It’s taken me a while to write and publish my new novel The Shores of Our Souls.
People wonder at my patience, but I tell them it’s all about timing.
The story I’d tasked myself with was a complex, multi-layered one, which had to be told with clarity and objectivity. It took patience, sometimes patience I didn’t have on reserve. I became notorious for my impetuous impatience, my need to get on with things, before I could barely walk. At 14 months old, I finished a puzzle, save one tiny piece. I flung the entire puzzle into the wall, shattering a couple of vases. No, I have not always had patience.
I was inspired to tell the story of two star-crossed lovers. Southern-bred Dianna meets Beirut-born Qasim one starless, smoky night in 1980s New York City. She’s scraping by in an entry-level job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s recently finished his Ph.D. and secured a high-level management position at the United Nations. Yet their professional façade belies the pain they have in common. Despite being a study in contrasts, they are both running from their pasts. They carry secrets that define them—secrets that will defy their love and send Dianna to search past her shadows.
I knew I wanted to be an author early. I earned my Bachelors from the renowned home of Southern Pulitzer Prize winners, Hollins University, and studied with writers Dara Wier, Allen Wier, and Richard Dillard, Montana Poet Laureate Greg Pape, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Henry Taylor. I sat at the feet of Eudora Welty as she read. I went on to write for small newspapers and national magazines. Following studies in Publications Management at George Washington University, I snared a job at the Red Cross, which led to me being named the first Publications Head of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva. All this time, I published articles and short stories—and wrote novels.
My first novel, which won the Hollins Fiction Award, didn’t sell. I put that down to lack of experience. My second novel didn’t sell. I attributed that to its being too “literary.” I was moved to draft Shores following the events of September 11, 2001. Yet again, life conspired to teach me patience and persistence.
A life of learning about the right timing kept me working on and pitching this novel, whose time has finally come. The Shores of Our Souls will be published by Touch Point Press Summer 2017, at just the right time.
My readers had to be ready. Authors must realize that it’s not all about them or their stories. It’s about those who will read their stories and what they want to read. It was obvious to me when the Twin Towers fell that United States citizens’ fear and anger toward Muslims might increase, but not to everyone. Even before the first Iraq War, Muslims were largely unknown or misunderstood. Many Americans thought the second war in Iraq would be “won and done.” We could grieve, we could seek “justice,” and we would go on with our lives. Yet most of us in hindsight realize that 9/11 was simply the tip of an enormous iceberg. As the entire iceberg became visible, people wanted more information about Islam and Islamic regions. As violence and prejudice increase, readers want to read about love not war.
My memories had to be ready. They say to write what you know, and until I’d lived abroad, I knew about the American South. I was bottle fed Southern story. My “newspaper man” great grandfather, my Uncle Dick who could enrapture me with a story of the latest weather, my Uncle Jack who fought in the Pacific in World War II, all groomed me to keep the story going. My grandmothers who sat on front porch swings shelling peas and weaving tales tooled my voice, and my teacher mother Sarah Elizabeth refined it. Yet when I moved to Washington, DC, an international hub, I began to discover other voices–interacting with people born in Beirut or Kuala Lumpur, Doha or Dakar, Marrakech or Khartoum, Cairo or Damascus. I broke bread with them, I worked alongside them, I watched them as they moved across countries and continents to save their children from war. I watched their daily lives; I knew them. Yet I had no clue that I would one day write about them. It took me a long time to fully realize what a nice Arab man and a sweet Southern girl shared in common—and then to be mature enough a writer to show it.
When I wrote, I simply allowed memory to play in front of me like a film: that cab driver in Beirut, that salesperson in Marrakech, the young pharmacist who gave me healing medicine, the Somali refugee, now a volunteer feeding other refugees, the vendor who told me I had beautiful eyes, a dear friend who held my infant son in his arms, my dearest friend who lived through the 1967 Six-Day War in Cairo. These were some of the faces and voices of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa that I called upon when I searched for material.
The world had to be ready. I thought it was ready in 2001. As early as 1980, around the time my characters Qasim and Dianna meet, author and Professor Edward Said, a Palestinian-born agnostic, wrote a telling article for The Nation. “So far as the United States . . . it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen either as oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
I wanted to change this perception in some small way, as only an American, Southern-born, humanitarian author can–by portraying two people trying to defy the odds of history, society, religion, culture, and their own fears and prejudices, to love each other. I wanted their story to exist alongside the stories of war and terrorism, racism, and fear-mongering.
Still, I waited, doubted, revised. Not every reader has traveled to Africa or the Middle East. Not every person knows a Muslim. Not every person who meets an Arab even realizes they are Arab—people like Helen Thomas, whom I interviewed for my college newspaper, comedian Aziz Ansari (catch him on “Parks and Recreation”), or neurosurgeon Ayub Ommaya, or even my son’s Iranian-born surgeon. The list is long.
I wanted to portray Dianna and Qasim as fully realized, flawed, yet inherently good, individuals, not as flat caricatures. I in no way see my novel as in any way representing Islam, Muslims, Arabs, or any other country or religion. I’ve instead tried to show one small slice of it, through two characters’ journeys, hoping to shed a light. I did this in the only way I knew how, through the eyes of Dianna, a young, inexperienced yet ambitious, sheltered but curious, idealistic but open, woman in love, shocked by what war and politics can do, and yet striving to love still.
And what better way to write about a world at war than through a story of love?
This guest blog originally appeared on TouchPoint Press’ blog. TouchPoint will publish The Shores Of Our Souls in Summer 2017.