Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Part 1

Please welcome writer and VCFA graduate Trent Reedy to Writing with a Broken Tusk. Starting today, over the next week, I'll be posting Trent's replies to questions about his novel set in Afghanistan, Words in the Dust.

The series of interviews will explore the impulse to write, the challenges of writing across cultural and geographic borders, and more.

Note that Kidlitosphere Interview Wednesday is being hosted this week at Just Deb...reading and writing for children and teens

[Uma] It's very hard to pull off an "outsider" narrative, and you chose first person, which is also in itself a difficult and constraining viewpoint. Talk about the challenges of writing across gender, first of all, while simultaneously writing across cultural lines. What cautions or tips would you offer to writers who may feel drawn to write in this way?

[Trent] Several elements in Words in the Dust are inspired by events I experienced during my year in Afghanistan with the Iowa Army National Guard. In particular, the story of Zulaikha’s reconstructive surgery is inspired by a girl with a cleft lip that my fellow soldiers and I were able to help in Afghanistan. I made a promise to tell the story of that girl. Thus, I began the process of writing this novel with a promise and not much else. To say that I chose to write Words in the Dust in first person is a bit of a distortion. When I began drafting the novel, I didn’t have the experience to make an effective conscious decision about which perspective would best serve the story. In other words, I do not think there was a particular moment when I decided that first person was the best. I simply started writing.

I knew I wanted Words in the Dust to be Zulaikha’s story and not that of American soldiers. “Zooming out” into third person might have given me more freedom to tell the story in different ways, but I think that then the focus might have been drawn too far away from Zulaikha’s struggle. For example, in third person, I might have included the experiences and reactions of the American soldiers to Zulaikha’s surgery while she was still unconscious, but that inclusion would shift the focus and sympathy toward the soldiers. We would know that Captain Mindy loves Zulaikha. We would know that Corporal Andrews will spend the rest of his life wondering if Zulaikha is going to be okay and weeping for the memory of bad things he saw. It would make Words in the Dust more of a story about American soldiers and I wanted the novel to reflect my belief that the Afghan people are at the heart of the struggle for peace, hope, and freedom in Afghanistan.

By writing Words in the Dust in first person, I could limit information and understanding, building distrust between the Afghans and Americans. I imagine that my fellow soldiers and I might have scared that Afghan girl when we came to her little village with all our weapons, looking for her. How could she have possibly imagined that we were on a mission to help her? I wanted to include that sense of confusion and fear in Words in the Dust, and that might have been diminished with a broader perspective.

[Uma] And writing in a girl's voice? Talk about that.

[Trent] People have asked me how I wrote a girl’s voice. I wish I had a good answer for this. I don’t really know how I did it. I don’t remember any specific changes that I made in order to make Zulaikha seem more like a girl. Maybe I’m just weird.

Maybe boys and girls aren’t as different as some in the children’s literature community would have us believe. It seems to me that the struggle to capture a character’s voice is about understanding who that character is as a person, regardless of gender. Writing from the perspective of an Afghan girl required some understanding of gender roles in Afghanistan, but beyond that, Zulaikha almost seemed to want to tell her own story.

Writing across cultures was more of a challenge than writing across genders. During my year in Afghanistan, I was blessed with the opportunity to live for some time in an Afghan house. I had the chance to eat Afghan food and to interact with hundreds of Afghans. And yet, Afghans are very private people, living with their families in their compounds behind their walls. I compensated for the gaps in my knowledge with a lot of research.
I’m reluctant to offer advice for those who are considering writing across cultural lines. Too often the debate surrounding this issue involves some writers telling other writers what they should or should not do. I would only ask other “outsiders” to seriously think about the many and complicated implications of what they are considering.
I am very aware of the potential problems that might arise when people write across cultural lines. These problems are magnified when members of a wealthier or arguably more privileged culture write stories about characters from cultures in which the people are typically less wealthy. In an American book market this usually translates to white people writing about races or cultures that are minorities in the United States. At their very worst, such stories can be horribly inaccurate racist propaganda. Yet, even among those writers from the “privileged” culture who are doing their very best to be kind, understanding, and “culturally authentic” in writing about their subject culture, there is potential for myriad unintentional problems.

I think perhaps the biggest problem is that even when a white writer crafts a “culturally authentic” novel (if “cultural authenticity” is truly possible) he is still, in a sense, stealing stories from his subject culture. If his subject is a great deal less wealthy than he is, it could be argued that the writer is profiting from the poverty of others.

I can only hope that my novel might help more people understand what is really at stake in the struggle in Afghanistan. I am also donating a portion of my royalties from Words in the Dust to an organization called Women for Afghan Women, a group that has been working for ten years to help improve educational and vocational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan.

I would like nothing better than for the real Afghan girl with the cleft lip to write her own story. However, by many estimates the illiteracy rate for Afghan women is above 80%. That situation may be gradually improving, but too many Afghan girls are simply unable to get their stories out. In spite of this, or perhaps even because of it, I believe it is very important for more stories about Afghanistan to be told, as a greater understanding may help foster peace.
The last time I saw that girl in Afghanistan, she was riding off of our base in the back of a truck. She could not hear me or understand my words, but I promised her that I would do all that I could to tell her story. It was an important story that deserved to be told, and I felt that if I didn’t write it, nobody would. In the army we keep promises. We simply have to. So as I faced doubts about whether or not it was morally right for a guy like me to write a story about an Afghan girl like Zulaikha, while I struggled with the cultural details and endless revision, while I later dealt with rejection letters from agents and editors, I could continue working to make this book a reality, knowing that I simply had to keep my promise to a certain Afghan girl. 

Trent's editor Cheryl Klein writes about the book: "I believe passionately that for those who do find the book and allow themselves to be open to it, Words in the Dust is a book they’ll love, and a book that can change hearts and minds in the very best way possible: forming a connection with someone different from you by hearing their story."

I'll be away for a few days, speaking at the Children's Literature Association conference, but we'll be back next week with more conversation about Words in the Dust.


  1. Enjoy the conference and _thanks_ to you both for the interview! I have ordered Words in the Dust and will be sure to read and share. It has been on my to read list for too, too long. It's one I would recommend, though, to kids who read and loved Deborah Ellis's Breadwinner Trilogy.

  2. Oh, I forgot to add that there's a list of related titles in the back matter as well, including Deborah Ellis's books and Rukhsana Khan's Wanting Mor.

  3. Very necessary talk that speaks directly to the whole question of writing from the outside. It's very evident that Trent gets inside Zulaikha and I'll be talking about Trent's response when next I'm called to a diversity panel. As you were, soldier!