That Little Bit of Magic: A Conversation with Ramiza Shamoun Koya
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.
Rumpus: The book is about family, and it’s about control. How do you control things in a family? You quickly realize that you can’t. How do you control things in your own life? In a lab, or with a romantic partner? There’s the tendency toward avoidant behavior versus being anxious, and a need to find security.
Koya: I think about that a lot right now in my current [health] situation. It also depends on age. Amina’s had the time to put up some walls and to have experienced disappointments. Omar is still open to miracles happening, like his dad saying, “I love you. Let me tell you everything about India.” It’s still a possibility for him. Omar’s anxiety grows because he is getting into trouble.
Rumpus: At school.
Koya: Yeah, at school. And his parents are falling apart and paying less and less attention to him. For Amina, it’s almost compressing upon her. From all sides she’s entangled herself, both in her family and somewhat in her work. And then there is the possibility of leaving just as she’s started a romantic relationship. Is there anxiety there? Yeah! I think so. But that’s life, right? There are competing things that you want. As I became an adult, I realized there are always a lot of options. When you say yes to one, you have to say no to something else. I found that very hard as an omnivorous person, a person with a big appetite for life. I’m a “yes” person. While I don’t think Amina is at all a “yes” person—quite the opposite—she’s still facing that conundrum. She wants all three things, and yet they all exclude each other.
Rumpus: You didn’t have a lot of sex scenes in the book, though sexual tensions are present—whether in a marriage or in the lab workplace.
Koya: Quite a few people have said that the book would work great as a YA book, which has made me acutely conscious that there isn’t a lot of real sex in there. I didn’t necessarily like to hear that [genre categorization] because I had hoped to aim at a little higher intellectual level. I don’t know if I dumb down Amina’s role or Omar takes over because that’s what he does. But I totally got mocked for a sex scene in workshop during my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. And I was like, I’m not doing that again. Totally gun-shy about it. It wasn’t like, “This isn’t good.” It was like, “Oh my God. Ramiza.”
Rumpus: Horrible MFA people. They’re so mean.
Koya: Yeah, they are, and I was so scarred by that I have never really attempted a sex scene again.
Rumpus: I like to make connections between my interviews as if they’re connected literary conversations. For Propeller, I asked Leland Cheuk, another author friend, what he thought of George Saunders saying that writers tend to come out of families in which it is understood that language is powerful. How is language powerful in your family?
Koya: It’s so powerful both in the way it’s used and the way it’s withheld. My mom was also a writer. She published a book in the 1980s, an autobiographical account of the year she spent running a battered women’s shelter in a little town in Colorado.
I come from a family that is very conscious of words; almost everyone is a teacher or scholar. I went to graduate school for cultural anthropology and thought I would be an academic. My interest in cultural anthropology is a very similar impulse to the impulse to be a writer. Part of it is being fascinated by what makes people work and make decisions.
Rumpus: I want to talk about the post-9/11 events that people might not remember, like all of the anti-Muslim prejudice. Your plot hinges on that racism because of scapegoating and targeting.
Koya: I was in New York for 9/11. My husband was downtown and walked closer to the towers for a while with his camera and eventually got home; but it was terrifying sitting on my front stoop in Brooklyn and watching these people covered in soot walk by and see paper coming down.
Rumpus: Where were you in Brooklyn?
Koya: In Boerum Hill.
Rumpus: Did you walk down to the Esplanade, which overlooks Manhattan?
Koya: Yeah, and I’ll never forget the looks on people’s faces. At that moment, we were just New Yorkers, and then that started to change. We lived in an area off of Atlantic Avenue, which is very multicultural, with a mosque a block or two away. Our phone became bugged very quickly.
Rumpus: How did you know?
Koya: It would make this annoying noise all through your phone call. But if you said something like Dick Cheney or bomb it would go totally silent.
Rumpus: Oh, weird.
Koya: Yeah, and it would go out periodically. Two years later they revealed that they had the line under surveillance and that they were done, and then our phone went back to normal. I don’t know if it was everybody or if it was just me because of my name. I started to feel uncomfortable when we were outside of New York. And then you know, you had extraordinary rendition, like you could go to the airport and not come back, which feels possible right now as well.
Rumpus: Like when a woman’s picked up by ICE waiting at a bus stop with her child.
Koya: Yes. There were moments where I knew people were looking at me suspiciously. In New York, if you looked suspiciously at every brown person you would get tired very quickly, but I noticed things in my work for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and with people in the college I taught at. The paranoia people had: anybody could be the enemy. The response to the novel coronavirus reminds me of that hysteria, because a lot of it is anti-Asian.
There’d been almost twenty years of anti-Muslim sentiment that I don’t remember feeling before that, and I could have been a bit sheltered from it. Often people think I’m Mexican. When I grew up I was called names related to being Mexican, but nobody knew any Indians. In this new era I could be recognized, like when people would ask, “What kind of name is Ramiza?” and I say, “Arabic,” and I see people draw back. You can tell that they don’t like it, but they don’t know where to go from here. I don’t want to explain in detail that it’s an Arabic name, but I’m actually a Muslim Indian from Fiji. You don’t want to give this justification.
To loop that all back around to my novel, I had those kinds of experiences and I was scared sometimes and very worried. But now here we are again, with Trump coming in with the Muslim ban, and he’s stoking all of this prejudice. The number of hate crimes I think is greater now than it was in 2001 or 2002. I feel like I live in the culture of violence, and maybe that’s partially being in Oregon as opposed to New York. Here in Oregon you have things like the Proud Boys demonstrating. Once, a group of Nazis came to Manhattan and they fled. I’d like to see that here.
Rumpus: In an 2016 Rumpus interview with Leland Cheuk, Cheuk talked about immigrant stories. I would like you to respond to his quote: “Immigrant stories are in the process of graduating or evolving… As a Chinese American, I’m weary of having to 1) educate white folks about my culture and 2) justify my existence by being good all the time.” How do you respond to that idea of pressure in becoming a “representative” for all Muslim Americans?
Koya: With a little anxiety. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for Muslims in America because I was raised in a very mixed-race family. My family is from Fiji, and I don’t have the background that most people expect. I didn’t grow up with my dad; my parents divorced when I was very young. That’s part of why I wanted to write about characters who also don’t know much about their own culture, because that’s the zone in which I can speak authentically. I wanted to write not so much about first-generation immigrants or the immigrant experience as it has been done in so many great books. What is more revealing is the second-generation experience where you’re born here, and yet you might spend your entire life as an American being told that you’re not really American.
That’s a puzzle that Omar can never figure out and it bothers him. Amina pushes it aside and assumes she’s never going to belong both as a woman in science and as a brown woman. I wanted to write something where it’s like, Yyu know what? Your whole fucking country is filled with people who are maybe second- or third- or fourth-generation immigrants, and yet because they have brown skin, they are being told to go back to where they came from.
The inability of so many Americans to discern the difference between somebody who has just arrived and maybe legit doesn’t know the language or the customs and somebody whose family may have been here for many generations is maybe one of the most alarming things of all. Obviously that’s how we got Trump, and that’s part of what’s going on in Europe right now, too. It’s like “too many brown people here.” If you told me to go back home, you know, my mother is from all over. My dad was born in Fiji as were two of my brothers, and Indians in Fiji don’t have civil rights. If I were to try to go back to India right now, as a Muslim, I could be subject to a pogrom or the like. So where would I go? Where’s my home? Like any other person, I think my home is where I was born. That perspective has not been integrated into our idea of ourselves as a country, so I wanted to write against that. Where does Omar belong? Yeah, you try to solve that: putting it on the reader a little.
Photograph of Ramiza Shamoun Koya by Riyad Koya.