As a writer obsessed with place and history I rely on first-hand experience--the opportunity to walk the same ground as my characters, if I can--as one way of sparking my imagination; another is research. Living in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years led me to write the stories for my first book as a way of investigating what I didn't know about a place where I had spent time. I'm now working on a novel that was originally set in Berlin during WWII. Over the past few years it has expanded to include a multi-generational cast of characters as well as settings in the United States, and I've discovered that the book is as much about place and migrations and home as it is anything else. The NEA fellowship will afford me the opportunity for some travel and research, and sustained time away from other work to shape the current draft into a cohesive narrative. Twinning the bolt of confidence this fellowship provides with the humility at having received it is an amazing feeling as a writer. I'm honored to be a part of this American literary tradition.
From the short story "The Grand Tour"
After a life of living in the desert, Hamid decided to admit a kind of defeat. He was an old man past sixty. By the time he rode into the village of Al-Kharj with his wife, Rafa, and the Texan, Gus, they possessed only the things they tied to the three aging camels and a pair of spindly, recalcitrant mares. Gus asked where they were going, in the mild way Hamid had become accustomed to. "A relation," Hamid told him. "His father owed mine a debt." Gus understood about extended Bedouin families; this relation, then, would take them in.
He had been with the husband and wife--who were childless--since the day nearly twenty-five years earlier when they had rescued him from the aftermath of a storm. He had never meant to survive it. His companion had not. Hamid and Rafa seemed to understand Gus's guilt, and had delivered him up from the wild sands, burying the other and with it, the Texan's past. He was theirs and stayed theirs, through everything. Now Rafa pulled her camel's reins taut and sat high in her seat. She surveyed the last downward slope to the village and said, very softly, "Here we will make another home." Hamid grunted in reply.
Rafa was some years younger than her husband, as was Gus. The Texan had grown into himself (he had been stripped back by his convalescence, Rafa remembered, in both body and mind), and though he remained slight, and the folds of his robes seemed always to find his bones to cling against, the fragility of his appearance was deceptive. His footing in sand was sure, and he was a steady shot with a rifle. On this journey he had been the one to keep them going with kills of small game: they took what they came across, birds and the occasional hare, once a spiny dubh lizard--a delicacy and, especially now, a good omen. That meal had been the day before reaching Al-Kharj; Rafa agreed with her husband that it was indeed good luck, and Gus's providing it seemed to refresh a sense of good will among the three, but as Hamid continued to extol their fortune in the small fire's light Rafa closed her ears to the sound of his voice.
Hamid wanted her appreciation now, as the houses of the village came into sharper view, but what she had said did not achieve its mark.
They turned the camels into the slope for the descent. Hamid was leading them and his camel--the one of worst temper, which gave the beast a semblance of spirit, from a distance at least--traversed the dune in a sloppy diagonal. Behind him Rafa pulled her reins up again, so as not to overtake him. Gus, as always, seemed in no hurry; he lingered on the rise and looped the mares' ropes over his forearm. They would have to be dragged. It was late morning, the sun yet benevolent, and as they got closer to the village the thrum of harvest sounds shimmered up to them. They heard the knock of long knives, the slish and saw as they carved off the stalks from the palms. The air carried the tang of ripe dates and would, in the weeks ahead, begin to feel weighted with it. Autumn was the perfect time to arrive (as Hamid had said); it was necessary they be there. In this way he had flipped their predicament, explaining to Gus and Rafa that his relation would surely require extra hands--so they would offer theirs. How many harvests had he supervised, anyway, in his time? His listeners had remained patient, hearing this throughout the yawning days of their journey; each could tote up, silently, the many oases they had hovered around or circled back to, year in and out, so many years, the others of their tribe falling away from them, dying off (the old women) or knowing better (everyone else). Gus had stayed, and Rafa of course had no choice. She thought: how do we appear now--as sad opportunists? They rode their camels down. The mares brayed in protest, digging in their hooves. The dune melted into the plateau, and Hamid cantered ahead toward the large house ringed with the greenest palms, the most luxurious shade. It was just like him. Sometimes, when his hopes were this high, Rafa overcompensated with a serenity she was afraid did not hide her pity.