My dearest readers,
As most of you already know, I am a Parisian. When destruction struck my city on November 13, 2015, I stayed numb for three days, then started frantically searching for my cousins. One could not be located until late last week. God is good: my family was spared. But other families were less blessed. Their loved ones had gone out to have a good time–hardly an offense, much less a reason to be murdered. We asked ourselves why.
On the morning of November 13, before the attacks ever took place, my cousin’s wife, Olesya, forwarded me a video purporting to show the Chinese response to ISIS: the bombing of a mosque. It was created with special effects, but it threw gasoline on already-fiery minds, who wished it had depicted a real event. Olesya lives in Shanghai; she is one of the most peaceful human beings I know. She and her husband, my cousin Danny, are members of the French community there, and they also own an apartment in Paris. Many French people have felt their home turf invaded by Muslims, citing fear that these immigrants are spreading fanaticism; the French government has even banned the wearing of hijabs by girls in public schools. But only a small percentage of these refugees are members of ISIS. Do the innocents deserve to be blamed for the actions of a group of terrorists, simply because they share the same religion? Leopold and Loeb were Jewish. Does this mean that all Jews are sadists and murderers? Should we condemn every member of the Catholic clergy for the sins of deranged pedophiles? All Southerners for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan?
My father and I have very dear Muslim friends, whose sense of outrage at ISIS may even be stronger than ours. The propagation of the Chinese video horrified me. I knew that Olesya and Danny were angry, as many Americans here are angry over illegal immigration. But what has Donald Trump done but to exacerbate our own xenophobia with his continued message of hatred? I said this to Olesya, and explained that I didn’t think violence could be stopped by more violence. That only makes the world a more divided place, one in which nothing can ever be resolved.
Later that night, ISIS set bombs off in Paris. Danny was quick to email me: “Do you still feel that we should try to be diplomatic about this?” Our city was attacked. My family is suffering from PTSD, the way my New York friends did after 9/11. I cannot watch any more news about Paris; I simply break apart. And yet, I couldn’t answer Danny. Am I angry? You bet I am. But I am angry with the ISIS terrorists, not the Muslim faith.
This past week, Penner, the publisher reissuing my historical fiction, asked me to go through my first five novels to pick out favorite scenes for promotion and cover art. I found myself rereading these books with mixed emotions. The first was: “How could I have written such turgid prose?” But the second was a measured pride that I had known enough about human nature to depict real people, to give life on the page to human beings rather than stock characters.
Being nice isn’t a sales point for a protagonist. We remember Iago more clearly than Desdemona, Shylock more that Antonio, Fagin than Oliver Twist. We remember those who wreak evil more than those who do good. In the same way, if in our daily lives we feel unjustly slighted or demeaned by just one person, we tend to stew about it with such a sense of personal outrage that we forget the ten people who went out of their way to be kind to us.
Writers are aware of this. Since this was the first time I’d read my first five books consecutively, I was stunned to find common themes linking them together. And my novel-in-progress, IRREVOCABLE TRUST, though much more contemporary and intended for a gender-neutral readership, is another link on that chain. I’m obsessed with wounded beings who flail out in anger because they have been wronged. Men and women whose sufferings in their youth end up shaping their adulthood. Violence breeds violence; hatred breeds revenge–in fiction as well as in reality. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that come upon them make haste.”
This Biblical quotation encapsulates the way my most damaged characters feel: Elena in The Eleventh Year and Johanna de Mey in The Four Winds of Heaven; Claude in The Keeper of the Walls; Charles in Thy Father’s House; Pierre in Encore. Hurt me, and I shall destroy anyone in my path. IRREVOCABLE TRUST covers a complex network of unhealed wounds. As writers, we tend to mirror what takes place in our own world. We live under a single god, worshipped in many guises, yet neighbors fall upon one another in the haste to prove that their version of the deity is the only valid one–one worth dying for and killing for. You speak a different birth language, wear different clothes, eat different foods? Off with your head.
I do not judge the characters I create; they come to me fully fledged. They come in black and white, gray and all the colors of the rainbow–like flesh-and-blood people. In reality, none of us is perfect and most of us have been hurt, sometimes very deeply. But let us, instead of seeking to redress our wrongs by becoming hateful, attempt, instead, to understand those who are different from us. They have so much to teach us! And we all need to step back, breathe, and start learning, cloaking ourselves in humility and openness.
As authors, we shall never stop providing our readers with what they most enjoy: stories of thwarted love, betrayal, destroyed ambitions, warped childhoods, families at war, and shattered idealism. But let’s keep these angry characters between the pages of the novels we read or write.