Paula Jolin wrote her richly detailed teen novel, In the Name of God, over the course of 10 weeks. That's a seemingly brief time frame in which to write an entire book especially a debut novel but the research process began years earlier, when Jolin was living and studying in the Middle East.
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Jolin was always interested in other cultures. She always wanted to be an author, too, but at age 20, she realized she wasn't yet ready to try her hand at writing a book. I thought I didn't have anything to say, she explains. One of the reasons I started traveling was to have something to say. And travel she did. During her junior year at Brown University, she embarked on a study abroad program in Cairo that became the launching point for several years of cultural observation and exploration. After graduation, Jolin went to Tunisia, and then Syria, where she enrolled in The Ma`Had, or The Institute for Teaching Arabic to Foreigners. As a foreign woman in Syria, you get the best situation you get invited into homes, people feed you. A Syrian woman couldn't sit alone in a cafÅ½, or have an apartment, like I did, she says. On the strength of her positive experiences, Jolin enrolled in the Islamic Studies department at McGill University in Montreal, and traveled to Syria and Yemen during her summers off. Later, she pursued a doctorate in anthropology and worked as a teacher in Sudan each summer. Eventually, though, she realized academia wasn't for her. She had gotten married and was pregnant with her first child when she decided it was time, at last, to write.
Her strategy worked: Jolin found her writer's voice and completed In the Name of God, a character-driven novel that offers a window into a Syrian family's daily life as seen through the eyes of 17-year-old Nadia. Despite living in a place that is seemingly so different from America, Nadia has many experiences that mirror those of American teenagers. She struggles with feeling left behind as her cousins become more Westernized, and with her confusion as she realizes that her cousin Fowzi's anti-government views may be risky, but they're also intriguing, even empowering. In her search for a foothold in an ever-changing world, for a way to feel powerful in a community that is closely watched and controlled, Nadia enters dangerous territory. It is to Jolin's credit that we understand Nadia's decisions, even as we are shocked by them.
When people do things we think are totally out of bounds, there is a process. Nobody starts out that way, Jolin explains. I wanted to show someone who's in a place we couldn't imagine being to show how they got there. But, as Jolin makes clear in In the Name of God, while life in Syria may be different from life in America in important ways, there are common bonds human connections and similarities that are universal. There are so many things you can't say in Syria you can't talk about the government, and there is a sense that all taxi drivers are spies, Jolin says. But amid all this pressure and difficulty, people are happy a lot of the time. Jolin says she wanted to show readers the Syria she experienced, and the sort of people with whom she became very close: families that have joys and conflicts, secrets and celebrations, just like any other.
Jolin lives with her own family (her husband and their son and daughter, now 4 and 2), in suburban North Carolina. Their home is a welcoming one, where children's toys share space with shelves filled with books of all sorts, and wonderful aromas waft out from the kitchen. There are no obvious indications of Jolin's time spent in the Middle East, but her passion for travel and the people she met along the way is evident whenever she speaks about her experiences. Jolin's passion for writing is clear, too. In fact, her second young-adult novel, Three Witches, is due out next year. Still, she says, I only recently started telling people I'm a writer. I'm a stay-at-home mom, and proud of it. I would tell people I'm a runner but not a writer. I'm a terrible runner, but I've been more comfortable calling myself one because there's nothing at stake. She adds, laughing, Of course, when I sold the book, it was months before anyone asked me what I did. Even when I say it now, I wonder, Is this really true? Am I making this up? Not at all.
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina.