A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS offers a view into a wife’s legal struggle in Afghanistan

    

A House Without Windows

By Nadia Hashimi

William Morrow: May 16, 2017 (paperback)

414 pages; $15.99

 

In the crowded world of books, it’s easy to miss good writers. I was unfamiliar with Nadia Hashimi when I attended the Literary Women’s Festival of Authors in Long Beach three months ago. But once I read her biography and a synopsis of each of her three books, I knew she was an author I needed to read. Her intelligence, insight, and charm during her presentation only confirmed that.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Jen Forbus and Trish Collins of TLC Blog Tours asked me if I would be interested in reviewing Hashimi’s latest book to coincide with its paperback release.

A House Without Windows is Hashimi’s third novel and, like the first two, is set in Afghanistan, from which her parents immigrated in the early 1970s. It is the story of a devoted wife, Zeba, who discovers her husband, Kamal, brutally murdered with a hatchet to the head in the courtyard of their home. When she is found next to him, covered in blood, her neighbors and even her children believe she killed him, although no one knows why. Hashimi depicts the scene in such a way that it is unclear whether Zeba actually stumbled upon Kamal or murdered him in an impaired state.

She is arrested and taken to Kabul’s women’s prison, Chil Mahtab. Here she awaits trial, sharing a cell with three other prisoners, all of whom have been charged with violations of Afghanistan’s traditional patriarchal culture. Latifa, “a brazen twenty-five-year-old with a deep voice and wide body [who] looked as if she were snarling even when she was at her most cheerful,” had “kidnapped” her fifteen-year-old sister and fled for their protection. Nafisa, “a sharp-tongued woman in her mid-thirties whose defiant manner had won her no mercy from the judge,” has been imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing in retaliation for having an improper relationship with a widower. Mezhgan, “a doe-eyed nineteen-year-old, half the size of her cellmates and nowhere near as bold,” is an unmarried woman who is pregnant, charged with a “love crime.”

A House Without Windows follows Zeba’s journey through the corrupt and byzantine Afghan justice system, moving forward as she meets her idealistic Afghan-born American lawyer, Yusuf, and backward to fill in the story of her life before Kamal’s murder. Zeba has negotiated compromises with herself in order to create a stable home life in a land of constricted opportunities, but she has inherited a stubbornly independent mind from her mother, Gulnaz, known in her village for her powers of jadu, or witchcraft. These two sides of her character are in conflict throughout the story, generating a tense narrative full of complex relationships and plot twists.

The most compelling aspect of the book is the contrast between Zeba and Yusuf, who has returned to the land of his childhood to work for a legal aid group. Zeba understands the many unspoken customs and expectations of an Afghan woman’s life, while Yusuf believes his knowledge of the law and his early life in Afghanistan have prepared him to help her negotiate the legal maze and save her life.

But as we delve deeper into Zeba’s life, we – like Yusuf – find that there is more to her than we first suspected. Hashimi weaves the various strands of the narrative — including the stories of Zeba’s cellmates — with skill and sensitivity, revealing key pieces of information along the way. The result is an absorbing novel that combines a character study, a mystery, and an exploration of an unfamiliar culture. It is an ideal “summer read,” with intriguing characters caught up in a complex plot, set against the backdrop of a fascinating – and often mystifying – land that is unfamiliar to most American readers.

For more on A House Without Windows, visit https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062449689/a-house-without-windows.

You can visit the other stops on the blog tour at these sites:

Tuesday, May 16th: Book by Book

Wednesday, May 17th: Real Life Reading

Wednesday, May 17th: A Bookish Affair

Thursday, May 18th: Helen’s Book Blog

Friday, May 19th: Tina Says…

Monday, May 22nd: Reading is My Super Power

Tuesday, May 23rd: Girl Who Reads

Wednesday, May 24th: From the TBR Pile

Wednesday, May 24th: BookNAround

Thursday, May 25th: The Book Diva’s Reads

Friday, May 26th: Read Her Like an Open Book

Monday, May 29th: Based on a True Story

Tuesday, May 30th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World

Wednesday, May 31st: A Literary Vacation

Thursday, June 1st: G. Jacks Writes

Friday, June 2nd: Jenn’s Bookshelves

PRETTY MUCH TRUE a sobering examination of the price paid by those on the home front of the War on Terror

Pretty Much True   Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane

Pretty Much True

By Chris Jane

Penxere Press: Jan. 18, 2015

260 pages, $12.95

The last several years have seen women writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, addressing the manifold issues involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in general, distinguished by a focus on the experiences of returning soldiers and the effects on those on the home front of the “War on Terror.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follow a male and female soldier, respectively, as they try to negotiate the emotional land mines of civilian life in a home they no longer recognize. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War offers a multi-faceted look into virtually every aspect of the war through several dozen pieces of flash fiction. Siobhan Fallon’s story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, explores life on the Fort Hood army base following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a girl whose father is fighting in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen depicts the Iraq experiences of a female soldier facing harassment from all quarters.

The latest addition to this impressive collection of fiction is Chris Jane’s Pretty Much True, an intensely focused look at the life of Mia Sharpe, a young woman who is coping with loneliness, anxiety, and depression after her long-time boyfriend/almost-fiance, Jake Lakeland, is deployed to Iraq as part of the invading forces. Mia is living near the base in Tennessee, where she has few friends and little in the way of a support system. Formerly a part-time college English professor, she has walked away from her work in frustration and taken up cab driving as a stopgap measure.

Pretty Much True follows Mia as she struggles to maintain her spirits against an onslaught of worries. Is Jake alive and will he return as the man she loves? How can she earn a living from her unpredictable income as a cab driver? What is she to do about her friend Denise, the wife of Jake’s best friend William, who appears to be straying? Why is she having difficulty developing a relationship with her neighbor Safia, whose nationality she is unable to determine? How will she manage to tolerate Jake’s manipulative mother, Olivia?

But the most intriguing aspect of the plot is Mia’s tentative friendship with one of her regular fares, “Doctor” Gary Donaldson, a damaged Vietnam vet who alternates between two realities, only one of which he shares with Mia. Donny is an intriguingly complex character who provides an ominous picture of one possible future waiting for Mia.

Chris Jane has written a riveting character study that convincingly depicts the distress experienced by those still at home while the people they love are halfway around the world in harm’s way, often incommunicado for weeks or months. The supporting characters are realistic, the plot arises organically from the characters and conflicts, and the dialogue is pleasantly idiosyncratic. The novel’s strongest feature is Mia’s narrative voice, which holds us to the spot and forces us to confront what this 12-year-long war is really like for those who are entangled in it – and what their lives will be like when it is officially “over.”

If you’re wondering about the book’s title, the source is Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains the now-famous lines, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

WIFE AND WAR captures the hidden costs of 9/11 and the war on terror

Wife and War   Amalie-Flynn

Wife and War

By Amalie Flynn

Self-published, Sept. 2013

409 pages, $14.95

Amalie Flynn has written a memoir that is unique in both of form and content. It is written in a distinctive prose-poetry that is intensely vivid and emotional. And the subject matter connects her experience of the events of 9/11 with her marriage to a Navy officer who was deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months. The result is a problematic work that, despite its flaws, succeeds because its accretion of details and its immersion in 10 years of her life produces a cumulative power that is undeniable.

Flynn was sitting in a law school class in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. When students’ cellphones go off in a cacophony of ringing and buzzing, they make their way outside. Standing on the corner of Worth and Church streets, only nine short blocks north of World Trade Center, Flynn sees everything — including the people who jump from the towers to avoid death by fire. When the first tower collapses, she runs from the dust cloud with thousands of other panicked New Yorkers. And like so many others, she is traumatized by both the personal experience and the mere idea of the attacks. She tries to return to school two weeks later but is unable to continue.

“I know I left New York City because of them, the soldiers, their tanks and guns, because I did not want to be part of it. And how I ran away, all the way into the arms of a man wearing a military uniform, a man who would be called up, six years later, called up by my country, to go, go and fight it, The Global War on Terror.”

She moves back to her parents’ house in New Jersey, and then to Rhode Island, where she gets a job teaching English on a military base. There, she meets the man who she will marry just one year after 9/11, Jason Phillips. They begin to build a life together, a life she never expected; Jason is the first military man she has ever known, so the life of a military wife is one of life’s ironic surprises.

“When you marry a military man, you are joining the armed forces, even if you don’t want to. When you marry a military man, sometimes, it can feel like the only unit is his, deploying out in ten days, and the only one is you, left, here, at home, by yourself.”

Flynn is struggling to cope with her memories of 9/11 even before Jason is informed that he is being deployed to Afghanistan. A year after they marry, two years after 9/11, he asks her if she is alright “because it is the anniversary…. You never talk about it, he says, smoothing my hair, back, off my forehead…. Not yet, I whisper, not yet.

Even though Jason is in the Navy, he is called up because by late 2007 there simply are not enough soldiers and Marines. The second quarter of Wife and War follows Flynn through her husband’s 15-month deployment, as she cares for their son and copes with her own mental health issues (both related to 9/11 and Jason’s absence).

Compared to other military wives, she is fortunate because he is not seeing combat; he is working at a college in Kabul, training soldiers. He is able to call her nearly every day. “Our words are like snakes moving through the grass, crossing over oceans, over countries, over time changes, slithering back and forth, in between us, and coiling into the sentences of a conversation that may be our last one. And I stand, here, in our bedroom, next to our bed, that is always half made now, listening to him tell me you are a lucky wife.”

Still, it is a difficult time, as Flynn is suffering from a mild form of PTSD but is not getting the support she needs. Like anyone whose spouse is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, she worries about every day being Jason’s last and getting the dreaded visit informing her of his death. “I have imagined being a widow,” she writes. “I have imagined myself, standing, at his grave site, watching, as my husband’s coffin is lowered into the ground, as it gets covered, covered with dirt. I have imagined myself, weaving through the hallways of a foreign hospital, in Kuwait or Germany, and going to a hospital room, the one where my husband lays in a bed, with no legs, and no words, no life left in him. I have imagined what it would feel like, hearing the news that my husband is gone now. And I am thinking about our vows, how we took each other for better and for worse, and how, how the worst could have happened.”

Flynn captures the isolation, the loneliness, and the longing of a military wife in Wife and War. Some scenes and descriptions will remain with you long after you finish the book. “I can’t really explain it. How when you are a military wife, and when your husband is gone, gone for so long, there is a certain kind of longing. I can’t really explain how I long for him, my husband, for his body to be here, stretched out next to mine, in our bed, one side of his face lit up and legible, by the glow of the alarm clock, or his clothing, his socks and shirts and pants, all of it, left on the floor, there, as he climbs in, climbs in to find me. I can’t really explain how hard it is. How hard it is to know that he can die over there and never come home to me. How hard it is to be alone. And, how, sometimes, I just want someone to open me up again. Read me like a book, word by word, hip by hip, sentences and paragraphs and legs, to keep on reading me, page by page by page, until he is done.”

Jason does come home, physically unscathed and thus one of the of “lucky ones.” But it’s not quite that simple. The second half of the book describes what happens after Flynn’s husband returns. Although they are both happy — or at least relieved — to be together again, a marriage with two PTSD sufferers is not a stable place. Complications arise and fall away and arise again. Words are said, including “divorce.” Tears are shed.

“When my husband comes home, from war, for good, there are still checkpoints. There are those points we have to pass through each day. Like when he sees his combat boots in a closet, lined up and empty, reminding him of all of the soldiers who are dead, now, and how it could have been him. Like when he sees my back, again, facing him, in bed, this massive trench forming in between us, a massive trench that neither of us knows how to cross.”

Later, Flynn captures Jason’s hyper-vigilance at home. “We end up in the kitchen in a standoff…. Because I cannot make him see that this is a kitchen, not a desert, that the island in between us is only Formica, that I am his wife, not an enemy he needs to scan for danger, or regard with suspicion, or target for soft spots.”

But in time, with effort and patience, they find their way back to each other and to a functional marriage. “I know my husband changed over there. How he swore to himself, if he was lucky, lucky enough to get out of Afghanistan alive, things would be different. Then he came home. And I just wanted things to be the same.”

In the end she realizes that “war never ends. Even after a country says it does. Even after my husband looks at me, dead in the eyes, and says, it’s fine…. I know the war will never go away. It will always be, here, in our marriage, my husband, that country, so broken by war, and, how, it almost broke us.

Wife and War is an undeniably powerful piece of writing, intimate and even self-flagellating at times. Flynn’s writing has a hypnotic effect at times. But the odd form of repetition she favors can also be distracting and even annoying at times. Flynn also makes unorthodox use of commas, sprinkling them throughout the text almost randomly. While it appears that she was trying to control the flow of words in order to ensure the pauses and breaths that poets rely upon in readings, the effect of so many commas where they are rarely encountered interferes with the story she is telling.

I couldn’t help but think that Flynn should rewrite Wife and War as a more traditional prose memoir, adding more detail to her descriptions of the life she and Jason lived, thousands of miles apart, as the months passed. But these are mere quibbles compared to the story she has shared with us here. It is a story more Americans need to read, along with books such as the outstanding story collections by Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone) and Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) and recent novels by Cara Hoffman (Be Safe I Love You), Roxana Robinson (Sparta), Helen Benedict (Sand Queen), Lea Carpenter (Eleven Days) and Laura Harrington (Alice Bliss).

Wife and War is an indispensable record of the hidden costs of war paid by American men and women.

Amalie Flynn is a poet who publishes two blogs: http://wifeandwar.wordpress.com/ and https://septembereleventh.wordpress.com/. 

Women Writers on the Iraq War: A Collection of Reviews & Interviews

With the situation in Iraq back in the news once again, it seemed like an opportune time to share my reviews of these books about the war and my interviews with the authors.  All are highly recommended.

Sparta cover art

Roxana Robinson — Sparta review    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-5R

Roxana Robinson — Interview     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6q

Flashes of War

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E

Sand Queen

Helen Benedict — Sand Queen review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k

Be Safe I Love You

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aq

Cara Hoffman – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aT

You Know When the Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon — You Know When the Men Are Gone review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bE

Siobhan Fallon – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bM

stop_here

Beverly GologorskyStop Here review   http://wp.me/p3EtWm-dM

 

FLASHES OF WAR provides all-encompassing insight into war

Flashes of War

Flashes of War

By Katey Schultz

Apprentice House/Loyola Univ. Maryland

2013, 180 pages

 

Women writers are having their say about the “War on Terror” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically in a spate of recent novels and short story collections. In the past, most novels and stories dealing with war and its consequences have been written by men. So these authors bring a much-needed female perspective to the subject. However, their gender does not define or limit their attitudes and conclusions, just as it does not with male writers. The work of Helen Benedict, Siobhan Fallon, Roxana Robinson, Amalie Flynn, Beverly Gologorsky, and Lea Carpenter is not at all uniform or monolithic in approach or results.

One author stands out from the others with her stylistic choice: Katey Schultz has written a collection of “flash fiction,” very short stories that are the equivalent of a snapshot of a character, a place, or a moment in time. Her recent collection, Flashes of War, features 31 selections, most of which range in length from two to five pages, although there are a handful of stories in the 12 to 17-page range that anchor the collection.

While each story has its own compact power, in part precisely because of its conciseness, the cumulative effect of reading these 31 stories over 164 pages is like watching one of those gut-wrenching videos of dozens of people affected by the war. We hear from soldiers on duty, bored and feeling useless at the FOB (forward operating base), training to become warriors, or returning home profoundly changed. We hear the heartbreaking voices of the women left behind, waiting and chewing on their fingernails: wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters. And we also, crucially, hear the voices of Iraqis and Afghans — civilian, military, insurgent, Islamist, young and old, male and female. All are trying to make sense of surreal circumstances that defy interpretation by the rational mind.

Flashes of War opens with the page-long tone-setter, “While the Rest of America’s at the Mall,” which points out the contrast between the men and women at war and the other 300 million Americans. The narrator sets the scene in the first line: “It’s not quite sniper fire, but it isn’t random either. The hajis so much as hear me think, and they start gunning the water from their position on the bridge, bullets raining like a Carolina downpour.” He calls in their position for an airstrike. “Any second now, that bridge will sizzle, and Spalding will crack some joke about the Konar looking more like haji soup….”

Schultz wisely chooses to shift gears immediately, nearly causing mental whiplash in the reader. “With the Burqa” is the first-person narrative of a young woman in Kabul, Afghanistan whose father was recently killed. “With the burqa, it was like this: the world came at me in apparitions, every figure textured by the mesh filter in front of my eyes. In a city with so much death, it was easy to believe half the people I saw were ghosts. Women sat like forgotten boulders along the sidewalks in Kabul. We begged. We prayed.”

One of the longer stories, “Home on Leave,” details the experiences of a young soldier on leave in Arkansas. He is perplexed by the various reactions to his return from Iraq. His family and friends treat him like a hero, but he is uncomfortable with the attention, more than he received even as a star wrestler in high school. His dirty little secret is that he has not seen combat. “Bradley hadn’t fired his M4 since Fort Jackson. Fobbits were all the same. Just a bunch of laborers, holing up inside the wire. Heck, Bradley could have spent the last ten months working for Jiffy Lube.” But a violent encounter with another vet — who left his leg in Iraq — turns the homecoming sour, showing Bradley that the war has followed him home in more than just his head. Sometimes, he learns, the enemy appears in unexpected form where you least expect him.

“Amputee” follows a wounded soldier at Walter Reed Medical Center, 112 days into her treatment and recovery. “I’m in here for my arm. Half of my arm, really. That’s the way I think on a good day. Other days, I think like this: I left one elbow joint, 28 bones, twice as many muscles and tendons, one wrist, and my entire left hand in the middle of a filleted Humvee on the outskirts of Karbala, Iraq. I never heard the bomb detonate. There was me, thrown twenty feet from the vehicle, and there was my arm, tangled into the steering wheel and engulfed in flames faster than you can say, ‘Don’t look.'”

When Becca and a double leg amputee, PFC Gunther, go to the cafeteria for lunch, she is faced with her new reality. “I stared at the beige food tray in front of me: one hamburger, coleslaw, condiment cups, and a bag of Fritos. Just like that, my world shrank to about two feet — the distance between where my left arm used to be and where that impossible bag of chips lay, sealed closed.”

Schultz telegraphs her potent message through carefully chosen telling details like a bag of chips that the rest of us open easily with both hands, taking the entire task for granted, but which taunts the formerly independent and capable Becca.

Schultz breaks the reader’s heart in a hundred different ways in these stories. But she leaves your mind and your conscience intact, pondering the hidden costs of war.

She follows “Amputee” with the related “Permanent Wave,” in which a returning “war hero” missing an arm throws out the first pitch at the opening game of the Seattle Mariners’ season and then watches the stadium full of spectators perform the wave, “cheering, waving their arms so frantically it’s like they’d give them up just to make Daniel feel whole again.”

“KIA” is not a narrative but a list of the belongings of Specialist Donald R. Swearingen of Camp Taji, Iraq, killed in action. On the wall is “1 Post-It Note with the impression of a woman’s lips in red lipstick.” In his duffel bag are “two children’s T-shirts. (One for Justin, the newborn he hadn’t met yet, and one for Sarah, the little blonde who sings in the bathtub and practices her step-ball-change on the coffee table.)” Inside his pillow case: “Sealed envelope addressed to ‘Tiffany Swearingen, a.k.a. My bodacious babe.'”

In “Pressin’ the Flesh,” a soldier who’s been at Camp Taji for seventeen months goes on a mission to press some flesh in Sadr City, to make friends with the locals. He hands out 80 bottles of water in five minutes. “Something makes me edgy being this close to civilians. Any one of them could be the next suicide bomber, ready to make the 3rd and 4th Squads just a bunch of statistics.

“Don’t ask me what I’m for or against,” he tells us. “All I know is, I’m handing out bottles of water, and it isn’t enough. Next thing, kids heckle me for chocolate. Fathers shout that they want their houses rebuilt. Mothers want hospitals. They all want their schools back. They want to know why they have to wait thirteen hours in line for gas while standing on top of the largest oil reserve on the continent. They want it all, and I don’t have any of it.” He prefers the patrols, using night vision goggles and shooting anything that moves wrong or lights up. It’s morally clearer, black and white. Not complex like the faces and voices of the civilians with their very human needs.

The collection’s penultimate story, “Homecoming,” reminds us of those left behind at home, waiting and worrying, praying and distracting themselves with the mundane activities of their safe American lives. When the bus arrives at the National Guard armory, the narrator exits and walks into the crowd. “That fast, there’s Hannah latched around one of my legs and Delphi around the other. Sarah dashes up, then stops, taking us in. I raise my arms, and she slips between them, holding my face in her palms and looking right into me. When I exhale for what seems like the first time in a year, I gaze into her eyes and see a love so fierce and brave, I know she’s the real hero among us. My wife. My daughters. The most tender warriors I know.”

Schultz has performed an impressive feat of imagination with Flashes of War, putting us in the shoes — and heads — of all of her characters, providing a chorus of voices telling us the various truths about the last 12 years of war. When you are finished reading these compelling and flawlessly written stories, you too will be changed.

Flashes of War was published by a small university press and has not garnered anywhere near the attention it so strongly deserves. Perhaps the major publishing houses were afraid of Schultz’s unvarnished truth-telling or maybe they thought few people would want to read about this weighty subject matter. But there is arguably no more important issue of our time, and this unforgettable collection of stories should be part of a national conversation, not just among readers, but among politicians, the military, diplomats, non-governmental organizations, and civilians of all stripes. Or will another writer have to write a similar collection for the next generation?