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?
I am sick of being called an “Orientalist.” As if being interested in another culture were a bad thing. And, as I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, “The Jewel of Medina” doesn’t exoticize the Middle East. To the contrary, readers of my book will find that Muhammad and his followers lived grueling lives of dust, heat, and near starvation.
The reason for my gripe today is a thesis sent to me by a U.K. student accusing my novel, again, of Orientalism. I’m not going to argue that point — I’m a subscriber to the reader-response theory — but it does irritate me that the author’s note to “The Jewel of Medina” is what people point to as evidence that I channeled Sir Richard Burton to write the book.
“Join me in a journey to another time and place, to a harsh, exotic world of saffron and sword fights, of desert nomads living in camel’s-hair tents, of caravans laden with Persian carpets and frankincense, of flowing colorful robes and kohl-darkened eyes and perfumed arms filigreed with henna.”
This is how the author’s note begins. Is it Orientalist? Does it exoticise a period and culture in itself, or is the setting of “The Jewel of Medina” automatically exotic by virtue of its antiquity and its difference from any existing culture?
But arguing the authenticity of my books isn’t the point of this post. My aim is to talk about the process behind the author’s note, so other writers can learn from my — apparent — mistake.
Originally, “The Jewel of Medina” had no author’s note. But my editors at Ballantine thought it needed one, and asked me to write something. “A prophet is not without honor save in his own town,” began my original note, which went on to explore the similarities between Jesus and Muhammad.
The editorial team didn’t care for this note. Too academic, they said. They asked me to write another, something more personal about how and why I wrote the book. So I gave them an author’s note that talked about Sept. 11, 2001, and how the tragedy that happened that day inspired me to learn more about Islam.
They rejected this version, too, telling me that people are tired of 9/11 and that no one wants to talk about it or hear about it any more. (Irony abounds in the tale of steps, missteps, and treachery that lies behind “The Jewel of Medina.”)
“Your author’s note should be a door to the novel, an invitation to the reader to turn the pages and enter the world you’ve created,” I was told, or something along those lines. So I sat down and penned what became the author’s note published in the Beaufort Books version. Keeping the author’s note from the Ballantine edition was a decision we all made — the Beaufort staff, my agent, Natasha Kern, and I — out of a commitment to publish the book as Random House had intended it. We didn’t want any accusations that we’d somehow censored the content of the book because of UT Professor Denise Spellberg’s “pornography” charge or out of fear of Muslim extremists.
As a journalist, I am used to working with editors. I haven’t had to fight very many battles over copy during my career, mostly because I’ve had good editors. “The Jewel of Medina” was my first novel; I assumed the editors at Ballantine were very good at what they do. (I still think that, by the way.)
Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have written the darned author’s note at all. It may have been a mistake, giving ammunition to my critics. In it, I offer full disclosure, telling the reader what I’ve fictionalized in the book, and why (I also point out that there is no definitive history of A’isha or of the era, everything being transmitted orally for 150 years after she died before being written down), and I dare to mention the word “saffron,” apparently causing Edward Said to spin in his grave and gnashing the teeth of literalists around the world.
Other “mistakes” I’ve made along the way?
— Allowing the prologue of “The Jewel of Medina” to be published online during the height of the furor over its supposed “pornographic” content. As the introductory chapter of the book, it deliberately raises many questions, which only heightened tensions over it.
— Defending my book to the press, especially the UK press. I wore myself out explaining what became all too apparent when “The Jewel of Medina” was published — that, if it were a movie, it would be rated “PG-13.”
— Not telling the reader outright — perhaps in that author’s note — that A’isha was a poet and a lover of poetry who could recite more than one thousand poems, according to Islamic traditions. I tried to “show, not tell,” by giving her a voice that was especially poetic and filled with metaphor, as pre-Islamic and early Islamic poetry tend to be. Some people are confused over the writing style I’ve used, though, and critics, especially, do not get it.
— Sending a book of historical fiction to a historian for an endorsement. NEVER DO THIS! One of my close friends was married for years to a best-selling historical fiction author who prides himself on his historical accuracy, and she says historians criticize his books all the time. Historical fiction has a different purpose from that of academic history. Novelists invent; we speculate. We’re employing the narrative in search of truth; historians are concerned with facts. This is all as it should be.
Yet I must admit that, all things considered, I have no regrets over the way things have happened with “The Jewel of Medina.” The tale of my novel has unfolded exactly as it should have, and it is still ongoing. Many people have told me they have a better understanding of Islam since reading it. That was one of my many hopes for the book. Now, with the sequel, I’m going to try hard to learn from my mistakes. Note to Professor Spellberg: We won’t be sending you an advance copy.