Warning: Spiritual Message Ahead

The Violent Volcano

Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

 If you’re anything like me you’re on a constant mission to create balance in your life.

God? Children? Spouse? Work? Home? Health? Writing? Self? In that order. Out of order. With potentially a bunch of other stuff added to the mix. Yeah?

A few mornings ago while driving into work, traffic as insane as ever, knowing the day ahead would be hectic, knowing that I would not be able to accomplish everything before clocking out, not having had my morning coffee yet, and deep down wishing I’d just called off from work and feigned illness, I had a little bit of a panic attack.

Heart racing. Head hurting. Brow and palms sweating.

I tapped through the library of podcasts and songs on my iPod and couldn’t find anything that I wanted to listen to. So I turned it off. I started to zikr, which for my non-Muslim friends means that I did something akin to reciting the rosary. As I was talking to God, I reflected on two things that had occurred before leaving for work.

  1. I received an email from someone who recently read my book and loved it. It was a most lovely welcome surprise to know that something I wrote touched someone to such an extent that they wanted to reach out to me. How awesome is that?
  2. After reading the email I checked my book’s Amazon page to see if perhaps this lovely person left a review. There was a new review but not by the person who wrote the letter. The person who wrote the review thought my book was mediocre at best giving it a 2/5 star rating. My first and only 2 star rating.

I wasn’t bummed out by this. I long ago figured it would happen one day. And quite frankly I’m so new to all of this that I’m just happy someone read An Unproductive Woman and thought enough to write a review at all.

I reflected on these two things and held them up in my mind as a sort of life metaphor. Each opinion about my book, both valid in their own right, existing on opposite ends of the spectrum. Me teetering in the middle. Me trying to balance.

I’m not qualified to determine what if anything God meant for me to glean from this success and failure to reach my readers. Fortunately, I did gain something though.

  • No matter how hard I may try, I will still be imperfect.  But, that’s okay because Perfect Is the Enemy of Done.
  • I can’t please everyone with my writing so I may as well please myself by creating something that at least I find worth in.
  • I can find the middle ground in this life that often feels like nothing but extremes, if I try really really hard or just take it easy.

I also started to think about the best review I’ve ever gotten. It was four stars rather than five. The person who reviewed my book expressed true support for my efforts in writing my freshman novel and gave some very constructive feedback that while not totally glowing, was still 100% positive.  I feel as if I gained more from that one review than the reviewer ever could have gained from reading my book. That review felt like balance. That review is the one I always go back to when I need a boost, some affirmation that I am doing okay at this writing thing and that I should keep at it.

Fortunately, attacks of anxiety don’t happen to me often, but when they do, it’s usually at times when I feel off kilter, when there are too many things to do, too many demands and not enough time or energy.  Times when I’ve fallen off that center line into the land of extremes.

I ought to have awesome core strength, you know, because this balancing thing is hard work.

What do you do to create balance?

How I Got Schooled


I had an interesting experience recently that brought me abruptly back to the subject of cultural (mis)appropriation. It was one of those moments when an outsider presumed to school me about my own religious and  cultural traditions.

The woman was a patient, someone I haven’t met before. She seemed apprehensive when I entered the exam room. I interviewed her about the side effects she’s been experiencing with her current chemo regimen. I tried to ease her apprehension by asking about her family.  She showed me pictures on her iPad of her home in the country, her kids, a sunset.  Then she asked me about my family. Specifically, she wanted to know if my daughters cover their hair as well. I answered in the affirmative, offering eye contact and an honest easy smile as it is at this point that people often become uncomfortable because they think that perhaps I might be. I’m not…ever.  My years of apologetics are long past.  The rest of the conversation proceeded like this:

“So the scarf is part of your culture?”

I shook my head. “No. My scarf is a requisite of my religion.”  I didn’t expound and say that as a fellow born and raised American my culture and hers are essentially the same.

“There are a lot (I assumed she meant Muslims) who come here for treatment.”

“Oh yes.  This is true. This being an internationally renown cancer center people from all over the world come here to receive what they believe will be the best possible treatment.”

“Well you know, the thing that I find so surprising is that you’ll see these men pushing their wives in wheelchairs.”

At this point I no longer had to assume. I knew she was referring to Muslims. I knew where she was headed, and despite the warning voice in my head, I asked her to elaborate. So I said, “Oh? Why is that surprising?”

“Well, usually the women walk ten feet behind the men.”

Exactly ten feet? I thought is was six. Just kidding.  


Stéfan via Compfight

I was dumbfounded and shook my head. “Uh, that’s not true.”

“Yes it is and I see it all the time.”

Are we living in the same world? Why is it that I never see this? And since I’m an observant Muslim, I suppose I’m breaking some age old law because I walk where I please without fear of an honor killing (I am being facetious) or being sent to hell by Allah. I wanted to ask her if she thinks that these men love their wives any less than American or non-Muslim men love their wives, if she believes that even riddled with cancer these women would be expected to trundle along exactly ten feet behind their husbands even after the expense and time of being flown to the USA for expensive cancer treatments.

This was not the appropriate venue for me to school her about the difference between culture and religion, to divorce her of a stereotype as old as dirt and as wrong as sin. She was my patient and it would be inappropriate and unprofessional for me to enter into a debate. So I said in a way that I hope sounded light-hearted, “Well if you see this, it’s not a precept of the religion (my religion), but more likely a cultural practice.”

The look she gave me, this pitying poor foolish ignorant girl look, made me want to scream. Of course I didn’t though. Not out loud, in any case, but there was definitely tight tension in the room until I left.

But honestly, where does she get off schooling me about ME? I know where she gets off, because as I’ve already mentioned, she and I do come from the same culture.

There is this thing we westerners are guilty of… thinking we know better, that we are the benevolent teachers of right, that we merely tolerate the rest of the world’s backward cultural practices. This is an unforgivably arrogant attitude and it’s rampant.

But even deeper and more significant, and perhaps this is my ignorance here, how can anyone with access to technology living in this global world be so incredibly out of touch? Okay I suppose she can be. I mean as globally savvy as we in the west like to think we are, we’re often just about as provincial and insulated as we can get, as evidenced by her obvious ignorance. The most aggravating part though was her arrogant persistence that she was correct, that she knew better than me.

I believe there is an old no longer practiced Japanese cultural tradition where the men walk ahead of the women.  Traditionally this was so that the men could serve as protection. This was not intended as a means to suppress or oppress the women. I have never met a Muslim woman, who because of her faith, walks behind her husband unless she just happened to end up there.

But that is all beside the point. I really wanted to talk about writing. I wanted to impress how important it is for writers to be truly global thinkers. We can not afford, if we care about our craft and our readers, to lose the opportunity to learn. We all make errors and assumptions, but when faced with the opportunity to learn the truth from the source, unlike my patient, we don’t have the luxury of shaking our heads and shaking off information in favor of holding on to erroneous preconceived ideas.

This woman is not a writer, her words won’t likely be disseminated via the internet or some other form of media, but let’s pretend she is a writer, a very popular writer… Imagine the affect.

The Responsibility of Self-Discovery


The power of the self and self discovery…

Tehran Sunset

Hamed Saber via Compfight

I read a couple of articles over this last week about the (mis)appropriation of culture in writing. This got me thinking about our responsibility as writers and readers and also as human beings.

We all have our respective roles in life and we all have many. I am a Muslim, mother, daughter, nurse, writer, wife… As I grow older I will, no doubt, adopt other designations and still yet slough off others. What we have here, hopefully, is the making of a strong balanced evolving human being.

I started to wonder how much of this personal development influences my writing (or vise versa) or anyone’s particular preferred form of artistic expression.

When I wrote An Unproductive Woman over a decade and a half ago, my life was undergoing a major spiritual upheaval. The process of writing AUW was cathartic and, believe it or not, I was in many ways buoyed by the strength of my main character Asabe.
Those who know me and have read AUW have told me that they envision me as the main character, Asabe. I take that as a high compliment but I quickly set them straight. Asabe is the kind of woman I’d emulate and I believe this is what I was going for on the subconscious level when I wrote the story. Asabe is a deep down good woman who is imperfect.

These days I find that my main characters, usually women, reflect less of what I’d like to become and more the passionate rebellious spirit that already resides silently within me. They are usually good but deeply flawed and growing in ways they never anticipated. This would explain also, I suppose, why I frequently hit character development roadblocks, because I don’t know that silent part of me as well, that alter ego

Whether right or wrong, my writing is informed by me and me by it.

Recently a movie entitled The Innocence of Muslims by Sam Bacile received more publicity than it deserved. The film is an intentionally inflammatory piece of tripe meant, I would assume, to offend and harm the Muslim world community. Most of the Muslims I know found it laughable and unworthy and then of course you know, if you’ve watched the news, that other Muslims, to my chagrin and mortification, protested loudly and unfortunately violently. I certainly don’t believe that the film was worthy of any action or reaction barring disgust, but it does beg the question about the filmmaker’s intent.

We could begin by arguing about the right to free speech and thought. I believe Bacile had the right to make the film (with willing well informed actors), but what about his responsibility as an artist, as a person with the power, however small, to create change, to enlighten, to objectively protest what he may perceive to be wrongs. Obviously he had some grievances.

I feel that sense of responsibility when I sit in front of my keyboard. It weighs so heavily on me that sometimes my writing literally hits a wall. I am forced by some internal check to evaluate not just the direction of my story but “why” it took that direction.

I once felt as if my personal mores choked my creativity, but now I would say that they have actually checked my heart and motivations. This is a difficult balance to maintain no doubt, if one is so inclined, but not a balance I’m willing to forego just to maintain my right to say anything that comes to mind without giving thought to the potential consequences. I have a responsibility to myself and my craft and to a degree I also feel responsible for those who may read or be influenced by what I’ve said.

I desperately want to give life to characters that are human, not perfect cookie cutter fairy tale creatures (even in the midst of a fairy tale), but true representations of, in particular POC, women, and Muslims.  As we all know, no two people of any group are alike, so that is certainly not an easy task. While I wouldn’t say that only a member of a certain demographic can give true life to such characters, it certainly helps. Also there are people who manage to write their own demographic wrong. I don’t believe anyone has the monopoly on getting it right or wrong.

I listened to a book a few months ago in which the main character was a woman, a very stupid, childish, whining, woman, whose only apparent worth appeared to be her petite body, her fair skin, and her red hair. Granted the book was poorly written drivel, but this character existed happily as a face and body. I don’t know a single woman who would wish to be seen in such a shallow light. I kept screaming, “Really? What woman acts like this?”
This brings us to the issue, in a very round about way, of the subject of not just cultural (mis)appropriation, but gender and racial as well.

I can not expound on this subject with the fluid eloquence of Nisi Shawl or Aliette de Bodard, but I can say this: Writers have an obligation to get the facts right, even in fiction, and to tell the truth the very best way they know how even if said truths hurt and rankle the author’s own sensibilities, even if in the end their personal prejudices have been nullified.

Isn’t that what true art is all about?

This requires, in my opinion, the honest desire to do justice to the work of art and an honest effort to make that happen. Even if the facts are wrong I think most of us can tell the difference between willful deviance from truth and human error. I’m willing to make allowances for that. That said, none of this can be accomplished without self-exploration and the understanding that must necessarily be born of that.

When I was in nursing school, one of my professors spent an entire class discussing the importance of understanding our personal limits. The context was this, that every nurse will come across a patient(s) whose cultural, religious, personal practice may come at odds with their own. Sometimes enormous odds. Do you ignore your limitations and fail yourself and eventually the patient as well? Do you admit to those limitations and seek help, guidance and/or a solution? Before doing either, you have to understand yourself.

You have to know you.

reflections (B)

Camil Tulcan via Compfight

It is because I understand my personal limitations (to a degree…I’m still learning and growing every day) that I step back and evaluate my actions with my most challenging patients. I do this so as to ensure that I don’t cheat them of appropriate care just because I was annoyed or having a bad day.

Question: If an author is unable to approach a subject with honest objectivity, should they approach it at all?

We could hold up, as an example, the debacle of Revealing Eden, which I could not finish reading. Even today in the midst of nearly unanimous opinion that Foyt  is racist for having written something as blatant, I still take issue with calling her such. I’m more convinced that she is instead, woefully ignorant about how to write an intelligently nuanced piece dealing with the immensely touchy subject of race. I believe Foyt was lazy and that she did not do her research. I think she is guilty of being arrogant enough to think she didn’t have to and for not fessing up when called out on her failure. Besides being terribly written, as we all know that there are many terribly written bestsellers, I think she failed because she didn’t do the self-discovery required to write a story with a subject matter so potentially charged.

Did she ever ask herself, “How do I really feel?” Or “Why do I feel this way?” Or “What do I hope to accomplish?” Had she asked any one of these or other questions requiring true self-discovery, she might have been able to anticipate the negative backlash that has since ensued.  She might have been able to write a truly enlightened and revealing piece of literature

I think it is just as incumbent upon readers to call out those authors who were too lazy to make the effort at self-discovery, let alone fact checking.

As for the man who produced the derogatory film about the prophet of Islam, well that thing (which I could not and would not ever watch) is akin to a temper tantrum. And as such, it was, like any other tantrum, empty of sense or worth. It was a literal mess. I’m not angry that he had the tantrum but I am disappointed that he didn’t try to do better, or that he couldn’t be bothered to at least be honest with himself and the veracity of his obvious anger, which he is entitled to, if he wants to live with it.

But what has he benefited? What have we benefited? What was the point?

Only I can decide what my personal motivations are and as much as I may want to, I can’t decide that for anyone else. (Don’t worry, I don’t really want to. That’s too much responsibility and work!) In the end the truth of it lays solidly in the lap of the artist. In the end the artist has to be at peace with the results, opinions be damned.

But isn’t that what the artist is in search of anyway? Opinion, preferably the favorable kind?