Confession #1: I’m not male, Arab, Muslim, or seventeen.
Confession #2: I pretended to be all of those things while writing THE VOW, because Mo, one of my main characters, is all of those things. (Actually, the book is dual point of view, so I only spent half of my time in Mo’s head. But still. A lot of pretending.)
Now that that’s off my chest, I can tell you about a related freak out I had. A little while after completing THE VOW edits, I read a piece by someone wise and well-respected in the industry saying authors shouldn’t write a main character of an ethnic minority if they themselves aren’t of that ethnic minority. It just won’t come off as authentic.
My response: Oh. Crap.
I already have an imposter complex (even when I do happen to know what I’m talking about, I feel like I’m on the verge of being exposed as a faker), so this didn’t help. Had I made a massive mistake? Of course I had! Did it smack of arrogance, assuming I could pull off pretending to understand a character so different from me? Of course it did! Were readers going to be pissed at me? Of course they were! Who did I think I was?
Then I took a deep breath and thought about Mo.
Mo isn’t an Arab-American ambassador to the world. He certainly doesn’t represent all the Muslim teenagers in this country. Mo is just Mo. That’s all. He’s brilliant and hilarious and neurotic and loyal. He’s one person, one story, and those things about him—his religion, his ethnicity—those are crucial elements to his story. They affect who he is, and they can’t be separated from the plot or his character, but Mo doesn’t define those categories. Mo is just Mo.
And I had to write Mo’s story.
VIRTUOSITY came from a single image in my head. INCOGNITO from a song. THE SPACE BETWEEN US from…I don’t even know where that came from. Bad weather?
But THE VOW, that idea came from a dream, which, I know, sounds fancy and ridiculous, especially because I don’t even remember the dream, but I woke up one Sunday morning practically screaming, “I have the best idea ever!” which is why I call this book my dream baby. (My husband remembers this morning as the day he woke up having a heart attack.)
It felt like a two-by-four to the head, but once I started writing, I realized the idea was actually a long time in the making, the result of two vastly different years of my life that weren’t really so different at all.
Fresh out of college, shiny new English degree wedged in a moving box somewhere, my only ambitions were to read Russian classics and work on my tan. Impressive, I know. (I was a newlywed but Tolstoy had my heart, and I’d not yet accepted that a tan would NEVER happen for me.) I pursued War and Peace an melanoma for a couple of weeks, but eventually a Marxist reading of my life forced me look for a real job. Lame, I know. But I was lucky. The high school English teacher one town over from where my husband was starting law school quit on the first day, leaving the school scrambling for somebody—anybody—to fill the spot. I was anybody. Can you imagine how desperate they must have been to hire me? I had no teaching degree or experience or desire (if I’m being honest), and I looked about seventeen but only if I was wearing makeup and a dress. Otherwise, fifteen.
My first day of school was September 11, 2001. I was a teacher for all of forty-five minutes before the TVs came on. Then I became a gawker. A mourner. I watched both towers fall with a classroom of kids just a few years younger than me, and once their questions began, I became an interpreter of events I didn’t understand, because I was the adult. My new students paraded in and out with the bells, but like everywhere else in the country, the TVs stayed on, and the kids all looked to me for an explanation. Are we at war? Could attacks happen here? Like, right now? How many people are dead? Is my cousin/uncle/brother in New York okay?
What was I supposed to say? I had the same questions and none of the answers. I pretended. I did my best.
Over the next few weeks and months those questions changed, becoming confident statements that smelled suspiciously adult. It was obvious to me that these were the ideas being tossed out over the dinner table, and so I became a fly on the wall of small town America, listening to what their parents really thought. It was fascinating and disturbing. We should take all of the Arabs here in the U.S. and put them in one place so we can monitor what they’re doing. How do we know who’s a terrorist and who isn’t? They could all just be waiting to turn against us. We should bomb Afghanistan and Iraq and the whole Middle East so they know what it’s like. They need to know they can’t mess with America.
Shocking. But at the time, the whole country was shocked. Lots of people were saying things they’d never imagined they’d say. This was a tiny, homogenous town, and there wasn’t a single Arab-American student in any of my classes, so these kids and their parents were scared of something foreign and invisible but real. So real, in fact, that by the end of the year, three of my students had orders to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan just after graduation. That’s real.
The next fall, my universe inverted itself. My husband did a study abroad year in London, so I tagged along and found myself teaching grade school in east London where the student body was 98% Muslim. My students were primarily Bangladeshi–about half British born, the other half having immigrated as younger children. I taught fifth grade, which meant most of my students had mastered English, although they were only exposed to it at school and many of their parents didn’t speak it at all. I didn’t exactly fit in, not in the community I walked through on my way from the tube stop or in the school (I was sometimes the only female in the room not wearing a hijab), but I felt welcomed. Everyone was kind to me. My teacher’s aide was a woman my age (23) with an arranged marriage and five children, and despite the fact that we came from opposite corners of the universe, we became close. Oddly, I felt like less of an imposter than I had the previous year.
(A note on that year: there were epic anti-war marches in London and the rest of Europe, but it was before the tube bombings that made this threat personal to the British. The general feeling was that Blair was smoking crack for supporting Bush, and there were certainly days I didn’t want to speak on the tube because I didn’t want people to hear my American accent. But when I was back home a year later watching the tube bombing aftermath and the news reports on terrorist cells in entirely un-integrated Pakistani/Bangladeshi neighborhoods of London, I thought Is that the neighborhood I worked in? Could have been. Same shops. Same kids. Same everything. Were those kind people, my aides, my students’ parents who I thought were my friends actually plotting terrorist bombings and swearing death to people like me?)
I loved my students. Eleven is still an earnest age for plenty of kids. Some sweet, some terribly behaved, some smart, some not so smart, they were all mine for the year. I loved that the girls had Bollywood stars’ pictures cut out and taped to their binders. I loved how the boys obsessed over football, playing every recess and after school, writing in their school journals about their favorite athletes and believing wholeheartedly that someday they would play for Arsenal. They were younger than my American high schoolers, but not so different.
Also not so different: the disturbing regurgitation of conversations from home. Bin Laden isn’t a bad man, but America is making everyone think he is. My mom knows where he is. She says Bin Laden ate dinner at my cousin’s house in Camden last week. When the people jumped from the towers, it looked funny. Like superman, but no flying at the end.
Shocking, but not so different.
Somewhere in the back of my brain, I started to wonder, what if one of these kids was transplanted into the United States? How would the students I taught last year treat them? How would they change?
Without my realizing it, those questions festered and grew into something bigger, into a story centered around an even stranger question: Once my transplanted students had become part this and part that, what would happen to them if they had to go back? And that became Mo’s dilemma. What do you do when you’ve become a hybrid—half this and half that, but not allowed to stay where you finally think you belong?
It took ten years for that idea to germinate and push its way out, but once it did, yes, it was loud enough to wake me up out of a sound sleep. It certainly wasn’t something I could shrink away from because I’m not Arab or Muslim or male or a teenager. I’m a writer, which means I can be anything, imposter complex or not. And Mo is one person, not an entire race or an entire religion, which means Mo can just be Mo.
(THE VOW comes out October 15, 2013. It can pre-ordered here.)