and turns and secrets into the book,and so far people have been telling me that they stayed up all night to read it. I loooooove that.
New Times – That’s awesome!
Abu Jaber – You don’t usually get that with a literary novel.
New Times – Yeah, you’ll get “it took me two weeks to read this!” And I saw you got a great back-of-the-book blurb from Chuck Palahniuk. That’s great praise to get from someone like him, who is so embedded in the genre.
Abu Jaber – We were up in New York last week and he invited me to give a reading with him. It was incredible! It was at The Strand – and you know how he throws things at the audience? He had me throw stuffed monkeys, because my novel has monkeys in it. And for his book, he had me help him throw rubber snakes at people. The snakes were huge, they were like three feet long. I think… I may have hurt some people. I kinda think I did.
New Times – Well, they probably loved it. They’ll blog about it later.
Abu Jaber – Yeah, Chuck Palahniuk hit me in the face with a rubber snake!
New Times – You said writing your first thriller was scary. Was it scary like… to write the book, because you had to get into that thriller mode? Was it like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, all work and no play makes Diana a dull girl?
Abu Jaber – It was really hard. I have profound respect for mystery and thriller writers now. I had no idea how much goes into the craft. Partly I did it because, I always tell my writing students, if you want to learn how to write a great plot, you should write a mystery because it distills plot down to its essence. And it was HARD, trying to implant clues, and foreshadowing but not give it away…? And somehow solve it all at the end in a way that’s not hokey or obvious? Very challenging. And on top of that, there was all the research. I had to interview all these fingerprint detectives, we went to the crime lab in Syracuse. It’s a totally different world. It’s completely high tech and very sterile. Which is interesting to me because I often have a magical element in my writing. I was trying to see if there was a space in contemporary, high tech society, for magic.
New Times – Could you relate to this character, or is she someone you had a hard time getting into?
Abu Jaber – (laughing) Oh, I could totally… (laughing more). She’s a gigantic weirdo! She’s so bizarre!
New Times – Is that how you describe yourself? Come on!
Abu Jaber – Oh, well… now it’s dawning on me that we’re doing an interview! What’re you, gonna put this in a newspaper?
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New Times – “Diana Abu Jaber – Gigantic Weirdo.” Headline!
Abu Jaber – The thing about her that I really relate to, is her obsession with identity. That comes right out of my own experience. I was raised in a Middle Eastern culture, in a mixed race family. My father told me I was an Arab, but people always tell me that I don’t look Arab… I had all these confusing mixed messages growing up. My sense of myself was very mysterious, and that’s been a lifelong journey. Lena in Origin, she mirrors that journey in a lot of ways. Her appearance comes under scrutiny, and she’s trying to figure out who her parents might have been. It’s very much a parallel journey, I think.
On Friday June 29 at 8:00 p.m., Diana Abu Jaber will read from Origin at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. And even though this book has nothing to do with it, she has promised to bring a tray of her infamous baklava. Full disclosure: Diana Abu Jaber was the best creative writing professor this writer has ever had.