Thursday, May 7, 2009

Elsa Marston

Elsa Marston writes for young people, focusing largely on the Middle East--ancient and modern, fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book is Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World (Indiana University Press 2008); a film has been made from the title story, available from Some other recent books are Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change, The Ugly Goddess (YA novel, ancient Egypt), Muhammad of Mecca, Prophet of Islam (historical biography), and Songs of Ancient Journeys: Animals in Rock Art (poetry). Personal encounters between different cultures are one of her basic interests and, having married into a Lebanese family, with many opportunities to live in different parts of the Arab world, the story of her own life. A New Englander by origin, and longtime resident of Indiana, she welcomes visits to her website at

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently noticed Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky in an airport bookstore. Recalling comments by my late husband (Iliya Harik) about Bowles as an important--though challenging--writer, and piqued by the book cover's hints about cultural encounter, I decided to buy a copy. It is indeed challenging. The basic story line is about three young Americans who travel around Algeria in the late 1940s, deeper and deeper into the Sahara, until the husband dies, his wife wanders off by herself, and their male friend tries to pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, the wife has been rescued by a dashing young caravan merchant, who eventually imprisons her in his remote desert house, makes her his fourth wife, and feeds her on lamb fat. I am not fond of being challenged quite this much, and I cannot say whether this book is more adventure, fantasy, surrealism, orientalism, anthropology, Hollywood nonsense, metaphysics, or poetry. When it was first published, in 1949, it apparently launched Bowles' reputation as one of the century's most significant literary writers. For that reason I would recommend it for those who, as I did, feel that they should read something by Paul Bowles. At least it reminded me of my own various encounters with the deserts of North Africa, although they were hardly so bizarre.

Sherman Alexie's YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about cultural encounter that anyone can recognize, even if not actually experience. (And it would do us all good! See the current PBS series on American Indians, "We Shall Remain.") Young Arnold, an eccentric but bright and likable Indian teenager in Washington state, leaves his dismal school on the Rez and goes to an all-white school in another town. Although encouraged by his parents, he struggles with inevitable identity problems and adjustments. Is he a traitor to his own people? Will he ever fit, at any level, into white society? Would he even want to? Written with Alexie's customary dash and dark humor, the book deserves the attention it has received and provides a brilliant form of insight into the clash of cultures that has been going on in these parts since 1492.

I read Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel Chains because I so much admire her work (for example, Fever 1793) and her thoughtful, engaging self not only as a writer but a pursuer of justice in both today's America and its historic past. Chains is about a young African-American girl, sold to a new master at the outbreak of the American Revolution, who witnesses the turning fortunes of Loyalists and Patriots in New York City. It's a story of blindness and bigotry, courage and determination. Read it! Another, reason for my interest: when researching my own YA novel-in-progress about the Revolution on the coast of Maine, I came across references to the "Negro" employed by one of the historic figures, an ardently Patriotic clergyman. "Servant," I assumed--and was shocked to learn later that the man was a slave! My belated awareness of slavery in the North has shifted the main concern in my novel from resistance to King George's tyranny to the young hero's gradual questioning about those "rights" that the Patriots were so keen on.

Finally, in line with my interest in children's and YA literature about the Arab world, I read Anne Laurel Carter's 2008 novel The Shepherd's Granddaughter. Despite the bucolic title, this is an amazingly hard-hitting story about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The past 10 years or so have seen a striking increase in fair-minded, high-quality fiction on the subject--all the more remarkable for the negative attitudes toward the Palestinians that have long persisted in this country. No other book, however, demonstrates with quite such candor and courage the brutal truths of the Israeli military occupation. In this story a Palestinian family has lived on its land for many generations, raising sheep and cultivating their olive orchard. Then a Jewish settlement is built on a nearby hilltop (illegally, of course), and the settlers do everything possible, just short of murder, to drive the Palestinians away from their home. In the inevitable cultural encounters, one side is backed up by one of the world's strongest armies, plus U.S. support; the other resists nonviolently, with the help of individual Israeli peace workers. Anyone who truly wants a better understanding of the conflict should read Carter's horrifying--yet in some respects beautiful--story.
Visit Elsa Marston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue