What led you to write this book?
Before I went to Afghanistan I had planned to keep a journal, something I’ve been doing all my adult life. I started writing about what I was experiencing in Afghanistan, but I did not expect to be as moved as I was by what I saw. Initially I thought about writing a nonfiction account of my year, but I decided in the end that I could reach many more people with a really good story.
What did you feel you could do in fiction that you couldn’t do with nonfiction?
With fictional characters I could explore my struggle for acceptance in northern Afghanistan as an unarmed female American diplomat who had a fairly undefined mission and little support from the U.S. embassy. A work of fiction would also allow readers to identify in a personal way with the NATO and American soldiers and their Afghan counterparts, who are doing their best to carry out an endlessly changing mission in a place with very few rules. I also wanted to elicit a visceral reaction to the plight of Afghanistan’s women and children. Finally, I wanted to connect with readers who would never pick up a book about America’s longest war, the nation of Afghanistan, its environmental issues, or the many people whose lives are being torn apart by this endless conflict. We read news stories about people being killed and the political machinations and hear war stories, but I wanted to paint a real picture of what was happening on the ground and show how we’re trying to rebuild Afghanistan.
Only a few novels and nonfiction books about life in contemporary Afghanistan—not including war stories from soldiers—have been published for an American audience. The most widely read are Khaled Hosseini’s bestsellers The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which were significant influences on you. How is your novel different from these other works?
I was deeply moved by Hosseini’s first novel which I read before I went to Afghanistan, and by his second novel which was published the year after I returned. Both are told in rich detail through the eyes of Afghans, which is something I could never do. Angela Morgan, the narrator of FARISHTA, experiences Afghanistan as an outsider who is terrified of going there but who grows to love that starkly beautiful country. I still don’t consider myself an expert on Afghanistan, but I spent a very intense year there and I wanted to share what I learned through the vehicle of a novel.
What is the meaning of your title, and how is it related to your heroine, Angela Morgan?
When I studied Dari and after I arrived in Afghanistan and introduced myself as Patricia, several Afghans said that my name sounded like the Dari word “farishta,” and a number of them called me that. I didn’t originally think about this connection when I started writing the book, but I like the sound of the word “farishta”, which means “angel” in the local Dari language and so I decided to call my main character Angela.
How closely was Angela’s personal drama—being widowed, befriending her interpreter and a young Afghan woman, falling in love with a British officer, and so on—based on your own story?
I was not widowed, like Angela. I’m divorced but my ex-husband and I are very good friends. I’ve drawn a lot on my own life in the Foreign Service, as well as on the lives of other diplomats and journalists I’ve known. I had a very dear friend working at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut when it was bombed in 1983. I was based in South Africa and was pregnant with my first daughter. I didn’t even know my friend was in Beirut at the time, since she was on a temporary assignment. It was horrible when I got word that she had been killed. A few months after that, a diplomat friend in South Africa traveled to Namibia, which was at that time, a war zone. He was blown up by a bomb planted in a gas station. His wife, who was also a very dear friend, was deeply traumatized. I folded a lot of those events into Angela’s back-story. Unlike Angela I wasn’t forced to go to Afghanistan, I volunteered and very much wanted to go. As for the romance, I was twenty years older than most of the British officers I was stationed with--but a girl can dream. That’s what novels are for.
Was the character of Rahim, your interpreter, based on a real person? How about the character of Nilofar, the young female law student who works for women’s rights?
Rahim was a composite of several of the interpreters at the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) base where I was assigned. They were all amazing young men in their early to late twenties with incredible stories of survival during the years of fighting when most of them were teenagers. I decided to have Rahim's character take an interest in archeology because it gave me the opportunity to introduce readers to Afghanistan's fascinating ancient history. There really was an archeological dig just outside the 2,500-year-old walls of Balkh City. The dig was overseen by French archeologists who were excavating the ruins of a Greek city that had been founded by Alexander the Great. The other digs and the artifacts I refer to in the novel are based on information from the Smithsonian's Bactrian Gold exhibit.
Nilofar was also a composite of several amazing women I met in Afghanistan. One was a young medical student. She was beautiful, brash, refused to wear a burkah and worked relentlessly to help the less fortunate. Another was a feisty lawyer who continuously crossed swords with warlords as she tried to rescue young girls being forced into marriage. The third was a teacher, who was also a women's rights activist, and another was a tough-as-nails Kuchi nomad woman who decided to run for parliament (and won!). I also read many stories written by international journalists about women in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan who were either crushed by the system or were bucking it and risking everything to challenge their male-dominated culture.
President Obama has announced that the U.S. will begin to withdraw our combat troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Do you agree with that decision? Do you think the withdrawal will actually happen?
I do think it’s time for us to start pulling troops out of Afghanistan and turning management of the war and their affairs to the Afghans. The withdrawal is scheduled to go on for several years, and of course American troops are leaving and being replaced all the time. I hope the Afghans will be able to assume the responsibilities that the NATO troops will be giving up. The Afghans have shown that they’re really good fighters and when they really want someone out of their country they marshal their forces and get them out. I do think we’ve wisely stepped away from our initial goal of creating a western-style democracy in Afghanistan and acknowledged that the Afghan people will have to do that. The most we can hope for right now is that Al Qaeda cannot reestablish a base there and attack us again. That’s our minimal goal for getting out, and I hope we can do it as soon as possible and lose as few additional lives as possible. I also hope that our remaining reconstruction work in that country will have a much greater emphasis on sustainable development and renewable energy.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is an important concern in your novel and a subject of growing public discussion. During your time in Afghanistan, did you see symptoms of PTSD similar to what Angela experienced?
In 2004, when I went to Afghanistan, diplomats received little preparation for being in combat situations and we did not get any formal counseling when we came home. Thankfully that has changed, but it’s still my opinion that civilians are not sufficiently prepared to deal with the mental stress of combat. It’s also a fact that some diplomats are still unwilling to seek psychiatric care for PTSD because they fear losing their security clearances or damaging their careers. Although I was not aware of any military or civilian personnel with PTSD while I was in Afghanistan, while I was writing FARISHTA I read many articles about soldiers who were returning physically intact, but with serious emotional problems. Treatment for soldiers with PTSD has improved somewhat, but the untreated emotional casualties of America’s two 21st century wars also include uncounted numbers of local civilians and non-military foreigners. For all of these reasons, I thought this was an important issue to highlight.
How about you? Did you experience any PTSD yourself?
I never got used to the frequent detonations of confiscated ammunition by our EOD team and I was driving my vehicle in a convoy when a Swedish army vehicle was blown up nearby, but I was never shot at or directly attacked. Still, I was unnerved by my own phobias when I came home after a year in Afghanistan.
I was most surprised that for several months I was afraid to take my dog out for a walk after dark. I had been taking her on walks after dark through our very safe and well-lit neighborhood for years and I had never been in the slightest bit afraid, but now I was. I also got very nervous whenever I would see a paper bag left at the bus stop, or any unattended container, box or bottle, which before I would have automatically picked up and taken to the nearest trash bin. After I returned from Afghanistan I was afraid to touch any of them because I feared they might be disguised IEDs—totally illogical, I know, but that's how I felt.
As I began to write FARISHTA and as I read more about soldiers returning with serious PTSD, I wondered what it must be like for those guys who had actually suffered serious physical and emotional traumas in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was also concerned that the State Department had no reentry program for us diplomats coming back from those war zones. Some of my fellow diplomats who had served in the south did experience traumatic incidents including real combat and witnessing up-close the death and injury of their military colleagues and other Afghans. Those diplomats who came back with war zone-related psychological issues were on their own to deal with it. I decided that I could perhaps draw attention to this issue by making it a part of my main character's psychological make-up.
Recently, the Veterans Administration greatly expanded the eligibility of military personnel for the treatment of PTSD.
They previously required that the PTSD be linked to a specific incident, and they’ve now dropped that requirement. That’s a good thing, because this sort of trauma does not always arise from one particular event, but rather from an accumulation of stress over time.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have been a matter of great international concern. The issue is highlighted in your novel by the character of Nilofar, a young female law student, who fights against the practice of arranged marriages and the mistreatment of women by the legal system. Is progress being made on women’s rights in Afghanistan? What are the most effective things that the U.S. government and individual Americans can do to help?
Yes, I think progress has been made. When I was there it was wonderful to see girls attending school, something they could not do under the Taliban. Women were beginning to move into leadership positions in the Afghan government. But I also visited the prison in Mazar-i-Sharif, as Angela does in the novel, and I was stunned to see women in jail for so-called marriage crimes. There’s certainly a long way to go, not only in Afghanistan but in much of the Islamic world where women are far from having the rights and privileges that women in the Western world enjoy.
Is that an argument that you think is beginning to gain some traction with the male Afghan leadership?
I do. But it’s going to be a long, slow process. Look at the suffrage movement in the U.S. Less than a century ago American women couldn’t vote or do much of anything without the permission of their husbands or fathers. They were marching and chaining themselves to fences in protest. A lot of progress has been made with women’s rights in the West over the past hundred years and global advances are taking place with increasing speed because of the explosion of information on the Internet and especially social networking. Looks at what is happening with the Arab Spring that is sweeping the Middle East. I predict that change will occur more rapidly in countries like Afghanistan although it may not happen as fast as some of us would like.
Are you worried that when the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, things will really spin backward for women to the way it was under the Taliban?
I fear that the position of women will regress, but hopefully not back to where it was in the late 1990’s. I hope that President Karzai will not use as bargaining chips the rights and freedoms of Afghan women if and when it becomes necessary for him to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban.
As touched on in your novel, American and other Western contractors are in the process of building a new energy infrastructure for Afghanistan, which is based on imported petroleum rather than the country’s abundant solar and wind resources. Why is it so important to have a sustainable energy infrastructure in Afghanistan? What should be built, do you think?
Speaking as a non-energy expert, but someone who’s very concerned about the future of Afghanistan and the planet, I feel it’s imperative that we begin to invest our resources in renewal energy, as President Obama said in his State of the Union message. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, however, Afghanistan also has abundant solar and wind energy resources, which were mapped by our own Department of Energy in 2004.
Right now Afghanistan purchases much of its oil and electricity—with our help, of course—from the countries of Central Asia. We’re about to build new transmission lines and towers that will carry this electric power over the Hindu Kush Mountains into Kabul. By doing this we’re making Afghanistan totally dependent on purchasing imported energy that is going to become an increasingly expensive commodity. The Afghans are not going to be able to afford this. We’re guaranteeing that their economy in the future is going to become crippled by their dependence on imported energy. Instead, we could be giving them the technology to build solar thermal plants like we have in Nevada and California. Basically these plants use solar thermal reflectors to boil water and turn it into steam, which spins a turbine to make electricity. The whole northern desert region of Afghanistan is perfect for this technology, but we’re giving them twentieth century technology when they’re going to have to survive in the twenty-first century.
We’re also about to support the building of a pipeline to bring gas from Central Asia through Afghanistan. But a pipeline like that would be extremely vulnerable to sabotage and terrorism. We’re also about to exploit the oilfields in northern Afghanistan. I’ve been to those oilfields, and to think that they’re going to create jobs and wealth for the Afghan people is an illusion. Almost all the money coming out of them is already going to the warlords and the wealthy. These oil-related projects are going to destroy the environment, too. Outside of Kabul, most of Afghanistan is a pristine country with clean air and clean water—it’s beautiful. To think of oil pipelines and oil wells going up, when they have so much wind and solar to tap, just breaks my heart.
Like you, Angela is a diplomat working for the U.S. State Department, not a spy working for the CIA. Yet, she inadvertently becomes the target of a Russian spy. How common was this sort of thing during your nearly thirty years as a diplomat?
When I joined the Foreign Service in 1979 the Cold War was still in full swing. Diplomats were required to report any approaches by members of hostile intelligence services, Eastern block countries or anyone else who might be trying to compromise us—to find some weakness they could exploit to get classified information. Instances of actual compromise were rare and usually made the headlines.
What made you decide to enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest? Were you surprised when you won?
I worked for almost three years on the manuscript and had planned to self-publish FARISHTA if I couldn’t sell it. In September 2009, when I told a friend that I’d finally finished my first draft, she suggested I enter it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I decided to submit FARISHTA. I checked the contest website every month and was astounded each time my manuscript (one of five thousand entries) made it through another round of judging by Amazon, Viking, Publishers Weekly and Penguin reviewers. I was in the supermarket one afternoon in May when my cell phone rang in my pocket and an Amazon official told me I was one of three finalists in the General Fiction Category. I was stunned. One month later when I was awarded first prize at Amazon headquarters in Seattle, it seemed like a dream. It still does.
Did you have to get clearance from the U.S. government to publish this book?
I did. After I joined the State Department in 1979, I signed a nondisclosure statement agreeing to submit for prepublication review any written material that was based on my government service. This was not to vet my opinions, but to ensure that I wasn’t revealing classified information. I submitted my manuscript to the State Department, which also sent it out for review by other government entities mentioned in the book. It was fully cleared by all agencies in two months, which is remarkable for the U.S. government. Not a word was changed or deleted.