Novelist Pearl Abraham was brought up in a Hasidic family and raised in New York and Jerusalem. A thorough knowledge of spiritual and religious tradition informs all of her work, and in her three previous novels, she has depicted the tensions between the secular and the spiritual within observant Jewish communities. In American Taliban, however, Abraham turns her considerable gifts of observation to explore the attraction of militant Islam at the beginning of the 21st century.
Loosely inspired by real-life events, American Taliban follows the intellectual and divine quest of John Jude, an 18-year-old surfer dude with a penchant for Rumi and Walt Whitman. As John’s interest in Islam grows, he leaves his family, his girlfriend and all vestiges of secular life behind, traveling to New York, Pakistan and ultimately Afghanistan in a quest for total spiritual immersion.
Abraham recently took the time to answer some questions about religious extremism, the impact of the real-life story of John Walker Lindh on her novel and whether or not fiction can help us understand political or moral complexities.
First off, I want thank you for writing such an astonishing and brave work of fiction. Astonishing, because of the trajectory of the novel, brave because of how sympathetically you portray a character whose model is still a pariah in our society.
Thanks so much. It’s good to know there are readers willing to go with me. This story still gets a rise out of people, nine years later!
American Taliban is obviously based in part on the experiences of John Walker Lindh. What appealed to you as a writer about his story and how did you alter it for your novel?
Lindh’s story haunted me long after the headlines ceased. I kept thinking about his unfortunate timing: In the ’60s and ’70s, his journey might have taken him to India and Buddhist life, and he would have come away with an alternative experience, but he would have been relatively safe. I worried that in the 21st century, these spiritual and intellectually formative journeys—the picaresque in literature—would become an endangered aspect of human experience.
These journeys of becoming are especially significant in the making of American individuality, and I wanted to place them in our historical context, with Whitman’s celebration of the self and Emerson’s Transcendentalism, to show how important these experiences are to the American story. That’s why John Jude’s story, unlike Lindh’s, is inspired by his experiences as a “soul surfer,” that peculiarly American form of spirituality that evolved alongside other 20th-century bohemian cultures, such as Beat and Hip. And it’s why philosophical ideas about the importance of becoming rather than mere being give shape to this novel, and finally become John Jude’s legacy.
In many ways, John’s path seems to be about surrender—spiritual, sexual or psychological. Do you think that surrender is a necessary part of religious experience?
Surrender or submission is an experience that’s part of nature, of life and not only religious life. Like it or not, we surrender and submit every day though we don’t always admit or understand that this is what we’re doing. Mothers, for example, sacrifice their personal needs and desires, even their physical bodies, for the sake of their children. Employees submit to the needs of the corporation. Soldiers submit to risk and dying for their countries, for the nonsensical “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” We submit to the pleasures and torments of love. When we dance, if we’re good at it, we surrender ourselves to the music and rhythm. Surrender makes certain athletic feats possible: for example riding a wave or riding a horse or tango dancing with a partner, though there’s a yin-yang complexity in the idea of surrendering while still holding onto your core of stability at the same time. Our lives are filled with the compromise of surrender. Really, finally, what choice do we have against nature and growing old, dying? Even if we refuse with Dylan Thomas to “go gentle into the night,” we still go.
Most of American Taliban follows John on his intellectual and spiritual journey, but there is a shift to his mother’s point of view at the end that is written very differently, much more emotionally. Why did you separate the two narratives and why did you choose to explore these characters using two different styles?
You’re perceptive to pick up on the emotional quality of the novel when it shifts view. Although Barbara presents herself as the secular skeptic, the rationalist psychotherapist, she is sentimental, while her son, who embraces spiritualism and religion, is not. This defies expectations, but it’s true to my experience. I grew up in a Hasidic family and didn’t come to know Jewish sentimentalism and nostalgia until I left the rigor of that world and encountered American Jewish literature and secular American Jews, which is packed with, as we say in Yiddish, schmaltz, meaning fat. Of course Barbara has good reason to be emotional: she’s a mother whose son is missing. John, on the other hand, at that age when one feels most invincible, can be coolly unconcerned.
But I’m very aware that this decision to end on Barbara and not with the happy return of John Jude or even his unhappy incarceration puts this book outside the mainstream traditional novel, with its Freudian masterplot that defines the trajectory of every story along the lines of the male experience—with a beginning or arousal, a middle or complication that moves toward crisis and climax or eruption, and on to the end which is satiety and repose. The female experience doesn’t have this strict pattern: women can stop, start, finish, restart or keep going for as long as they like. Susan Winnett, writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, makes the point that since a woman’s experience is nothing like the male one, she may consider alternative plots, ones without the, after William Empson, nonsense of an ending. And closed endings really aren’t true to life, especially American life. Think of Elliott Spitzer and soon Tiger Woods. The worst scandals end in a comeback, a restart.
Early in the novel, we see John surfing the net for information about Islam and using an Arabic name to chat with others in an Islamic chat room—both ways in which technology has changed the way we find out information about religion and politics. What do you think are the pros and cons of this way of communicating?
Just as the printing press changed the world—reading became a private, solitary act and oral storytelling in the town square became a thing of the past—so too the Internet. But though we lost the communal, oral aspects of storytelling, I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before books. And I also wouldn’t want to return to the days before the web put incredible amounts of information at our fingertips.
The Internet has been blamed for the long reach it provides terrorist recruiters, but it’s just an easy target. Those who are quick to shut down democracy in the face of fear begin with a bent in that direction already: they’re not comfortable with the transparency and freedom that our Constitution guarantees. These kids go looking for these sites, whether seeking adventure, or on behalf of Islam—they’re the ones who make the first contact. In the past year, 30 Americans have been arrested for these activities, so we have a problem. It’s easy to blame the Internet but it doesn’t help us figure out what’s really wrong with or missing in our world, in American life.
John’s sympathy for the underdog and interest in fairness is evident right from the start. How do you think this character trait affects his decision to pursue Islam?
You know, he’s at just the age when a kind of purity rules: things are either fair or not; true or false. Intelligent as he is, he accepts no ands/ors/buts, no nuance. Compromise and complacency are near crimes. I could argue that we need this kind of young purity to remind us of who we were, what we once believed in. This purity puts him on the side of the underdog; he’s for the victim of the powerful mainstream establishment, which does predispose him to taking the persecuted Islamic side against the historical imperialism of the west. The young age of many of these recruits, for example the recent five kids from the Virginia area, points to this [as a contributing factor], but I don’t want to simplify their motivations. It’s a mixed bag. They’re also seeking adventure, engaging in something bigger than American life has offered them, etc.
What do you think a fictionalized or imagined account of a real-life person or event can tell us that a book of nonfiction cannot?
If you believe, as I do, that imaginative empathy, which demands stretching yourself, is one of the most powerful ways to understand the other, then a fictionalized imagined account has greater access to that understanding. Facts often tell us very little, and sometimes, perhaps I should say often, they turn out not to be factual, as we know from our study of historical accounts. When the victor writes the story then that story will be shaped by the mythic triumphant heroism—propaganda in other words. This is a subject I’m interested in, and will probably engage with in my next novel.
You grew up in a Hasidic community and have your own experience with religious orthodoxy. Do you think your background makes it easier to understand people who shape their lives around their religion?
I do understand people who grow up with the intellectual rigor and ascetic disciplines of religion but I confess that I find it difficult to sympathize with newcomers who seem largely to be seeking community, a sense of belonging and safety, rather than knowledge. Perhaps the desire for safety seems to me infantile, because it’s a false notion that there’s safety in numbers. Have you seen the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, with its myth surrounding the inner sanctum of the innermost rabbi? It’s good.
Perhaps all this is based in personal experience: I grew up belonging and found it stifling. It seems difficult for people to understand my stand for individuality over community. I enjoy and have come to need solitude, though I’m not the hermit my friend Jonathan Freedman likes to call me.
Your previous three novels all have Jewish characters. This novel has none and though it’s about religion, is not specifically Jewish in any way. Can you still be a Jewish novelist without addressing Jewishness specifically?
You’ve turned the question that’s usually asked (Can a woman write a man’s novel, or a man a woman’s?) backward, which makes it more interesting. I think you’re talking about sensibility: Is my sensibility and point of view still Jewish even when I write about Muslims? Perhaps, but besides being Jewish, I’m American, a woman, a professor of literature, etc, and these aspects of who I am don’t cancel each other out. I’m teaching a class in women’s literature and halfway through the semester, we read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and ask a similar question: does the work have to be written by a woman to qualify as women’s literature? So no, you don’t have to be a woman to write women’s literature, just as a woman can write a male novel. And we have examples of non-Jewish writers taking on Jewish subjects and Jewish characters, though Jewish writers may hate them for it. Henry James’ anecdote about the making of a novelist can inform us: All it took for a young, inexperienced woman to write about the military, he said, was seeing a soldier’s regiment as she walked past them in a hotel lobby. She had her “donnée” and could fabricate the rest.
You are from a family of nine children. Did that influence you as a writer? Has your family been encouraging of the work you do?
The smart teasing banter between siblings might be good training for sharp dialogue. And the Yiddish language with its particularly cuttingly precise turns of phrase may also have helped. Some of my siblings are supportive of me, if not of my work; perhaps on some days they’re even admiring. My dad, however, complains about my choice of topics and audience. I could accomplish more, he argues, if only I would limit myself to teaching Jewish children. The operative word here is limitation.
What other novelists do you think write well about religion or religious experience?
I’ve always loved the way Borges references the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and puts it to work in crime or murder stories. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is/was a miracle. Reading for American Taliban, I immersed myself in Arab Andalusian poetry, in Hafiz and Ibn Arabi and more. Treasures. So I see I’m not naming fiction that explores the religious experience. Perhaps I’m not interested in reading about religious experience so much as in the spiritually inclined one. My pet peeve in writing about the religious experience is the overdone, over-explained work, which is really clumsily addressed to the reader. The characters who live in the religious world wouldn’t tell each other about it. Borges, writing about translation, made the point that Hitti in his history of the Arabs doesn’t ever mention the camel because he doesn’t have to. He takes the presence of the camel for granted. It’s possible that you can only take for granted what you’ve truly lived.
Is it true that you do most of your writing in bed?
I’m in bed right now, typing on my laptop! I like working early mornings, with my brain still quiet, my thinking clear, but I don’t always want to get out of bed at 5 or 6 a.m., so working in bed (with coffee) helps. Really, it started one winter when my NYC apartment wasn’t getting heat and I did most of my reading and writing for The Seventh Beggar in bed. But I’ve always loved reading in bed, summers too, though it’s bad for my back.