This blackmail would be an awful situation for anybody, but as the story progresses, we see that for Basma, her blackmailer is the archetypal messenger who offers her invitation to experience a different level of existence. Her predictable life is forever changed. Yet new thoughts and emotions are awakened in Basma as a whole other side of herself begins to blossom and unfold. Soon this double life sets Basma on a collision course with her family, her culture, her religion and ultimately puts her life in danger. It poses the question: what’s more important, family honor or a woman’s life?
In the West, honor itself has been supplanted as a quality or a character trait, so for us, the importance of family honor is not significant at all–especially these days. But by now, the reader of UNBOWED will realize that elsewhere in the world, for many people, family honor is everything.
UNBOWED is a must read because of its magical birth or origin; the heroes have a different face; it’s the story we need in these times of religious, ethnic and racial division. It reflects our collective worth and humanity; it’s populated with many interesting female characters to relate to; it will definitely challenge the readers’ common beliefs about marriage and religion; it is unpredictable; there’s action, romance and intrigue. And finally, it is a really is good story–just my opinion of course.
-It’s so common for readers to believe that novelists pull material from their own lives. Your novel features a few strong female characters. Can you talk about how much material you harvested from personal life experiences that inspired the leading female characters in your book?
I was raised to believe that I deserved only the best in life, that I could have anything and everything I wanted, and that my very existence as a female was somehow important. I got this way because my parents’ usual answer to my siblings’ question, “Why does she always gets everything?” was “Because she’s a girl.” Screwed up, yet true. The three matriarchs of my African American family: my mother, grandmother and godmother, each gave me privileged treatment, far different than what was given my brothers and even given to my much older sister. So early on I developed a strong sense of self, and gained an independent way of looking at the world around me. Of course that also meant I developed an overly inflated ego, which I’ve since worked very hard to normalize. 🙂
So, in 1999, I read a N.Y. Times cover story entitled ‘Arab Honor’s Price: A Woman’s Blood’ by Douglas Jehl, which began with the story of a young woman who was hunted down and murdered by her brother because she shamed the family by running off and marrying the man she loved, but a man they hadn’t approved of, I was immediately stunned. Whoever heard of such a thing? This was my introduction to the whole concept of ‘honor killing’.
The article went on to explain how in some parts of the world, a women’s chastity is everybody’s business; that a family’s reputation can be destroyed based on how the females of the family are perceived; and the only remedy for a disgraced family is to ‘kill the offending woman or girl’. The reasons given in addition to refusing to enter into an arranged marriage included:
- being the victim of a sexual assault,
- seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband,
- or (allegedly) committing adultery.
- Premarital sex, of course.
Men can also be the victims of honor killings by members of the family of a woman with whom they are perceived to have an inappropriate relationship with—although this is rare. Either way, the woman involved will definitely be killed
The mere perception that a woman or a young girl, may have behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life. In this respect, honor killing can be viewed as an extreme form of domestic violence–one that is colluded and facilitated, not only by the family, but also the external members of the same community. In many cases, these murders are carried out based on rumors and unfounded suspicions, which resemble witch hunts. It is believed that the only way to restore the family’s “honor” is through murder – or punishment by death.
As I read on, I learned that in some countries like Jordan or even in England, women are often housed in jail cells to protect them from their vengeful, unforgiving families. I realized for the first time, that there were places in the world where the people share the same value in being human, let alone a female, as I was raised to believe.
The article went on to highlight several cases that were so shocking, bewildering and eye-opening for me that my brain could not process. As a writer, this really impacted me. I pondered what it must be like to feel unsafe within your own family with nowhere to run for protection or never to experience affectionate touch—or simply not being loved or trusted because you were a girl child—and that this had cultural or, possibly, religious roots. In the time it took me to put the paper down and get up from my desk, the Universe literally downloaded in pure cinematic form, part one and most of part two of UNBOWED, into my head! However, it did take years to get this movie out of my head and into the form of a screenplay.
So, none of the material in the story reflects my personal family life nor my own personal experiences other than perhaps I have traveled to or lived in some of the locales and that may come through. Actually, my own life experience–and no doubt the experiences of many who read the story– is the antithesis of the life experiences of many of the characters in this story. The central issues and some events I illuminate are shocking, but are very real.
That being said, all of the strong women in the book, and there are many, reflect various parts of my own ‘psyche’, and they have the same type of spirit African-American women, like my mother and multicultural women throughout the world have, that cause them to challenge repressive cultural and even political forces.
In my novel, UNBOWED, the character of Dr. Sethi voices my philosophical perspective on the male/female dynamic, violence, religion and of course the Patriarchy. Issues that I’ve contemplated for years.
I guess the character of Zafeera, who appears much later in the story, is my version of this new contemporary female archetype that is evolving in the sisterhood. The Emergent woman who mirrors the outrage I have inside me toward Patriarchy and its incessant need to possess, exploit, dominate, define, violate or control those born female. I realize, now, Zafeera reflects my savior complex. And the protagonist, Basma represents that innocent incorruptible soul that is at our core.
-What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?
The most challenging aspect of writing my book was the incredible amount of research I had to do. I was raised Christian, came of age in the midst of America’s social upheaval with the civil rights and women’s rights movement, yet I was writing a story about a culture, a country, a people and a set of beliefs that really are the polar opposite of what I believed. Yet, I had to be objective. I needed to understand my characters, care about all of them, antagonists, too.
I watched documentaries made by women from various Muslim countries. I interviewed Muslim female college students at the schools I attended while getting my degree in creative writing and documentary filmmaking. I was invited to a social gathering of only Muslim female students, some wore a full hijab which includes the face covering called ‘niqab.’
A memoir by a Muslim women doctor who worked in Saudi Arabia; the plight of a well- known Egyptian women’s rights activist; as well as the interview of an Algerian women’s rights activist, each opened my eyes to the other side of these issues and revealed the many strong women out there who spoke out and challenged these cruel traditions, often imprisoned for doing so.
My researched went as far as what names I should use for both the Yemeni, Algerian, Saudi, and Latino female and male characters. The specific foods were important, since food unites cultures. I Googled photos of the various regions of Yemen, the buildings, streets, markets, the furniture, the people. I had to immerse myself mentally in the environment and terrain. I needed to imagine being there, living there.
I read up on Islam to make sure I highlighted important practices and beliefs correctly, and fairly. It was here that I discovered that this barbaric treatment of women and girls is not a religious mandate. It is cultural. Ancient. Native Americans have done it. Hindus have their ‘dowry deaths’. Even the Christian Bible sanctions stoning of women who commit adultery. Always the women. But I enjoyed every single minute of research and I was truly humbled by what I found.
-Is there a message you want your readers to take away from UNBOWED?
The message is for women and it is written on the cover of the book:
Sometimes Being A Hero Means Saving Yourself.
-UNBOWED was adapted from a screenplay, correct? In what way is your book “UNBOWED” different from the screenplay?
For me, the evolution of this story invokes the magical realm of the human psyche and the creative process. Just like the story origin was in a sense magical, so was the origin of the entire second half of the story that just poured out of me.
The original screenplay’s central focus was Basma’s precarious situation being blackmailed and seduced by this attractive young man, and then hiding that from her family because they are from a culture that practices honor killing. The setting is only Yemen, New York and Boston.
The book, however, morphs into three intricate plotlines woven together with escalating conflict featuring a much larger cast of characters–two of whom become catalysts for Basma’s ultimate challenge.
The scenes in the second half of the book are more expansive and layered, as the locations shift to England, France, Guatemala, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Syria. Also, there’s Dr. Sethi’s philosophical prose and speeches that evoke a compassion that wasn’t in the screenplay but end up being very significant to the entire plot. So, the overall theme and the choices the new characters make have a global impact.
-Speaking of screenplays, in your opinion what is the best part of screenwriting?
I’m a very visual person with all kinds of images, scenes and ideas running through my head. I’m also movie addict, so I love every aspect of building that visual blueprint that will eventually, with luck and hard work, become a film.
-Who are some of the writers who have influenced you and your work?
As an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. The fiction writers who have influenced me are the ones who’ve created memorable imaginative stories or unusual characters, and who have a message, a mystical element or some social critique woven into the fabric of the story-making it more than just a story. Perhaps they “challenged the received wisdom and disregarded the official version of everything”. These authors include science fiction writers Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin and, Octavia Butler.
I like to write thought-provoking stories that are unpredictable, contain mystical or spiritual references and have characters the reader can identify with. I’d like to believe my storytelling style is influenced a little bit by the great works of authors like Isobel Allende’s House of the Spirits; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love In the Time of Cholera; Toni Morrison’s Sula, Song of Solomon, and the Bluest Eye; Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale; Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Then there’s James Baldwin and Richard Wright, whose social critiques I read in college. There are so many more.
My childhood favorites were all the works of Edgar Allen Poe; all fairy tales; Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre had a major impact on me; and even Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment which I read on my own as a young teen.
Although I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, I prefer to write fiction because of the sheer freedom it gives the imagination and the intellect to express ideas and concepts, and to explore the complicated issues we all struggle with. And, what better way to connect to other human beings than through the intimacy of a story.
-What advice would you give to aspiring authors and or screen writers reading this interview?
As far as advice goes, the first thing that comes to mind is to write from your center. Write what you are passionate about. What excites you? It doesn’t matter if the subject is commercial or trendy. This way you will discover your own uniquely independent voice, writing style and perspective.
If you are an aspiring author or screenwriter who is serious about entering the world of book publishing or filmmaking you simply have to learn the craft. Creating a story from your imagination is fun, but to actually sit down and commit to writing a book and then completing the task is a whole other ballgame. So I’ve learned. First of all, of the total creative effort that goes into a finished work, 75% of that effort goes into designing story:
Who are these characters?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
How do they go about getting it?
What stops them? What are the consequences?
“Finding the answers to these grand questions, and shaping them into a story is our overwhelming creative task,” says Robert McKee, the renowned author of Story, considered the ‘bible’ of story arts by screenwriters, film instructors, and film producers. I highly recommend reading it.
I returned to college specifically to learn all the elements that go into a professional screenplay, and how make a film from scratch, after I had written the treatment, and after I had taken a few screenwriting workshops, which I loved.
My advice is to dip your toe in the water. It’s a big world out there.
Read the works of various authors, from various cultures and genres. Over time, you’ll build an inner collage of images, ideas, characters, and conflict that way you’ll have a lot of material to draw from.
Study creative writing by taking courses in a school, online or better yet, join a writers’ workshop. It’s important to understand the elements of structure, character development, story arc and conflict. For an aspiring author, passion to tell good stories must be your motivation, period. That will carry you a long way through the ups and downs and hurdles. And, I believe receiving guidance from an instructor and critical feedback, support and encouragement from fellow students and/or other writers is invaluable.
For screenwriters, another must read would be The Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Fields. This book is required reading in many film schools. You can also read the actual scripts of your favorite movies. Scripts can be downloaded online. This should excite you, and you’ll get a sense of the structure. Very important. Learn the correct format of a script because you want to present it to a producer in a professional way. People in the industry are very particular and will pass over an ill-formatted script. If you truly love to tell stories, you’ll enjoy learning the elements or building blocks. You’ll also understand the scripts relationship to what is actually seen on the screen. Remember filmmaking is a collaboration involving a lot of skilled creatives, and you’ll want to present your best.
Writing a novel is mostly a solo journey, and as I said before, it is my preferred of the two.
-What’s next on the horizon for you?
What’s on the horizon for me now is the challenge of adapting UNBOWED the novel, which was originally adapted from the second draft of my original screenplay, back into a revised screenplay in order to make the intended feature film. Sounds a little confusing, I know. Most adaptations are from book to script. Mine is from script to book to expanded script.
My goal is to partner with Netflix, HBO or Amazon Studios. I’m sending copies of the book to each prospective literary agency or executive associated with these production companies who are looking for novels, short stories, and graphic novels to make productions for their millions of subscribers.
In addition to that, I’m writing a memoir describing my unusual journey of quantum healing myself of cancer. The current working title is Soul Whisperer.
My first novel, A Romance With The Sun, mentioned earlier, has been on the back burner for a number of years. Besides a provocative interracial love story as the central storyline, the conflicting plot thread contains references to a lot of cutting-edge biotechnology that hasn’t been developed yet. I’ll have to provide the science to make it all plausible. So, there’s more research to do.
-How can readers connect with you?
My website: unbowedthenovel.com
-Where can your book be purchased?
Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com