Diana Abu-Jaber has addressed Arab-American themes in her previous two novels and
a memoir, The Language of Baklava. Luan Gaines interviewed the author about her latest novel, Origin, a thematic departure into literary mystery.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for Origin?
Diana Abu-Jaber: I woke up one morning, quite literally, with this woman’s voice in my head. I knew that she was someone without parents and that she believed she had this mystical connection to the animal world. It all grew out of that voice and that myth of origins.
Without the assuredness of identity that most people enjoy, fingerprint expert Lena Dawson is haunted by a sense of insufficiency. How does her history affect Lena’s on-and-off relationship with her husband, Charlie? With herself?
Lena is tremendously vulnerable because no one has ever affirmed her sense of power or agency. Her foster mother has continually undermined Lena’s belief in her own sufficiency and this has made her very dependent on the opinions of her friends and colleagues. She’s exactly the sort of person that an overbearing, authoritarian personality like Charlie would prey on.
How is Lena ultimately seduced by Erin Cogan, the mother of the baby who recently died from SIDS?
As a specialized technician, Lena tries not to interact with the so-called “victims,” in order to preserve her sense of objectivity and clarity. But there’s something unique about Erin Cogan—certain elements of that connection are revealed over the course of the story, but in the beginning, Lena feels a link to this woman that seems to participate in a shared sense of sadness. It’s a very intuitive, sensitive response.
What is Lena’s special talent as a fingerprint expert? How does she process crime scenes differently than other technicians?
She’s excellent at reading prints and making matches—like other print technicians, but Lena goes beyond this because she has exquisitely developed senses. Her sense of smell and sight, as well as a sort of intuitive perceptiveness are almost animal—primordial—in Lena.
Thanks to her intuitive nature, Lena comes under public scrutiny. Why is notoriety so abhorrent to the young woman, almost to the point of hysteria? Is there an implied threat in the notice of others?
It’s another element of her extreme vulnerability. She connects with select others but is terrified of coming under public scrutiny. She’s never felt “sufficiently human,” and lives in constant fear of this insufficiency being discovered.
In the same vein, how do office politics and an overzealous press affect Lena’s ability to do her job on this case?
In many ways this is the story of how media and public perception can become so involved in manufacturing their own interpretations and “narratives” about events that they interfere with the actual discovery of truth. And in many ways this is intended as a reflection on the current state of our media in its relentless pursuit of “spin” and sensationalism. In Origin, the police chief is so determined to produce a villain for the public that he will simply create one, if need be.
How does Keller’s quiet yet persistent pursuit affect Lena? How important is his role in Lena’s confrontation with her past?
He’s a very different sort of man from the one she was married to and he’s going to bring a new way of relating and, possibly, of loving and connection, to Lena’s world as well. If he can break through her carefully built defenses!
Lena isn’t a mother and yet she is constantly expected to understand the emotional subtleties of motherhood. What is the significance of this recurring issue for Lena?
The notion of motherhood –being a mother, looking for a mother, losing a mother, etc—is very central to Origin. It is part of Lena’s heroic journey through her life, to survive as a motherless daughter, never knowing the truth of her biological identity. If she can become the “author” of her own life, she will have succeeded, but this is a tremendous challenge that will take her to her very limits and beyond.
Lena’s neurotic behavior was unsettling to me, because I felt she couldn’t defend herself against Charlie, against the press, against recent questionable evidence. Can you explain this dynamic in the context of the novel?
Lena is very much a “disabled” personality in many ways. She wasn’t raised with the ability to stand up for herself or believe in herself, the way children from normal, loving homes might have been.
Lena questions, “Do all crime workers choose this employment because they themselves are so close to the criminal mind?” What do you think?
Well, I do think there has to be an element of connection—possibility even empathy—in careers that involve working so closely with another mindset. But I’m not sure I’d agree with quite the sweeping statement that Lena makes here—rather, I’d suspect this is true for her, and it partially reflects her own way of trying to understand the world around her.
How significant is the encroachment of Lena’s past on the present investigation of the case? What are the ramifications of this information?
At first there doesn’t seem to be any link at all, but as the novel progresses, those two elements—Lena’s past and the present-tense investigation begin to resonate together. But I don’t want to give away too much here…people will have to read the book to find out!
Does the fact that Origin is character rather than plot-driven allow you more freedom in developing Lena’s journey of self-discovery?
That’s so interesting, because Origin felt so tremendously plot-driven to me, it made me crazy! I was very aware of trying to create a tight, suspenseful story that builds on clues and comes together in a way that is both surprising and yet satisfying to readers. But of course as a literary writer, I always seem to return to the pre-eminence of character—that’s where my own greatest interest lies and it’s what seems – to me—to create the most life-like sorts of stories.
What would you like readers to take away from Origin?
Probably my first aim is always to entertain, but a close second is that I try to evoke a sense of meaningful connection to and insight into another person’s experience. I love Forster’s dictum to “only connect.” And finally, I also have some thematic strains running through this story about conservation of the earth’s wild places and animals.
Origin is a complete departure from your other work, Arabian Jazz, Crescent, The Language of Baklava. Any reason for this change of direction?
I did have a tremendous urgency to tell Lena’s story. But also I just love to play and experiment and challenge myself. I’m a great believer that reading and writing should bring us joy and pleasure—not just serious struggle and intensity all the time. I’d never written anything like a mystery before and I really wanted to see if I could do it!
Have you begun planning for your next novel? If so, can you share something about it?
Oh yes - I’m working on two projects — one is a young adult novel called SilverWorld, which I’m hoping to have finished this year. The other is a return to my more traditional literary novel format (I’m not quite ready to return to Lena yet) which will be told from multiple character perspectives, and I hope will be complete next year.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Crescent, Arabian Jazz, and The Language of Baklava. She grew up in Syracuse and now divides her time between Portland, Oregon, and Miami, Florida.
Luan Gaines is a freelance writer and contributing reviewer to curledup.com.