FEBRUARY 17TH, 2020 | SUBJECT: BOOK REVIEW
Some time during the first week of February, I saw a headline from Publishers Weekly that caught my eye: PNBA Rallies for Ill Debut Author. Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s story followed me for the rest of the day, and all I could wonder was: How can I help? When I got the opportunity to read The Royal Abduls, I felt excited to be able to step into an #OwnVoices narrative that illuminates the experiences of second generation Muslim-Indian-Americans. This review is an overview of some of my thoughts and take-aways from The Royal Abduls. To my knowledge, it does not contain spoilers!
Note: I received an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of The Royal Abduls. Thank you so much to Forest Avenue Press!
Title: The Royal Abduls
Author: Ramiza Shamoun Koya
Publisher: Forest Avenue Press
Genre: contemporary fiction
Expected Publication Date: May 12th, 2020
Rep: secular Muslim, Indian, 2nd gen. American
Content Warning: death, depression, & alcoholism
GoodReads Premise: “Ramiza Shamoun Koya reveals the devastating cost of anti-Muslim sentiment in The Royal Abduls, her debut novel about an Indian-America family. Evolutionary biologist Amina Abdul accepts a post-doc in Washington, DC, choosing her career studying hybrid zones over a faltering West Coast romance. Her brother and sister-in-law welcome her to the city, but their marriage is crumbling, and they soon rely on her to keep their son company. Omar, hungry to understand his cultural roots, fakes an Indian accent, invents a royal past, and peppers his aunt with questions about their cultural heritage. When he brings an ornamental knife to school, his expulsion triggers a downward spiral for his family, even as Amina struggles to find her own place in an America now at war with people who look like her. With The Royal Abduls, Ramiza Koya ignites the canon of post-9/11 literature with a deft portrait of second-generation American identity.”
Pre-Order Here: Forest Ave. Press Link | Indie Bound Link
REFLECTIONS | ON THE ROYAL ABDULS:
I had a 7-hour layover at the Singapore Airport, and yes, I spent a good amount of that layover reading The Royal Abduls. It was incredibly immersive and grounding. The first line of the story is funny:
“Amina Abdul’s nephew had begun to speak with an Indian accent.”– RAMIZA SHAMOUN KOYA, THE ROYAL ABDULS
There’s something so gripping about the first couple of chapters: We see our main character (MC) Amina Abdul rebuilding her life after leaving California and her ex-partner and yearning for connection with her brother Mohammed (Mo) Abdul, his white wife, and his son Omar Abdul (Amina’s nephew who she adores). We see Omar, our secondary MC, yearning for connection to his cultural background that seems exciting and exotic–something that could mark him as interesting. For various reasons, Omar’s parents don’t really teach him much about India and what it means to be perceived as a young Muslim man growing up soon after 9/11. There are shades of relatability within these character dynamics for second generation Indian-Americans readers. I felt like I was immediately sucked into the day-to-day aspects of how Amina adapted to her new environment and how she fit into new dynamics with the people in her life. I loved seeing the world through Amina’s eyes; thoughts about the past, present, and future meld seamlessly into each other.
To me, this is the essence of the book:
If the PEOPLE in your life are unraveling before your eyes, do you WALK toward them? Or do you RUN away?
I think this is such an important thing that Amina grapples with. There’s this idea of motion and moving as a source of starting over again and the meaning that brings. At the same time, she’s still dealing with the same challenges that impacts her life. Without knowing it, she hurts people in her moments of growth, while she’s simply living and figuring things out. It’s compelling how the decisions that Amina’s parents made after immigrating to America unintentionally has a generational impact on Omar and his lack of connection to his background. This experience felt very relatable–how people can choose to place blame on certain family members for not carrying on certain traditions or practices, without acknowledging the role that systems play in society.
Something that I did not expect but LOVED was the point of view shift from Amina to Omar across different parts of the book. Omar’s POV engagingly portrayed a middle schooler going through so many things. I was reminded of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri because of Omar’s winding journey of confusion, loss, betrayal, and what it means to carry on a legacy through names. In this case, what it means for Omar to be an Abdul, coming from a mixed-race background.
REPRESENTATION | WHAT DOES AUTHENTICITY MEAN?
I was curious to see how Ramiza S. Koya would weave elements of the Muslim identity into the novel. As I started the book, I wondered: Will religion be an important facet of the Abdul family’s identity? Is that spiritual connection lost among the generational lines, and if so, why? Muslim readers often wonder whether Muslim representation in the media is authentic or plays into stereotypes that don’t add to the conversation of how Muslims are perceived. The Muslim-American identity is not a monolith, and there is no singular Muslim-American experience. In The Royal Abduls, the overarching political context of the Muslim-American experience seems to be most apparent, although we do see characters grapple with their spiritual identity and reflect on what religion means for them in a real and raw way. For example, there’s a great scene where Prakash, a Sikh man that teaches cricket to Omar, talks about his connection to his religion. The Royal Abduls does delve into alcoholism with one of the central characters and how that impacts the family, which was really interesting to read in a book with Muslim-American experiences.
I really appreciated Ramiza S. Koya’s specificity when writing these experiences. The writing is detailed, and you feel like you can really step into the psyche of Amina and Omar as they navigate internal and external challenges. The Royal Abduls also delves into what it means to look a certain way and be labeled as such by society and how that influences young people’s lives. How do parents talk about it with their kids? What happens when you don’t talk about it? The novel explores these questions and the complicated way that older family members and parents try to keep the best interest of their kids at heart but also have differing opinions. I thought a lot about 2 things in context to this: 1.) Often times, it’s not just about the action itself, but largely about the reaction, and 2.) It’s so difficult for family members to truly listen to and understand each other without projecting their own ideas. I think The Royal Abduls beautifully shows how intent v. impact works when religion and culture become politicized.
Add-on: If you’re looking for a more traditionally Muslim book with spiritual elements in line with the Quran, you won’t get that in this book. This book shows a more ‘secular’ / culturally Muslim representation and what it means to be perceived as Muslim in a post 9/11 context. I personally have been looking to read more books that do have Muslim spiritual elements, such as Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali, but I also acknowledge that identifying as Muslim can look different to a variety of people and these are valid lived experiences drawn upon.
WRAPPING UP | A MEANINGFUL JOURNEY:
The Royal Abduls was a 5-star read for me. Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s writing is cinematic and meditative. The novel explores the concept of feeling connected and what lengths we go to to create, maintain, and distance ourselves from connections, whether that’s person-to-person or person-to-identity. Given that it’s a long book that spans several years, the pacing did feel slow at parts, but I really appreciated the journey and the intentionality behind each part. I found myself highlighting so many quotes about life and the specific, yet resonant parts of the human condition. The Royal Abduls was one of those books where you feel like you need be in a quiet place and think for a bit after you finish it. I can’t wait to re-read this book and take away something new from it! – S.A.