Monday, June 29

Two characters

I relish reading novels that share a setting with those in my books, and make note of the similarities and differences. Such joy is not shared by all authors.

When I first started writing and Alaska was my first setting, the editor suggested I write to prominent authors in the state to request blurbs. Authors must prepare for rejection - not just from publishers, but from reviewers, readers and other authors. The round of requests did not go well. I followed the editor's advice, and soon received a chilly reply from a popular author who explained she would not read other books set in the state because she did not want to be accused of borrowing others' ideas. Of course, more than a decade later, over the next decade the same writer inevitably tackled the same topics as Alaska Gray, now out of print. Another author, once a favorite of mine, snapped that she wrote literary novels and would not be caught dead reviewing a mystery novel

Needless to say, I've since been shy about asking authors for blurbs or reviews. Besides, as a reader, I've read too many glowing author blurbs attached to horribly written books and often asked myself and other authors, "Did we read the same book?" Of course, positive comments are understandable - turning down a colleague is not easy, and skilled writers can unearth some redeeming quality for a review - but excessive, hyperbolic praise draws red flags. Readers doubt their own judgments, and some eventually give up on an entire genre - mysteries in particular.

Such experiences have likely contributed in some small way to making me more open to exploring new settings. The latest is Afghanistan. And I do not mind reading or commenting on books that share the setting.

That said, I just finished Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman. Like most books set in Afghanistan, the novel is more violent than Fear of Beauty or Allure of Deceit. Still, the novel is beautiful, lyrical, and I recommend it highly to readers who have enjoyed my books.

The similarities are rich and rewarding. While reading the novel's early pages, I felt at home. Aziz's parents would get along with Parsaa and Sofi. Parsaa and Mumtaz would respect each other. Aziz and Saddiq could well be friends. Aziz is probably a bit older than Saddiq but both are restless, thoughtful, and resourceful, especially outdoors, whether climbing mountainsides or trees. Both fall in love, and both have older brothers named Ali. Saddiq's brother is murdered, and Aziz's is the victim of a bombing at a marketplace.

As with any young Afghan, Saddiq and Aziz must cope with constant uncertainty, never sure what the next day or moment might bring. Each must engage in constant calculation and deceit to survive and to help others of their choosing to survive.   

The books share so much in terms of atmosphere, tone, characterization, themes, philosophical exchanges and even pet birds - a magpie in Blue on Green and the mynah in Allure of Deceit. The characters in these books think alike. Notably, Mortaza in Ackerman's book, like Parsaa in Allure, rejects charity: "Those boys need an example of strength. The promise of charity has paralyzed them."

Yet the plots could not be more different. Saddiq, keenly aware of individual motivation and need, has less reason to seek revenge. After losing his family, Aziz becomes a soldier, a murderer, a terrorist. He finds revenge, but that's not enough to renew the bonds with his brother.

Before losing his family, Aziz's upbringing is very much like Saddiq's. Aziz's memories are reminiscent of Fear of Beauty, when militants overrun and disrupt the village: "We always knew of the war, but it was a distant thing. When it finally came, groups of fighters arrived in our village They offered protection to the spingaris in exchange for another tax on the land. We never spoke to these fighters, the spingaris did. They played all the groups off each other, making assurances they could never keep. It was a dangerous game. My family tried to ignore the war. We were happy with our piece of earth, a home, food. It was enough. But this didn't last. Eventually our village was taught that everyone must make a choice." (page 117)

In other circumstances, Saddiq might have followed in Aziz's footsteps. If the fictional village of Laashekoh were larger and under siege, like Gomal in Ackerman's book... If Saddiq had lost most of his family and scrambled to provide for remaining members...

But no, Aziz is alone and Saddiq is not. Saddiq's life is more orderly, more comfortable, not peppered with treacherous humiliations. He's not forced into settling life-and-death moral quandaries with every encounter. The two young men are trustworthy, but for only a select few. Each can easily lie to family or the closest friends. Aziz lies to escape his many losses and perhaps in an inept way, to reduce mental anguish for his brother. Saddiq's deceit is in pursuit of his own version of justice.

It's no wonder that Parsaa, leader of Laashekoh, does everything in his power to avoid foreign or Afghan fighters. As Ackerman suggests, the small lives we build can unravel at any moment.

Wednesday, June 3

Identity crisis

Parents now find themselves on the front lines of battling extremists.

Pentagon officials and media pundits are appalled by the handful of teens rushing off to join Islamic State extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence agencies have estimated that 150 Americans are among the estimated 25,000 who have joined the Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Others, like the Tsarnaev brothers, act as so-called lone wolves.

The extremists recruit with propaganda, and are adept with social media, presenting their twisted rampage as a grand adventure with up to 2000 Twitter accounts, according to a census reported by the Brookings Institution. At risk are teens and young adults who feel inferior and wrestle with their place in the world, many raised by parents who are resentful and bitter themselves. A minor identity crisis is trying out new clothing, hairstyles and activities that rebel against expectations of parents and teachers. A major crisis is running away from home, engaging in substance abuse, joining a cult or extremist group.

More than 50 years ago, psychologist Erik Erickson described how those aged 12 to 18 develop a sense of self and way of viewing their role in the world. Teens “perversely test each other’s capacity to pledge fidelity” and “The readiness for such testing also explains the appeal which simple and cruel totalitarian doctrines have on the minds of the youth of such countries and classes as have lost or are losing their group identities,” he wrote in Childhood and Society, a recipient of both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

His writings about identity crisis are relevant today.

People construct their identities throughout life, but the feelings of crisis are particularly acute during adolescence and soon afterward. We resist parental rules. In my case, I resented my father who prohibited me from driving or going out with friends. Though we lived in the same home, I stopped talking to him for nearly two years. Eager for independence, I skipped school, took a bus into the city and ate lunch in bars, dressing in casual business attire. I remained aloof from others, pointedly not ordering alcohol to avoid being asked for a driver’s license. I selected a setting and attire that made me feel sophisticated and in control.

Constant comparisons over social media, intense competition for colleges and jobs, and young celebrity stories of spectacular success complicate identity formation for today’s teens. Dependence on one’s parents can now stretch out to age 25 or beyond – both for those pursuing higher education and those who end schooling early and struggle to compete in a high-tech world and a troubled job market.

Parents and teachers prepare for identity crises in advance, reducing the lure of extremism.
Too much nagging can push young adults to unwanted activities. Parents and schools must select battles, avoid excessive rules and resist automatic dismissal of young ideas. Praise good choices in school, activities and friendships. Do not get caught up in petty details on odd clothes, hairstyles.
Early on, parents can introduce children to a diverse range of activities and find time to work on a project together – if only a few hours a week gardening, cooking, or volunteering at an animal shelter, senior center, or church program.

Let children experience some failures early in life so that they learn to strive for comebacks and seek new pursuits. Be grateful to teachers in middle school who challenge students and hand out low grades for lack of effort. Be supportive and good-natured when a tryout for a team or other activity does not succeed.

Children and teens observe their parents' attitudes and responses to problems. Parents can model anger and resentment, blaming others for their difficulties. Or they can demonstrate calm, courage and tolerance during difficult periods.

From an early age, children should be taught to avoid prejudice and those who discourage education, debate or humor.

Finally, parents and schools can rely on the narratives in literature or current events that demonstrate the futility of extremism. Erickson himself wrote in Identity: Youth and Crisis: “No wonder that in young people not inclined toward literary reflection, such deep-seated negative identities can be reabsorbed only by a turn to militancy, if not transient violence.”

Photo of mother and child in Farrah Health Clinic, courtesy of Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco and Wikimedia Commons.