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Courtesy of Keija Parssinen
Author Keija Parssinen was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years. Her experiences as a third-generation expatriate inspired the plot of her book, The Ruins of Us.
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Courtesy of Keija Parssinen
The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen, 352 pages ,Harper Perennial, softcover, fiction, $14.99
By Tiffany Schlarman
What would you do if you fell in love with a man whose culture allows him to take a second wife, and he does? How do you put your family back together? Columbia author Keija Parssinen explores these questions in her literary debut, The Ruins of Us.
Published last year, the novel is loosely based on her experiences. The thirty-one-year-old author was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years. The Ruins of Us, which received a Michener-Copernicus Award, tells the story of Rosalie, an American, and Abdullah, her Saudi husband. When Rosalie discovers her husband has taken a second wife, she is faced with the decision to stay with the man who betrayed her or move back to the United States, leaving her children behind.
Over a caramel latte in downtown Columbia, Keija discusses her book.
Q: Do you feel you could have written the book had you not lived in Saudi Arabia?
A: No, I don’t. The sensory aspects affected me— my memories of how things looked and smelled, the different foods and their tastes. However, writing also required a lot of imagination because it’s a novel about a Saudi-American family, which wasn’t my experience. It’s not a novel about an American family on a compound, which was how I experienced Saudi Arabia. I didn’t necessarily write what I know, which is what fiction writers are always exhorted to do. I wrote what I wondered about. It really sparked my imagination.
Q: How does the novel illustrate the cultural gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia?
A: I love the quote, “It’s not fiction’s job to answer questions but to ask them.” I feel my book does that. It poses a lot of questions about subjects, such as intercultural marriage, but doesn’t give an answer to them. There exists in people a common denominator if you strip away the cultural differences, and this book gets to the heart of our commonalities. For Rosalie and Abdullah, family is important, and that’s a universal sentiment. As foreign as the Saudi culture is to Americans, they value families, they love their children. When we can get past the more superficial trappings of difference, human beings share many core values.
Q: The abaya (veil) is mentioned throughout the novel. What does it mean to a Saudi woman that an American woman might not understand?
A: Westerners see a Saudi woman in an abaya, and they see an oppressed, subjugated woman. But a Saudi woman will say, “I’m not those things. I am empowered, but I wear a veil because I value my modesty.” Most Americans don’t understand this. We are secular; our government is constructed around the separation of church and state, which is an alien notion in most Muslim countries, where faith is integral to governance.
Q: What is Columbia’s writing scene like?
A: Columbia is a vibrant, creative community that values the arts. In 2010, I started the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop, a community for writers. I am on my sixth workshop, and I’ve made many writer friends through teaching.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Columbia’s community-wide reading program, One Read, just selected The Ruins of Us as its 2013 selection. I’m also working on a final draft of a new book with the working title, The Girls of Port Sabine.