Every time Suzanne Fisher Staples hears about fighting in Afghanistan, she worries. I wonder about people I have known, she says. I always hope they are safe. Her latest book for young readers, the deeply touching novel Under the Persimmon Tree, is set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries she knows well. She worked for 10 years as a reporter for United Press International, based in Hong Kong and then India, and later spent four years in Pakistan on assignment for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). No doubt some reviewers will compare Under the Persimmon Tree to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the bestseller set in Afghanistan, Pakistan and America. Staples says she loves Hosseini's novel, adding, The Kite Runner gives you an idea of the suffering of people no matter what class they come from, and this very ancient Persian sensibility that is so beautiful and so essentially Afghan. Staples first visited Afghanistan in the late 1970s, just before the Russian invasion. I left the region in 1982, she says, and have been haunted by the plight of the Afghan people, the terrible suffering they have endured ever since. After returning to the States, she began writing young adult novels. Not surprisingly, much of her fiction takes place in lands where she once lived and reported: Shiva's Fire is set in India, while Newbery Honor-winning Shabanu and its sequel, Haveli, are set in Pakistan. Staples discovered that writing fiction was a way to deal with the many incidents she witnessed during her reporting years. It's a funny thing, she says, I think when you're a newspaper reporter, you really have to set your emotional reactions aside to be effective. My way was saying, well, I'll sort this out later. Under the Persimmon Tree began as a short story for a young adult collection called 911: The Book of Help Authors Respond to the Tragedy (Open Court). On September 11, 2001, Staples was already immersed in her own family tragedy her mother had just died at midnight, and she was on the phone with a funeral director when her brother told her to look at the television. She spent much of the next 18 months lecturing about the areas of the world that were suddenly in the headlines.
She also started writing. I set aside the stories people told me about living in a war zone, Staples says, a war that they didn't want and that they felt no personal connection to aside from the fact that it was destroying their land and taking away everything they had. By the end of the story, she realized she had the skeleton for a novel. Under the Persimmon Tree alternates between two narrators: Najmah, a young Afghan girl whose father and brother are unwillingly taken away by the Taliban to fight, and whose mother and newborn brother are blown up in an air raid. She makes her way to Pakistan, where she meets Nusrat, an American woman married to an Afghan doctor who is missing. While the book is fiction, Staples says most if not all of the incidents are based on stories Afghans told her, including the story of a young girl who witnessed the death of her mother and brother.
She gathered much literary fodder while working in Pakistan with USAID and interviewing women. Staples recalls, At the end of the day we would sit down and build a fire and prepare a meal and eat, and afterward, while the fire was dying down, they would tell stories. They told me extraordinary stories about themselves, and the stories were sometimes mixed with mythology. I realized that Americans really need to hear these stories. Staples now works in a more bucolic setting, on a piece of Pennsylvania farmland where she and her husband recently built a new home. Does she miss her reporting days? You know, there's not very much of me that misses it. For one thing, I'm older. I'll be 60 this year and I know that we're not invincible. And now that I've been writing fiction for a while, I realize that I'm so much better suited to writing fiction. What interests me most is basic human motivations. I think that we all have the same motivations, but we all have different circumstances.