Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview wrap-up: Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Part 3

Here at WWBT, I've decided to embrace the terms "outsider narrative" and "insider narrative," to offer some context on books grounded in specific cultures. I use them without suggesting that one is better than the other, but with the recognition that they are different, and that we need many stories about a single place or people. Each kind of story poses its own challenges, and both challenge readers of all cultures to cross boundaries of attitude and assumption. When I can, I'll be talking to the writers of both outsider and insider books for young readers. E.g., see my interview with Monika Schroder on Saraswati's Way. For an insider viewpoint, watch for my conversation with Sheela Chari on her delightful forthcoming middle grade novel, Vanished.

Here's the final part of my interview with Trent Reedy, VCFA alum, whose novel, Words in the Dust came from his experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan.

[Uma] What's the role that compassion plays in this story--your own, in being driven to write it, as well as in your fictional character's life as she grows and embraces change?

[Trent] I think in some way all stories come from compassion, as writers must have some degree of sympathy for their characters so that they can understand why their characters behave as they do. My war experience taught me a lot about compassion. It certainly gave me a great appreciation for the need for more understanding just about everywhere in the world, but certainly in Afghanistan.

Zulaikha has a lot to learn during the summer in which the events of Words in the Dust take place. She has placed a lot of importance in what I call “The Afghan Fairytale,” the idea that marrying the right man and having lots of children is the ideal existence, the most that can be hoped for. This is especially difficult for her because with a cleft lip, her marriage prospects are dim. A lot changes for her through the course of the novel, but without giving too much away, I think one of the most important changes is her increased understanding for different members of her family.

[Uma] Words in the Dust speaks to a society in transition, and a girl with hopes and dreams that are aligned with her place and time. What choices did you make about the positioning of Afghan characters in the book that prevent it from becoming just another "rescue narrative"?

[Trent] When I began writing Words in the Dust I was determined to write a novel without any bias. I didn’t want a story that condemned U.S. and coalition military forces in Afghanistan. I certainly didn’t want to write a book in which the American soldiers were portrayed as blameless saints who enter Zulaikha’s village, teach the Afghan people American ways, and generally save the day. I tried to avoid judgment of Afghan culture.

The problem I encountered in trying to avoid bias is that real people are always biased. People have opinions, and so I couldn’t have my characters running around agreeing with each other spouting platitudes such as, “This is my culture. This is the way I like things to be.” That would take away most of the conflict, robbing the novel of a story.
I’ve heard people engaged in the cultural authenticity debate say that strong female characters who seek out their own destinies aren’t realistic in certain cultural settings. This assumption troubles me in that it implies that every member of a given group is exactly the same. I think most people would agree that no matter how strong the cultural influences, there will still be plenty of differences within any population. So while some Afghan women might be more passive and have little interest in education, there are many who are very active or who want to be more active in choosing to pursue opportunities. This latter group helped me realize that characters like Zulaikha’s mother and Meena are possible.

While I believe that American troops and their coalition allies are helping the situation in Afghanistan, I knew that any solutions in this novel must come from Zulaikha. Thus, even though the Americans offer her surgery for her cleft lip, that alone does not make everything better. The money from American construction contracts, while helping to improve the local economy in the village of An Daral, also brings problems. In earlier drafts, the American Captain Mindy offers to pay for Zulaikha’s school. This was later revised, making that potential solution come from Meena instead. Zulaikha’s ultimate decision is entirely her own, a surprise to some people, as it was to me, but I hope that it is one that strikes true to the person Zulaikha is. I wish her the best.

[Uma] Thank you, Trent. Any last thoughts?

[Trent] Thank you, Uma, for interviewing me for your blog. I’m grateful to have the chance to talk about Words in the Dust here. It’s a special honor for me since your wonderful novel Naming Maya was one of the books I studied as I was learning how to portray different countries and cultures in a novel meant primarily for an American readership. I hope to talk to you someday back at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

[Uma] I look forward to that as well, and I'm very glad that my book played a part in your journey.

Watch the book trailer.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for a terrific interview, not only the insights into Words in theDust, but also the challenges of cross culture writing. I found the idea of trying to write without bias fascinating. I have much to learn.

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  2. Amen to this: "This assumption troubles me in that it implies that every member of a given group is exactly the same." I've had Afghan (and other Middle-eastern) colleagues and fellow students, and they're all as diverse and impossible to stereotype as any other group.

    Words in the Dust sounds like a great book -- thank you for doing this interview and telling us about it. I'll put it on my list.

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  3. My pleasure, Mary. I'm coming to see that there are possible pitfalls in writing both insider and outsider narratives. They're just different pitfalls! Still, it's time we all took the chips off our shoulders and talked about this in terms that go beyond old oppositions. It's not just about "authenticity" (what is that, anyway?) nor is it about a writer's right to write about whoever/wherever/whenever s/he wishes. I'm hoping this series of interviews will help me find ways to understand the complications of this discussion. Bottom line--I'm still not persuaded that "exotic" is or should be a complimentary description of such texts.

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