Susan Froetschel, author of "Fear of Beauty" (January 28 - February 1)
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Fear of Beauty is my fourth mystery and set in Afghanistan. It’s about a woman who’s desperate to learn how to read after the death of her oldest son. Sofi finds a piece of paper not far from where he died, and she wonders if it might have had something to do with the boy's death. Like my other mysteries set in Alaska and London, the book is about a mother who resists over-controlling policies and forces that others take for granted as she strives to improve a community for her children.
Sofi must work in secret to learn to read, at first with the help of only the Koran and later finds a teacher.
The story is told from two points of view, Sofi and Army Ranger Joey Pearson who is in charge of security for an outpost in the region and a group of aid workers providing agricultural assistance in the remote region of Helmand Province. A group of extremists moves into the area, ready to roust the Americans and add new pressures for the village, particularly the women.
The book explores themes of women’s role in religion, education and literacy, farming , love for land and community, and globalization. Sometimes people find they have more in common with strangers than with family and friends.
Besides being an author, I’m also a consulting editor with YaleGlobal, an online magazine that analyzes globalization, defined as the interconnectedness of the world. My work at YaleGlobal had great influence over Fear of Beauty – about the many connections, both wanted and unwanted, among US troops, aid workers and villagers of rural Afghanistan.
I look forward to your questions!
I'm starting to read your book, it's quite amazing! Just a quick question: How did you get the idea for the book? Was it difficult to write the setting in a foregin country?
Thank you! The idea came to me in 2009 when many Americans riticized the idea of negotiating with the Taliban. I got to thinking that Afghanistan is 30 million people - but half are women. Half are under the age of 18. And I wondered about the number of Taliban. Not so many it turns out, according to one Reuters article - about 25,000. Another Reuters article suggested that 80 percent of the Taliban are involved for economic reasons and not ideologues. Such detailed reporting made me realize that a small group of bullies are pushing many communities around and I wondered how some women might respond to that. Potential crimes immediately came to mind!
Writing about a foreign country was not so hard, I have not been to Afghanistan. But I have volunteered with literacy programs. I'm familiar with adults learning to read. And I realized that in writing about a rural community with few education opportunities, it was better to be spare with details than overuse them. So I focused on action and feelings and secrets. Of course, when I was finished with the draft - I had to go through very carefully and remove phrases and objects that are not part of rural Afghan society. For example, no forks, no dining tables, no running water or lights at night.
Again, thank you!
I don't know how you did it but you managed to introduce me to a moderate Muslim community whose values I could identify with. Is it your intention to create a cultural bridge for those of us who do not know of the Koran as a guide to a modern life? Thank you for taking me along for the visit to a village and reminding me how much is lost when we forget the fact that villages were roots to all our societies.
The original intention was to write a story about how women - as parents, as productive workers - might become angry about increasing pressures, limits and what can only be described as bullying in their community. In our society, texts like the Bible or the Constitution have long inspired oppressed people, women and others, and I imagined the Koran could do likewise for a community with limited reading materials. Present any passage of literature or government to a group of students - and it's amazing how many interpretations can emerge!
On a separate point, let me say that I don't think of the village as moderate - I think of Laashekoh as rural and conservative, but most of the villagers are not radical or violent. In writing, I often think of my own response to social pressures and controls that seem unnecessary and ludicrous - as protagonist or antagonist. And in these ways, the book did begin as a cultural bridge.
Thank you very much!
Sophie is a marvelous character to whom I felt very close to. How did you work with the tension between making her reractions, feelings and so forth universal while still conveying the uniquness of her culture?
The tension probably comes in the choices made while writing. She is a caring parent. She is illiterate but wants an education for her children. She is judgmental but curious about other people. She works very hard at farming and revels in her success. But she lives in a community where she must keep many of these very basic goals a secret or risk resentment about upsetting the status quo. The trouble is - if we don't shape our communities, others will do it for us.
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