When Portland State University writing professor Diana Abu-Jaber began writing her latest novel, Iraq was hardly in the news.
Now that “Crescent,” a story about an Arab American woman living in Los Angeles, is about to be published, Abu-Jaber has discovered her book’s potential.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that provocative,” she said. “I’m a little bit surprised by all the attention it’s getting.”
Abu-Jaber has received calls from The New York Times and Fox News about her novel, which is being translated into at least five different languages.
“It’s exciting, but its also a little unnerving,” Abu-Jaber said.
She is well aware that much of the attention her book is receiving is due to the United States’ current situation with Iraq, and the possibility of war.
Despite this, Abu-Jaber insists she did not mean for her novel to so directly relate to current topics.
“I don’t ever think of myself as an explicitly political writer,” she said. “I think it ends up having certain political implications.”
She does feel a certain responsibility to the Arab-American community when she writes.
“I often feel aware of being seen at times as a representative,” she said.
Abu-Jaber’s father is an immigrant from Jordan, and her mother is an Irish-Catholic American, so it is easy for her to identify her family as “multicultural.”
“We were Arabs at home, and Americans in public.”
Abu-Jaber was born in New York, and when she was 8 years old, her family moved to Jordan. She feels like the time spent there enriched her life and has helped to shape who she is today.
She says her heritage has played a role in her writing and describes the main characters in her stories as “hyphenated American.”
“They’re all either immigrants or the children of immigrants, and they all have a complicated sense of self and of identity,” she explained,
Abu-Jaber says she is also inspired by other writers and what happens in the world at large.
She is also very interested in writing about family politics, how family systems stay together and what it means to be a family.
From her own experiences living in the United States and in Jordan, she has noticed the differences between U.S. and Middle Eastern families. The most noticeable is the way the Middle East has a more group-oriented sense of self, whereas the U.S. tends to put the individual first.
Her writing is also strongly influenced by what she reads. Lately she has become very interested in memoirs and reading about people’s life stories.
Abu-Jaber also enjoys reading about cooking, an activity about which she is very passionate.
She particularly enjoys Middle Eastern cooking, particularly the way it reconnects her to her heritage and her culture.
When she’s not writing or teaching, she also enjoys taking walks, often with her “insane little dog,” Yogi.
“Anything that pulls me out of that abstract head,” she said, “I find very helpful.”
She even admits that on occasion, her husband has convinced her to go fishing with him.
“He drags me out into nature, which is horrible,” she says with a laugh, adding, “Just kidding.”
Abu-Jaber openly admits that her voice as a writer has changed over the years. Her first novel, “Arabian Jazz,” unintentionally had a comedic flavor to it, but she says that humor comes naturally to her writing.
With “Crescent,” her voice has become more serious and has been slightly tinged by politics. It is larger in scope, she said, and it feels more ambitious.
“This new novel, ‘Crescent,’ there’s sex in it,” she added. “That’s new for me.”
Abu-Jaber credits her love of storytelling to her family. She recalled moments during her childhood when, after dinner, her father and his brothers would sit around the table telling stories about their culture and who they were.
The idea of storytelling solidified as she got older, particularly during grade school when she began writing.
“I used to write novels over summer breaks,” she said. “I was a little maniac.”
By the time she graduated high school, she had completed three novels.
Her family’s encouragement of her writing is what established that direction for her and led her to pursue it in college.
Besides novels, Abu-Jaber has written occasionally for the Oregonian, reviewing books, movies and food. She also enjoys writing short stories.
“You can hold a short story in your mind all at once,” she said. “They don’t have quite the same heartbreaking, bottomless quality that novels do.”
Abu-Jaber believes that the key to writing a book that is both artistic and entertaining is to “sneak the poetry in,” so that people do not feel overwhelmed by it. She also recommends keeping the story from getting too complicated.
As an example, she mentioned Stephen King.
“He does tell a great story,” she said, “but there is a clarity to his prose. It’s very clean, it’s tight, it doesn’t draw attention to itself.”
She also advises aspiring writers to make sure that they write everyday. She feels that the key to becoming a successful writer has less to do with talent than it does with persistence.
She also says that an aspiring writer needs to be able to take criticism, and be able and willing to continually rewrite drafts.
“You don’t let small discouragements make you stop,” Abu-Jaber said. “You just keep going. That’s the secret right there.”
“Crescent” will be published in April. Abu-Jaber will read from the book at Powell’s Bookstore on April 24 at 7:30 p.m.