A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
Here is the speech I gave on Sept. 11, 2012, at the Spokane Coeur d’Alene Woman Magazine Luncheon:
“Moments,” I once wrote, “are the hinges on which the doors of the human universe swing.” I’m here to tell you about some of mine.
I remember the moment I discovered A’isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. I found her in a book on women in Islam that I read after 9/11, when many of us were learning for the first time of the terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan. Nine-year-old A’isha was playing on a teeter-totter, I read, when her mother called her indoors, cleaned her up and put her in a new gown, and took her into her parents’ room, where Muhammad, her father’s best friend, awaited her on the bed. She deposited her into the prophet’s lap, said, “May you have a long and prosperous life together,” and left the room.
My heart went out to this young girl. I could not stop thinking about her. One day, as I was lifting weights, I realized that the subject of my first novel had come to me at last. It was February of 2002, and I was 40 years old. I had wanted to be a novelist all my life, ever since I’d learned to read on my mother’s knee at the age of 4. But I had never known what to write. Now, at last, I had my topic. A’isha, born in a time when women had no rights, married without consent to a man old enough to be her grandfather – Muhammad was 54 – and forced to compete with 11 other wives and concubines for power, position, and her husband’s love, grew up to become the most famous and influential woman in Islam, advising her husband’s successors, arbitrating disputes, even leading troops in the first Islamic civil war. As I wrote about her, I felt myself becoming stronger and stronger, until at last I left my verbally abusive husband in spite of the fact that I had almost no money. A’isha helped me to do that.
I remember the phone call I got from my agent, Natasha Kern, in February 2007, telling me that Random House had snapped up my manuscript before it could go to auction — and would pay me $100,000 in advances for The Jewel of Medina and its sequel, The Sword of Medina. I felt elated, as though I had entered a novel of my own, or a dream. My editor, Judy Sternlight, loved the book as did everyone on the editorial team. They worked up a publicity and marketing plan that would be sure to catapult my book to best-sellerdom. It included an eight-city U.S. tour. Endorsements came in from other authors with high praise for my book. I went to Toastmasters meetings to hone my public speaking skills. As I wrote my speech about A’isha I felt her presence within me. I remember my tears of gratitude for being called to bring her amazing story to the Western world.
Then, in May 2008, just a few months before publication, the dream came crashing down.
I remember the phone call from my agent telling me that a University of Texas professor had read an advance copy of Jewel and warned Random House executives that it would certainly incite terrorist attack against the company and its employees. Those executives freaked out. They decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication of my books until a safer time. They offered me another contract for another book, one which I hadn’t written. But I refused. We were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since I’d begun my book, the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard had been forced into hiding because of his drawing of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Theo Van Gogh had been stabbed to death because of his film telling of women’s mistreatment under Islam. Seven years after 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment was as high as ever in the U.S. and all over the world. My books showed a different side of Islam, its origins, under a leader who supported women and gave them rights they had never before possessed in his culture. My book, I realized, could build bridges of understanding between our culture and theirs. Its time was now. I canceled my contract with Random House, and set out to find another publisher.
Meanwhile, Random House tried to silence me by forcing me to sign a gag order before I could recover the publication rights to my books. I did so, after telling a Wall Street Journal reporter – A Muslim-American woman named Asra Nomani — everything that had happened. A journalist myself, I’d taken copious notes during my phone conversations with a Random House vice-president. Soon after I received my rights and the check for the rest of the money the publisher owed to me – here is why writers need good agents – the Wall Street Journal published her editorial: YOU STILL CAN’T WRITE ABOUT MUHAMMAD. In it, she quoted from her interview with the UT professor, Denise Spellberg. “You can’t take sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography,” she said.
I cringed when I read this. There’s not a single sex scene in “The Jewel of Medina.” Of course, the Muslim world went nuts. So did everybody else, and over a book that had not yet been published. I got death threats – and worse, one of them included my daughter. I was deluged with requests for interviews. I got up at midnight for BBC radio, then at 4 a.m. for a talk radio show on the East Coast followed by an interview with an Arabic journalist who peppered me with hostile questions. Two FBI agents met with me to tell me that I was in terrible danger. At last, I broke down. I ran away to a friend’s house on a mountaintop in Montana – where I discovered that Muslims were protesting The Jewel of Medina in Serbia, and that my publisher there had been threatened.
The editor of Blic, the Belgrade daily, asked me to write an essay for a special report on free speech that his staff was putting together. I didn’t want to do it. I only wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. I kept thinking about the innocent people who might be harmed because of my book. Terrible images flashed in my mind. I did this, I thought. As I packed my belongings to go home, my eyes veered around the room as if I sought an escape. The blue sky caught my gaze and seemed to pull me into its calm beauty. I stood in a ray of light, breathing it in. Help me, I thought. Almost instantly I saw A’isha in my mind’s eye, proud and strong, her red hair whipping about her, her sword in her hands. Love, I remembered, was why I had written The Jewel of Medina – my love for A’isha and my desire to increase understanding in the world, which leads to empathy, which leads to love – which leads to peace. I remembered peace. I remembered courage, and strength. Everything fell into place for me then. It was the moment that defined me, and which defines me still.
Love. Peace. Courage. Strength.
I sat down and wrote that piece for Blic. I wrote about my respect for Islam, and my hopes that my books would bring us all together, East and West, Muslim and Christian and Jew, women and men. Later, the editor told me that my piece had a huge impact. My book became the number-one best seller in Serbia for nearly a year. Many of its fans are Muslims.
A’isha has helped me many times since that day in my friend’s guest room. Since writing The Sword of Medina, I’ve published FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, set in medieval Europe, and WHITE HEART, an e-novella prequel, with Simon & Schuster. A’isha is in the women in these books, too, just as she is inside me. I daresay she’ll be a part of everything I ever write for the rest of my life.
I depict women in my novels who must search deep within themselves for their inner strength, as A’isha did, and as I did. As I still do, and as countless other women do today.
There is, I believe, a bit of A’isha in us all.