David Corbett is a former private investigator the acclaimed author of four novels, including the most recent Do They Know I’m Running?. Zoë Ferraris is the award-winning author of Finding Nouf and City of Veils. Here, they discuss how fiction can break down cultural stereotypes, making “strangers” recognizable and the role of the hero in crime fiction.
David Corbett: When I first read Finding Nouf , I was bowled over by how insightful it was about what damage a culture premised on male superiority could inflict on not just women but men. The psychological and emotional limitations were brought to light so specifically and poignantly in that book that I was just mesmerized.
One observation in particular I remember vividly—when Nayir reflects on what a joy it would be to have a sister, a woman with whom he could actually have meaningful, personal conversations without fear of impropriety. That was just heartbreaking.
But the other thing that made me take notice was the timing. The book came out in 2008, with America still in the throes of post-9/11 Muslim-bashing. Muslim men in particular were often viewed as terrorists until proven otherwise.
I thought you were incredibly brave, hoping readers would see as human someone so many Americans had already stigmatized, demonized or dismissed.
And yet I didn’t get any sense of a political agenda on your part, though I did sense an artistic one, a desire to lend a voice to one particular type of voiceless—or invisible—character. Am I correct in that?
Zoë Ferraris: Thanks, David. And yes, there wasn’t so much a plan as a general disbelief. I’ve been hanging around Muslims for twenty years. At some point I took stock of all the Arab men I knew and asked myself how many of them are similar to anything I’ve seen of Arab men in the news, on TV, or in modern fiction. I ran through the checklist: terrorist, rock-thrower, fully-bearded fundamentalist, sleazy souq merchant, wife-beater, oil baron, or billionaire sheikh. The only one who fit any of the above categories was an American I knew who had converted to Islam. His idea of being Muslim was culled from old National Geographic photos; he became a fundamentalist and grew the craziest beard I’ve ever seen.
Same goes for Muslim women. Checklist: any belly dancers out there? Nope.
If you wear the same perfume three days in a row, you’ll stop smelling it. It’s this energy-saving device inside your brain that eliminates new perceptions of familiar things. I think most Americans don’t stigmatize Arabs so much as we’re presented with ideas that become odorless, invisible after a few encounters.
It’s easy to break a stereotype for a minute or two, much harder to set up a situation where you care enough about a character to follow him through a rich series of events, and where you spend enough time to realize all the ways that he’s like you and he’s not. The key is getting a reader to care. And with all the attention on the Muslim world these days, I figured that shouldn’t be too hard.
Much harder, I imagine, to tackle the subject of immigrants in this country, especially Latinos, as you’re doing in Do They Know I’m Running? In many ways that hits closer to home, because it’s not just a matter of international cultural relations but a matter of looking at one’s own community and how it deals with strangers….
David Corbett: Your perfume metaphor’s compelling. Yes, most people have made up their minds on who and what an “illegal immigrant” is. But I’m not sure at all my task was harder than yours.
As you say, the problem is creating a character (or characters) people care about enough to follow through a series of crises, intimacies, betrayals, victories. But if the reader’s mind is already made up, your character remains as invisible as Ellison’s hero.
I think this remark of yours is illuminating: And with all the attention on the Muslim world these days, I figured that (getting a reader to care) shouldn’t be too hard.
I find this boldly optimistic (or naïve), and I say that having succumbed to the same impulse. I figured with all the heat surrounding immigration, it was a topic readers would naturally gravitate toward. What I found instead was a kind of topical overload—especially in Arizona. Perhaps it was just indifference—or bigotry—but I’m trying to be kind. And honest.
When you’re bombarded with information 24/7 you get pounded into believing there’s nothing more to be contemplated on an issue. And as news morphs increasingly into entertainment, the appeal of a fictional treatment of anything strikes Americans in particular, with their somewhat superficial devotion to pragmatism, as gratuitous.
But the issue you raise, about the difficulty of portraying a community’s view of the strangers in its midst, is really one of intimacy. I suppose you’re right, your characters were safely removed not just in a fictional world but their real world avatars were also thousands of miles away. Mine could be people you see on the corner. (Some of the most gratifying reader comments I received, actually, were along the lines of: I’ll never view those men out there waiting for work the same.)
And yes, the intimacy ironically works against you. The closer to home the invisible hero is, the more likely he will slip under the radar of preconception and arouse feelings not just of sympathy but guilt.
Which was why I made Roque so American. He was born here, and thus is a citizen—not that this convinces certain people—and has the chops to be a rock star, which is his dream, like any other teenager. His brother Godo is a vet back from Iraq—psychologically and physically scarred. They’ve bought in to the American way not so much by choice as through the natural osmosis of assimilation. They’ve grown up American, even though they speak Spanish at home and are from a mixed family—citizens, legal aliens and undocumented immigrants all living under the same roof. It was the tension within such a family, the fear that someone at any moment might disappear, that I wanted to portray.
Curiously, it’s Roque and Godo’s aunt and uncle—their de facto parents, since their mother is dead and neither knows his father—who are the outsiders. And yet they were far more sympathetic to many readers, because they’re fundamentally decent, hard-working, though far from perfect.
So my strategy for making my “strangers” more recognizable failed. It wasn’t Roque, the American citizen, whom readers found most sympathetic, but his deported Uncle Faustino. And this is because certain traits—humility, kindness, self-sacrifice—really do translate across borders.
Or maybe, as you suggest, it was in fact the uncle’s being further removed that helped. He was a real outsider, and thus not as much of a potential goad to fear and guilt as a stranger in our midst like Roque and Godo.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on that. And what strategies did you devise to make Nayir and your other characters compelling for readers?
Zoë Ferraris: First, I can see how you ran into topical overload. A novel’s relationship to current events is one of those things, kind of like a child’s personality, that relies on the invisible slot machine of destiny. And I’m sorry, but you and me are competing with vampires, which sometimes makes me think that people are suffering topical overload on everything and the best thing that fiction is doing right now is nourishing fantasy.
You said that if a reader’s mind is already made up then your characters remain invisible, but I think even the most absolutely rigid minds can be flexed by good fiction. One of the most awesome things a writer can do is take someone completely vile and make you fall in love with him — even if you’re not prepared to admit it. May I call the jury’s attention to Exhibits Hannibal Lecter and Tony Soprano? Dear cannibalistic serial killer, how did you get so charismatic? Ditto you, plump little sleazebag from Jersey? Why do I like you? The writers took these demons – both of them sociopaths – and made them attractive in some way. And they did it believably, without stripping away any of their sociopathy. That’s just shamelessly good writing.
But you and I are writing about foreign cultures, and that adds a level of tricky. If I created a Saudi mafia sleazebag, his behavior would primarily be contextualized as a Saudi thing, and it would reflect unfairly on an entire culture. With vampires – psssht, who cares? We all know they’re bloodsuckers and when they kill wantonly, nobody feels that the undead nation is being maligned. Mysteries – or any good story for that matter – will churn up the ugliest parts of a society and study the worst of human behavior, but will also show the best of it, in the people who strive for justice and truth. So in writing about Saudi, I felt a need for balance.
I like your point about intimacy making it more difficult for a reader to accept an invisible hero, especially if anger and guilt are involved. But I just keep believing that when you write about topical things, you’re working with an advantage. And if Thomas Harris can make me like a sociopathic serial killer, then shoot, anything can happen.
David Corbett: I’d like to spin the intimacy angle a little, or take it in a new direction. What I’ve loved about your novels is their portrayal of the subtly treacherous dance that men and women go through trying to understand each other as individuals and not just embodiments of cultural totems.
John Hawkes wrote in a short story called “A Little Bit of the Old Slap and Tickle” that to be loved is to be seen. When I read that as a kid a flare went off in my brain. To this day, I think that’s one of the simplest, truest, most elegant ways to describe love I’ve ever come across. We all want to be seen honestly — and ultimately accepted — if only by one person. The projections of sentiment and need and fear and envy blind us to each other, and that’s particularly true in a culture where sex roles are so regimented.
And yet, if women are veiled, then the emotion that attends the removal of that concealment, the small sacrament of finally revealing themselves and actually being seen, would seem to be excruciatingly heightened. That could go deliciously well or disastrously wrong, is my guess.
Protagonists are generally the vehicles for virtue in a book, and thus, often, love. I wonder what particular problems arise when, by cultural decree, your men and women characters are obliged to be at least somewhat blind to each other. It would seem that, almost by necessity, the characters would be required as part of the story to see the distinction between the idea of the loved one and the real human being standing there. That may be part of any good love story, the discovery of the flesh-and-blood individual masked by romantic illusion, but it would seem to be indispensable in Muslim culture — or is that a stereotype? Can there be a Muslim love story without dealing with the whole issue of convention, idealization, stereotypes and misconception?
Zoë Ferraris: This reminds me of something people usually ask at my readings: What do Saudi women wear under their burqas? It’s a strange, yet totally natural question. Of course you want to know what’s hiding beneath a cloak. But strange to think that I could come up with an answer. A friend of mine in Saudi often says that women just want to be seen, and she blames this on the burqa. Always having to cover up does put a stronger emotional charge on the uncovering.
That Hawkes phrase is a beautiful way to describe love, and I think that flare just went off in my brain too. I would also say that to be seen is to be accepted. The first time I encountered a super-devout Muslim face to face, he came to my front door. He was looking for my husband, and when I answered the door (without a veil or head scarf, naturally – this was in Daly City), he turned aside so fast that he nearly got whiplash. He spoke very tenderly and politely to me, but he refused to look at me, and at age 19, I was tortured by that. Not only was it awkward watching him have a conversation with the side of my house, I couldn’t stop thinking: what’s in my teeth? It felt like my own presence on my doorstep was dirty, or I was breaking some mysterious Muslim protocol. My husband later said that, in the mind of the visitor, he was showing great respect for me. He was, by not looking at me, loving me in his way — by giving me the freedom to be exposed and not stared at. But I persist in feeling that when someone pointedly avoids looking at my face while they’re talking to me, it’s insulting and disturbing.
As you pointed out, there is an unveiling in any good story, Muslim or not.
David Corbett: Wow, that really beats my greeting-the-Jehovah’s-Witnesses-in-nothing-but-my-Batman-cape story.
I think for this final back-and-forth I’ll circle back to the point I raised at the outset.
In a certain sense, we both, in our choice of heroes, honored the age-old challenge of giving a voice to the voiceless—or, a face to the invisible. But is this wise with one’s protagonist—especially in the crime genre?
James Lee Burke famously dedicates himself to standing up for the marginalized, but his heroes David Robicheux and Billy Bob Holland fit perfectly the mold of the chisel-chinned (if heavy-hearted) plains gunman. Lee Child’s Reacher and Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch epitomize the type, which accounts for much of their series’ vast appeal. I’m sure there are those who might argue that, by having heroes who for most readers seem to be outsiders, we’ve violated a cardinal rule of crime writing—or, as (Little Brown editor-in-chief) Michael Pietsch might say, we didn’t show sufficient respect for the genre.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m proud of my protagonists and my books, and in each one the hero stood for the good, if you’ll excuse the rhyme. But crime fiction is arguably more about the hero than the story, and readers of the genre appear to prefer their outsiders in supporting roles.
Did we fail to get the memo—or worse, ignore it?
Zoë Ferraris: Nah, we read the memo, we just didn’t like it. You know, we’re like the GM food biologists of the literary world. There’s some transgenesis going on and although people are suspicious, it’s really a tomato.
I think we’re showing respect for the genre by hitting it with a gene gun. Ye Olde chisel-chinned Plains gunman was grown a long time ago, and he’s still the main comfort food when it comes to digesting the ugly parts of our country’s history. But you and me, we’re not just doing all this to be nice, giving those poor voiceless their say. We’re evolving something. Our whole horizontal gene transfer scheme involves producing mutations. We’re part of a whole new menu of crime fiction that encompasses the world. (Check out the Independent’s “Around the World in 80 Sleuths”.)
We’ve defined an invisible hero as someone who’s been “stigmatized, demonized or dismissed.” That fits with the tradition that almost every successful crime hero is tortured in some way. (I believe that was the….other memo.) They’re not all cowboys – think of the cop characters who are clinically depressed and forever on the verge of losing their jobs and who, routinely, fall into a pit of alcohol from which they may never climb out. Lots of miserable ex-soldiers out there. Tormented assassins. Barry Eisler, anyone? Genre loves its antiheroes! And so do we. We may drag new people into that mix – the devout Muslim, the illegal immigrant – but what are they beyond that? How are they tortured? That’s the main course.
Remember there was a time when the hard-bitten Vietnam vet was as demonized and dismissed as an illegal immigrant is today. In reality, the vet is still the outsider – but in storytelling, he can become heroic. Or at least he takes the edge off of the reasons for his own invisibility when he puts all that darkness to use in fighting evil. I think we’re re-seeding the genre, so let’s make a date and see what’s grown up in thirty years.
David Corbett, in addition to being a contributor to the two serial novelsThe Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?.
David’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” (Las Vegas Noir) was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2009. In another collaboration project, he teamed with Luis Alberto Urrea for a story titled “Who Stole My Monkey?” that will appear in the upcoming (October 2010)Lone Star Noir. He has taught at UCLA Extension, Book Passage, Wordstock, and the East of Eden Writers Conference.
Zoë Ferraris moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins. She has an MFA from Columbia University and is the author of Finding Nouf and City of Veils. She lives in San Francisco and Lexington, KY.