Gnu Books was undoubtedly the favourite book store of my teen years. I used to browse here all the time with my siblings, back when my sister and I collected X-Men comics, and my brothers a whole list of titles that included Alpha Flight and the Fantastic Four. My sister and I used to drive all around the greater Toronto area -- well, truthfully, she did the driving, and I did the scouting in those pre-Internet, pre-smart phone days -- in search of used bookstores where we could snatch up our favourite Harlequin authors, and where I also assembled an impressive collection of truly beat up Martha Grimes' paperbacks. The covers didn't matter, all that mattered was that I read and re-read those mysteries as desperately needing to know the identity of the murderer in question as the previous readers must have done. I'd also find Doctor Who novels, Star Trek novels, and a wide spectrum of fantasy on these quests. We'd check out old stores in Cobourg, Port Hope, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Pickering, Scarborough (which had a treasure trove of used books), and less frequently the west end. Whenever we took a trip anywhere, the first thing we'd do is check the phone book for a used bookstore. Those outings were filled with episodes of the two of us getting lost, shouting directions at each other, taking buses to places we'd never been, sharing our money at Dairy Queens across the GTA, but always keeping the lion's share reserved for the books we wanted to buy. One of the nicest things about books for me is how closely I associate them with the best times I've ever had with my siblings. We traded books, talked books, copied books, learned to write our home-theatre plays and adventures from reading them--engaged, had we but known it, in some early iterations of fan fiction. When we moved into our our own homes down the years, we traded our X-Men and Star Trek novel collections back and forth, although somehow my sister has ended up with both, which reminds me that negotiations need to be re-opened again. Even after we all moved away, if we ever ended up in Ajax, we'd drop in on Gnu Books for old times' sake, and to snag another paperback we never knew we wanted. It's possible we spent more time at that 190 Harwood South location than we did anywhere else except school. Didn't hurt that the local arcade was in the same plaza. Kid brothers could be offloaded there without protest and met up with again in time to go home. Now the Ajax location has closed, but I'm glad to see Gnu Books is still thriving in Oshawa, where my Dad practiced medicine for thirty years. I hope that somewhere in their hearts they know how many hours of endless reading pleasure they gave to kids like us. And I'd be more thrilled than I can express if any of my books turn up on their shelves one day. Here's to you, Gnu Books.
I'm a week away from third anniversary of my debut novel's publication. By now, it's started to feel very real--as if Esa and Rachel are old and dear companions, along with the crew of friends and strangers who are drawn to them individually, as well as to the partnership they've formed. It's nice to know I can settle back into their lives, as if no time has been lost between meetings. But it's also nice to know that there are still storytelling possibilities that take me in new and unexpected directions. Working on the fifth book in the series, I'm thinking constantly of the first--which is not The Unquiet Dead, but a simpler story I told of the murder investigation where Esa and Rachel first work to solve a case together. Well, simpler in some ways but not in others. I've begun to think of that first book--Summer's Lease--and this fifth one as a pair of companion novels. Everything about them feels similar...the season, the atmosphere, the idea that something small and dark can lurk within our hearts unknown to us, until the darkness takes the shape of action and regret. I've been trying to name the themes of this fifth book to myself, and I think this might be it: how we make peace with the choices that we've made.
Speaking of nostalgia, I've been trying hard to remember concrete events in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Gateway to the North, and one of the places I grew up. I lived there somewhere between three and four years, and while there, changed houses three times. Before that I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Two things I remember vividly about that prairie life: we did our trick-or-treating in highly unmanageable but entirely necessary snow pants. And a lot of birthday parties were organized around a roller skating rink that I thought was called Good Times. I used to love roller skating, nearly as much as ice skating, though I'm only passably talented at either. Now in my memory, those family days and birthday parties often took place at Good Times. But searching PA archives, I can only come up with a place called Wheel-A-While, which strikes absolutely no chords of memory whatsoever. But there was a picture in one news article that looks so familiar that I think it is the place. The mystery persists. Does Good Times exist only in my memory or is it real?
Recently, I've been having a longing for books I read in early to late childhood and have experienced both the desire to reclaim them again, and the fear that they won't be the same as they are in my memory. One of the earliest stories that hooked me on mysteries was Peggy Parish's Key to the Treasure, but now of course, I'll read it with an eye to how it interprets and represents native American culture and history. I once read an extremely creepy story called The Tibetan Box, but I can't recall the author's name--I only remember the nightmares, and the desire to be scared like that again. Why? What was in the box? I can't remember! And then there was a story about a dollhouse that came to life and the characters who lived inside it. I could never get the story quite right in my memory, but after a gap of decades (!) I remembered the author was Andre Norton and the story (book?) was called The Octagon House. Wrong. It was actually Octagon Magic. I've tracked several of my old favourites down through Abe Books, and I'm about to find out whether childhood is better left alone. Wish me luck!
I spent a cold couple of weeks in Toronto, hearing news about how cold it was in other parts of the country and around the world. The famous frozen bubble experiment was conducted in the prairie province I grew up in - Saskatchewan. I was once accustomed to bracing prairie winters, but the mildness of the Colorado winter has eroded my ability to face those once-familiar temperatures without complaint. I swallow my complaints as I think about winter coming to the refugee camps I wrote about in A Dangerous Crossing: Souda, Moria, Kara Tepe. The UNHCR stretched to the limit as it attempts to winterize tents and inadequate shelters, tents catching fire from camp stoves used for heat. And families waiting in the cold for a future that promises only uncertainty and greater suffering. And as Esa and Rachel discover on the Greek islands, the welcome that waits for refugees around the world is as cold and brutal as the winter. That's the story I tell in A Dangerous Crossing.
Image is of Petra camp at the foot of Mt. Olympus, taken by Paul Carr in 2016.
UNHCR efforts in Greece
I was a teenage fan of the band U2, and this was the first U2 song I fell in love with, but certainly not the last. I remember the New Year's Day video, the cold, blunt, wintry landscape, and I lived in the Ravenscroft house where the nearby park suggested something similar. I had teenage angst to spare and even then was more likely to look back than forward. I think this comes of having moved so much. You're always looking back at the place you left, as a means of settling into the place you've now arrived at. I lived in the Ravenscroft house longer than I've ever lived anywhere and many of my happiest memories are memories of growing up in that house with my three siblings. A tv show called The New Music had just launched and U2 was all the rage, and New Year's Day had that wonderful solidly pinging piano that felt like it was knocking against your head and your heart at the same time. Without having the slightest idea what that song was about, it became about my own life. I associate it even now with a time and a set of circumstances I can never get back. Instead of resolutions and vaulting ambitions for myself, New Year's Day -- the song and the time -- always makes me think of the Ravenscroft house. And the view from my sister's window looking out at the snow all the way down to the neighbourhood creek. It's something that Esa might have felt in the silent snowbound vastness of Algonquin Park in The Language of Secrets. I try to make myself -- and Esa -- turn the page, move on, accept the forward motion of life. But I love the intangible, bittersweet happiness that New Year's Day recalls. And sometimes, there's a quiet grace in looking back.
What sad fate awaits you, haunted by Palestinian ghosts.
Once seen, a matchstick to memory.
Once known, an eternal embrace.
Where I, too, have wept
at the outskirts of Jaffa Gate.
I’m at a beautiful moment. The first day of work on a new manuscript when the words have yet to take shape. At this moment, the book can be anything—a love story, a puzzle, an exploration of xenophobia in our world, or all these things combined. With Rachel and Esa, that’s usually how things turn out. I begin with one story in mind and other stories intrude, eager to make themselves heard. The research I’ve been compiling over the past year lends itself to three different projects—a Khattak/Getty novel, a work of literary fiction, or a television script. Each suggests intriguing possibilities. I am faced with the dilemma of what to write next—and to escape the rigor of producing a manuscript on deadline, I often long to write anything other than the book at hand. I conquer this by returning to the things I love about writing Rachel and Esa. He’s complicated, thorny, surprisingly sensitive and needlessly mysterious. She’s bold, clever, easily wounded, and searching for a place of refuge. They strike sparks off each other. They continually teach each other—and me—the value of empathy. So I’m asking myself what road I should send them down this time. The themes I’ve masked in the last five Khattak/Getty stories—should I bring them out into the light—without ambiguity? Even though I love ambiguity and thrive on resolutions that leave things unresolved? It could be time for Esa to face head-on the conflict between who he is and what he does. And it may just be time for Rachel to stand on her own--without him. This is what I say on the first day. But I know it will be different on the last.
Love Letters for Twelve Days
When you leave, the house becomes substance and shadow. I see things I never notice when you are there, and I realize how much of the space you occupy—both in the rooms around me, and at the forefront of my mind. There is a Persian endearment I think of--khubi/khubam. With imperfect knowledge, I try to reconstruct meaning from bits of language I glean from overhearing and over-reading, sketching our part of the world with words.
Khub—in Urdu, a word that modifies other words as well as standing on its own. Khubsurat—beautiful, but literally two words: khub—excellent/good/a great deal/enough and surat—face. To have a good or excellent face is to be beautiful in this clumsy translation of meaning. There will be much, there will be everything, there will be enough. As a Persian endearment, I ponder the possible implications of Khubi. My good one, my excellent one—my everything, the one who is enough for me.
I like to think that language can take these brilliant, dazzling turns—to provide a word that means so many things, that casually transforms an endearment into a description of everything someone is to someone else.
The house is enough when you are here. Khub he meray liye. Urdu.
When you are gone, khubam/khubi, because you are everything, the house feels like nothing at all. Persian.
Our two languages, you and me.
And you are always enough.
Silence. Every moment is so silent. We have endured these separations many times over the years. Sometimes you forget me as soon as you board the plane, sometimes I am so preoccupied with work that I don’t see the exact moment when your cab pulls away and I forget to raise my hand in that final farewell. But later when the house is quiet and Shiloh comes to visit from our neighbor’s house, I pick her up and hug her close and tell her, I know you miss him as much as I do. I know the house is empty without him. I know he is the source of all the joy and animation within these walls, and when he is absent, my heart conducts a funeral. Though I am from the West, the East is within me and my tradition is given to these elaborate emotions. I am married to the most prosaic of men, yet every day I rewrite our Layla-Majnun love story. Every day I make you count out loud all the different ways you love me. To hear it again now, I must wait.
I wait and wait and wait.
Knowing that when you come home, Shiloh is the one you’ll want to kiss first.
Even that, I love.
I wrote this for our wedding day because I love the idea that we can be rooted in a history we don’t intimately know, and its seeds can still bring us joy.
is an unknown city
from which has sprung
a garden of joy.
When you are gone, I write much more, because when you are here you take up all my words. All the words are for you—and how well you understand them. You don’t have time to read fiction, yet there are hundreds of books on your bookshelves, and thousands more in your heart. Strange then that you take these words of mine, you make these words, and you shape them all in your way. Just as we have been shaping each other in these years of our marriage—I have shaped you into a feminist, you have made me examine my cultural affinities more rigorously. Whenever we speak of the voices of women, and the casual, daily sexism women encounter, I remind you that you have eight nieces whom you love. When I cling to everything I was brought up with, you tell me to look harder, think harder, be bolder—I remember how in the early days of our marriage, we argued about when to break fast, and I look back at our younger, foolish selves with so much tenderness for the little battles we fought that meant nothing at all. But all the time they were teaching us and we were growing, reaching for the understanding that we hold now. Aware that our world is on fire, burning down around us and that we both have so much more work to do. We must be there to support and nurture each other’s gifts so that when we pass into the infinite everlasting, we can receive our records in our right hands and ask for each other’s company in the life to come—partners now and always. You will trade me in for a beautiful houri, I tease. And you say in return, there is no houri more beautiful than you.
Today is the day of the #CanYouHearUsNow campaign. You know that I am always the cautious one, the one who says ‘don’t go there, it’s too dangerous,’ ‘don’t say that in public, you don’t know who around here might not like us or be carrying a gun’. I have done my work in the shadow of truly courageous activists—I’ve written letters, called politicians, posted news on behalf of those who’ve been in prison for journalism/poetry/filmmaking/teaching at universities or standing up for basic human rights. They are the brave ones, I just observe and learn from the sidelines, and try to do my timid part. But on the day of the campaign, I venture my modest offerings and receive the merest fraction of what real activists face, and I am frightened. A woman I don’t know and try to engage as a human being demands proof of the hate I’ve been writing about, proof that I’ve been threatened. She hasn’t read or understood the spirit of my words. She doesn’t imagine—having seen the messages and cartoons I was sent—that I might wish to deter others from threatening me further. Or that someone doesn’t have to say “I’ll kill you” for me to be frightened of their implicit violence. No matter how many charts and statistics I pile up, she can’t be convinced I deserve to speak of the realities that affect my life. I’m afraid she will invite others to join her in this bilious fray, and I withdraw. She demands to know where I am from because if she can exile me with her words, she will have destroyed my access to my own humanity. She won’t comprehend that I can be from many places, belong to many countries, many traditions, and believe in our shared humanity. I imagine she hasn’t engaged before with a writer who has never been comfortable with categories.
I don’t sleep well, and I can’t write that day. The voices that keep me company dry up. I look around the house for you. I page through the albums, looking at photographs of our last trip. I see your smile, I see my smile. This is where I belong, I think. This is where I am from. The country of your love, the safety of your understanding.
You are gone, I lock the doors, I set the alarm. And I remember that while I engage in these polite affirmations of my inalienable human rights, you’ve been missing for twelve hours in a country far away, determined to do your best to change the course of the world.
It’s a beautiful country, utterly safe—its people are decent and good. It was the civil society activists who invited you to speak on your important work. But you warned me before you left—you gave me a list of names and numbers to call, you registered with our embassy, in this beautiful, safe place you were going. Even you—you who believe you would suffer no risk in Iraq—even you were worried. You said if you were detained, it would be at the airport and they would send you back to me.
But we know from a list “that lengthens like a bloodstain”, someone in your line of work is always at the mercy of the arbitrary rules of authoritarianism and never truly safe. I don’t know what to recite, so I recite Sura Falaq. I seek refuge from the black darkness when it is intense.
And I add to myself, “and when it covers the world.”
God bless you and keep you, my love. Please come home to me soon.
Also, today on the "Behind the Book" feature for AMONG THE RUINS, I'd like to introduce you to the Siosepol bridge in Esfahan. Esa Khattak meets the young dissidents Ali and Taraneh near this bridge that spans Iran's Zayanderud River. "They disembarked at the south end of Siosepol Bridge, a Safavid construction mounted on a series of pontoons. Its thirty-three arches burned like the embers of a giant's torch, an auroral glow reflected in the river. If a sorcerer had flung open his hand, so might the arches of Siosepol have sprung up."
Today on 'Behind the Book', I'm skipping ahead in AMONG THE RUINS to the part where Rachel joins Esa in Iran. They meet in Tehran but soon Rachel finds herself on a group tour visiting the Nasir al-Mulk or Pink Mosque of Shiraz, where she's forced to confront her preconceived notions of Iran. In the Pink Mosque, she finds "ample tranquility, an amphitheater of joy", and she asks herself what such celestial beauty has to tell us about the culture and civilization of the Other. Here's a rendition of the Pink Mosque's unique architecture. If anyone recognizes the photographer, I'd love to include a proper credit.
Today I’d like to inaugurate a ‘Behind the Book’ feature , where I talk about certain moments, themes or places in each of my books. Given that an election is taking place in Iran, it’s the perfect time to chat a little more about AMONG THE RUINS, the third book in my Khattak/Getty mystery series. As RUINS opens, Khattak is in the city of Esfahan in Iran, a breathtakingly beautiful, former imperial capital. There’s a saying known to all Iranians, and possibly to all speakers of Persian/Farsi: Esfahan nesf-e-jahan…or Esfahan is half the world. In fact, it is with these words that RUINS begins. As Khattak seeks peace in the city’s gardens, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to read the poetry of no less a personage than the revered figure of Hafiz. Khattak’s correspondent observes that instead of reading Hafiz, Khattak has a different book. He's traveling his own ‘closed circuit.’ This is a reference to a book of poems by the Iranian poet, Shadab Vajdi. I was given this volume of poetry by a friend when I was in law school, and the haunting beauty of those poems has stayed with me. Though the poems in Closed Circuit reference a previous era in Iran, their themes of exile and oppression translate to the present moment Khattak finds himself in, and to the murder he’s asked to solve. Here’s a look at the Naqsh-e Jahan square in Esfahan, where Khattak passes his days.