Writing, Scary Law School Professors, and a Gratuitous Yankees Reference



Hey, guess what. I am writing.

What am I talking about?

Last May, I started querying my novel PAINTED HANDS. I had read enough to know the quest-for-publication process might be rough.  But I didn't realize what would be so bad about it. I had been through stressful things before. I had survived three years at a competitive law school. It would, at its worst, be like that, right?

Trying to get published, it turns out, is not like law school at all. In law school, everything felt very controllable. I could read. I could think. I could analyze and apply. God knows I could argue. I could even stay up all night with my study group, jacked up on Mountain Dew and cold pizza, wearing my favorite navy blue running tights and my "Smith College: A Century of Women on Top" tee shirt.

For the most part, I could control what happened, what grades I got, where I would be able to interview, what city I wanted to work in. (Wherever Andy Pettitte was.)

Not so with publishing. You can work hard. You can write a good book. You can pen an effective query letter (even if you have four pov characters). You can get an agent. You can do all this and more, and still, there is no guarantee.

Sometimes, it gets to you, this out-of-control way of being. Despite having children who say adorable things like, "But why can't we watch "Bridesmaids? We've had 'the talk'," or friends who match you curse word for curse word or an iPod full of ridiculous running music like "Sexy and I Know It," --despite reading Augusten f*cking Burroughs, who makes you laugh for real, out loud, even when other people are looking--sometimes  during this process, you will actually yearn for the glory days when your Civ Pro professor routinely made people cry. (Mostly boys.)

At these times, it's easy to forget why you're doing this. That the year you spent writing your novel--when the kids left the house each day for hours and your husband followed them and you ignored the uptalking chirping of PTO operatives--was one of the best years ever.

I'm at the beginning of one of those times where I have very little control over the publication process. The best advice I've gotten? Write the next damn book.

And so I am, Stephen Parrish. So I am.



My Cowgirl Mug Channels Steve Jobs

At my daughter's birthday party a few weeks ago, I was getting ready to light the candles when a friend of ours inserted himself between me and the cake.  We had a little conversation that went like this:

Him:   You don't look like you camp much, but trust me. You don't want to light your hair on fire.

Me (indignant):  You don't know if I camp.

Him:  Do you camp?

Me:  Never.


So why, then, do I have a cowgirl mug?




I bought it in Austin, TX after a family wedding (that included, among other things, a relative telling everyone that my hair was wider than my hips.)

I bought the mug after the wedding, when we were doing touristy things with my very awesome older brother, because it amused me: the idea that this city girl could ever be considered a cowgirl. Like I could ever be Texas.

But maybe?

I am, after all, the strong advocate for women's equality who has carved out a pro-woman place in Islam. I'm the vegetarian and former PETA member who supports Michael Vick and roots for his team, partly because I think there is much hypocrisy (and racism) in the meat-guzzling country that condemned him and partly because I happen to believe pretty fiercely in second chances. I am the feminist who is also a girly girl with a serious shoe fetish and an expensive hair product with a name so embarrassing THAT I WILL NEVER REVEAL IT HERE.

And I'm the lawyer who dropped a load of cash getting a law degree that I am not, currently, using and who can still hear the rush of voices telling her what she should be doing.

In the end, I guess I'm the one who thinks "should" might be the most depressing word there is. (Except, of course, "sensible" when followed by "shoes.")

This is probably why I have a special place in my heart for my friends who, with more courage that I could have mustered, dropped out of medical school or other grad programs to write, or the female friend who trekked across India by herself, or the South Asian programmer holding out for his True Love.

I sort of adore people who do what they "shouldn't."

When I write, I fill the mug with...tea (yes, let's go with that) and it reminds me of Steve Jobs' immortal words:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma-which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Not bad for a cowgirl mug. I hope y'all have one.



Announcement

I am thrilled to announce that I've just signed with agent Kent D. Wolf at Global Literary Management* in New York.

I was ninety-nine percent sure I was going to accept his offer about fifteen minutes into our first conversation, even though other agents were reading my manuscript. I've written a book about characters who are Muslim feminists--something we now know some people don't even think exists--and here was this male, non-Muslim agent, who Just. Got. It.

I didn't even wait the full week to accept**, and in the end, I actually withdrew material instead of wasting anyone's time.

Sometimes, you just know.

I'm really excited to be working with Kent, and I know my novel is going to be better because of our collaboration.

Plus, my kids now think I'm cool.


*Kent is now at Lippincott Massie Mcquilkin in New York.

**A special thanks to Sarah Hina who offered much advice and handholding through this process and who did her best to stop me from accepting right away because she wanted me to be sure. And who knows why I can't show my face at my local post office for the foreseeable future.

You Can Even Call Me the B Word

Three posts down, there is a small comment, a mere ten words long, that reminded me of why I stopped blogging: Someone took time out of what must be a very boring life to write, on a post about cooking, "No such thing as a Muslim feminist, dear. Try again."

It is obviously not the worst thing someone could say. No profanity, nothing threatening. But seeing it, in the midst of comments by fabulously lovely people, in a post that had nothing to do with Islamic feminism, made my cheeks burn.

There is the infantilizing "dear," which is an ironic thing to call a grown woman while you're accusing her of not being a real feminist. And then there is, of course, the negation of my right to define myself.

It reminds me of the people who repeatedly float the old canard that no Muslims condemn terrorism (hello, FOX News). Inevitably, online lists pop up in response, linking to hundreds of public condemnations. It's always curious to me that there are people so invested in spreading a lie that is so easily exposed. And while I understand the impulse to set the record straight, I hate the lists that result, because they seems to dignify the lie in the first place.

And yet.

I can name twenty or thirty prominent Muslim feminists, men and women, off the top of my head. A quick look through the books on my shelves would yield at least a hundred more. A few minutes with google and we could fill a page. And I thought about doing just that, here--listing all of the names I could find.

But what would that prove that needs proving?

I am a Muslim feminist. I don't care if you believe me. Or if you think I'm the only one in the world. The fact that I exist makes the comment untrue on its face. And ridiculous and sad.

You're free to call me whatever you want. I can't stop you. But as for telling me what to call myself? 

Try again, dear.

My Life in 27 Dresses

Oh, wait. I'm supposed to be blogging again, right?

Unfortunately, our summer has been punctuated by relatively small crises (my son's broken ankle) and large ones (a beloved extended family member with a difficult diagnosis), plus out-of-town guests and the general chaos that having more than 2.3 children engenders.

It won't get much better over the next two weeks when my life will mimic the opening scene in "27 Dresses," as I change in and out of  American and Indian/Pakistani clothes for four formal events, including two weddings, some of which are in other states. 

But after that, school starts. And though I'll miss my children terribly as they head off each day, there will be silence. And writing.  And, with a little luck, blogging.

Learning to Write from Cauliflower

When my husband and I got married, I was a spice-o-phobe. (No, really. It's a word.)  It became a standing question for parties and holiday celebrations with his family : Who's bringing the lasagna for J.A.?

They were cool like that. They even made sure it was vegetarian.

But then my husband and I became sick with the flu at the same time, and his mother brought rice and spiced spinach. I was sort of stuck; it seemed ungracious to ask where the lasagna was.  I spooned an enormous pile of rice onto my plate and a minuscule amount of spinach. Like seriously the size of a quarter. I mixed it in, until basically it looked like green-flakes on a plate of rice. I took a tentative bite.

Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

Not the spice. The taste. It was fabulous. And so began my love affair with Indian/Pakistani food.

Eventually, my mother-in-law taught me to make assorted vegetarian dishes--lentils, squash, spinach, cauliflower--while I tried to get her to commit the recipes to writing. I would stand poised with a pen and index card saying things like, "But how much turmeric?"  To which she would point on her finger, with her thumb.  An inch?  I should use an inch of turmeric? A square inch?  A thin inch?  HOW DO YOU MEASURE AN INCH OF POWDER???

It became clear that this was not an exact science. And that I would be expected to conduct my own experiments and serve them to my husband's family. Do you know what else is a word?  Disaster.

Except.

The cauliflower. It turned out perfectly, every time. My mother-in-law would tell people that my aloo gobi was better than her aloo gobi. Which, if you know anything about South Asian familial structure, is kind of a completely big deal.

So what has the writer in me learned from making aloo gobi? 

1.  There are no shortcuts.   Many Indian/Pakistani recipes start with a browned onion. Fine. Even I could brown an onion. Except that I couldn't. I would cook it until it turned some sort of good enough golden color, and then add the other ingredients. But golden is not brown. When I watched my mother-in-law brown her onion slices, they were not golden. She cooked them until they formed a brown clump in the bottom of the pan. A dark brown clump.

A lot of us have some part of writing we don't completely love.  Maybe it's setting or dialogue or transitions or chapter openings. Or the dreaded query letter.  Or the we-shall-not-speak-of-it-ever-again synopsis. Whatever. Take the time to do it right. There is no" good enough." Because if it's not actually done, you probably won't like the result.

2.  Trust yourself to know when to break the rules.

In addition to a browned onion, aloo gobi also calls for a chunk of raw ginger. (Up to the top knuckle of your pinkie finger, if you must know.)  But here's the thing. I can't stand actual ginger. Not the taste or the texture or the smell. Once, when my mother-in-law and I were alone in the car and she was reiterating how good my aloo gobi was, I experienced a not particularly well thought out need to confess. "The truth is," I said, "I don't actually use ginger. I use ginger powder." She was quiet long enough for me to regret every spirit of full disclosure I'd ever had. You know, in my life.  And then she said, "That's fine. You can use powder."  (That noise? Me, and the enormous "whew.")

Adjectives, adverbs, fragments, whatever. Know the rules, but when breaking them works, sometimes it just works.  Embrace your inner powdered-ginger-loving self.

3.  Experiment.  Recently, I was making aloo gobi, and the tomato (which I had just purchased from the store, thank you very much slacking produce department) was rotten.  I had already added everything  else to the pot and didn't want to waste the ingredients. I stood there for a full five minutes, looking back and forth between the stove and the jar of pasta sauce I'd retrieved from the pantry. The sauce was (mostly) tomatoes. But it was flavored, in an Italiany way. Still, it was all I had, and in it went. And you know what? It was actually good. Different, but definitely good.

Maybe you feel wedded to first person pov. Maybe you hate short stories. We all have our comfort zones but every now and then  it's good to try new things.

You have my permission to throw it in the garbage before your mother-in-law arrives, if necessary.

Got Some Explaining to Do?

Multicultural fiction tends to be full of italicized foreign words and unfamiliar cultural practices. I'm wondering how much of it the author should explain.

Recently, I wrote a story that includes a Muslim character who happens to be a vegetarian. (I've also written a flash piece that includes a  non-Muslim vegetarian son-in-law. Hmmm...can you tell I'm a vegetarian?)

It is somewhat unusual for Muslims to be vegetarians. I am, in fact, the only one I know personally.  In the first story, I wanted to convey the mother's antipathy for her son's (college angst-inspired) dietary choice. I mentioned that she referred to him a dal khor. But because I knew that most readers would be unfamiliar with the term, I translated it in the text like this:


                      "He did not mention the plastic containers filled with curried meats that Nikhat
                       had packed in the freezer before she left, or that his wife referred to Farhan as
                       a dal khor, a lentil eater, behind his back."


I trust readers to understand that "lentil eater" means vegetarian. But I don't know how many people will understand that it is an insult aimed at South Asians implying that only poor, rural people eat lentils. I also don't know how many people will understand why vegetarianism would be offensive to this mother--that her condemnation takes place in the context of the conflict between Muslims and Hindus in South Asia.  Hindus are often vegetarians and Muslims eat halal meat.  For her son to adopt what she sees as a Hindu dietary practice is, in her mind, unacceptable.

Does it matter if all of that is lost on some  readers?  Is it enough to know that the mother is unhappy with her son's choice? I'm not sure. In this case, I think it would disrupt the narrative to flesh it out more fully. But I do acknowledge that something--some shade of deeper meaning, some insight into the characters' history/world view--is lost by not knowing exactly what the mother means.

A lot can be gleaned from context. Still, I just finished a  novel by an Indian writer who included a glossary of terms at the end of her book, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it's probably helpful. On the other, it's almost like needing a footnote. (Secretly,  I would love to footnote some of my work.) 

But isn't it my job to write fiction that doesn't need footnotes?

Or is it okay if different readers access the narrative on different levels?

So Not Her Fault

I'm a terrible speller. Embarrassing admission for a writer, I know.  My brother, who happens to be an architect, apparently inherited the good spelling genes. He is the kind of person who comes up with the 100-point, triple word score Scrabble words. Frequently. He is also the one who, during my turn, will say things like, "Shouldn't you be better at this?"

I think the spelling problem comes from the fact that I am very phonetic. And the English language, often, is not. When I was eleven I finished a book and announced to my family that I loved the main character's name and planned to use it for my future daughter. My mom asked what the name was. I said, "Fobe."  With more incredulity than was perhaps called for, she said, "Fobe?"  I said, "Yes, Fobe," and showed her the book. 

It was, of course, Phoebe.  Fee Bee. (Imagine the fun we all had when one of my best friends in college was  named Phoebe.  My entire family still calls her Fobe.)

My mother is visiting, and yesterday she and my ten-year-old daughter were playing Trivial Pursuit.  I overheard my daughter ask my mother to name the "73 year old family parakeet who died after a 100 foot fall in  1978." There was a lengthy discussion as my mother tried to make sense of the question.

My mother:  A parakeet?

My daughter:  Yes.

My mother: Who fell a hundred feet.

My daughter:  Yes.

My mother:  And was 73 years old?  Do they get that old?

My daughter: (shrugs)

My mother:  It must have belonged to a famous family.

And so on.

Finally, my mother makes a random guess.  My daughter says, "Nope. It was Karl Wallenda."

My mother:  What? (takes card) (laughs)

Me:  What?

My mother:  It doesn't say "parakeet." It says patriarch."  Seventy-three year old patriarch."

Of course.  My little Mini-Me. I couldn't love her more.




Telling Secrets

Recently, I watched the indie film "Mooz-lum," written and directed by Qasim Basir. It is the coming of age story of a Muslim American college freshman, set against his strict upbringing (told in flashbacks) and the events of 9/11. The film is compelling, although not exactly subtle. For me, the characters weren't as nuanced as they could have been--the good Muslims were really good and the bad non-Muslims were really bad. 

(Of course, then I thought about a spectacularly warm and generous Muslim woman I know who founded a community service organization, and about Glenn Beck. Possibly, I thought, possibly Mr. Basir has a point.)

What struck me most about "Mooz-lum," was the portrayal of the bad Muslim character, a  teacher at the Islamic school the boy's father forced him to attend. And by forced I mean that his parents got divorced over it.  This teacher beat the boy savagely for talking to a girl and for sneaking out to trick or treat. And by beat, I mean lashed. A lot.

It wasn't the lack of nuance in that  (despicable) character that struck me, but the fact that  Mr. Basir, who has admitted that the film is partly autobiographical  rendered such a portrayal at all. He was asked about that choice in an interview on NPR.  About why, in a political climate that often demonizes Muslims, he went there.

Mr. Basir's response?  He wanted to tell an honest story.

There are people who would disagree, who think that to air a community's dirty laundry is to work a treason against that community. Or those who think that it can be told, but just, please, not right now.

Those people probably wouldn't like the novel I'm currently querying.  Which, by the way, I think of as a positive portrayal of a couple of strong, modern Muslim American women. Unlike many media depictions, they are actors in their lives and not victims.

Still, I got some not entirely unexpected feedback. "It's like you're telling secrets," one person said in response to Chapter 11. And even though I understood the comment--the chapter includes a scene at a mosque where some conservative people chastise one of my characters--all I could think is wait until you get to Chapter 44.

I understand the impulse to prevent piling on and the fear that people will only focus the bad, and ignore the good. I get that.  But to pen something that only shows the good--in a person or a community or a country--is not a novel.  It's propaganda.

And who wants to read that?

Sometimes the Best Books Are Hard to Live With

I'm not going to blog. I'm not going to blog. I'M NOT GOING TO BLOG.

Except, this.

It is, I think, impossible to read a book like Mudbound and not say something about it to as many people as humanly possible. Even though I couldn't talk for a long time after I finished it, and not just because I was sobbing. There was also the anger. At the friend who recommended it. At the other friend who didn't warn me strongly enough. At the author for subjecting me to it.

At the knowledge that so much of it was so very far from fiction.

I don't usually contact writers. Oh, sure, there was that impulsive little email to Rick Reilly, formerly of Sports Illustrated, currently of ESPN. (I think.) He used to write a column on the last page of SI that pretended to be about sports but was really about the human condition, about the best, most generous parts of ourselves. I would take my husband's issue, skip over pictures of basketball players in improbable flight or women in impossibly small swimsuits,  flip to the back, and read. And get choked up. Eventually, I wrote to Mr. Reilly to tell him that this feminist, vegetarian, mother, lawyer, writer, girly-girl non-sports reader bought her own fricking subscription when her husband's expired, just so she could read his column.

And then there was the comment for Alexander Chee, author of Edinburghleft on his mind-blowing  blog Koreanish. A small note to say I'm still haunted by Fee. (I will never forget Fee's observation that the survivor gets to tell the story. It was the first time I was forced to consider whether it's a good thing to get to tell the story.)

Which brings us to the outrageously talented Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound. Here is what I wrote in a recent email (redacted to avoid spoilers):

Dear Ms. Jordan,
I am, of course, late to the game with Mudbound, having just finished it a few weeks ago, even though it was recommended to me much earlier. I think it was the way my friend said, "I loved it, but there were parts that were hard to read."  Lots of books have parts that are hard to read; I knew she meant something qualitatively different with your book.
Your writing is beautiful and your story is compelling. But when I put the book down, I burst into tears and called my friend to tell her that she should have warned me.  She said that she did.  I said, no, what I meant is that she shouldn't have let me read it at all, because I didn't know how to live with it.
I am the white mother of an adopted African American son. I studied African American history at Smith College and Civil Rights at Georgetown Law School. I know something about the history of race in this country and still, you brought it home again and again and again. People need to read your book. I needed to read your book, even though I had so much to mourn when I finished.  XXXXX.   I could mourn what happened to XXXXX  for the rest of my life.
All I am trying to say is that your book moved me more than any book I can remember reading in a long time. And I just wanted to thank you for writing it.
She sent a lovely reply in which she mentioned work on a new, related novel that filled me with hope  and anticipation and which I will read in one sitting when it comes out, no matter what.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you haven't read Mudbound you should.

 For what it's worth, I sort of think you have to.