I came to writing late in life: as the daughter of a World War II refugee, I was raised to be self-sufficient. Dutifully, I earned my first degree in marketing and economics but was very unsatisfied in corporate America. I had always been fascinated by stories and the cinema, so I turned to acting, having never been in a play. In 2004, while working with the director Larysa Kondracki (The Whistleblower, Picnic at Hanging Rock), I became interested in social justice issues, especially gender-based violence, and certified to teach English as a second language to gain international experience. I have worked mainly in developing countries and conflict/post-conflict zones, which has profoundly changed my understanding of the world and my place in it. Between deployments, I took my first creative writing class at The Writers Studio in October, 2010, and continued studying with The Writers Studio on-line after I moved to northern Iraq. My writing improved. First, my flash fiction and then later, my short stories were published. My fiction and non-fiction were named finalists for many awards including the Pushcart Prize, Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, The Conium Review’s Innovative Fiction Contest, Dzanc Books’ The Novella Prize, The Baker Prize, and The Best of the Net among others. I kept writing, earning my Master of Letters, Distinction, from the University of Glasgow. In May, 2017, a small independent press published my first book, Girl, World.
Much of my work lies at the intersection of social justice and literary pursuit. I always start from something true, whether it is an emotional understanding of an experience or a researched event. If I am writing from an emotional understanding of an experience, my prior acting experience serves my writing by facilitating an emotional connection to the material, which imbues the mood and voice of my narratives. If I am writing from research, I use empathy to craft three-dimensional characters from documentation. For example, “Room 308” from the collection Girl, World tells the story of a survivor of rape in the military who is denied due process and dishonorably discharged. Everything that happens to her happened to a real-life person. I condensed the experiences and gave them to a nameless narrator to represent all women. My hope is that people will read the story, want to know why military rape cases are not heard in a separate military tribunal which already exists in the military for other kinds of cases, and pressure their representatives to take action. Girl, World highlights other social justice issues such as trafficking, Palestinian life under occupation, why girls from the west join jihad, and genetic engineering. Girl, World was named a 35 Over 35 Debut Book Award winner, First Horizon Award finalist, Montaigne Medal finalist, was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize, was awarded an Honorable Mention in General Fiction from the Eric Hoffer Awards and was recommended by the US Review of Books.
When I read something in the news which sparks my interest, I research the topic if I don’t have experiential knowledge of it. If I’m like a dog with a bone about an image/idea or a narrator won’t stop talking to me inside my head, then I know I’m on to something. For a long time, I had wanted to write about the trafficking of Slavic girls in the aftermath of the Balkan War. The first image I had was that of the breaking ground: a place where traffickers take stolen girls to beat them, burn them with cigarettes, and rape them to break them down. Then, they are sold to brothels. That image was third “track” of “My Mother’s Daughter.” I envisioned the story as a record album, writing about the breaking ground first, and then I went back and wrote how they were trafficked (track one) and what the transport journey was like (track two). It is the only story I have written out of narrative order. Usually, I write beat by beat, rewriting the previous sections before going forward, letting the characters unravel their own tales.
My characters find moments of beauty in the ugly of living as they seduce the reader into paying attention. Sometimes, the characters are real-life people, such as Kalief Browder, the Bronx youth accused of stealing a backpack and who then spent almost three years at Rikers’ Island awaiting trial. I wrote him as a character into my second book Moxie to underscore the desperate need for criminal justice reform. Like Girl, World, Moxie, was also themed around identity and who we are after how we have always known ourselves is suddenly ripped away. Social justice issues backdropping the forward narrative of a disfigured supermodel include transgender violence, immigration, hypergentrification, and racism.
I want my fiction to represent the world in which we live because I want my stories to spur the conversations which drive social change. My third book, Jinwar and Other Tales from The Levant, again highlights gender-based violence in addition to genocide, Iraq’s post-conflict political and economic corruption, and the violation of privacy rights as our user data is mined and exploited without our permission.
Place and the cultural legends rooted in place influence my stories. Moxie is my love letter to New York City. The legend of Mar Yosip, the Official Saint of the Assyrian Church, was woven into the short “Kurdistan” as a symbol of hope for its main character. My coming-of-age novella, Duende, which uses flamenco as a metaphor for becoming, is my love letter to Seville. I also played with form in this lyrical novella, in that each section echoes the same beginning before recounting a vivid event in the narrator’s life. Imagine each narrative section as a piece of colored tissue paper. Stacked, the papers are opaque in the center to form the novella’s core. However, each edge retains its distinct hue; likewise, each short story recounts a complete tale. I am very excited and humbled to have Regal House Publishing shepherd Duende into being.