On Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Fencing with the King”

IN THE AUTUMN of 2006, the American poet and art historian Caitlin Woolsey lived with an extended family of Jordan’s nomadic Bedouin tribes to study their oral literary traditions. In her documentation of these poems, stories, and songs, Woolsey observed that they function not only as a means of moral instruction and entertainment, but also as an essential method for preserving the tribes’ historical and cultural record. Though the culture of oral literature persists within Bedouin families, transmission has become compromised due to a growing divide between older and younger generations, a shift away from a nomadic way of life, and other forces of modernization. As a result, as older generations pass away, younger people, interested in the traditions but lacking knowledge, gradually lose their oral forms and thus a crucial link to the past. Woolsey argues that this vital cultural record must be preserved against such erasure through adaptive practices of documentation, collaborative translation, and remembrance.

The loss and claim of a specifically Jordanian cultural inheritance is dramatized by Jordanian American novelist Diana Abu-Jaber in her expansive, polyvocal new novel, Fencing with the King. The story follows Amani Hamdan, a Jordanian American poet adrift in Syracuse, New York, after her divorce from her. Unable to make progress on her second book, she becomes intrigued by a cryptic poem written by her paternal grandmother, a Palestinian refugee who escaped to Jordan during World War I. When her uncle, Hafez, an advisor to the Jordanian king, invites her father for the king’s birthday celebration, Amani accompanies him to Jordan, where she seeks to recover the meaning of her mother’s poem and her Jordanian identity.

This concept of an American returning to her ancestral home to confront familial roots recalls recent coming-of-age novels that explore cultural identity in first-generation Americans, such as Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad (2021) and Mina Seçkin’s The Four Humors (2021). Abu-Jaber’s novel is unique among these works, however, in interweaving this first-generation character’s recovery of her family history with two parallel narratives of dispossession and reclamation told through the perspectives of her father and uncle. As a result, Fencing with the King creates a dialogue between generations to examine the possibilities of recovery of cultural inheritance after dispossession, displacement, and familial strife.

The characters in the novel’s three narrative strands all seek to reclaim a lost link to a Jordanian past. In the central thread, Amani struggles in Jordan to discover her grandmother Natalia’s identity de ella, obscured by her de ella Uncle Hafez and a Jordanian culture of obliqueness about family history. In the second thread, Gabe, Amani’s father, who has not returned to Jordan for decades, searches for a lost brother and a reconnection to his distant daughter and childhood of him. In the third narrative, Hafez, a calculating politician, connives to claim the land of a dead relative and a precious family heirloom, Il Saif, a knife he considers his rightful inheritance given instead to Gabe by their father. In Abu-Jaber’s braiding of these three narratives, Amani’s first-generation American perspective is placed in conversation with Gabe’s immigrant and Hafez’s native Jordanian points of view.

These three characters lie on a continuum of increasing estrangement from their ancestral land, with Amani being the most estranged. For each of the characters, their level of estrangement colors their conception of Jordan as home. Gabe’s voluntary exile in America results in his sense of unbelonging in Jordan, while Hafez, who has lived in Jordan for nearly his entire life, sees the country as the undeniable homeland of all Jordanians, even immigrants like Gabe. Amani’s conception of Jordan lies in between these two, as her complete separation from her inspires a longing for a possible homeland. She thinks of Jordan as an “energetic call; it came from inside her herself — secret, silent, and elemental.” Abu-Jaber’s ingenious choral structure allows her not only to give voice to a multiplicity of opposing perspectives on Jordanian identity but also to relate the three characters by juxtaposing their individual desires and ideologies.

Amani’s relationship with her grandmother is central to the recovery of her cultural inheritance. Her fervent search for Natalia’s identity is motivated both by an interest in family lore and a spiritual kinship with her grandmother de ella felt since she was a child. Despite her grandmother de ella dying before they could ever meet, Amani recalls Natalia coming to her as a child as a “guardian angel” in the form of “musical phrases […] a dream song that accompanied the image of the face in the old family portrait, her grandmother’s mystical eyes.” Natalia’s constant spiritual presence in Amani’s life suggests her role as a guide for her granddaughter’s discovery of her cultural identity, an idea made manifest when Natalia’s fragmented poem leads Amani to Jordan and a confrontation with the past and her confused self.

Though the figure of the guardian angel recurs throughout the novel, it doesn’t adopt the form of an agent from a celestial realm. Rather, the novel’s angels are earthlier—either the ghosts of the ancestral dead or living relatives offering protection. Amani’s characterization of Natalia as an angel lends her a quality of ghostliness but also one of permanence, as if her grandmother resided in a liminal space between the living and the dead. In this fashion, Natalia functions not in the strictly religious sense of a divine agent but as Amani’s intermediary between the past and present.

This relationship also reflects one of the book’s essential themes—the continuity of ancestral past and family legacy. In the novel, the past simmers beneath the surface of the everyday, always threatening to erupt into the present. This theme is symbolized by enduring heirlooms like Il Saif as well as by the inheritance of physical characteristics and sensitivities. For example, we are consistently reminded by the comments of Jordanian relatives that Amani uncannily resembles her grandmother de ella. As Gabe observes, both possess “night in her eyes de ella, navy-black […] her way of staring instead of crying.” The recurrence of a family past also appears in Amani’s poetic sensibility de ella, as her bookish grandmother was absorbed with novels and wrote numerous uncompleted poems and stories. Natalia, who was exiled to Jordan from her Palestinian home, lived in the past and could only discover a sense of home through reading and writing. This is signaled when she warns Hafez: “You must read, to carry your past with you.”

Natalia’s beliefs concerning her lost homeland recall Adorno’s claim that exiles can only find a home in their writing. In Jordan, Amani’s relationship de ella to poetry, though complicated by her inability to write, becomes a means of recovering a familial past. She gestures at this new purpose for her poetry by her in a conversation with her by her romantic interest by her, Eduardo, at a dinner party for the king: “But more and more, I’d rather know what other people sound like. And I wanted to write about being here […] all this beauty and history.” Natalia passes down to Amani not only a poetic sensibility but also a belief in poetry as a vessel for the familial past. In this sense, Amani is Natalia’s intellectual heir. Amani’s return to poetry after a long hiatus and the transformation of her relationship de ella with writing are ways that she successfully reclaims a Jordanian cultural inheritance. It is a fitting narrative choice, as well as highly symbolic, that Amani completes Natalia’s unfinished poem, since this act represents the continuation of an interrupted family narrative.

Another central relationship Abu-Jaber explores is the one between Gabe and Hafez. The novel frames the brothers as opposites, in terms of their character and ideology. Gabe, a carpenter, is described as somewhat dyslexic and more concerned with his woodwork than books, while Hafez is portrayed as an urbane intellectual with a doctorate from an American university and an interest in Amani’s poetry. This opposition recurs when their views on family history emerge. Hafez has concealed the eldest brother from the rest of the family for decades to remain himself the eldest and thus secure in his inheritance of Il Saif and the family land. By contrast, Gabe, upon returning to Jordan, seeks to recover his lost brother and the history of his childhood from him. Abu-Jaber positions thus Hafez’s erasure of the familial past against Gabe’s recovery and remembrance.

There are moments when this framing becomes somewhat muddled, as when Gabe considers leaving behind his Jordanian past, surrendering Il Saif to Amani because of the burden he feels in carrying it. In giving up the knife because it reminds him of the terrible abandonment of his eldest brother by the family, Gabe seeks release from a family history that has become oppressive. Gabe’s position of him toward the family past is thus not as fixed as Hafez’s consistent denial of his elder brother and eagerness to possess Il Saif. This fluidity reflects what Amani observes as a “tilting pull” between the two brothers, a changing relationship that raises the book’s fundamental question: should present generations release or reclaim their ancestral past? Though the book heavily favors claim, it refuses a definitive answer, showing how a release of the past can be a source of freedom from a history that has become too heavy a burden.

One of the many virtues of this novel is that it explores the currents of Jordanian history and politics underlying its three narrative threads. Amani and Gabe’s return to Jordan is set in the fall of 1995, when Jordan is consolidating its position on the global stage. Abu-Jaber highlights historical developments such as the Oslo Accords and gives voice to opposing perspectives on Jordanian nation-building and its treatment of the significant Palestinian refugee population, which had included Natalia and her sisters de ella. One view, held by some descendants of Bedouins who consider themselves “true Jordanians,” calls for the erasure of Palestinian origins to maintain stability and a “pure” Jordanian identity. The opposing view, shared by Amani and others with Palestinian origins, urges the preservation of Palestinian cultural history through remembrance and documentation. This dialogue recalls the question of whether to release or reclaim the past on the broader scale of national identity, with Amani’s claim of her family history of her functioning as an allegory for the preservation of Palestinian culture in the face of erasure by the Jordanian state.

Amani’s “making-whole” of her identity, in the words of Hafez, is not completed but an ongoing process, while it never occurs for Gabe, despite his reconnection with his lost brother. Instead, Gabe’s identity is permanently fractured, as he remains exiled from Jordan, having lost a childhood with his missing brother. Abu-Jaber suggests that even the claim of family history cannot heal certain rifts in identity for the exile. This sense of permanent loss recalls the great critic Edward Said, who once lamented, “[W]hat is true of all exile is not that home and love of home are lost, but that loss is inherent in the very existence of both.” Fencing with the King offers a nuanced portrayal of the fraught process of reclaiming family history and cultural identity, with all its inherent losses, burdens, and possibilities for transformation. For Abu-Jaber, as for Woolsey, the recovery of one’s cultural roots is tenuous but life-sustaining, the creation of “a space held against disappearance.”

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Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in New York. His work has been published in Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Bookforum, Gathering of the Tribes, and other publications. He is an editor at full-stop and a blog editor at Asymptote. He is also an MFA candidate in Fiction at New York University.

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