* Hi Trent and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Thanks, Tracy. It’s a pleasure to speak to you.
I spent most of my life in Iowa. I always loved telling stories, and in elementary school I used to entertain my classmates at the lunch table with long adventure stories. By an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In pursuit of that goal I majored in English at the University of Iowa, enlisting in the Iowa Army National Guard to pay for my classes.
In 2004 my combat engineer unit was activated and sent to the war in Afghanistan. When I returned home, I taught high school English for four years. Now I spend most of my time writing at my home in the state of Washington.
WORDS IN THE DUST
She hopes for peace, now that the Taliban have been driven out of Afghanistan. She hopes for a better relationship with her hard stepmother. And she hopes one day even to go to school.
Then she meets Meena, who offers to teach her the poetry she once taught her mother. And the Americans come to the village, promising not just new opportunities, but surgery to mend Zulaikha's face. But can Zulaikha dare to hope they will come true?
* What inspired you to write Words in the Dust?
My unit’s overall mission in Afghanistan was to provide security for the reconstruction effort. On one patrol to a small village, my fellow soldiers and I encountered a young girl named Zulaikha who had suffered from birth from a defect known as cleft lip. She was born with a split in her upper lip and with horribly crooked teeth. We knew we had to help this girl so we pooled our money together to pay for her transportation to our main airbase where one of our army doctors had volunteered to conduct her reconstructive surgery.
When she returned to us, I was amazed at how she had transformed. Only a small scar hinted there had ever been anything different about her. For me, she became a symbol of the struggle that all Afghans face in trying to build a new, better, more peaceful Afghanistan. The last time I saw Zulaikha, she was riding off our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised I would tell her story. That promise is what led to me writing Words in the Dust.
* Some might say that a male, American, ex-soldier can’t possibly write a truthful story told from a young Afghan girl’s perspective. What made you believe you could and should write such a story?
I am well aware of the debate surrounding “insider/outsider” narratives. I would submit that if writers are limited to writing only about people who are exactly like themselves, fiction would be replaced by autobiography. Nevertheless, despite my conviction that a writer should feel free to write whatever story is close to his heart, I was concerned about the difficulty of writing from the perspective of an Afghan girl.
I had some great help with writing across gender and culture from some wonderful writer/teachers at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. My friend and mentor, author Katherine Paterson suggested I should try to write the book. This gave me the courage to get started.
Most importantly, though, I had made a promise to that girl in Afghanistan. It was the kind of promise that must be kept at all costs. In the pursuit of the fulfilment of that vow, I could write the seemingly unlikely book. I could endure the rejection. So in a real sense, I remain greatly indebted to the Afghan girl we helped.
* Did you do much research for your story? Do you think when dealing with issues and situations such as Zulaikha’s it is essential to be as truthful and true to life as possible or do you think there is some room for creative licence?
My first and most important research took place during my year in Afghanistan. While there, I learned all I could. I took thousands of photos and hundreds of videos. I lived in an Afghan mudbrick house that became the basis for Zulaikha’s home in Words in the Dust. I interacted closely with many Afghans, learning all I could.
After I returned home from the war, I spent a lot of time in libraries, reading many novels and other books about Afghanistan. I learned a great deal about the interesting but tragic history of the country. I was amazed and delighted to discover Afghanistan’s rich literary tradition through many wonderful old poems. I was fascinated by Afghanistan’s revered ancient poets. That’s not an element of Afghanistan that people in the West hear about enough, so I knew I wanted to include this poetry in Words in the Dust.
The issue of being “truthful and true to life” or of being “culturally authentic” is a complicated one. While I worked hard to make my novel a plausible story about one family living in Afghanistan’s Farah Province, there are undoubtedly some Afghan families in Farah that would find Words in the Dust unrepresentative of their experience. This should really be unsurprising given the basic idea that people within the same community can be very different from each other.
The best example of the difficulty in being “true to life” or even of defining what “true to life” means, can be found in the novel’s Afghan wedding. My editor and I researched relentlessly so that we could accurately depict this. We interviewed Afghans and Afghan-Americans. We read many books and countless articles online. Realizing that traditions can vary greatly from region to region in Afghanistan, we gave preference to information about rural Afghanistan and about Farah Province.
However, we never found two sources that agreed on how an Afghan wedding is conducted. This should not be very surprising. After all, two people growing up in the same town and attending the same church in rural Iowa will still have very different weddings. So the wedding featured in Words in the Dust is one that could possibly happen in real life. It is very similar to and also likely quite different from many other Afghan weddings.
Whenever we begin talking about “cultural authenticity” or about being “true to life” in a book set, for example in Afghanistan, we run the risk of assuming that all Afghans are culturally identical. We inadvertently make the suggestion that there is one true life for all Afghans.
It’s important for all writers of realistic fiction, whether cultural insiders or outsiders, to strive to write a story that is at least possible, while accepting that the story will not, cannot, represent or be “true to life” about the entire population at large.
* Do you think writing about Zulaikha and your own personal experiences in Afghanistan changed you in any way?
My time during the war in Afghanistan changed me in many ways. Beyond that, writing Words in the Dust bolstered my belief in the importance of helping the good people of Afghanistan find their way toward a new and better country.
* Many of the news reports we see of Afghanistan is seen through Western eyes in particular from the perspective of our troops being killed. Do you think it can sometimes be hard to see past these events and to see the ordinary people trying to live their lives? What, if anything, do you hope your readers will gain from reading Zulaikha’s story?
I recently had the honor of speaking to young people in several different British schools, including one military boarding school. In this military school almost every student had at least one parent serving in the British military. Many had parents who had served, were serving, or would be serving in Afghanistan in the future. Thus, while I spoke about the importance of helping to provide a better life for normal peace loving Afghans like Zulaikha, I was well aware of the enormous sacrifice the mission requires.
I hope that Zulaikha’s story might serve as one reminder of what the mission in Afghanistan is really all about. I hope that through Words in the Dust readers will get to know Zulaikha, and that they’ll understand that she and millions of Afghans just like her deserve something better. Zulaikha’s country and its people have suffered decades of war. I pray that they will find a way toward a real and meaningful peace.
* Do you think your experience of working as an English teacher has influenced and helped your writing in any way?
Teaching high school English was a very rewarding experience. It reminded me of the limitless energy and hope in the very young. I think it helped keep me young, offering an insight into how young people live. These are invaluable tools in writing for young people.
* You have a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. What made you think ‘I want to write for these age groups’? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
I’ve always wanted to write books, but it wasn’t until during my time in the war that I realized I wanted to write for young people. Maybe it was because I was missing my own youth when I was at home safe from the war. Maybe it was because I liked thinking that while I was in a war, kids back home were having fun being young. In any case, once I accepted that I wanted to write for young people, I never looked back.
Adult life and stories about adults are comparatively dull. When I write for the young, I can have a novel about two boys who decide to build a raft and explore a river for fun. If I wrote the same story about two grown men, readers would wonder why these men don’t just get a job. A young person might face a bully and be forced to come up with an innovative or fun solution to the problem. An adult would simply call the police or hire a lawyer. Give me kid lit anytime!
Most importantly, I believe that growing up is the greatest human adventure. For the young, everything is a discovery and anything is possible. Their future is theirs to shape.
* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager?
The first novel that I read and loved was Ghost Ship to Ganymede by Robert Swindells, the story of three kids who stow away on a ship they think is going to the station on Earth’s moon, but which winds up crash landing on a moon of Jupiter, where they discover they are not alone.
I also loved Tamora Pierce’s first fantasy series, beginning with Alanna: The First Adventure. I must have read that novel at least four times in elementary school.
* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Writing is the greatest job in the world if you can make it happen. And you can make it happen if you never stop reading, writing, and trying. I became a writer thanks to a promise I made to a young Afghan girl, but I also had to honor the promise I’d made to myself, the conviction that I would never give up the pursuit of my dream to be a writer.
* And finally, I know you’re keen to highlight the work of a couple of charities. Could you tell us who they are and why you think their work is important?
I hope that readers of Words in the Dust will have a desire to help improve the situation in Afghanistan. To that end I recommend that they support Afghan Aid. This organization has been working for twenty-eight years to help Afghans in a variety of ways. Learn more about Afghan Aid at their website.
In America, I support a group called Women for Afghan Women. This organization works to provide educational and vocational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan. Learn more about Women for Afghan Women.
I also encourage readers to stop by the “Help Afghanistan” section of my website to learn more about the importance of helping Afghanistan.
I thought I’d mention Operation Smile and The Smile Train.
The Smile Train and Operation Smile are wonderful organizations.
The people working there are superheroes, bringing new life to unfortunate people who were born with cleft lip and cleft palate, but who are without the means to obtain the surgery they need.
Words in the Dust is published in the UK by Frances Lincoln