The Royal Abduls, Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s debut novel (Forest Avenue Press, December 2019), drops us into a Muslim American family twisted by generational expectations and self-doubt. It’s told in shifting views by Amina Abdul, an evolutionary biologist who’s returned to Washington, DC to be closer to her brother’s family, and Omar Abdul, her eleven-year-old nephew who feels conflicted about his mixed-race heritage. Set amidst post-9/11 tensions, the family becomes even more fractured when Omar is expelled from a private school due to cultural fears and stereotypes (proud of his father’s Indian background, Omar brought an ornamental knife to school). Amina has her own struggles as she negotiates the sexual politics of her lab and her desire to leave her family—and a new romance—to study hybrid zones: places where species, such as moths, cross-breed.
In February, I met with Ramiza in her flower-filled Craftsman home in Portland, OR. We spoke at length about family responsibilities and generational burdens—in the novel and in her life (and in mine, as a Caucasian adoptive mother of a son born in China). Funny, smart, and an insightful listener, she was until recently the director of youth programming at Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program, where I teach residencies. However, severe health issues related to cancer led her to resign in December 2019.
I’ve never had such trouble finishing an interview. This conversation is aching with imminent shimmer and dread because of her terminal illness. Maybe I was deluded into thinking as long as I could let our words rest as an audio file, Ramiza would always be around to continue talking with me. Once transcribed, each cut felt difficult as I edited down her thought process. As she spoke, she worked out her ideas to be clear, reflecting her gifts as an educator and storyteller. The characters who so vibrantly call out from the page—who are so easy for her to drop into—are finite. We are finite, yet we write out of magical thinking to pretend otherwise.
The Rumpus: How did you decide to create shifting points of view as you were writing your novel?
Ramiza Koya: It wasn’t so much a decision as something that happened. I had started this whole thing as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone,” and then I got a residency at MacDowell. My first day, when I sat down at my big, beautiful desk looking into the forest, I wrote, “Omar was happy,” and that ended up being the second section in his point of view. Omar inserted himself, but I didn’t know any eleven-year-olds at the time. I kept alternating, because I liked that format of having two points of view on one situation.
Rumpus: How long ago was it?
Koya: Probably fourteen years ago now.
Rumpus: How did you shift to a novel mindset, since you also write short stories? With this novel, you had to carry a voice over chapters and other voices, and each chapter has to be a launching pad to when that voice would appear again.
Koya: That little bit of magic happened with this book where I can still slip into the voices and keep writing. The longest break was probably about four years when I had my daughter (she is eleven now), and it took a long time for me to get creativity back and to feel like myself again. But even then I could slip right back into their voices. That made it feel genuine or substantial because it wasn’t just a quick inspiration where you get this idea and then you write the story and it’s done. These characters stayed alive for me.
Rumpus: There’s a theme of longing throughout the book. Is that present in other writing you’ve done?
Koya: Certainly, I think, a longing or a lack of belonging. Maybe loneliness—people who don’t connect that well to other people. For Omar, a child, it’s pure longing: Why can’t I have these things? or, Why are people telling me this stuff? or, Why don’t I have a dad who’s present? He’s longing for an explanation. For Amina, it’s really loneliness. She has not fit in anywhere, and that’s what drives her to want to focus on work, but it’s in isolation rather than in collaboration with other scientists.
Rumpus: You have a scene with Omar, and then you’re shifting points of view to Amina, who may also be with the same people. How did you manage all of that, that lens, to keep it clear in your own mind?
Koya: I tried to keep it as much as possible that if it were in Omar’s point of view, whatever happened during that chapter, we would assume that had already happened in the next chapter when it shifts to Amina’s point of view. If something were happening that both Omar and Amina witnessed, it was usually in one person’s point of view, and the other person would refer to it later as something that had happened in the past.
Rumpus: Omar wants a constructed identity based on his father’s family, the Abduls, and when he feels betrayed by his family, he lights his research material and memorabilia on India on fire. How is fire a symbol to you?
Koya: Well, I love fire.
Rumpus: Oh, a pyro!
Koya: I am. I’m the person at the campsite that’s like, “Nobody touch this; it’s mine! I’m going to do the fire!” I like to light them, construct them, poke at them. Omar wanted to destroy his research, and he’s pudgy—he’s not a camping kid, he’s not going to go outside and make a bonfire. So I had him toss it in the fireplace as an easy way to destroy all the things that he has.