"I never met her, but I’ve always felt like I had this sort of mysterious connection to my grandmother,” Diana Abu-Jaber says. She recalls that when she traveled to Jordan on a Fulbright in the 1990s, something odd happened: at one of the Crusader castles, a gatekeeper came up to her with a stern expression on his face. “I thought I was in trouble—that I had trespassed, which I probably had. And he got real close, and he goes, ‘Anissa?’ ”
Anissa was the name of Abu-Jaber’s grandmother, a Palestinian who’d emigrated to Jordan with her family to escape famine during World War I. She’d been a contemporary of the guard, who told Abu-Jaber that the two looked alike.
It’s an event that stayed with the author and eventually inspired a scene that appears in her new novel, Fencing with the King, which is coming from Norton in March. “I wrote an essay, an op-ed piece, about it when the Gulf War started, and I was thinking a lot about the connection between the Middle East and America,” she says. She’s now 61 and lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but she’s speaking via Zoom from her mom’s house in St. Augustine, where she, her husband, and their 13-year-old daughter are visiting.
After the op-ed, Abu-Jaber was busy writing other books: Arabian Jazz, her first novel, which came out in 1993 and won the Oregon Book Award; Crescent (2003), which won the PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction; the memoir The Language of Baklava (2005); the novels Origin (2007) and Birds of Paradise (2011); and the memoir Life Without a Recipe, which came out in 2016. She also published a middle grade novel, Silverworld, in 2020. Then, one of her seven uncles threw a party at which he told a story about how her father, who grew up in Jordan, had been fencing partners with King Hussein, and was even reputed to be among the king’s favorites.
“I didn’t even know that Dad knew how to fence,” Abu-Jaber says. “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?”
She started thinking about how these kinds of stories must exist for so many children of immigrants, whose parents left their country and, to an extent, their past behind. “Unless someone really investigates them, they don’t get brought forward into the present time,” she explains. “A lot gets lost that way.”
Abu-Jaber’s father moved to the States because, she says, he was angry that someone had turned down his marriage proposal: “He wanted to go the U.S. basically to hit it big and make her feel really bad about her life choices.” Back in Jordan, his family and the royal family moved in the same circles; he’d been a pilot in the king’s air force, and, Abu-Jaber says, “as I understand it, they plucked some of the pilots out to train them as sparring partners for the king. Yep, Dad was filled with wacky surprises.”
The idea of being in two places yet not quite of either permeates Fencing with the King. Abu-Jaber’s father arrived in the U.S. in the late 1950s, she says, and always thought he’d move back to Jordan some day. The family actually did that twice, for short periods of time, when she was a kid. But ultimately, “it was like he’d gotten too Americanized. He was really stuck in between places—spiritually and emotionally—for most of his life.”
Thinking about that, along with the need to go back to these old stories and bring them forward into the present—“that was the moment when it really started to come together for me,” Abu-Jaber says. “Like, what if Dad could go back and duel with the king again?”
In Fencing with the King, that’s exactly what happens. It’s 1995. Amani, a 31-year-old poet, has moved in with her parents, Gabe and Francesca, in Syracuse, N.Y. (Abu-Jaber’s hometown), after divorcing her husband. She can’t write, she’s been drinking too much, and she’s on the outs with the university where she teaches.
Then an invite comes in by way of Amani’s uncle, an adviser to the king of Jordan, who once fenced with, and fondly remembers, Gabe. The king is turning 60, and he’d like Gabe to return to participate in a fencing exhibition, all expenses paid. Though her parents decline, Amani can’t get the idea out of her head, and when she finds a mysterious scrap of paper written by her grandmother among her father’s belongings—a poem? a letter?—she’s compelled to investigate further. She convinces her dad to go with her to Jordan for the celebration.
“There are definitely parallels between my story and Amani’s story,” Abu-Jaber says. Her grandmother, like Amani’s, was a bookish person. “People told me she collected what turned into the first library in Jordan. Her literary background was really important to her, and she was someone who was disinherited. She had left her family. She’d left her land. She’d had to start over again, and she made that life through books.”
Though the novel started with a deep dive into fencing (including reading about the Three Musketeers), it grew into an exploration of the secrets families keep and why, the trauma of war and losing one’s home, and how we treat those experiences. “I almost conceived of it like the Rocky story—a very direct kind of tale of a person training physically,” Abu-Jaber says. “And as I worked on it, Amani became much more important, as did her relationship to her grandmother and the mystery of that background. I became really fascinated by this question of how we try to hide things and hide inconvenient truths, and how they always come out.”
After her last memoir, in which Abu-Jaber grapples with her father’s death, the novel was also a way to bring him to life again, she says, and “to go back to Jordan, which I love.” She began “thinking about how Dad used to go watch Zorro over and over again. He had no choice; that was the only thing that showed at his local movie theater. But he was obsessed with it, and that was his creativity and his joy in his childhood.”
As Abu-Jaber wrote and revised, a process that took more than four years, she was also teaching writing at Portland State in Oregon, where she’s been on the faculty for the past 25 years. But during the early days of the pandemic, she found it extremely hard to concentrate, so she started to write essays about food and life for The Sun Sentinel, which she says “helped keep me sane.” The pieces, like the note Amani finds by her grandmother, have led to new discoveries and endeavors. She plans to stop teaching so she can commit more time to journalism, her first love.
In college, Abu-Jaber had an advice column for the local paper titled “Ask Mary Ontario,” she says, laughing. “It was so bad, but it was so much fun.”
It’s another parallel with Amani’s life—continuing to evolve with both the past and present in mind. “I am super, super excited to see how the next thing goes,” says Abu-Jaber, who is also at work on a new novel. “It’s funny how, at least in my experience, things just kind of fall from the sky, you know? We block ourselves, I think, by holding on to stuff, but we’re at a point now where we all feel ready to do something new.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel 'Unclaimed Baggage' (FSG) and the memoir 'Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest' (Riverhead).