I Trust Boston

The view of Boston on the cover of Painted Hands, taken by my husband.

In the past few months, I’ve had the chance to meet with readers of Painted Hands at author talks, readings, and book club visits, both in person and by Skype. Invariably, readers ask good, thoughtful questions and usually share quite a bit about themselves with me in return. These are wonderful experiences for any author, but especially for a first-time novelist.
Recently, during a book club visit a woman asked me why, since I’m relatively new to the Boston area, I chose to set my novel here.
I love this question.

The first and simplest reason is that Amra and Zainab are extremely dynamic women with high-powered careers, and I knew they were going to have to be in a lively city where they could—and would be forced to—navigate the current political climate.

But there are lots of big, bustling cities, including New York and D.C., where I’ve also lived. And truthfully, I considered setting Painted Hands in New York.
But Boston, this city that I tease by remaining a Yankees fan, was, in the end, the right choice for this particular novel. Boston represents the founding of this country, home to so many key events of the American Revolution. It symbolizes the desire for self-determination. It is rich with the immigrant experience. It has had to grapple with racism and work to overcome segregation. It’s also where battles of religious freedom have taken place. In my novel, Zainab and Taj pay a visit to Salem, where religious persecution and guilt by association once played out with tragic consequences.

All of this felt so very relevant to my novel.
But there's another reason that’s a little harder to explain. Like most authors, I love my characters. I knew bad things were going to happen, particularly to Zainab, an outspoken Muslim woman involved in a contentious political campaign. I trusted Boston with all of it. It’s not that other cities wouldn’t be just as wonderful. But I’ve lived here long enough to understand this: Though this city has endured terrorist attacks, I still feel so comfortable to raise my Muslim family here. I still have not experienced any backlash, or felt any discrimination or bigotry.

When bad things happen, I trust Boston. And maybe that’s the real reason I placed Amra and Zainab here.
I trusted Boston with my characters. And the local readers who I meet with remind me every single time that I had very good reasons to do so.

A Busy Book Release Summer

Porter Square Books in Cambridge

I've never been great about blogging, but with the release of my debut novel, I have entered into legitimate "fail" territory. It's been a fun but busy summer, with readings and panels and radio interviews and blog appearances.  Hopefully, the fall will bring more time for blogging. In the meantime, for updates on Painted Hands, book recs, thoughts on Muslim feminism, how my crazy vegan diet is going, etc. please check out my FB author page or my twitter feed.

You can also find a few essays I've written this summer here:

"The Truth About Multicultural Fiction" at The Rumpus

"When Bigotry Came to my Book Reading: A Muslim Feminist's Love Letter to Cambridge" at The Huffington Post

"This is What a Muslim Feminist Looks Like (Really)" at Drey's Library

Finally, links to my online interviews and guest posts can be found here.

Hope your summer has been wonderful!

An Update on Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair

Oh wait. That's me!

So I've been pretty bad about blogging lately. For what it's worth, I blame Facebook. And not just because it's trendy to blame Facebook, but because I made an author page there in addition to a personal profile, and I've been posting updates there instead of here. But also? I liked that the post on Muslim bad girls was at the top of the blog. I may eventually move it back up anyway, like I did after posting about my Ted Fox thing. (Sorry, Ted!)

So things are happening. Most importantly, Painted Hands will be released on June 11th. It's been a year and a couple of months since we got the offer from Toni Plummer at St. Martin's, and at the time it seemed like FOREVER to wait. But now? It feels like it has flown by.

In March, I went to New York to meet with Toni and my agent, Kent Wolf, and my in-house publicist. I was, of course, a nervous wreck. On the way to meet Kent at his office, my cab driver turned out to be a Pakistani Muslim. When he found out I was married to a Pakistani American man and I was a Muslim and I had a novel about Muslim women forthcoming from a major publisher, he got all fanboy on me, and it completely calmed me down. Kent was as brilliant and funny in person as he is on the phone--you should all have lunch with him if you can--and Toni was graceful and warm and lovely. The lunch only confirmed that I was in such great hands.

My in-house and independent publicists have just sent out about a zillion review copies, and I am waiting patiently (ha!) to see what happens with that. In the meantime, you can read this gorgeous review of Painted Hands by author Sarah Hina (Plum Blossoms in Paris, Medallion, 2010).

Some very awesome friends, Wendy Russ and Stephan Andrew Parrish, are planning a virtual release party on Facebook on June 11th. I hope you will be there! And for local people, some equally awesome friends and my awesome husband are throwing a party for me that weekend. Email me for details!

Let's see...what else. I have an essay on multicultural fiction and bigotry forthcoming from The Rumpus and I'll be interviewed or have guest posts on or near June 11th at places like Drey's Library and Shelf Pleasure. I'm also doing Richard Levangie's "25 Questions," and you know you want to see what my guilty pleasures are! A list of online appearances will be up soon on my Events and Media page, where right now you can find my local scheduled appearances, including the Boston Public Library and Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

I will say it a million times in the next few weeks, but let me start by saying it here: I could not have made this journey without the amazingly talented and generous and kind writers I have met through blogging and social media. You have read my work, and my inane blog posts, and shared similar experiences of writing and revising and querying and hoping and crying in a parking lot and dancing in the front yard with me. I adore you all, and I am so very grateful.

A Comment on "Muslim Bad Girls," plus updates

When I was querying my novel and trying to come up with a colorful, shorthand way to describe one of my main characters--Zainab Mir, a kick-ass, sharp-tongued, brilliant, successful Muslim woman--I immediately thought of what writer and activist Asra Nomani said in a 2005 op/ed for The Washington Post about Muslim feminists.

"To many," Ms. Nomani pointed out, "we are the bad girls of Islam."

This is, of course, different from "sluts," although certainly some people conflate women who speak out against patriarchal paradigms and women who exhibit so-called "loose morals" in an attempt to maintain the status quo.

Topic for another day.

And early in the process, one agent rejected my query/pages with the plucky lament, "I would have enjoyed this more if they had been truly 'bad' Muslim girls!"

Yes, well.

When I use the term "Muslim bad girl," I mean to convey something more along the lines of the slogan that women of my generation are apt to sport on tee-shirts and buttons and refrigerator magnets holding up school lunch calendars:

Well-behaved women seldom make history.

My embracing this term also probably suggests that if someone calls a woman "bad" for speaking out, for thinking for herself, for challenging social/cultural/religious gender norms, he/she and I might have some work to do.

I like this term so much that I closed my query letters by saying, "Like Zainab, I've probably been called a Muslim bad girl."

I mean, a woman can hope, right?


The last time I did an update here, the little pink stick figure in this post was a strong contender for my author photo. It was a close call, but I've decided to go with this instead, with a debt of gratitude to Brian Ziska for putting up with me during two photo shoots and even enduring a bee sting in the process. Talk about taking one for the team!


Last, but so not least, I was thrilled and honored to receive another lovely blurb recently. This one was from Anjali Banerjee, author of numerous novels including HAUNTING JASMINE, which I read a couple of years ago and loved, and ENCHANTING LILY, which is on my to-be-read pile near my bed:

An enlightening first novel, Jennifer Zobair's PAINTED HANDS dismantles the myths and stereotypes about what it means to be Muslim in American society today, Through interwoven stories of career-oriented women of Pakistani and Indian descent, navigating the tightrope of politics, personal ambition, and family expectations in modern Boston, PAINTED HANDS ultimately celebrates the redemptive, transcendent power of love and friendship.

PAINTED HANDS, my debut novel about "Muslim bad girls," but not "truly bad" Muslim women, is now available for preorder.


I have a little irreverent thing up at author Ted Fox's blog.

In case you don't know, Ted is a humor writer represented by the beloved Janet Reid. His book YOU KNOW WHO'S AWESOME?  (NOT YOU) is currently available and is as funny as his tweets.

On Fridays, Ted poses a question "at least tangentially related to humor," and asks someone to answer in 50-ish words. (Mine is double that, but he was kind enough not to point that out.). 

Thanks to Ted for hosting me, and to Wendy Russ for helping me get my 50 Words to him despite a power outage. You guys are--wait for it--awesome.

The Best Short Story I've Ever Read (Asterisk) Smackdown!


First, the asterisk: Thank you so much to everyone who played along, and for the extra effort it took (in some cases) (okay, not mine) to produce a real, live pie. You are all awesome, and I wish we could sit down together and eat and talk. I also have to thank everyone for bringing such thoughtful short story suggestions to the table. I can't wait to read!

Without (much) further asterisking: The winner of The Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk) Smackdown is...

Sarah Hina!!!

Although it was a tight field, Sarah won the all-around based on our three "fluid, gooey" criteria: An adorable photo of her enjoying the pie she made (plus cuteness points for her daughter), an actual connection between her pie and her story, and a beautifully-written description of why Richard Bausch's "Letter to the Lady of the House" was the best short story she's ever read. Congratulations, Sarah!

And now her prize: Sarah will be receiving two "judge's choice" short fiction collections. Davin has selected The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters, and I have chosen Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. 

Sarah, if you could email me and let me know if you prefer e or real books, that would be great!

Thanks again to everyone who participated!

It's here! The smackdown!

For details, click here. The quick and dirty? Email me a picture of a pie you've made (jazobair AT comcast DOT net) to post here, and in the comments, make the case for the best short story you've ever read.  Bonus points for any pie/story connections.

It's not too late! Throw a pie together! Tell us about your favorite short story!

This submission comes from talented author Sarah Hina, with help from her adorable daughter. It is a lemonade pie. Now I wish we'd required everyone to submit a picture eating the pie (or throwing the pie or somehow acting on the pie). Clearly, Sarah is getting extra points for the action shot. The cute factor is fairly sky high as well.

And this is a cherry pie from Canadian writer/activist Richard Levangie. This? Is a very serious pie. This is the pie that made my children call my own pie "pathetic" and suggest I visit a bakery this morning. In fairness, I didn't use props with mine. Davin, can we get a ruling on the flowers? It seems to lend a certain Martha Stewart gravitas to his pie, and I may have to cry foul. Mostly because he is making me look bad.

This is a pie of unknown fabulousness from amazing photographer Catherine Vibert. It is gorgeous and looks like something that should be in a magazine. Of course, she is a professional photographer and this may be as big of an advantage as Richard's flowers and Sarah's daughter. Does anyone play fair these days?

What can we say about this submission from brilliant writer Davin Malasarn? It is a crustless bread  pudding "pie" that I cannot stop staring at. Because you know what? I don't like pie and I would eat that. Also, who are we to judge? And let's keep that thought in mind for the next pie, shall we?


And this is my pie. It is a chocolate pudding pie, and it is, actually, not the first pie I made yesterday. I made the first one and then--I kid you not--ate a huge piece BEFORE I took a picture. As though I forgot about the smackdown. In my defense, I am working on my copyedits? The first pie had graham cracker crust, which is the only crust I really like. This is an Oreo crust and pleases my children immensely.

Did I mention I don't like pie?

Photo used under a Creative Common License

Okay, this is picture was submitted by Indian writer/programmer Aniket Thakkar and is a "Raspberry Pi" which a credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of stimulating the teaching of basic computer science in schools. This? Is kind of cool. And creative. I might have to award some points. Especially if he can prove he made it.

This is a blueberry/raspberry pie from talented writer Scott G.F. Bailey . Note that it also looks like it could be in a magazine, and therefore makes my pie--to quote my kids--look (additionally) "pathetic." Who knew you all were such skilled pie makers? Seriously. And whose idea was pie??



To the comments!

Cover Reveal!!!


I am thrilled to be able to share the cover for my debut novel, PAINTED HANDS. I think it's so beautiful, and captures the feel of the story perfectly.
I'm more grateful than I can say to my editor, Toni Plummer, and the entire team at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press for all of their hard work and for this gorgeous result. And I am, as always, grateful to my incredible agent, Kent Wolf, for how he always "gets" this book.
I'm also honored and thrilled to have blurbs from two amazing authors, Roopa Farooki and Anne Cherian:
“A debut with an original and refreshing premise–Jennifer Zobair’s novel is about high-flying Bostonian women who struggle with their demanding careers, relationships, friendships and families, and who also happen to be Muslim. A positive portrait of modern Muslim women, prominent in their professions and at large within their communities, written with affection and detail.”—Roopa Farooki, Orange Prize finalist and author of The Flying Man
“In Painted Hands, Jennifer Zobair lifts the veil on three American Muslim women, taking readers into a world that will challenge their assumptions. Her debut novel is an important addition to the canon of ethnic fiction, showcasing the difficulty of being both American and Muslim.”—Anne Cherian, author of The Invitation and A Good Indian Wife

I can't wait to hold the book!

UPDATE:  PAINTED HANDS is now available for preorder!

"The Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk) Smackdown" is Coming!


A few weeks ago, the ridiculously talented Davin Malasarn and I had a Twitter conversation that went something like this:

Me: Even now, on 4th or 5th read, sure "Brokeback Mountain" is the best short story I have ever read. Devastating. Brilliant. Am in awe, still.

 Him: Is this a challenge?

 Me: Maybe. Maybe we should have a little challenge. :)

And somehow the conversation moved to his blog comment section, where the “challenge” became a “smackdown” (my doing) and involved very cool people like Wendy Russ and Scott G. F. Bailey, and of course pie (again, my doing).

 Now, here we are, announcing the “Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk)” Smackdown!

 First, I want to address the (Asterisk).

 * Yes, we realize it is impossible and unfair to actually declare that any one story is truly the best short story one has ever read. The reality is that there are many important short stories and many important short story writers and all of this is in fun.

 On with it!

 Announcing the “Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk)” Smackdown!

 The rules:

 1. On Wednesday, December 12 you can post the title/author of your ONE story selection, with a description of why you chose it in the comments on this blog,. We will not allow any comments naming more than one story. No second places. No ties. But, see rule #3.

 2. Because there must be pie involved, you must send me a picture of a pie you made or purchased (or at least will eat) during the Smackdown prior to naming your short story. I’ll put the pictures up in the blog post. Davin says there’s extra credit if your pie is connected to the short story you chose.

 3. For those of you who still want to rave about additional short stories, you can post your second helpings over at Davin’s brilliant new-ish blog, What’s Davin Eating? (It’s about food, but not really.)

 4. The winner of our “Best Short Story I Have Ever Read (Asterisk)” Smackdown will be decided without the use of any logic and may or may not receive a prize from us. In the comments, you are allowed to make your case for why yours should be the winner!
See you there! With pie!

PLEASE NOTE: Email the pie pics to me (jazobair AT comcast DOT net) anytime between now and Wednesday.

I Am Still (not) Housekeeping

A little update since my last housekeeping post:

1. My name. Some of you may remember the J.A. Zobair business. Originally, I decided to publish under my initials, for a variety of reasons. Reasons which no longer make sense, and which I'd be happy to discuss over a two-liter of Mountain Dew with anyone if he or she, say, decides to come to AWP in March. HINT HINT.

Over the summer, with helpful input from my agent and editor, I decided to go with "Jennifer."  I'm really happy about this decision, and I'll be thrilled to see my name on the cover of Painted Hands.

Which brings us to the next two points:

2. I have a release date!  [Actually, insert 500 exclamation points here.] Painted Hands is scheduled to be released on June 11th.  As you can see, I've installed a handy little countdown on my iPhone (which will only be accurate for your purposes on the day I post this.) (The app came with other handy dates like New Year's Day and--whew--the World Cup. So I'm all set?)

3. The book cover. Okay, this is a tease, since I don't have anything to show you yet. But in the back and forth on this, I am blown away by how committed both my agent and editor are to capturing my story on the cover of this book. Blown away, and really, really grateful. More to come.

4. The Dreaded Author Photo. Gorgeous, isn't it?

Okay. I had some pictures taken in September. I am having more taken in December. Enough said.

5. Blurbs. I am so honored that Roopa Farooki (Orange Prize finalist and author of Bitter Sweets, Half Life, and The Flying Man) and Anne Cherian (author of A Good Indian Wife and The Invitation) have read and blurbed my novel. You can see what they said about Painted Hands here.


As always, I am eternally grateful to my agent, Kent Wolf, and my editor, Toni Plummer, for all of this. Except the author photo, which is a debacle of my own making.

Taking My Kids to Vote

I took this post down awhile ago for a variety of reasons.  It's political. It's very personal. I felt a bit exposed.

But I just realized my kids have the day off on Election Day. And they will come with me again. And even though they have come with me to vote on many occasions--perhaps most--I will never, not ever, forget the overwhelming emotion I felt taking them with me in 2008.

So I'm putting this back up. I am not tech-savvy enough to know if the comments people posted then will reappear. If they do, great; if not, there is no pressure to comment again.

I remember your words. And I thank you.

From 2008:

I must confess that much of the Inaugural celebration had me in tears. Okay, most of it: The image of our new president and first lady on the steps of the Capitol, President Obama's moving words, Aretha Franklin rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," faces from around the country, watching, hoping, celebrating. Even the Secret Service officers protecting him evoked my silent, watery-eyed plea: Please, keep him safe.

But what really got to me was the Inaugural Poem  written and read by Elizabeth Alexander. I didn't love the beginning. But then came the part that, had I been standing, would have dropped me to my knees:

"Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of."

And then, shortly, this:

"What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance."

Because that's it, right? Some of our history can only be described as hateful. Most problems of the world can be traced back to indifference, greed, jealousy, hatred. And the solution?

Only the mightiest.


My tears are not tears for me--they are not born of some great hope that Barack Obama is going to make my life better. And as for the country, although I hope he will bring about important change, I labor under no misapprehension that he is The One, our savior, a modern age Messiah.

I cried because of what I brought to the occasion: An undergraduate degree in American History with a concentration in African American Studies, a law degree pursuant to which I studied the legal history of race in our country, and a son who is the same race as our new president.

That an African American man of enormous intellect and talent can ascend to our nation's highest office is no small thing, even now, given what came before. In a country where black people could once lawfully be bought and sold, used and abused, bred and killed, it is no small thing, even now. In a country where, in my parents' lifetime, a little girl named Ruby Bridges went to school under armed guard and surrounded by the voices of white adults shouting at her and threatening her and one even showing her a coffin with a black doll in it, it is no small thing, even now.

Imagine studying all of this with your own African American son. Imagine discussing slavery and sharecropping and segregation and anti-miscegenation laws and then finally, finally, Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, and the Voting Rights Acts, and Selma, and Thurgood Marhshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X and...Barack Obama.

And imagine taking your son with you into the voting booth, both in the primaries and the general election, and as soon as you enter the school where you are assigned to vote, you look at your son and think, we are voting for an African American for president.

And you thank God that your son has no true idea of how big this is, even now.

When I look at the abilities of this president, I am impressed beyond measure. But I do not think President Obama is perfect, nor have I loved every position he has ever taken. I am realistic about the problems we face and the pressures that will come to bear on the President.

I cried not because of what I hope President Obama can do for me. I cried because of what his election undid for so many. I cried not because I think he is some perfect politician who will magically solve our problems.

In the end, I cried because I believe he can inspire a searching nation to fix itself.

In Which I Read, and Love, a Book About the Great Outdoors

I recently finished Steve Edward’s Breaking into the Backcountry. I’d read a few of his short pieces online that were fantastic, and I knew he had a book out. I went to his website to investigate and was slightly dismayed to see that it was a memoir, something I don't read very often. Further, this particular memoir obviously had themes related to the outdoors.  Remember me Given the choice between a hike in the woods or a day in New York City, I am already halfway across the GW Bridge.
But I really liked Edwards' writing, so I bought the book. And I am so grateful I did.

First, there is the prose, which is exquisite. There are lyrical passages full of rich detail—sentences strung together with a seemingly effortless cadence, phrases that are ripe with perfect, often surprising word choice.  I do not always underline passages in books I read. I love books, I share books, I don’t want to deface my books. But sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes there is such beauty that I find myself marking up the pages.  Descriptions that astonish and delight. Sentences that evoke envy.  An insight I want to contemplate later.  I did it with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruini’s Queen of Dreams, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Broken Hearted.
I did it with Steve Edwards’ Breaking into the Backcountry.  In an orange pen.  A lot.

In a way, the narrative arc of this book mirrors my experience reading it.  The story begins with the author feeling more than a little fear and trepidation. He is twenty-six. He has recently won a writing contest. The prize includes seven  months as a caretaker of an isolated homestead in  Oregon where the author will perform chores and write.  There will be no electricity. There will be bears. He is understandably unsettled.
(My first thought was to remind myself never to enter a contest with such a prize.)

But Breaking into the Backcountry is more than a description of a beautiful and challenging landscape. It is more than a chronicle of the difficulty adjusting to the isolation, to the long days and weeks alone. It is an achingly personal story, detailing the pain the author both suffered and inflicted during an early divorce, his reactions to the September 11th terrorist attacks which took place while he was at the homestead, and his unflinching quest to conquer his fears, to grow as a person.
Over time, he learns important, transformative lessons the homestead could do nothing else but teach him. He settles into it. He comes to value the solitude, to feel peace there, to see things differently.  And this is how I felt every time I picked up the book--soothed, reflective. I looked forward to reading not just to know what happened next—would a bear attack, would intruders harm the propery or its twenty-six-year-old caretaker, would the author go mad— but because there was a palpable peace that came over me when I read.

There is a sadness looming beneath Edwards' gentle storytelling, and I will admit to tearing up, most notably in a passage about making peace with the hurt he caused his ex-wife, and the epilogue, where I found myself deeply touched by how seven months can change a man. 
If you are looking for some truly beautiful narrative nonfiction, I highly recommend Steve Edwards’ Breaking into the Backcountry.

Book Clubbing MUDBOUND

Please Note: Spoilers from this point forward.

I posted this about a year ago, when I first returned to blogging. It's the letter I wrote to Hillary Jordan after I finished her novel, and it seems as good a place as any to start:

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.  Ronsel. I could mourn what happened to Ronsel 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.

All best,
Jennifer Zobair

Although I obviously have much to say about this book as a reader and a writer, I'd love to start with your initial reactions to the book. To the comments!

August, People. AUGUST.

Book lovers! It is almost August. Which, for our purposes, means it is time to discuss Hillary Jordan's MUDBOUND.

This is where there should be a photo of me with a huge grin.

This is where I confess that I have never actually participated in a structured, online "book club" discussion.

This is where I note that we have people in different time zones.

I think, with blogger's embedded"reply" feature, it will still work even if everyone cannot show up at the same time. Although I would be thrilled if as many people as possible could actually be here.

Maybe we can work it out in the comments to this post. The when, the how, whether people need more time to read. But especially the part about the snacks.

UPDATE: We will be discussing the book throughout the day on Thursday, August 9th.


(My family just did a spit take at that title.)

Not that kind of housekeeping.


1. My last post recommended multicultural novels for summer reading. But? I also love short fiction. Love, love, love it. In important ways, I think I learned to write from short fiction. I would be remiss if I didn't recommend some of my very favorite multicultural short fiction collections (pictured above):

The Wild Grass by Davin Malasarn

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers  by Yiyun Li

Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Bolero of Andi Rowe* by Toni Margarita Plummer

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

*Yes, that Toni Plummer. My editor at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press. And yes, it is more than a little intimidating to have an editor who writes so beautifully, with both power and restraint, and  with such gorgeous, graceful prose.

2. Speaking of short fiction, I'm not sure I announced this here, but in May I was invited to sit on the Advisory Board of a start up literary journal, The Lascaux Review. I was honored to be asked. I am thrilled with the kind of work the journal is publishing and excited about editor Stephen Parrish's future plans. So far my role seems to be largely hanging out with this talented guy, waiting for snacks. But I am ready to advise. You know I am.

(The Lascaux Review accepts short fiction, poetry, and narrative nonfiction of literary quality. Submission Guidelines can be found here.)

3. Finally,  I am working on edits to my novel for my editor. It's not a terribly heavy edit, but I feel the weight of it, a sense that soon I will not be able to change things or fix things, that this is how my novel will be. I am excited and focused. I also might have pencils in my hair, but let's pretend the scene is one of serenity and order, with an ironic cowgirl mug filled with tea and a neat stack of manuscript pages.

Also, let's pretend summer vacation doesn't start tomorrow.

What about you? Any updates to report? Progress on MUDBOUND? Other summer book recs, multicultural or otherwise? Editing during summer vacation survival tips?

My Multicultural Summer Reading List

Here are some of my favorite novels. I highly recommend them if you are looking for a good read this summer.

NOTE: Per the comment thread, we are going to discuss MUDBOUND here later this summer. If you are interested in participating, please let me know!

by Hillary Jordan

This is the novel that inspired my return to blogging; I wanted to tell as many people as possible to read this book. Set in 1946 in the Mississippi Delta, Mudbound chronicles the life of white farmers, the McAllans, and their black sharecroppers, the Jacksons. Each family has a loved one who returns from WWII, and their tandem struggle to accept life in Mississippi after fighting fascism abroad sets in motion events that will devastate both families.

Publishers Weekly calls it "a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism."

This novel had a profound effect on me, which I describe here.

On Beauty
by Zadie Smith

On Beauty follows the conflict between two academic rivals-- white liberal Howard Belsey (married to an African American woman) and Monty Kipps, an Anglo-Caribbean staunch conservative. Set in a fictional Ivy League-esque college, the novel relentlessly probes America's cultural wars, forcing the reader to examine her understanding of issues surrounding class, race, and gender. It is brash and brilliant and more than a little funny.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times says On Beauty is "[t]hat rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane."

Queen of Dreams
by Chitra Banerjee Davikaruni

In Queen of Dreams, recently divorced artist and mother Rakhi navigates complicated relationships with her often-infuriating ex-husband and her secretive mother. As a child of immigrant parents, Rakhi is hurt by her dream-teller mother's refusal to speak of her native India. Eventually, she discovers her mother's dream journals and learns that some bonds cannot be broken, even in death. This story is a unique, mystical look at the Indian-American experience. It is also exquisitely written:  I've underlined lyrical, gorgeous prose throughout the book.

As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says, "Powerful...complex, poetic...Examines family secrets, the meaning of dreams, the search for identity -- an ambitious agenda of themes that reflects Divakaruni's mature talents."

Half Life
by Roopa Farooki

Beautifully written, Half Life begins with Aruna Ahmed Jones walking out on her new husband and boarding a flight to Singapore where she left Jazz--her best friend and (failed) lover. Suffering from bipolar disorder and a sense that she is caught between two worlds and might belong in neither, this is a touching, evocative book about self-discovery --  how easy it is to leave and how hard it can be to stay.  

The Independent (UK) calls it, "Utterly compelling...Moments of utter emotional bleakness are rendered bearable by the fragile beauty of the images Farooki uses to describe them. This is proper storytelling – we are provided with a character we find ourselves caring about, and want to discover what becomes of her. One thing will always stand out when it matters: the author's voice. And Farooki has one to be proud of."

Kitchen Chinese
by Ann Mah

Kitchen Chinese follows Chinese American Isabelle Lee, who has just lost her job at a posh New York magazine and been dumped by her boyfriend. She flees to Beijing to stay with her sister, a successful attorney with whom she has a difficult relationship. Isabelle lands a job writing restaurant reviews for an unprestigious ex-pat magazine. Set against the backdrop of modern China, what ensues is a funny, touching story about finding oneself and love in unlikely places.

Publisher's Weekly says, "Isabelle's Beijing immersion, coupled with her chick lit arc, provides a refreshing and fun narrative, helped along by a fantastic heroine whose insights into modern China and the expatriate experience will intrigue readers."

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told in a single monologue from the perspective of a young Pakistani man who, for a time, lives the American dream. Changez graduates at the top of his class at Princeton, is hired by an elite valuation firm, and falls in love with a captivating, if troubled, American woman. As he speaks, apparently to some sort of American operative at a cafe in Lahore, his story of disillusionment with his adopted country post-9/11 unfolds. The book is both literary and a thriller.  I read this novel in one sitting, and after I turned the last page I sat in shock, trying to figure out if what I thought happened had just happened.

As The Seattle Times says, "Changez's voice is extraordinary. Cultivated, restrained, yet also barbed and passionate, it evokes the power of butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day... brilliantly written and well worth a read."

All that Glitters
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriquez

All that Glitters tells the interconnected story of two women -- Latina Mackenzie de la Garza, a professional cheerleader and talented photographer who coaches inner city kids and dreams of being a photo journalist, and African American Zora Jackson, one of the top sports agents in the country. This book at first feels like a deceptively quick read as the two women deal with relationship and career struggles. However, Valdes-Rodriquez weaves serious issues and confronts stereotypes throughout the narrative. It is thoughtful but not preachy, fun but not frivolous.

Time Magazine has dubbed Valdez-Rodriquez the "Godmother of Chica Lit" and named her one of the "25 Most Influential Hispanics in America".

Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus tells the devastating story of 15-year-old Kambili, raised in a wealthy Nigerian home, daughter to the village's most respected man. Behind closed doors, Kambili's father is a religious fanatic (Catholic) who deals out swift and severe punishment to the members of the household, including Kambili's mother who suffers serial "inexplicable" miscarriages.

A summer with her aunt changes everything for Kambili. Against the backdrop of a military coup, and her mother's final desperate act, Kambili learns that she is stronger than she could have imagined.

This book is at once disturbing and beautiful. It is rich with details of Nigerian culture, and provides a not-so-subtle commentary on the more horrific effects of meddling in other countries--both by political leaders and religious ones.

From Publishers Weekly: "By turns luminous and horrific, this debut ensnares the reader from the first page and lingers in the memory long after its tragic end."

The Invitation
by Anne Cherian

In The Invitation, twenty-five years after graduating from UCLA, Vikram invites three of his first-generation Indian immigrant college friends to his Newport mansion for his son's graduation from MIT. Life has not gone as planned for any of them, each of whom struggles with disappointment with his or her career, marriage, or children. At first, they all try to keep up appearances, but soon each is forced to face reality. This novel is a wonderful chronicle of the Indian American experience and the universal struggle to define love, family, and success.

Publishers Weekly says, "Cherian’s straightforward storytelling is riveting and rarely goes amiss."

A Free Life
by Ha Jin

A Free Life is a quiet but exquisite novel following the Wu family as they leave China and make a life in the United States. Nan Wu is a writer at heart, but finds himself forced to sideline literary aspirations in order to support his family. The story is rich with details about everyday life -- about the quotidian heartbreaks that can seem insignificant from the outside. There are struggles and successes, and we are rooting for the Wu family throughout.

Slate calls it, "Deeply affecting...engrossing....The charm of A Free Life comes from its cheerful subversiveness, its gentle upending of the most persistent myths about the creation of art."




I've been wendified!

Well, not me. My website. (To see it, click HERE.)

It turns out that the very talented Wendy Russ, in addition to being a gifted writer, is a fantastic graphics designer. And I don't just mean her visionary design skills.

When we started talking about her doing this project, I teased Wendy that she was more of a psychotherapist than a web designer. But honestly? There is some truth in that. Wendy asked questions. She listened. She asked more questions. Questions about platform and writing and intention and what it means to be a woman living very much in two cultures -- the one in which I was raised and the one into which I married.

Once we knew what kind of site I wanted, we set off to find the perfect image to build around. Wendy sent me pictures. I sent her pictures. We both said, "meh." She sent me more pictures. She liked a picture with a great deal of blue in it. I said, "No blue. And no red. Neutral colors. If you have to use a color, use hot pink. But that's it."

Wendy found The Image first. But in that Jedi mind trick way of hers, she let me think I found it. And when I did, I sent her about five hundred emails saying that's it, that's it, THAT IS IT.

She responded from the road, saying, "You know it has red in it?"

I pretended that email landed in my spam folder.

Wendy got to work on the site. I had pictured an eggshell background color on the right side. I was sure that was how it was supposed to look. When Wendy sent me the image above, I was stunned at how beautiful it was. But I thought I'd wanted something different.

"It's gorgeous," I said, "but it's too brown."

She patiently said she'd send the image with other background shades. She did so in less than an hour. She sent a ton. She suggested I live with them for a couple of days and ask my friends and family what they thought.

I wrote back in about five minutes: "The first one you sent. The brown one. That's the one I want. It is just so perfect."

She might have made a joke about trusting your web designer.

Wendy worked faster than I could have imagined. She made herself available by phone and email. It's possible she lived on cheese puffs. The site was done in a couple of days. She then helped me integrate the blog, which took slightly longer (okay, I was a complete pain about it), until it was exactly how I wanted it to look.

It's Wendy, so of course there was much laughter and folly along the way. But there was also hard work and diligence and perfectionism and a sense that she would not rest until I didn't just like the new site, but loved it.

And so I do. And I hope you do, too. And should you need a website or a book cover or some other graphics project, I hope you'll consider getting it wendified, too.

My only advice: Trust your web designer. She knows what she's doing.

You can find out how to get wendified at wendify.me or contact Wendy at wendy@wendy.com.

A Conversation with Author Stephen Parrish

Recently, I interviewed author Stephen Parrish about his new novel, THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. Although one of us kept trying to make the interview about me, I did manage to get him to answer a few questions about the novel, his new literary journal, and himself.

Steve, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you. I've known "of you" for years--you have quite a reputation among people I respect--and so this is really a thrill. So the book. You have a new book out. THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. There is a lot I want to ask about this novel, but let's start with the title. It is such a great title. Why did you choose it?

 (Also, why do I feel like there's a 50-50 chance you're only going to give me your name, rank, and serial number?)

My dog tags recorded my name, SSN (the modern day "serial number"), blood type, and religion. I wanted "Heathen" as my religion, but the closest they would allow was "No Preference." If I fell on the battlefield the chaplain could take his pick: "What did we make the last No Preference?" he'd ask. "A Jew," his aid would reply. "All right, what the hell, this guy's going out as a Catholic. Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ."

The title THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is from Plato: "To the feasts of lesser men the good unbidden go." It's the word "unbidden" that grabbed me. My protagonist Jimmy Fisher has a good heart. The question is whether his avarice is bidden or simply his nature. Or human nature.

I understand a certain level of reverence in the military, but it seems to me that if you're willing to die for your country, you should be able to call yourself whatever you want.

I assume you have an opinion on whether Fisher's avarice is bidden or simply his nature or human nature, and I'm not going to ask you for it. What I'm wondering is if you had a sense of the answer when you started, or was writing this novel a way for you to explore the question?
You certainly force the reader to grapple with it. I guess I'm wondering to what extent you, as author, did as well.

I wanted to create a protagonist that did every despicable thing he could get away with, have him tell his story in first person, and make him likeable to readers. Whether I succeeded is of course up to readers, but I love the guy; he's my alter-ego; whenever I had to decide what awful thing he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do.

As for the human nature question, I like a Socratic approach to the answer, which I'll abbreviate for this interview. Question: Should the grass be green? Answer: The question is meaningless, since the grass is green whether or not it "should" be. Question: Should foxes chase rabbits? Answer: The question is meaningless, since foxes are going to chase rabbits whether or not they "should." Finally...Question: Should men steal from other men?

The metaphysical question of whether the universe is by nature benevolent or malevolent is, I think, a no-brainer.

Don't give me flashbacks to law school, Stephen Parrish.

You don't ease the reader into Fisher's capacity to do the despicable. He is grave-robbing on page one. He's scamming a prostitute by page 23. He's insulted a woman's
weight by page 48.
Not to make this interview about me, but I came to this story as an unabashed feminist--the kind who not only doesn't shy away from the term but who may, at some point, tattoo it on her forehead--so I'm reading, and I'm thinking what an ass. An ass with a quick, dry sense of humor, but still.

And then I read Chapter 17. And I emailed you. I don't usually email an author while I am reading, because I assume that he is not, probably, interested in my real-time, play-by-play reaction to his book. But I emailed you because I was gobsmacked. First of all, Chapter 17 is just so well done--the dialogue, the tension, the description. The humor. But the reason I emailed you is because that's when I realized Jimmy Fisher had gotten to me. I was rooting for him. I was on his side.

Did you write that chapter intending for it to have that effect on the reader? Do you see it as a pivotal moment in the reader-Fisher relationship?

I wish I could say I wave my hands like a conductor and dictate when readers feel things. In this case I strove from the first sentence to make Fisher likeable. You'll no doubt argue I failed; in the first sentence he's preparing to rob a grave. But the only reason you don't like him from the beginning is because you don't yet know him.

Not to make this interview about me (ha ha) but I too am a feminist, in large part because I'm a humanist, which would suggest I'm also a secularist, which happens to be true, and which also has nothing to
do with the question, but this interview needs to get a lot more dangerous before we're through.
I'm actually not arguing that you failed. I think I'm saying that you succeeded rather hugely. Because it's not like Fisher suddenly became Mother Theresa in Chapter 17--in fact, another rather unseemly offense is revealed therein--it's just that that's where I had my little epiphany.

So let's get dangerous.

When you say you are a secularist, does that mean that you want religion to stay out of the public square, or that you are skeptical of religion in general? Never mind. I know the answer to that. But, not to make this interview not about me, you strike me as a very spiritual person. Maybe more so that the average person. Is that a fair characterization? And what do you make of my perhaps outrageous and possibly inappropriate contention that only a spiritual person could write this particular book?

Depends on what you mean by spiritual. In the eyes of the Catholic church, in whose shadow I was raised, I'm an atheist. I dislike the word because it's like republicans calling members of other parties "arepublicans." My spirituality is very personal and doesn't involve a sentient deity. It's probably fair to characterize me as more spiritual than average because the average person restricts his spirituality to one hour a week, if that.

And I think only a questioning person could write this book, someone who asks, "What is loyalty, anyway?" and "What is a country if not the citizens who comprise it?" The novels I enjoy are those that ask tough questions, even if implicitly.

As a lawyer, I should know to define my terms.

 I think, by spiritual, I mean someone who grapples with Big Issues. For herself. Who tries to get away from whatever dogma has been drilled into her. Things like what is the greater good, or, to use your question, yes, what is loyalty. You seem like a grappler to me. I base this mostly on your blog. This is what I knew of you first.

(Well, first, I knew that many of the writers I admire and respect in the blogosphere held you in such high regard that when you made a two-word comment on a piece of flash fiction of mine, I was hugely flattered. And not flattered like my ego was stroked. Flattered, like it felt significant to me. It actually meant quite a lot.)

And now I'm waiting for you to say, "I commented on something you wrote?"

Because you seem like a grappler to me, and a stand-your-grounder, it is, in some ways, difficult for me to picture you in the Army, where you are not at liberty to question things, or at least not to act on things you question. Jimmy Fisher actually strikes me as someone who would have an easier time with the military. He did what he needed to do to get along. He did whatever else he could get away with.

But I feel like you must have grappled.

I guess I'm just wondering what it was like for Stephen Parrish to serve in the Army and where you see intersections between your experience and Jimmy Fisher's. (Not that. We are not talking about grave robbing. Or whorehouses.) (I mean, right?)

I grappled for years with premises, because I knew if I got those down, every judgement I'd make from then on would be easy. The only thing I grapple with now is whether to speak up about something or keep my mouth shut.

The way my army experience intersected with Jimmy Fisher's formed the basis for the novel: my boss was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison. Others in the office received sentences ranging from eighteen to thirty-six years. I was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, and in the process of everything coming to light I had a priceless opportunity to see the underbelly of a spy ring like one's never been seen before. Anyone who saw more than I did is in jail.

It's not James Bond or John le Carre. Or anywhere close. Today's spy, in fact pretty much every spy since the Civil War, is necessarily a traitor to his country. It's much easier to pay an insider for information than train someone to get inside. Spying is thus little more than selling documents to which you have access.

But that in itself poses fascinating questions, at least to a definitive opportunist like Jimmy Fisher: they are, after all, just documents, right? National boundaries are more or less arbitrary, right? Loyalty to a friend or a cause, fine, but loyalty to a piece of cloth or a patch of dirt? And what if what you're doing doesn't hurt anyone? What if---this is a major point made in the novel---the enemy already has the information to begin with? I'm not by any means Jimmy Fisher; whenever I needed to know what he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do. But that is one point I wanted to make about the security of military intelligence: it is so sloppy, not only can a lowly infantry private turn a secret vault into a retail outlet, but the enemy, by merely reading unclassified reports and following units on exercises, can construct accurate facsimiles of everything in that vault, without buying anything.

As I said in the novel, "It's much easier to steal secrets from the United States government, it turns out, than to snatch a high school class ring from Zales." I wasn't exaggerating.

For someone standing outside of the military, it really is a fascinating look inside. This is what I meant with my Amazon review -- the book could be read as one thing (a suspense/thriller) -- it could stand alone as that -- and it would be a success. A page-turner. But it is so much more than that. So there are these competing instincts on the part of the reader -- the desire to read quickly to see what happens and the need to slow way down and think. 

I'd say I'm impressed here, but this interview isn't about me?

So we know a little bit about the book -- enough, I think, that people should know they should go buy it --so let me ask a little about the author. What does writing a book look like for Stephen Parrish? Are you a plotter? I hate the other word, but are you that? Are you disciplined? Do you let yourself write a horrible first draft? Do you look forward to it, or does it feel like a tortured process? Where do you write?

Have you tried writing while jacked up on the better part of a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew?

Diet Coke. My only remaining vice. Sniff. I used to think I couldn't write sober but, unfortunately, I can. I plot meticulously. The outline of my first novel was 90 pages long. I happen to think pantsing (that other word) gets writers into trouble. I am more disciplined than I used to be; I require at least 500 words a day on my WIP before I go to bed. Often that means the scene is weak, but that's okay, because I'm more of a rewriter than a writer, and more of a cutter than anything else. I hate to use the sculpture analogy, but that's what it amounts to: cutting crap away until it feels right. The Feasts of Lesser Men is about 90,000 words long; the first draft was 181,000 words.

I love rewriting. I love working with material when it's already on the page. The hard part for me is filling up all those blank pages. I'd do better at it if they invented a harmless cigarette.

Sorry for the delay. I had to write 501 words before I could pose the next question.

When you say you love working with material once it's on the page, I have to ask about other people's on-the-page material, and The Lascaux Review. You founded this new literary journal with good friend of this blog, Wendy Russ, and you act as Editor. Can you tell us a little bit about the journal (say, how you are in dire need of fiction with self-importantly long word counts), why you started it, and how your role as editor is going?

I've wanted to start a literary review since the early 90s. Back then, of course, such things had to be printed and distributed, and they lived or died by subscriptions. I could never get the numbers to work out (and in fact most print journals belly up if they're not subsidized by a university or grant). The internet era came, and at first the online-only journals were less than prestigious. Eventually that changed; electronic publications lost their stigma and some big name literary journals went online. It was time. I'd mentioned the idea to many people over the years, but Wendy was the first to express enthusiasm. We're looking for a few good stories.

I guess it's the rock hound in me that wanted to do this, the guy who always stares at the ground when he goes for walks, perpetuating a childhood fantasy of finding gemstones in the gravel. I've read stories by friends, including Wendy, that have made me think, and say, "This should be submitted for publication." Yet there aren't enough markets to take all the good stories. One of the problems, obviously, is there aren't enough readers of short fiction and poetry to support the markets. At the same time, though, there aren't enough editors willing to hang a literary shingle without a reader base to start with. Does the world need another literary review? Yes. Indeed, yes. The Lascaux acceptance rate is about one percent and sure to decline in the future.

Thanks to donations, all of which go to writers, we've been able to pay for every written piece we've published. We're proud of this: most literary journals pay nothing but contributor copies, and if they're online like us, pay nothing at all. Don't get me started on books. Given the amount of work that goes into creative writing, and the hourly pay rate, it's generally more profitable to spend your time searching parking lots for dropped change.

We need more donations: to accept more work, better work, and to pay more for it. The arts are the height of civilization, and in my biased opinion literature is the highest of the arts. It's a shame it's compensated so poorly, and most isn't compensated at all.

I actually love short fiction. One of the best things I've ever read is Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain". Also, Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter." So I, for one, am always glad for new journals on the scene. But this isn't about me?

We should probably end with something light, like how your new vegetarian diet is going or why you spell so funny in emails. But that feels like letting you off the hook.

Instead, let's go with this: We started by talking about great titles, specifically your great title. Another title that I am particularly fond of, and maybe because I am intensely fond of the author (who inspired my own vegetarianism) is Alice Walker's POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY. This novel, as you may or may not know, has something to say about breaking taboos and telling secrets. It is not without controversy, but this interview, in addition to not being about me, is not about that book.

So, Stephen Parrish, in your opinion, what is the secret of joy?

The underlying theme of my next novel! I'm afraid I must disappoint you, however. I've given up on joy as a goal. Because there is no such thing when defined as a state of emotion consistently higher than some arbitrary norm. The norm exists as a statistical mean between happy and sad, ecstatic and miserable, and a typical person will experience the whole range of emotions, more or less cyclically, throughout her life. If I could be "happy all the time," as used to be my goal, I could only do so by raising the norm---and consequently falling below it on a regular basis.

Happiness is more usefully defined as peace of mind, which is the habit of accepting things the way they are, of taking the good with the bad and knowing that not every experience will be a positive one. It's a habit practiced by people who know their place in the world and occupy it; who pursue their passions despite obstacles and setbacks, pain and frustration---often without even being aware of the negative aspects. The more beautiful the rose, the less noticeable its thorns.

In my next novel, a juvenile delinquent redeems himself and finds peace of mind. By embracing a passion. Next time you interview me, you need to ask me about passion. I'm (sorry! can't resist!) passionate about the subject.

I look forward to reading your next novel. For now, everyone should read this one. Thank you so much for doing this, Steve. I enjoyed it!

Stephen Parrish is the author of The Tavernier Stones and The Feasts of Lesser Men. He edits a start-up online literary journal, The Lascaux Review. He lives in Germany.

THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is available in paperback from Amazon here and as a Kindle edition here, and from Barnes & Noble here.

PLEASE NOTE: It is FREE in e-book form on Amazon from April 15th to April 19th.