Recently my novel, The Devil’s Quota, became a number one best seller. As you can imagine, that’s a great feeling and personal satisfaction for any author. However, I couldn’t help but immediately reflect on the perils and precarious pitfalls that occured along the way in creating this book. During that time in the trenches I wrote a blog chronicling one such close call that could have ended in literary disaster; almost fatally wounding the entire book. It was just a small thing but one that would have cut the very beating heart out of the story.
On this, the occasion of this my second #1 bestseller, (The Eighth Day was my first) I thought re-running that blog, and by reflection, my mindset at a time when the notion of being #1 was a million miles away, when I was solely focused on the editorial and submission of the manuscript. Enjoy.
Modesty, Chastity, Young Love and the Taliban
Right smack dab in the middle of editing my fourth book The Devil’s Quota – which is set in New York City, upper New York State, Canada and Afghanistan – I felt I had constructed a beautiful love story between an American G.I. and a local Afghan girl. It was all very lovely and very soft around the edges. I was positive that I had captured the true euphoria of that first spark of love, infusing into the relationship the electric sensation two soul mates tingle with every time they meet. I topped off that exchange of energy with its titillating aftermath and breathless anticipation of their next encounter. I even threw in a dash of the fanciful ‘what if’ and the ‘what when’ dreams that occupy their every idle moment.
From a plot perspective, I had set their encounter at the community well, literally at the most nurturing and central location of a war-ravaged, dirt poor Afghan farm village. I had Sgt. Eric Ronson, the perfect male hero for a love interest; a strong, strapping young warrior buck. As for my femme extraordinaire I had an incredibly radiant, simple farm girl, Setara. I even had over-arching symbolism in their meeting across not only the walls of the well but the one million walls between their cultures.
So I had it, the forbidden love, fighting to survive against the prejudices, mores and traditions of the times in which they live. And then….
The burqa happened.
Or more correctly my editor, Sue Rasmussen happened … to come across in her research that, according to the taliban, which is known to shoot you if you do not comply, women have to wear a burqa in public. That means fully covered, without the tiniest slit for the eyes! However, the inherent slapstick comedy of women walking into walls and bumping into things is avoided with a dark mesh over the eyes. (See, the Taliban isn’t totally unreasonable.)
But I, however, walked right into a wall. The whole “their eyes met” gone, the descriptives like “the radiance on her face” gone, the insightful “he could see her attempt to suppress her elation over seeing him,” gone!
Conclusion: There is absolutely nothing on the romantic attractor side of a story if the taliban were to write it. One of many good reasons never write a Taliban-based love story, because in a world lousy with taliban, all marriages are arranged. The young-ins have absolutely no say with whom they shall grow old. In short, romance, as we would artfully construct it, becomes a charge listed on an order of execution, read aloud before the stoning to death of the young girl.
So you can see that the Western-accepted, innocent, G-rated acts like two kids smiling at one another, God forbid holding hands, a scandalous peck on the cheek or the public humiliation and spectacle caused by him merely gazing upon her naked face, in the taliban world, puts a crimp in my romantic story. It is also a fatal AK47 bullet wound through my entire book because I need that relationship in Afghanistan as the emblematic inciting incident for the rest of the story. Those characters also become major players as the story unfolds.
At this point, I’ve got a lot riding on Afghanistan and it’s being spoiled by a thin veil of mesh fabric. That means my two love interests will pass in the night or at least the darkness of the taliban-imposed morality police.
So I took my case to the Google World Court and I looked up images of Afghan women and right there in vivid, living color, in stills taken recently, are images of many women in burqas, but then my heart stopped, almost like my male character’s, when I saw the one woman among them in the hijab. Then, I found many photographs of hijab-clad women among the populace.
The hijab saved my life.
The hijab, more like a loosely worn scarf around the head, allowing full facial features rescued my love story. Now I actually have photographic proof that hijabs and burqas can co-exist with men in the same public space.
Saved! Book back on course. Everything’s good with me. Not so much with the women living under oppression though. Hmmmm, maybe that’s another book?