Friday, January 31


Fear of Beauty has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America and a Lovey for Best Suspense Novel by the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago.

Illiteracy is a natural topic for suspense. And what an honor that the judges from Mystery Writers of America determined Fear of Beauty's protagonist, a woman in rural Afghanistan who is desperate to learn how to read, meets the MHC Award qualifications: an independent young woman whose life is disrupted and she must solve her problems with independence and courage.
Mary Higgins Clark is the best-selling author of 42 books, a legend whose work and life story have inspired many readers to try their hands at writing. Stories like Where Are the Children? and A Stranger Is Watching terrify yet steadfastly resist violence. 

"Here are some things you'll never find in a Mary Higgins Clark novel: an unmarried couple living together, a curse word, a body hacked to pieces. By today's standards, Ms. Clark's thrillers are quaint throwbacks, more in the Agatha Christie mold than the blood-curdling, titillating fare." So goes the lead to a profile of Mary Higgins Clark, "The Case of the Best-Selling Author," by Alexandra Alter for the Wall Street Journal. "Yet Ms. Clark—who at 83 still churns out at least one book a year—remains as lucrative a brand as ever." 

To be mentioned on the same page with such a writer is a huge honor.

And much thanks to Diana Belchase for her interview "Afghanistan, Women, Illiteracy, and Murder." She writes: "Susan’s books are full of current issues and vibrant people whose struggles and passion for life and justice keep you turning pages.  Her background as a journalist mixes with her literary talent to bring factual stories that both break your heart and exemplify the ability of people to endure and succeed in the most dire circumstances."

Photo of Diana Belchase and Susan Froetschel, courtesy of Diana; photo of Mary Higgins Clark in 2012, courtesy of Alvintrusty and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 27


The future of Afghanistan is in jeopardy, because of poor governance and basic hunger.  UN data suggest that 55 percent of the country's children have stunted growth because of hunger. 

"The statistic is a damning one for western powers that have poured billions into Afghanistan to fund development and reconstruction. The US alone has spent $90bn (£54bn)," reports Emma Graham-Harrison for the Guardian. "Such funding aimed to modernise Afghanistan, but return on the spending seems to have been low."

Not so much damning, but frustrating and challenging. Such funding from afar will slow if the Afghan government can't reduce waste and corruption. The funding will vanish if Taliban extremists resume control.

Surveys suggest that Afghans view corruption along with insecurity and unemployment as an even more pressing challenge than poverty, suggests the United Nations. Yet corruption is embedded in the culture, suggests the UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

While corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country, it seems to be increasingly embedded in social practices, with patronage and bribery being an acceptable part of day-to-day life. For example, 68 per cent of citizens interviewed in 2012 considered it acceptable for a civil servant to top up a low salary by accepting small
bribes from service users (as opposed to 42 per cent in 2009). Similarly, 67 per cent of citizens considered it sometimes acceptable for a civil servant to be recruited on the basis of family ties and friendship networks (up from 42 per cent in 2009).

Corruption erodes community trust, and yet tolerance for corruption remains high in Afghanistan and contributes to poverty and misdirection of resources. Hunger is the most basic problem, one that hampers student learning and worker productivity. The CIA World Factbook lists other statistics that point to a weak, yet dangerous place: The country's literacy rate hovers around 40 percent.  Unemployment stands at about 35 percent. Half the population is under the age of 18. The average number of children among women is five. The country produces 90 percent of the world's opium and more than 5 percent of the population may be addicted.

The harsh truth is that only a fraction of any funds directed at Afghanistan will achieve their intended purpose, and donors must decide how to proceed. Weak governance and high levels of corruption ensure uncertainty in future foreign aid for Afghanistan.

Photo of member of US Army medical unit treating a malnourished child, 18 months old, in Afghanistan, courtesy of Capt. John Severns and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 10

Cultural divide

My maternal grandmother was meticulous at ironing. Once I showed up at her home in a favorite pleated skirt, worn despite having fallen crumpled to the closet floor. She ordered me to change, then arranged the skirt on the ironing board. Pinching more than thirty pleats in turn and restoring the sharp lines, she made my skirt look brand new again.

More than once my grandmother shook her head about my reliance on a dryer to remove wrinkles. But she was also proud that neither she nor her grandchildren had to iron or cook or clean for a living.

Grandma had learned ironing from her mother, who had traveled to the United States from Ireland to work in a wealthy Pittsburgh household. For my great-grandmother, perfection in ironing and other household tasks was a survival skill that she passed along to her children. Many in the United States are children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants. We've heard the stories of our ancestors and respect the skills and the workers. We take pride in our homes and DIY, doing the work for ourselves, whether our role model is Erma Bombeck or Martha Stewart or Heloise Bowles Cruse. Sharing household tasks brings families closer together.

And so it comes as no surprise for many Americans that the Indian diplomat who underpaid a maid was quickly indicted and then allowed to return to India. India's outrage over the arrest of a diplomat in New York City has done more to highlight the plight of domestic workers than an international treaty that went into force last September or detailed reports. Before travel abroad, students and diplomats alike should review advice about social customs. As I wrote for the Asia Sentinel: 

"Many in India have argued that low wages for Indian diplomats justify low wages for domestic help and the United States could have handled the matter with more sensitivity. Critics in the developed world counter that the diplomat who cannot afford basic fair wages for a live-in domestic help should do without.... in a highly interconnected world through travel and communications, a single high-profile arrest unleashed globalization’s force to expose troubling cultural differences, ensuring that cross-border work arrangements and visas will receive more scrutiny – at least for a while."

From left in photo: Great-grandma Mary, Grandma Sarah and mother Jeanne in Pittsburgh, circa 1952. 

Thursday, January 2


As an editor, working to display others' voices in print, I try to avoid the traps of rigid rules. I ask questions and propose alternatives and present my reasons, and nineteen times out of twenty, the writers tend to agree. And as a writer, I deeply appreciate editors, following most of their advice and offering reasons and my thought process for the few points on which we may not agree. 

Such is the writing-revision-editing process.

But some readers and writers try to impose restrictions on the choice of story or basic elements like setting, protesting themes or methods or research before the words even hit the paper. And this I resist, and I'll continue to rebel against such rigid attitudes fiercely. 

Virginia Pye writes about one category of writer-reader for the New York Times: "When I tell people that I have recently published a novel set in China, one of the first questions they ask is whether I’ve been there. My response seems to be a letdown. The expectant look on their faces shifts as they wonder why I chose to write about a place I’ve never visited. Sometimes I sense incredulity. What makes me think I can write about China?"

And Pye goes on to describe the beautiful and good reasons why China as a topic tugged at her, much how I described being drawn to write about Afghanistan despite having never traveled to the country. Readers don't have to read books written by those who have never traveled to those settings, but shrill demands that we stop writing about certain topics can only be described as censorship. 

I commented on Pye's article: 

"A story about a woman desperate to learn how to read cried out to be told, and a trip of a few weeks or months could not have compensated for imagination and my own life experiences with literacy. More essential for a tale is a writer's observations of ambition, relationships and affairs of the heart.

"As I wrote for a blog in 2013, 'I had so many strong ideas in 2009 about religion, extremism, women's rights, literacy, parenting, our troops -- how could I not set a book in Afghanistan? And as a writer, I realized that I didn’t need that many details other than the gut feeling that the parallels and connections between my country and Afghanistan are many.'

"Alas, for writers who think they must travel to write: Your readers will still conduct their purity tests. My first book was set in Alaska where I had lived and worked for five years, and readers still pepper the traveler-writers with questions on how long you stayed and where, and censor themselves accordingly."

And there was one response from Lucy of Becket, MA:

"I strongly disagree.... My forthcoming novel is set in the States and in the Pashtun area of Pakistan. I thought I knew what I was about after reading a dozen books on Pakistan and Pashtun culture. But I had no idea - none - about the true similarities and differences between my culture and theirs until I spent serious time in that dangerous, difficult, head-spinning place and got to know its people."

My experiences may not include travels to Afghanistan, and a village like Laashekoh may not exist. It may not matter to some readers that I grew up during early years in one household where dreams of travel or cultural exchanges were unthinkable, that I have read and researched and written and edited articles about globalization for the past eight years, or met with refugees and worked as a literacy tutor with adults who cannot read. I make no apologies for my lack of travel or life experiences. The story probably has errors - particularly on the military side - but the story about a quest for literacy and family relationships is not automatically inauthentic, as suggested by Lucy in her comment.

No worthy, caring teacher would discourage students against exploring by writing about a setting, a time period, a career, a condition that they have not personally experienced.  

The intention behind Fear of Beauty may not be a story about Laashekoh or Afghanistan but rather a warning for women of my own country about how the powerful use religion and fear and rules to restrict basic curiosity. Never, never let anyone restrict where you choose to direct your literary curiosity.

A happy new year, one that is full of exploring and curiosity. Photo of an Afghan National Civil Order Policeman in Wishtan, courtesy of Lance Cpl. Timothy J. Lenzo and Wikimedia Commons.    

Friday, November 8

Critical influence

Questions from viewers and readers influence writers and artists - with attempts to please these audiences or resist.

Sculptors from Zimbabwe display their skills and artwork in botanical gardens in Europe, North America, and the Middle East - and at the same time must field questions on politics, trade and culture. African Art on the Move in YaleGlobal Online addresses the challenge: "debate continues on culture, style and authenticity – is art global because it sells overseas or because artists respond to customer demands? Must African art be made in Africa, and must it address poverty and politics?"

Any work of art should be assessed on its own quality. Too often critics, amateurs and even professionals, are quick to dismiss work for any number of peripheral details: the style of art, national origins and geographical positioning, too much or too little authenticity, global versus local outreach, the level of academic training with mentors who are too influential or not influential enough, corporate or government support, functional or non-functional design, or an artist's own motivation to describe beauty versus conflict and poverty. "Rejection of artists because of borrowed or political themes, a mentor’s background, or a promotion style that’s too delicate or pushy – any number of reasons – can be as restrictive as commercialization," the article concludes.

Critics are particularly sharp in challenging creators who venture outside traditional boundaries, whether it's sculptors from Zimbabwe carving on the grounds of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada or a journalist in Michigan who decides to write about Afghanistan. Some readers want to read descriptions and analysis only from native writers or those well traveled in a region. But this insistence means that connections can go missed as outsiders quietly compare values and use a new setting to relay cultural conflict in their own homeland.

Some artists comply, narrowing their study, and others resist by extending their reach. 

Photo of Zimsculpt sculpture at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, courtesy of Doug Olsen  

Wednesday, October 23


Malala Yousafzai, along with many other fine candidates, may not have won the Nobel Prize for Peace. But that does not make her quest or the others less worthy.

Most ideas for promoting peace are common-sense outlines for fairness and justice, and these ideals begin in the home, and such is the case about education as the basis for any endeavor. Motivation to improve one's self and one's community is an existential force. Yet, one individual's motivation can also be viewed as criticism of the status quo, an entire community or society, by the many others who think differently and fear change. Each individual must balance internal motivation, his or her own recognition of essential truths, with the ability to absorb the suggestions and understand the motivations of others. Critics can never be sure if their heated denial deters or strengthens the internal motivation of the other.

And how to assess such competing motivations? Motivation is notable when an individual has no personal stake or gain in the battle, no connection to the result, and instead fights for the many others who have no voice. Education can stir or restrain such motivations. 

The challenge is formidable for the Nobel Prize Selection Committee. It's wise for the rest of us to assess and reassess our own motivations and the characters about whom we write. To truly win at life, we must form and understand our own motivation, and not simply accept a set of plans or ideology.

Photo of outdoor classroom in Bamozai, Afghanistan, courtesy of Capt. John Severns, US Air Force and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 15

A word

Censorship and religious extremism go hand in hand.  Fearful of free thought and the opinions voiced by other, the extremists are desperate to control others. The efforts to censor typically backfire and demean the religion or system of governance by suggesting it cannot bear scrutiny from others.

An appeals court in Malaysia has ruled that the term "Allah" is exclusive to Islam and use by others to refer to another god "could cause public disorder," reports the BBC News. Christians and people of other faiths in Malaysia often use the word to refer to their respective higher power. "Although religious freedom is guaranteed by Malaysian law, the country's Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities have long complained that the government infringes on their constitutional right to practice religion freely — accusations the government denies," explains Al Jazeera. 

Allah is not a Malay word. The origin of the word is Arabic and a contraction of al-'il‘h, or "the god," according to the Oxford Dictionaries. Arab and Christian Muslims alike rely on the word to refer to the higher power.

The court ruling does not address use of the word by non-Muslims to refer to the central figure of Islam. 

Fear of Beauty relies on the word at least 75 times, and, no, the censors in Malaysia would not enjoy the plot. The novel criticizes the constant pressure and bullying from those in our communities who try to censor and control others - and deny cooperation and commonality. Adherents who must control others are deeply insecure.

Photo of St. Paul's Church in Malacca, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.