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Defying the Labels


by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & onversations with Diana Abu-Jaber are full of easy laughter and witty self-deprecation. Amid the casual comments, though, it's possible to miss the dead-on observations about culture and identity that thread through both her work and her life.

Her most recent book, Origin (published in June 2007 and due out in paperback next month), is a murder mystery and psychological thriller set in Abu-Jaber's hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., and it's seen in some quarters as a radical departure from her previous literary fiction and nonfiction. Her first two novels, Arabian Jazz and Crescent, and her memoir, the delicious The Language of Baklava, explored the experience of growing up in an Arab-American family and wrestling with questions of ethnic, racial and religious identity. Abu-Jaber's trademark humor and subtle playfulness with language shine through each of these works -- occasionally leading some Arab-Americans to criticize her for being "inauthentic" -- but they clearly fall onto the literary shelves of publishing. With Origin, she stepped into the world of genre, a world with its own prescribed expectations.

"People have been so surprised at the change of format, but this is very much a continuation of the kinds of themes that haunt me," she says. "It's about identity, family and the question: Where does our sense of self come from? Is it something we create, or is it something that other people give us? It's the same sort of book I've been writing all along, just dressed up in different clothing. Well, OK -- very different clothing."

Origin is the story of Lena Dawson, a fingerprint analyst in Syracuse's city crime lab who combines intuition with scientific empiricism to find uncanny solutions to crimes that stump the detectives. The trail of evidence in a current case leads her straight into unresolved mysteries about her own past, mysteries that she must confront before the killer strikes too close to home. While Origin has a plot that should satisfy mystery lovers, its compelling narrator and evocative prose land squarely in the literary camp.

"I've always been interested in looking at what you can do with language," she says. "I was curious if can you take the strong characters and motivations and playing with language of literary fiction, and bring it into genre. It was a bit of an experiment."

That kind of stretching as a writer is part of the challenge for Abu-Jaber, who juggles teaching (at Oregon State University), writing and public appearances while dividing her time between Portland and Miami. "The fun of being a writer is testing yourself and seeing what you've got in you," she says. "I've always loved storytelling. I like to read a good story, because I want to be entertained, so that's what I want to do -- I want to tell my readers a great, ripping yarn."

Her current book in the works is a young-adult fantasy novel -- yet another form of storytelling. "I love to explore different ways of telling stories," she says. "Why lock yourself into one mode?"

After that, she's considering returning to Lena Dawson and her life in post-industrial Syracuse and its often bleak rural surroundings.

"I didn't realize this, but when you write one mystery, people expect a series," she says with a hint of wonder. "It's been so great to have people want more, so I cannot resist -- I'm hoping to write one or possibly two more Lena books." With a sigh, she adds, "I can resist anything but flattery."

Abu-Jaber spent last week in upstate New York, where the North Country Reads program (similar to Spokane Is Reading) selected her memoir, The Language of Baklava, as this year's community-wide book for discussion. The experience of returning to that book -- and its memories of growing up immersed in her Jordanian father's stories and recipes -- reminded her how much she loves writing about food.

"It makes me so happy to be in that world, thinking through that lens," she says. "I'm eternally restless and looking for fun and loving to try on different approaches, and food writing is good for those kinds of things."

Whatever form of storytelling she tackles next, Abu-Jaber says she's continually surprised and mostly delighted by her interactions with readers and their reactions to her work. "The greatest luxury is just to have the freedom to pursue your art," she says. "And then, if you're connecting with people and hearing from readers, you realize that you're engaged in a conversation with people. It's not just you sitting alone at home carving something out, but it's almost like you're making something in cooperation with the readers.

"It's a great lesson in having a Zen approach to your work. You have to realize that you don't own your work -- you create it, but then you have to let it go."

"Writing a Home in the World," with Diana Abu-Jaber and Joseph Bathanti, is on Thursday, April 17, at 7:30 pm at the Bing. Tickets: $10-$15. Call 325-SEAT.