2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Nonfiction

Deborah Baker

Deborah Baker
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

Graywolf Press

Interview by Megan Gilbert

Megan Gilbert: Describe how you came upon Maryam Jameelah's letters.

Deborah Baker: I research and write my books at the New York Public Library. One day I became curious as to whose papers were in the Manuscript and Rare Books Division, a room I'd never worked in. As I scrolled through the index, it was the surprise of coming across a Muslim woman's name that made me want to take a closer look. In the first folder of the first box were 24 letters Maryam had written to her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus of Westchester. In them, she provided an account of her 1962 journey on a Greek freighter from New York to Karachi and her first 18 months living as the adopted daughter of Pakistan's foremost Islamic political and ideological leader, Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi.

MG: What drew you to the material?

DB: First it was the voice in the letters and the utterly improbable story they told. But there was also the photograph of Maryam in a burkha, the one on the cover of my book. Most photos of women in burkhas have been taken surreptitiously, but in this she is clearly posing. And I thought to myself, what's the point of having your picture taken if you don't show your face? But then it occurred to me that perhaps it was only by covering her face that Maryam could assert herself. As a biographer who uses the lives of other writers to explore questions close to my heart, I could relate to the freedom granted by anonymity, this faceless-ness. Of course, the life Maryam chose in going to Pakistan was a real one, not an imagined one. There was no going back for her.

MG: You intersperse your own narrative among Maryam's letters. Can you please describe how you devised a structure for the book?

DB: I always knew that Maryam's letters would determine the course of the narrative. I realized early on that I needed to have another voice in the book that would act as an intermediary, voicing the kinds of questions and thoughts a reader might have when confronted with the story the letters told. Like a biographer, this voice would also provide historical context and background. What I didn't realize at the outset was how personal that second voice, my voice, would end up being.

MG: How did you go about "reconstituting" Maryam's letters?

DB: The letters were too long and involved to include intact so, initially, I used verbatim quotes with ellipses showing where material was removed. Inevitably, this read like I was interrupting her. When I wanted the focus to be on Maryam, readers would wonder about what I had taken out. So I removed the ellipses. Then, since letters were often written over several days, I began combining one letter written in early July with another written and sent a little later. Once the letters became part of my manuscript, they underwent further changes and eventually I stopped referring to the originals. For me that was part of both the evolution and the conceit of the book: going outside myself and my biases and set of beliefs, first to embrace hers, then to get beyond both. You risk losing the reader's trust when you step over this line but I felt it was worth it.

MG: You toggle between calling the subject of your book Peggy, Margaret, and Maryam in different sections. Talk about how and why you chose to use each name. What are your thoughts on name vs. identity?

DB: Maryam Jameelah was her Muslim name and her pen name, so obviously when I addressed her writings and life after her conversion, I used that. When I wrote about the woman who wrote letters to her parents, I used the name Peggy, because that is how she signed them. And I used the name Margaret interchangeably with Peggy when I wrote about her childhood and coming of age. I wasn't always consistent because I didn't want the reader to forget that they were all the same person, but that was my general rule.

MG: How did your attitude toward Maryam change over the course of writing the book?

DB: For me, the process of writing this book was not unlike the progress of a doomed love affair. At first, I was wary, put off by the righteous tone of her books, but curious about what happened next. The more I engaged with her letters and writings, however, the more intense my identification with her became. Eventually everything I read and thought about reminded me of Maryam Jameelah and the questions raised by her life. All this changed when I went to Pakistan. After that, there was nothing I wanted more than to be done with her. In the past, I did my best to edit out such unprofessional mood swings and project the even keel of scholarly distance. In The Convert, such emotions became part of the story.

MG: What reservations, if any, did you have about meeting Maryam in person after having spent time with her letters and writing her story?

DB: None. I convinced myself that I was on the cusp of a breakthrough and the woman I had so completely imagined had the answers to all my questions about the attacks of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror. Inevitably, this was not the woman I met.

MG: What were the challenges you faced while writing the book? Conversely, what were the most thrilling moments of the process for you?

DB: The hardest part was writing in first person. Up until my arrival in Pakistan I had been in thrall to Maryam's voice, her story, and her views on the irreconcilable conflicts between Islam and the West. It wasn't until long after I returned that I found my feet again and was able to talk back. The fact that I didn't know if the book would ever be published (the proposal had been turned down everywhere) enabled me to take risks I otherwise wouldn't have. That was liberating.

MG: What questions were you looking to explore through the writing of The Convert? Do you feel you discovered what you set out to discover?

DB: Big questions! Was the enmity between Islam and the West rooted in metaphysical questions or historical grievances? Was it ironic or inevitable that the age of liberal democracy was also the age of imperialism? That the American Cold War evolved into the War on Terror? Sometimes just figuring out what the questions are feels like an achievement. But in the end it was smaller questions that proved more compelling and answerable. Why did Mawlana Mawdudi invite Margaret Marcus to Pakistan? How could Herbert and Myra Marcus have let their daughter go?

MG: What do you think The Convert illuminates about radical Islam versus the West?

DB: I always saw The Convert as a kind of parable. Like the parable of the prodigal son, it was a story about a father, a mother, and their wayward child. Though Maryam cast and recast the events of her life in a way that made the radical turn she had taken the only possible one, she also never stopped writing to her "infidel" parents. She never stopped trying to explain herself to them. Mawdudi was also a father, struggling to protect his children and his followers from being corrupted by the seductions of the West. By portraying these conflicts both in their words and in my own, I found it possible to turn the arguments between our respective, warring worlds into the simpler story of two families: one secular and Jewish and the other devoutly Muslim. Two families and their efforts to love difficult children in difficult times.

Megan Gilbert's writing has appeared in the New York Press, Paste online, Laughspin.com, and Underwater New York. She is a senior copywriter for Gawker Media. Read her work at ithardlymatters.com and follow her on Twitter @ithardlymatt3rs.