HARTFORD, CT, October 28, 2012 – Fresh off the success of her most recent novel, The Lost Daughter, Trinity’s Writer-in-Residence, Lucy Ferriss, earlier this year spent a month in Peshawar, Pakistan, conducting research for her next book, tentatively titled Honor.
Her experience in the Pakistani city of 2 million was the subject of a Common Hour Talk Thursday, one in which she said some of her assumptions about that country’s culture – its rituals, taboos and customs – were affirmed and some of which were debunked, but all of which will shape the writing of her book.
Her talk gave her audience insights into how a successful novelist goes about researching and writing a book, testing theories and hypotheses to see which ones have merit and which should be jettisoned. And her lecture also provided an insider’s look at a society that is largely enigmatic to most Americans.
Squash is what led Ferriss to Pakistan. “Trinity’s had that effect on me. I wanted, first, to write a story about a female jock, a coach, who possesses the particular confidence of coaches,” said Ferriss. “I wanted to challenge her in an unexpected way and see what would happen. Because I teach at Trinity, squash became my coach’s sport. And because squash can draw, as we all know, a veritable U.N. of players to a small college, the challenge lay somewhere in a clash of cultures.”
Ferriss’s book, scheduled to be completed in October, is mostly set in a small college in the Berkshires. She focused on the Pashtun region of Pakistan because it had established a reputation as a squash dynasty. She proceeded to learn as much as she could, absorbing information “like a sponge,” before her departure.
Key to her research was the Pashtuns’ code, known as Pushtunwali, which governs the culture. The four elements of Pushtunwali are melmastia (hospitality); badal (revenge); ghairat (honor); and nanawate (forgiveness). However, Ferriss learned that there is virtually no forgiveness for illicit sexual relations.
That last concept is key because there is no forgiveness for a woman having illicit sex, a behavior that Ferriss said “horrifies most people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim: the practice of honor killing, or murdering the sister, mother, or niece who has dishonored the family.”
The reason that is key is because, as Ferriss described it, that concept gave her “a framework on which I might hang my coach’s dilemma.”
Thus, the outlines of her novel became clear: A talented male squash player from a Pashtun village would come to the small American college to play squash and would persuade his academically brilliant sister to also come. And, while here, what if the young woman fell in love with a young Jewish man? The end result could be an honor killing.
With that idea in mind, Ferriss traveled to Pakistan to conduct her research. While there, Ferriss stayed with a host and also met with journalists, as well as Pakistan’s foremost human rights lawyer.
“Through these contacts,” Ferriss said, “I hoped to have a handle on the issue of honor killing before I arrived in Peshawar.” She called her interviews “informative and heartbreaking.”
In addition to some of her conversations and experiences making it into the novel, Ferriss said she learned several things about her proposed plot. “Honor would be a family-wide affair. Some people said the affair with the Jewish boy had to go. No Muslim girl would allow herself to all in love with a Jew.” But others saw the premise as realistic.
There were other eye-opening experiences, such as “a daily life in which the sexes were segregated to a degree impossible for me to imagine prior to my stay. All these moments made their way into the novel, both from the point of view of the Pakistani brother and sister and from the point of view of my determined but relatively naïve coach.”
Many other experiences would shape Ferriss’s thinking, including attending a traditional Pashtun wedding; the sights, sounds and smells of the fictional Pakistani village; family relationships; and the role of females – especially young girls – in Pakistani society.
Some of the situations that Ferriss encountered were surprising, including the acceptance of arranged marriage.
Ferriss finished her talk by reading two short sections of the novel where she used some of the details that she had picked up during her travels.
During a question-and-answer session, Ferriss acknowledged that a danger of writing fiction is wearing one’s research on his or her sleeve. “Using a tiny portion of it is the way to go.”