Monday, March 19, 2012

My First Time: Keija Parssinen

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Keija Parssinen, author of The Ruins of Us.  She was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years as a third-generation expatriate.  She earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship.  The Ruins of Us, her first novel, was published in January 2012 by Harper Perennial in North America and by Faber & Faber in the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa. For The Ruins of Us, she earned a Michener-Copernicus Award, and the book was named National Geographic Traveler's Book of the Month for January 2012.  Her short fiction recently appeared at  She lives with her husband on the edge of a quarry in Missouri.

My First Incendiary Novel

We hear conflicting reports about the power of words in modern society. There’s the playground taunt we’ve heard from childhood, where we learn words can “never hurt” us, unlike, say, a baseball bat. But then in high school, an English teacher inevitably lays out that famous 19th century claim that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” I recall thinking the adage sounded noble but a tad outrageous, picturing an army of scribes setting on some medieval city, brandishing their feathered instruments belligerently.

As an adult, though, I see that Mr. Bulwer-Lytton was on to something when he wrote the famous line. Words, and more to the point, books, are dangerous. They are banned and censored, their authors exiled.  They can influence opinion, and in so doing, damage (if not destroy) corrupt governments, bad businesses, hypocritical politicians. Words emerge from the ether to give body to thought. With even the merest suggestion of a book, sometimes, fear and anger follow, often taking the form of offense.

In graduate school, while writing and researching my first novel, The Ruins of Us, I encountered a range of negative responses to my efforts, from gruff phone calls to out-and-out email attacks. Those responses marked my first experience with angering or antagonizing people through my creative work, and it was unsettling. The book is set in Saudi Arabia, where I was born and grew up, and where my mother grew up before me. I had questions which dealt primarily with human rights, plural marriage, Sharia law, and religious extremism in the Kingdom.  When I posed those questions, the Saudis, Arabs and Arabists I consulted sensed criticism of Saudi culture and were hesitant to provide answers for fear of giving me, an American, more ammunition for the perceived Western assault on Eastern tradition and society.

To some people, I had merely to say, “I’m writing a book set in Saudi Arabia…” before they would react defensively. Others, after learning more about the plot, would launch into lectures about why the subject of my book was offensive. Upon learning the bones of my plot, one Saudi who was a long-time family friend said despairingly, “I thought you were going to write a nice book promoting what is good in Saudi society.” And then there was an American woman living in the Kingdom--who’d been married to a Saudi for years--who took it upon herself, in our introductory email exchange, to launch into a tirade against “Americans who just want to Saudi-bash” and say that she hoped my book wouldn’t be “that kind of trash.”

Of course, by that point in my academic career, I knew that books could be incendiary; I’d just never considered that mine would be. The minor kerfuffles that attended my research scared me, leading me to wonder just what I was getting myself into by writing this particular book, with its political subject matter and divisive setting. I’m an amiable person who wants people to think well of me (who doesn’t?); I don’t take pleasure in debate, preferring peaceful discussion to stridency. Before grad school, such conflict was a non-issue. The novel had always been a way for me to explore private questions I’d had about Saudi Arabia, a place that had long obsessed me and from where I’d been unwillingly estranged as a repatriated American. The writing was a deeply personal exercise; without an audience, I couldn’t truly offend, and there was peace in that existence.

But with grad school came an agent and a finished draft, and suddenly, publication was a possibility. In my final year at Iowa and the year proceeding it, as I continued to receive hostile or non-responses to my research inquiries, I had to face the fact that I might just publish a book that angered some people. The idea horrified me, and my panicked mind went immediately to Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah’s ludicrous fatwa; to the Turkish government’s warrant for Orhan Pamuk’s arrest; to Naguib Mahfouz’s stabbing by a man who’d never read a word the Nobel laureate had written. People angered by literature did some pretty nutty stuff, it seemed. Did I want to be targeted, or arrested, or stabbed? Certainly not! Was I getting ahead of myself and being paranoid and grandiose? Certainly! As a debut novelist, there was nothing quite so bracing and terrifying to me as an audience.

Still, I wrote the book. I had to, compelled by the same obsession that drives all writers to create. If I didn’t write it, it would burn me up. While I was sad to let our family friend down, and mildly concerned about the people I might hurt or insult (or had already), I also knew that no good book can be propaganda, and that if a book angers people, on some level, it succeeds. I knew, too, that when people start to try to impose rules on writers it looks an awful lot like censorship. Books must be allowed to deal with the unsavory, the difficult, the extraordinary--all the complicated things that make societies, and people, interesting. Plural marriage, extremist religion, and authoritarian government in the Kingdom happened to fascinate me, and so those threads emerged in the book. Yet I also wanted to better understand America’s role in the region, family life in Saudi, as well as the effects of the internet on a closed society. In The Ruins of Us, those themes, too, are present.

In a recent article for Vanity Fair about his friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie recounts how Hitchens once quoted Heine to him, in a correspondence about the infamous fatwa: “Where they burn books they will afterward burn people.” Books, from the most explosive to the most light, must be allowed to exist, or else our fundamental freedoms of thought and expression are compromised. If I hope to be any kind of writer at all, I must think proudly, rather than wincingly, of the first painful time my writing gave offense. I must embrace truth over popularity, an imperative that means struggle and freedom all at once.

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