Suzanne Fisher Staples speaks frequently at conferences and schools. Contact her directly to ask about honoraria and availability.
Suzanne Fisher Staples: The Setting Is the Story
“She’s not coming to the area as someone who’s trying to pick up on a current fad … She has a depth of knowledge that is less typical of an author from the U.S. writing about a distinctly non-Western set of cultures.”
-Megan Isaac, Scarecrow Studies in Young Adult Literature
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Below are questions students and interviewers have asked the author about her work.
Questions & Answers
Shabanu and Haveli
Are any of the characters in SHABANU DAUGHTER OF THE WIND based on people you know?
Just about all of the characters are based on people I met in Cholistan. In fact, a few months ago I traveled to Toronto to meet Shabanu Tirmizi, who inspired the name of the main character. She is now a freshman at Magill University in Montreal – I hadn’t seen her since she was 2-1/2. The character Shabanu was based mainly on a girl named Maryam, whom I met in a small settlement called Yazmin. She was a very fierce, proud, independent girl whose parents had died. She was being raised by her grandmother, and in many ways she also was the basis for the character of Fatima, and her grandmother was the basis for Auntie Sharma. The relationship between Shabanu and her sister Phulan probably was based on my relationship with my own sister, Karen. It’s hard to say where reality ends and fiction begins.
Can you explain the phenomenon of mothers-in-law in India and Pakistan?
Many women in this part of the world have little power until they have a daughter-in-law to help them do housework. When that daughter-in-law becomes a mother-in-law she’ll expect the same thing!
Given how widely people’s personalities differ, it’s difficult to explain this in a general way. Some aspects of being a mother-in-law in India and Pakistan are basically different from the way things are here. A young woman who marries and joins her husband’s household often has little say about how things go in her new family. Sometimes a young bride is treated like a servant – there are tasks that fall to them traditionally: cleaning wheat, grinding flour, fetching water, sweeping the courtyard. They have little say in family decisions, many of which affect them directly. Their preferences aren’t solicited or considered. By the time they become mothers-in-law they’re ready to wield power over their own sons’ wives. Of course there are many, many individual variations to this pattern: many women are compassionate because their own lives as young wives were so difficult.
Could you please explain a dowry in India and Pakistan culture? What does it include, what is it worth, who determines whether it’s enough, are dowries ever turned down, and what happens to the dowry if a bride’s husband dies?
A girl’s family begins collecting things for her dowry as soon as she’s born. In working families and in rural areas the dowry will include quilts, cooking pots and utensils, dishes, embroideries, clothing, jewelry, camels, goats, perhaps a cow. The dowries of young women in cities also is likely to include a motor scooter and a refrigerator if her parents can afford it. Dowry is the girl’s family’s way of buying her the best future they can afford. The dowry is agreed on when a girl is promised to a boy. The content and value of the dowry are decided between the girl’s family and the boy’s family. (The terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are the terms used for the prospective bride and groom.) Many family feuds begin over the issue of dowry. Girls are sometimes rejected as prospective brides because their families can’t afford a dowry the boy’s family considers adequate. Dowry is often a huge financial drain on the girl’s family. But in general her family wants to give her every opportunity for a good marriage into a respectable family. The more dowry they can offer the better they feel her chances are. Also – and I think this is an important point when discussing arranged marriages: the family knows how much her future happiness depends on the kind of match they make for her, and they want her to be happy. They choose someone who has a background very similar to their daughter’s, someone whose temperament would suit her, whose family are kind and decent people who will treat her well.
Did you include the characters Sharma and Fatima to point out beliefs in our culture about the way women are treated in Pakistan?
No. I included them to move the story forward. Sharma and Fatima grew out of the need in the story to create a possible alternative for Shabanu – a role model, in a sense. In the real-life Cholistan settlement of Yazmin, I met a girl named Maryam and her grandmother who gave me the idea for these female characters. These two women live outside of traditional roles in their community, which is unusual. The story of Maryam and her grandmother, who were tolerated but not liked by their relatives, is told in more detail in HAVELI. Most women in Cholistan did not see themselves as abused. In fact most of them seemed happy and well-adjusted with good and respectful relationships with their husbands — and said as much. Those who were mistreated didn’t have the boldness to create alternatives the way Sharma did. She was considered by some to be a reckless maverick, and by others more like a witch. I met many men in Cholistan who were loving, kind fathers and husbands. I wasn’t trying to make any points about the universal mistreatment of women in Pakistani culture. I try to remember to point out that life in cities in Pakistan is much more like life in the United States — people walk around talking on cell phones, have air conditioning in their houses, are interested in fashion, music, videos. In cities women have jobs and careers. All this is by way of saying that Pakistani culture is very diverse and the Cholistan nomads are not by any means typical.
The House of Djinn
Did this story happen to someone you know? It’s based on a real-life story about two young friends, which planted the ‘what if . . .” question in my mind. That question prompted me to write The House of Djinn. In the real life story, a very beautiful girl who was about seventeen years old got to know a wealthy Pakistani family from Lahore through her mother, who was a photographer. One of the nephews of her mother’s friend, who I’ll call Mahmud, was a very attractive young man who had grown up in London. In London his friends gave him a nickname. Let’s say it was Moby. The young American (let’s call her Lyn) and her family spent a holiday with Moby’s family at their country house and they got to know each other. Then Lyn’s mother was in a terrible road accident, and Moby went to the hospital to visit her. Lyn was at her mother’s bedside waiting with her father for an airplane to evacuate her mother to a hospital in Geneva. When Lyn’s mother and father got on the airplane Moby invited her to stay with his family until her father returned. They fell in love. Moby’s parents wasted no time carrying out plans for Moby to marry his cousin – someone he’d known all his life.
It made me think about what it would be like for Moby, to have grown up with the expectation that he would go to university and make decisions about his own life, just as his London friends did – only to have these plans overturned for a marriage to someone you weren’t romantically inclined toward.
That, of course, is a Western point of view I’ve just described. In real life, Lyn married and had a family and is happy. I have not seen Moby since the story I’ve described here. But he is a leader of his tribal group and he also has a family.
But this real-life incident planted the seeds for a story about modern teen-agers facing old traditions.
In Pakistan does a young adult have to marry the person your mother and father pick out for you? What happens if the person is already in love with someone else?
Marriages are arranged by families in Pakistan, India, Iran, and many other countries. Love and marriage have more to do with duty to your family and the importance of tradition in these cultures than they do in our culture. In fact, many – perhaps most – true love stories in Persian and Indian traditions are tragedies. When I lived in that part of the world people asked me a different question. “Is it true,” many people asked me, “that in your culture adults let children make the most important decision of a lifetime without benefit of their parents’ wisdom and experience?” They thought this was a very risky thing to do. And I have to admit there is a good deal of truth in this. When parents choose their children’s partners it’s someone from a family of similar finances, values, religious beliefs, and customs. A lot of times when young people marry in our culture the romance can wear thin when disagreements over money and families arise.
I do know of instances in which young people have fallen in love outside the circle from which their parents would choose a prospective bride or groom. I believe this is becoming more common, with more women going to universities and working in public institutions where they meet other people their own age. Sometimes the families capitulate and allow the couple to marry. Other stories end up less happily.
But as unromantic as an arranged marriage might sound to an American young person, in India and Pakistan and many other countries young people who marry someone chosen by their parents fall deeply in love and live happily married. I think it’s fair to say that the ideal of marriage in India or Pakistan is based on more practical considerations than romance.
As one Pakistani friend said to me: “It’s unfortunate to base the ideal of marriage on a dream that’s likely to disintegrate instead of on traditions and customs that have worked for millennia.”
Under the Persimmon Tree
Do Afghan kids have anything in common with American teen-agers?
Like American kids, Afghan kids have hopes, dreams, and best friends; they love games, their families, food, and play time. Afghan children live in a shattered land. Their country must be completely rebuilt. Anyone in Afghanistan under the age of 32 or 33 has never known anything but war and danger and hardship. . Their culture is very different from the cultures of most of us in America. But, like us, they love music – especially American popular music – and sports. I think because so many young people have had their education interrupted by war they may value learning more than American teens do. They love sports, including soccer, racing, wrestling, kite fighting, and topei-danda (a kind of stickball). Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, is a rugged form of polo, played with the carcass of a goat or calf. It’s a game played mostly by grown men.
Although our cultures are very different, we do have a lot in common. We all relate to our families the same way, although perhaps Afghan children are more formal with and respectful of their parents. Friendship and loyalty are very important to Afghans, just as they are valued here. We laugh at the same things, regardless of culture.
When I talk with Afghan women we discuss the same things my friends and I talk about here: food (that’s a big topic everywhere!), travel, religion, family matters, our hopes and dreams.
I think sometimes we over-emphasize differences and judge other people because their ways are different from ours. But if we study the differences among cultures from the perspective of how fascinating they are, the things we have in common become more apparent.
Have you ever been to Afghanistan?
Yes. When I worked for United Press International Afghanistan was one of the countries I reported from. When I worked for United Press International Afghanistan was one of the countries I reported from in that part of the world. I had been there three times before Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin overthrew Prime Minister Noor Mohammad Taraki in a bloody coup in September, 1979. On Christmas Eve of that same year the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, overthrew Hafizullah Amin, and installed Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Karmal as prime minister. Hafizullah Amin was killed. I reported on these bloody events and the ensuing civil war that began as American-backed Islamic fundamentalist rebels fought to drive out the Soviet Union. On my first few visits, Afghanistan was in a time of relative peace. The capital, Kabul, was a city filled with beautiful gardens, music, poetry, and the most hospitable people in the world. Many women wore their hair and their skirts fashionably short. On subsequent visits fear became ever more dominant as the main feature of life in Kabul. I left the region in 1982, and have been haunted by the plight of the Afghan people, the terrible suffering they have endured ever since.
In 1985 I returned to the refugee camps in Pakistan, where about 25 % of the population of Afghanistan had gone to escape wars that lasted 20 years. On my return in 1985 I worked on a contract arrangement with the US Agency for International Development doing research on women’s literacy. The suffering was even more intense among the Afghans, and their plight has steadily worsened. I hope that Hamid Karzai’s rule will turn the terror into peace, and the rubble into a rebuilt nation.
Is this a true story?
It is true in that almost every scene is based on a story told to me by an Afghan, either inside of Afghanistan, or in the refugee camps in Pakistan. I knew several Western women married to Afghans in Peshawar when I lived in Pakistan. Many of these women worked in the refugee camps as teachers, interpreters, relief workers, medical aides, doctors, and nurses. The story of Najmah witnessing the death of her mother and brother was based on a story told to me by an Afghan girl who saw her mother killed in her village in northern Afghanistan. The girl’s father brought her and her sisters to live in Massachusetts, where memories of life in wartime Afghanistan still haunt her. It was difficult to write about these things. But as I’ve thought of these women’s stories and realized that Americans have trouble imagining Afghanistan, I began to write and those stories told to me by Afghans was all that I could think about.
What message did you intend for this story to send?
I didn’t have any specific message in mind when I was writing “Under the Persimmon Tree.” Messages arise out of all – or nearly all – stories, but the most important thing is that the story must be true. I don’t necessarily mean a story must be based on something that actually happened. But the story has to be believable and specific in order to make readers experience the setting and characters in a way that touches them.
But I do hope this story accomplishes something. When I began to hear stories of Afghan civilians killed in American bombing raids in 2001 and 2002, I realized that it was important that we should be able to connect these people with their stories. I hated hearing of innocent Afghans and Iraqis who lost their lives referred to as “collateral damage.” I hope the many stories that have begun to emerge will make it more difficult for us to use that terrible term, which dehumanizes us as thoroughly as it does the people to whom we apply it.
Why is it that Afghanistan always seems to be at war?
Afghanistan has been at war for more than thirty years, beginning with political infighting when King Zahir Shah was exiled in 1973, followed by a number of coups, the Soviet invasion in 1979, civil war, Taliban rule, and the American campaign to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Afghanistan is a very complex place. Located where Asia and the Middle East meet, it has been strategically important since the time of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Rich in gemstones, minerals, agricultural products, carpets, poetry, art, and other valuable commodities, Afghanistan has always been an important crossroads for the exchange of culture and trade. In more recent times its proximity to the Persian Gulf and Middle Eastern oil has lent it enormous economic and geopolitical value. It also is a tribal society that lives in a very inhospitable landscape. Because of its strategic importance, several nations (including Russia, later the Soviet Union, and Great Britain) attempted to colonize Afghanistan and failed. Because of this history and because of their tribal (and perhaps to a lesser extent national) pride the Afghan people are fierce and independent. They have never tried to dominate another country, but they would die gladly to keep from being dominated.
Is it based on a true story?
Bits and pieces of it are based on real life. For example, I spent quite a bit of time in villages in India. I love the way magic is a normal part of life in villages and I love the way people explain things they don’t understand by relating it to their beliefs. But the story isn’t really based on any one person
Have you ever met a devadasi?
Yes. I spent two days in a gurukulam in Bangalore, where people studied dance, and several were devadasis. Well another reason I wrote this story was that I visited a gurukulam near Bangalore in the south of India and was very impressed by the devotion of the students. To them dance is spiritual as well as artistic.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote it to learn more about Hinduism. I lived in India for four years. I loved everything about India — the food, the people, the clothing, the art, the countryside. But I found Hinduism very puzzling. Writing SHIVA’S FIRE was my attempt to understand what Hindus believe and how they apply their beliefs to every day life.
How did you learn about classical Indian dance?
When I lived and worked in India I went to classical Indian dance performances whenever I could. I love the music and the expression and the movement. It also has great religious significance in India, which was another reason to tie it to this story.
What gave you the idea to write DANGEROUS SKIES?
I came back from living in Asia in 1989 and moved to the Eastern Shore. On the farm next to my property there lived two 12-year-old boys who were best friends. One was an African-American boy and the other was white. As they got closer to their teen-aged years their parents were worried about their friendship. The white boy’s family were concerned because the other boy was getting into a lot of trouble with the law. And the African-American boy’s family were worried for the same reason. I also met a man who owned a large melon farm. He had been implicated in the murder of a Mexican labor organizer and that crime had never been solved. So these were real-life incidents that gave me the idea for the story. Another factor was that I had been living in India and Pakistan and other parts of Asia for many years and I expected that racism would be gone by the time I came home. I had gone away during the Civil Rights era, and it seemed we were making so much progress. I guess I thought prejudice was dying out, and I was surprised to find that this wasn’t so. I like to write about things that come from real life. In order for me to care about a story and the people in it the characters have to seem real. So I guess that’s why real stories appeal to me.
On page three you say “It was early spring that year, a season of dangerous skies.” What did you mean by that?
Buck (who narrates the story) was referring to the weather. But as he looks back on it, the weather wasn’t the only thing that was dangerous about that spring.
Why did you choose to write “Dangerous Skies” in first person rather than third person? And why is it from Buck’s point of view?
In this story I wanted people not to know everything about Tunes. I wanted people to wonder whether she was capable of murdering Jorge. And if they thought she was capable of murdering Jorge, were they thinking that because she’s African-American? I wanted readers to wonder about their own racial prejudices. The only natural way to tell this and not let readers know exactly what happened was to tell it from Buck’s point of view.
Why do the adults in the story see Jumbo as a good guy and Buck and Tunes see him very differently?
The duality in Jumbo’s nature has to do with the question the novel raises of who really killed Jorge. If you believe the adults, who say that Jumbo is eccentric but basically a decent person, maybe you’ll think he couldn’t have killed Jorge. If you believe Buck and Tunes you’ll probably think there’s no way Tunes could have killed Jorge. And if you think Tunes did kill Jorge, is it because you’re like the white adults who say an African-American teenager is more likely to have done it than a white man who gives money to the library and is active in his church? These are questions I want readers to ask themselves when the book is finished.
Why was Jumbo Rawlin so mean?
In real life I always assume people behave according to a combination of how they were brought up and how their brains are constructed. He was dishonest and he wasn’t afraid to hurt people. He tried to intimidate Buck and Tunes because he thought he could get away with it. He tried to fool the adults, but he couldn’t fool Buck and Tunes.