In Naseem Rakha‘s debut novel, THE CRYING TREE, a 15-year-old boy is killed; and as his family unravels, the boy’s mother lives only for the day that the murderer will be executed. Months turn into years, and a single action changes everything, opens the possibility for forgiveness. I loved talking to Naseem about this book, which is already a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller and a pick for the Barnes & Noble’s autumn Discover Great New Writers program, and I hope you’ll join the conversation.
I love the sentiment of the Mohandas Gandhi quote you use at the opening of your novel. “Love is the prerogative of the brave.” Can you put that philosophy into your own words and talk about why it strikes you?
While The Crying Tree is obviously about difficult subjects – murder, loss, secrets, the death penalty, forgiveness – more than anything else the novel is about courage, and more specifically the courage to love. The story takes on this theme in many ways, but the most obvious is in the protagonist’s (Irene Stanley’s) decision to forgive the man who murdered her son. Loss sears our souls only if what we have lost we have also loved. To turn around in the midst of the most grievous loss, and decide it is better to have hope in this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to love no matter what the cost, takes, I believe, tremendous strength and courage.
You’ve written about the kind of grief people never fully heal from, the violent death of a child. Every member of this family lost their bearings, felt alone with their needs and their secrets. Even the tree at the burial site wept sap. But something survived, insisted, in each of them. And I wonder if you can talk about this push and pull of the human spirit – to lay down and to stand up again.
One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption. A man is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife, but instead of giving up, lying down as you put it, he finds ways to make his life whole. I think the reason this film appeals to me, and so many others, is that it speaks to our higher selves: that part of us that strives to be more than the sum of our accumulated hurts. We saw that with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which helped people rise up from the desperation and anger caused by Apartheid. We see this in Iran as people risk their lives standing against a repressive regime. And we see it in the everyday acts of people that decide to forgo the victimization and pain of their past and move on with their lives. Survival is a natural instinct. The question is will you live this life standing upright, your eyes looking toward the sun, or will you be stooped by the weight of anger, your eyes always looking behind?
Her mission on this day was to stay upright. To bear this thing called a funeral with her mind as closed off to its sights and sounds as possible. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 35)
The boy who’s murdered in this book played the trumpet, music his mother called ‘evidence of God.’ And I love that the image of him in the field, where he played Silent Night even in the summer, became the cover of your novel because the trumpet is used so beautifully throughout. It made me curious: Did you play an instrument as a child? And would you tell a story about you and music that says something about the kind of kid you were?
It is essential to me. Right now I am listening to Shivkumar Sharma’s Call of the Valley. It is classical Indian music. Santoor, sitar, tabla. Music follows me wherever I go. And if it is not on, it is only because I want to listen to the birds, or the wind, or the creak of the house. Or NPR….
I attribute my love of music to my parents. My father – from India, and my mother, from Chicago – shared a passion for music which they the passed on to all three of their children. I grew up going to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to listen to the Symphony, I took ballet, I played the piano and later the guitar. In fifth grade, we were given an assignment to pick out a piece of music, listen to it, and then write a paper about why it appealed to us.
I remember the moment I picked my piece. I was leaning against our stereo – a big walnut console with speakers on either side – listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. When it came to the second movement – the Allegretto – I was bewitched. It is a simple theme repeated over and over again, building like a wave, or growing like a flower, at least those were the metaphors I used in my paper. I also remember feeling the music as something alive and almost magical. If everyone could sit down and listen to this one piece, I thought, then there would be no war or crime. There would only be this music, and all around it there would be people who understood its power.
I still love the Seventh Symphony. In fact, it was one of many pieces I listened to while I wrote The Crying Tree. Music was essential to certain scenes in the book. A song called Tennessee by Mindy Smith helped me recreate the land, the people, and the love Irene had for her life in southern Illinois. Bruce Springsteen’s You’re Missing helped me delve into that empty space created by Shep’s death. And the closing movement of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring helped me develop the tone and emotional landscape of The Crying Tree’s final scene.
For anyone who is interested, I’ve created a downloadable playlist on Itunes. You can find it on my web site: www.naseemrakha.com
The only thing that interested her was the trial. She wanted answers from Daniel Robbin, and she wanted to be there when he gave them. But most of all she wanted him to see her. She had an idea that when they finally locked eyes, her son’s killer would crumple and cry for mercy, knowing – absolutely knowing – the value of what he’d taken, and how in taking it he had altered the course of life. Not just his and Shep’s, but something far more vast and irreconcilable. And then in this idea of Irene’s a dream, really; a kind of sinking, spinning vision that moved through her days – Daniel Robbin would experience all the agony he had caused and would continue to cause, from now until forever, all of it ravaging him as he had ravaged her son. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 76)
The mother in your novel lives for the execution of her son’s murderer, but that wait takes years. Almost two decades. And what began as a rage we can all understand, became a hatred that destroyed her and all that she had left. You show other kinds of hate in this book, including the glee of those drunk and singing on execution day. What did telling this story teach you about hate?
Not only did the novel help me understand how addictive and annihilating hate can be, but how society colludes to make hate a pastime. Shock jocks pollute the airwaves with hate, making it easy, even acceptable to pit one group of people against another. Political leaders tend to do the same, setting up litmus tests to determine if your behavior is acceptable. And we know the role religious institutions have played in perpetuating the myth that there is only one true faith. With so much reinforcement, hate has become the easy antidote to any perceived slight or injustice. It makes us feel more in control, more powerful, more right. And, like a drug, it distorts our perspective of reality, interfering with our ability to be productive members of our community.
What I also learned is that when individuals renounce hate they find in its place feelings of balance, perspective, and joy. These are the people you want to sit next to on the bus. They are ones that see opportunity where others do not. They are creative and funny and almost impossible to offend. And more than anything else, these people are free.
The Crying Tree taught me a great deal about hate, and pain, and love and grace. It has also given me a great deal to strive for.
The choice was simple. Take the truth to his grave, or make her choke on it. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 154)
What’s gained by seeing our adversaries as human beings? And why do you think the idea of absolution or forgiveness is so threatening?
Forgiveness threatens us because it means we have a choice about what we carry. Some people do not want this choice, and moreover, they do not believe the choice really exists. When people are in pain, forgiveness can seem obtuse at best, and grotesque in the extreme. How can a mother forgive someone who murders her son? How can people who have suffered under apartheid, forgive the perpetrators of this generational crime? How do we forgive racists, or terrorists, or the neighbor who beats his wife? A lover that cheats on the other? A boss that fires an ill employee?
Anger is a legitimate response to these actions. The question is, what does the anger give, and where will it lead? For a decade, a friend of mine lived her life for the execution of the man who murdered her eighteen-year-old daughter. Today this woman considers this man her friend, visiting him at least two times a year on San Quentin’s death row. This transformation was not something she would have predicted, and if it had been suggested early on she probably would have been repulsed. Still, it can’t be denied that by setting aside her anger and dealing with Mr. X as a human versus just a murderer or a monster, both she and the man have gained, and learned and grown.
Forgiveness takes work, and it takes time. But more than anything else, it takes faith. I am not a religious person, but I do have a strong belief in the ability of the human spirit to reach beyond the confines of rage and deal with one another in humane and just ways. In fact, I think our future will be determined by whether we are successful at this or not.
All these years with the DA telling her the execution would provide “closure.” That was their word. As if her son’s life were a book that could finally be shut. (THE CRYING TREE, p. 169)
Tell me about your journey to getting this book published. Looking back to the days before you had an agent or a book deal, or when this novel was nothing but a few ideas jotted down on the back of a gas receipt, is there anything you learned that you could share with other writers?
I knew what story I wanted to tell, I felt it was an important story, and I believed in this story and its emerging characters. Then, I worked on it every single day from June of 2004 until its final edits with my editor at Broadway Books in January, 2009. Working means that I was either physically in the act of writing, or I was mentally in the act of imagining, or as it often felt, listening. That effort, plus the exquisite and sometimes brutal advise from a solid set of writing companions helped make the book a possibility. I did not think about publishing, finding an agent, or book sale politics. These things were distractions, and as a mom on a small farm, with a big garden and plenty of animals, I had plenty of distractions.
Then, when I finally thought it was in a tight enough form, I attended the Backspace.org Agent Author Seminar. There, I found my agent and four weeks later signed on as a client with Folio Literary Management. Five months later, my agent and I felt the book was ready to be shopped around to publishers. Within a day, the book had an offer. The following week The Crying Tree went to auction. Since then, it has sold to six different countries and will also be offered in audio form.
In all, the process has been fast moving, and relatively painless. My agent, Laney Katz Becker, editor, Christine Pride and my team of marketers and publicists have been outstanding. And their support and excitement for the book is palpable.
My advice to writers is to find a topic that holds your passion. Research it, then dive in. Do not listen to nay-sayers (I had plenty), do not listen to the negative bugger that lives in the left hand corner of your brain. Do not listen to news about the publishing world. Just write. Then, when you feel ready, have people read it. These must be people who know how to pick apart a work, telling you honestly what works and what does not. They should tell you where in the book they were excited, scared, sad, bored, pissed and so forth. And they should be able to tell you why. After that, sit down and polish your work until you know it shines. In the mean time, research agents. Track Publishers Marketplace deals page. Look to see who is selling the type of book you have written. You don’t just want any old agent. You want an agent that is moved by your work, believes in you, has ideas, and is willing to work with you to make your manuscript even better. Finally, do everything with vigor and ardor and a deep sense of gratitude because you are a writer, and that means you have been given the honor to touch a little piece of grace.