Photo: Bernard Gagnon https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10325900
These are dark days. Although this will never be a political blog, I give up on tiptoeing around that particular elephant: when world events are as dire as they have been these past few weeks, writing fiction feels silly. Selfish, even.
But here’s where fiction and the real world collided, for me, a few days ago.
I was in my favorite place, deep in the rabbithole of research. Six books lay open on the floor around me, none of them published in the past quarter century. For me, fiction writing demands real, hard research, the kind that goes far beyond what the Internet has to offer. Right now, I need to know more about 13th century Syria and Lebanon. All kinds of things: landscape, clothing, food, calendar, weights and measures, demographics. Also wetlands, because I need to know where you’d live, if you happened to be a swan.
Eventually, I always stumble on the right page, those crucial few sentences. That day, they were these:
“Buhairah al Afâmiyyah: ‘These,’ writes Abu-l Fidâ in 1321, ‘consist of a number of lagoons divided one from another by beds of rushes, with lowlands covered by reeds. […] Its depth is less than the height of a man, but its bottom is so miry that a man cannot stand up in it. On all sides and all over its surface are reeds and willows, and in the middle there is a thicket of reeds and papyrus. […] On these lagoons there live all kinds of birds, such as swans, and the species called Al Ghurairah, and Sangh, and pelicans, and cranes. Also birds that feed on fish, such as the species called Al Jalth and Al Abyadâniyât, and other such aquatic birds. In no other lagoons of which I have knowledge are there so many kinds of birds as here. In springtime these lagoons are so crowded with yellow water-lilies that the whole surface is hidden thereby, and the water is as though covered by a veil from end to end, formed of their leaves and flowers. The boats thread their way through them.’” (Guy Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems, Beirut: Khayats, 1965, pp. 70-71)
This kind of source material nourishes me. It puts me in 1321: I see and feel what it was like to be there. But where on earth is Buhairah al Afâmiyyah? Sometimes, even a purist like me has to turn to the Internet. After a few keystrokes, I identified the ancient town of Apamea, with its stunning Roman ruins.
With one catch: those same keystrokes also let me know that Apamea no longer exists. Not as it did in the photos, the ones that make me want to drop everything and get on a plane. No, those are from before the war. Now Apamea has been looted, stripped. From my safe vantage point at the other side of the world, studying photos on Google Earth, I can only guess at the damage. I didn’t know I wanted to visit Apamea until a minute ago, and now I also know I never will.
And then, although I have social media and news sites blocked, and I’m trying to keep my head in a different place, that quiet place where writing gets done, suddenly it’s all right there in the room with me. The refugee ban. The fact that I should probably be, at that moment, driving to the Philadelphia airport to stand in solidarity, not reading medieval Arabic geographers while dreaming of pelicans and water lilies.
Why am I trying to write this book? In no sense am I the right person to tell the story: a series of diplomatic incidents between a Frankish lady of Beirut and Sultan Baybars, colliding with fragments of folklore from two or three cultures, none of them mine. I am a white person with no qualifications but a love of research, a familiarity with Western medieval culture, and a working knowledge of all sides of the Crusades, gained over years of wanting to teach my students what really happened. I know just enough to understand how many ways this could go wrong, how many real people I could hurt. But the story wouldn’t stop tugging my sleeve, and I was already writing it before I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t.
For now, I focus on doing my research, expressing the full humanity of all my characters, and acknowledging my own ignorance. It’s never wrong to want to learn more. It’s never wrong to write a first draft, to tell the story to yourself. Later, I’ll think about what comes next. The worst that can happen is I’ll have to throw it all away. And that’s only what happens with most of the novels people write anyway.
So I tell myself. But I am scared. Scared of doing this ham-handedly, insensitively. And, in my snug little office in central Pennsylvania, never having had to flee my home, never having been turned away by a country that had pledged to take me in, this kind of fear is itself a privilege.
These are the quotes I have above my desk right now:
“When fear arrives, something is about to happen.” – Leigh Bardugo
“You have to write the book that wants to be written.” – Madeleine L’Engle
“Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” – Rabih Alameddine
Read about the probable looting of Apamea here and here.