One day before my novel – The Crying Tree – was born, I was home washing windows, planting flowers, sweeping, dusting. In other words, I was nesting: doing everything I could to get things in order before my baby would be born. But unlike my son’s birth, once out, the book would be on its own.
I remember how strange it felt when The Crying Tree first started making its rounds to publishers. The dance I had done with my characters, the lives I had drawn, touched, massaged, cried and made love with was suddenly being held by people I did not know in places I would never see. I consider writing an intimate act. There is you, your paper, and an imaginary world scattered with bits and pieces of your psyche, beliefs, fears, prejudices, influences and experiences. Suddenly, all that was being both literally and figuratively peddled around Manhattan. I felt exposed and vulnerable, and utterly excited. Kind of like an exhibitionist – with a mask.
All writers want their work read, and I’m no different. I had very specific goals while writing The Crying Tree. I wanted the book to move people. I wanted it to get people to talk, yell, cry if need be. I wanted the characters to worm their way off of the page and into hearts and minds. And, I wanted to pose very specific questions – what would happen if a mother of a murdered child forgave the killer? And what happens to the executor if he doesn’t want to do his job? These questions had been running through my mind ever since I covered my first execution. I was a political reporter for public radio and the assignment gave me access to people, places and scenes I had never witnessed nor listened to before. It made me ask myself significant questions about the efficacy and effectiveness of our justice system. And, it made me wonder about the people that capital punishment affects. Not just death row inmates, but victim survivors, prison staff, and the outside public that, whether they admit it or not, are a party to an act of killing.
But more than anything, I wanted to look at this mysterious gift called forgiveness, and write something that would get people to ask themselves if they had the capacity to relinquish their own feelings of hate and anger. I must be honest, I oppose the death penalty. I see it as divisive, expensive, counterproductive, and inhumane. Still, if faced with the murder of a loved one, I don’t know if my rationale would stand up to my rage. I wanted to write a book that made me confront this inconsistency, and force me to look more deeply into the capacity of my own heart.
What I didn’t consider while writing The Crying Tree, is the responsibility this kind of story carries. Already, I have begun to receive letters from people telling me about their own experiences with loss. They tell me about the pain they have felt, the bitterness and angst. How years would go by in a blur of hate. How family members went to their death angry and vengeful. And then some tell me the other stories, the ones of the redemption and peace that came from forgiveness. Each letter, or in some cases grocery aisle talk, sidewalk chat, or even phone call, has moved me in ways I can not describe, and most assuredly in ways I had never anticipated while sitting in my house quietly dancing with my characters.
So as I cleaned, I thought of those things – the responsibility, the fear, the hope, the dreams I had for my book. The Crying Tree came into the world this week, and I know it is a precocious child—prodding people to think and ask questions. And, like any expectant mom, I am both exhilarated and a bit overwhelmed.
Naseem Rakha, July 6, 2009
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