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The Oregonian: Portland author, educator Ramiza Koya dies of cancer

By Amy Wang | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Read the original obituary on OregonLive here.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya, who taught and advocated for writers in the Portland area, and was reveling in her own literary experience as a debut novelist this spring, died of breast cancer Friday, June 5. She was 49.

Her mother, Paula Inwood, who was with her at her Portland home, called her “feisty and vibrant and such an enthusiast.”

“She just loved, loved life, and the last six years she fought so hard to stay with her daughter and to keep living. She was quite a bright, brilliant light,” Inwood said.

Koya was on leave from her job as director of youth programs at the Portland nonprofit Literary Arts, which posted this statement on its website:

“Literary Arts is honored to have known this gifted writer and we thank her for the permanent contributions she made to Literary Arts, both in her work leading Youth Programs, and also in our work to be a more equitable and inclusive organization.”

Koya’s debut novel, “The Royal Abduls,” published by Portland’s Forest Avenue Press earlier this year, is an elegantly multilayered and deeply moving story of a Muslim American family caught in the fissures of identity, immigration and race that were deepened by 9/11. She told The Oregonian/OregonLive that part of her motivation for writing the book was to “be a part of that conversation of finding an acceptable identity for immigrants, refugees and people of color.”

Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press, said that when she read the manuscript, “I knew it was a voice I wanted to bring into the world.”

Koya signed a contract with Forest Avenue Press in 2018. “The Royal Abduls” was scheduled for publication in May 2020. But last December, Stanfill said, Koya was told she had six months left.

Stanfill released the book to Portland bookstores this February, and a friend drove Koya around to see it on display. A “Reviews for Ramiza” campaign, coordinated by Forest Avenue Press and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, resulted in early reviews. “We wanted to give Ramiza the experience of a new author that she might miss out on,” Brian Juenemann, the association’s executive director, told Publishers Weekly.

In an interview on Pen America’s Pen Pod podcast, Koya said, “So many people have reached out with little reviews or passing on love or sharing the book with people. A lot of book clubs are reading it. It felt like I had a lot of the experience I would have had. That’s just pretty amazing.”

Stanfill also organized a March 15 book launch at Powell’s City of Books. Then the coronavirus arrived in Oregon.

“Ramiza cared so much about everyone in her life and she cared about this community so much that she called me and said, ‘I think we need to cancel for everyone else’s health,’ ” Stanfill said. “Her primary focus was her community.”

Ramiza Shamoun Koya was born in 1970 in Santa Rosa, California, to parents from Fiji and Texas. Her older brother, Riyad Koya, recalled a childhood filled with moves and change.

“Where she really found her voice was when she started attending the City College of San Francisco and they really acknowledged her brilliance then,” he said.

She went on to attend Sarah Lawrence College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and anthropology and a master’s degree in creative writing, and New York University, where she earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology. She published fiction and nonfiction in literary journals and was a fellow at the prestigious MacDowell Colony artists’ retreat.

She taught in New York state, Spain, the Czech Republic and Morocco before moving to Portland with her then-husband, John Barritt, who had accepted a position at Lewis & Clark College. She began teaching at Portland Community College’s Southeast Center in 2010 and joined Literary Arts in 2016.

“She touched so many lives with her generosity as a teacher,” her brother said, “and wrote so beautifully and eloquently and gave no quarter with respect to her beliefs. … She was a believer in tolerance and diversity and social justice.”

Carolyn Elges, who befriended Koya when they were 9-year-olds in Colorado, said, “Even as children, I always learned so much from her, every time I was around her. I feel like she was a lifelong teacher to me and to a lot of other people.

“She had a very strong moral compass that she was able to articulate. Having a voice was very important to her.”

Winifred Tate met Koya in the cultural anthropology program at New York University in 1996 and described their relationship as “best friends ever since.”

“Her writing and thinking focused on belonging, identity and family, emerging from her experiences as a brown girl raised in a majority white family, and developed through her experiences learning, writing, traveling and living as a brown woman in the world,” Tate, now an associate professor of anthropology at Colby College in Maine, said by email. “Her insistence on enjoying life came because she had experienced difficulties and did not shy away from reflecting on her own experience and the structural obstacles facing women of color.”

Koya’s younger sister, Jessica Ratigan, recalled fondly their travels together when Koya lived abroad, saying, “It was so fun to explore with her because it felt like I was coming to her home even though it was her new home.”

Ratigan called Koya “very inspiring and motivational,” both as a sibling and in how she discussed her work and the importance of being “able to speak your truth and be yourself.”

Koya said in a January appearance on Portland radio station KBOO, “I think I write because I want a voice. I want people to hear my voice and I want to be part of the national conversation around the issues I’m writing about.”

Survivors include her daughter, Ofelia Barritt; former husband, John Barritt; mother and stepfather, Paula and William Inwood; stepmother, Sandra Cooke; siblings, Riyad Koya, Jessica Ratigan, Nathan Inwood and Mikal Sa’id Koya; and nephews, Nikolaj Koya, Wesley and Lewis Ratigan and Auggie Inwood. Her father, AbuBakr Sadiq Koya, died in 1983.

A memorial service is to be scheduled.

awang@oregonian.com; Twitter: @ORAmyW

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