Lucy Ferriss ’75 is the author of 10 books, most recently A Sister to Honor, a novel about Afia Satar, the daughter of a landholding family in northern Pakistan who attends an American college. Over and against Pashtun tradition and family dictates, Afia loves an American boy. Photos of the two of them together surface online, and her brother, entrusted by the family to be her guardian, is commanded to scrub the stain she left. In the book, Ferriss explores two contrasting worlds and entangled questions of love, power, tradition, family, honor and betrayal.
Ferriss talked to PCM’s Sneha Abraham about the conception of the book, cultural stereotypes and risk-taking in the writing life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.
PCM: How did you get the idea for A Sister to Honor?
Ferries: Well, Trinity College, where I work, has the best squash team in the collegiate world. Nobody in the United States plays squash, so if you’re going to have the best squash team in the world you have to recruit internationally. So you have people from Catholic cultures and Hindu cultures and Muslim cultures, and they all come to this little college in New England.
Virginia Woolf explores the notion of: “What if Shakespeare had a sister?” So I sort of applied that to my big interests in the squash team. I thought: “What if one of these guys, particularly from one of these countries with fairly rigid social mores, had a sister who came here?” I Googled: “Where do the best squash players in the world come from?” And they came from the Pashtun area of Pakistan. Which is also where the Taliban comes from.
So people always ask me, “How did you get interested in Pakistan?” I wasn’t interested in Pakistan. I was interested in something much closer to home. But it occurred to me that that would be a really pretty interesting situation for a young woman to be coming into. And so I read everything that I could read about that culture. But I continued for a long time just to be kind of looking at it from the American point of view. Looking at it in terms of: How would you come to understand somebody who is coming from this other place, and so forth? So the coach in the novel was originally my only point of view, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I called my literary agent and I said, “You keep telling me that I should write it from the point of view of the young man and the young woman, but I can’t do that unless I go Pakistan.” And he said, “Well, you have to go to Pakistan then.” So I went to Pakistan. And then the story kind of came to life.
PCM: Sounds like it was a series of what-if questions that led you.
Ferriss: Yeah, very much so. What if she came here? She’s 19, 20 years old. What if she falls in love? What if she falls in love with a Jew? And then I also was trying to understand. As the mother of an athlete, I was interested in the question of honor. I spent a lot of time with coaches. And I noticed that they would talk always about being a good sport and behaving honorably and calling the line honestly and so forth. Only one thing that they wanted more than all that, and that was to win.
When I started looking into this in other cultures, honor basically lay between a woman’s legs. And that was sort of a two-sided question, too. So then I had to think—we hear in this country about honor violence, but what is that really? What is it masking? What else would be going on behind the scenes? So those questions kind of drove me.
PCM: It’s an interesting side-by-side when you look at honor and athletics and honor in Pashtun culture. Did you see any parallels or striking contrasts? They’re two very different kinds of honor, I would imagine.
Ferriss: Very different kinds of honor. But in both cases I felt as though somebody would say, “There’s nothing but good about being honorable.” But then, when you hold honor up as this thing, as your kind of lone star and the thing you’re aiming at, then all kinds of things go wrong. So that in the end, for the coach the honor is really winning. That’s really what’s behind a lot of that. And you compromise a lot of things for that. And obviously, when you have this kind of tribal honor, human affection and human emotion and human fallibility fall by the wayside. So they both have this veneer of something that we want. We want to live with honor. We want people to see us as honorable people. Think about that speech by Mark Antony: “Brutus is an honorable man.” But it’s always got a kind of dark side.
PCM: Do you see places where honor plays a role in Western culture besides athletics?
Ferriss: I absolutely do. In fact, the way I came to understand honor violence was—I looked at a lot of the court cases, and I spoke with a wonderful woman named Hina Jilani in Lahore, who is on the Supreme Court in Pakistan and is also on the U.N. Council of Elders. She and her sister are the two people in Pakistan who are really reaching out to help young women who are at risk of honor violence. So she talked about how, by calling a crime a crime of honor, then you can almost always get the perpetrator of that crime either off the hook entirely or with a lighter sentence. And so, I tried to think, “Well, what is the similar thing in the United States?” And of course, we have what we call crimes of passion. If a crime of honor is basically killing your daughter or your sister, a crime of passion is murdering your partner or your spouse. And really, crimes of passion are usually there because someone’s honor or sense of, usually, himself is threatened because someone has betrayed him—loved somebody else or whatever—and he can’t hold his head up. He’s been cuckolded. And so we call these things crimes of passion. And if somebody says it’s a crime of passion, it’s not so bad as a brutal murder. So yes, I think we do have other places. We don’t like to think that we do, but absolutely we do. Not to mention that it wasn’t that long ago, like 100 years ago, if a daughter in a family was pregnant out of wedlock, that was curtains for that family in terms of their honor in society.
PCM: You’ve received praise for talking about some tough situations in your book, but there have also been criticisms from others, saying it’s promoting stereotypes. How do you walk that fine line between working on compelling topics and cultural questions?
Ferriss: It’s a very good question. And believe me I held my breath. My husband first learned what I was writing about, and he said, “You can’t write that. You just can’t. There’s too much anti-Muslim feeling in this country. You just can’t go near that topic.”
There’s no publishing industry in Pakistan, but it’s come out in India, which has very strong honor cultures of its own. And I was really nervous at the thought of a Western woman daring to write from the point of view of a South Asian. And I was really afraid that it would just get torn to pieces. And thus far, the reception of it in South Asia has been very positive, which is a big relief. And I also was very concerned about my Pakistani friends, because I forged a lot of bonds when I was over there, and I’m trying to write about individuals—I’m trying to write about characters—but they’re going to be seen as representative. And I did not want my Pakistani friends and contacts to feel that I had exploited them or represented anything falsely, given how generous they had been with me.
I have no doubt that I got some things wrong. I’ve gotten interesting reactions from my Pakistani friends, but they did not accuse me of engaging in stereotypes. There was one guy in London who said what he couldn’t find credible about the book was that people in the United States would be so ignorant of the kind of family values and points of honor that would be important to Pakistanis. He said, “That’s just ridiculous. I’m here in London, and I know all about it.” And I thought, “Yeah, well, but you’re not in Western Massachusetts. You may know about it in London, but in Western Massachusetts they have much broader stereotypes already in place.” So it is a fine line. You have to expect that you’re going to get some things wrong, and all you can say is that you did your damnedest to get it right.
PCM: In regards to issues over immigration in general and attitudes toward Muslims from the Middle East or Pakistan, we’re in a particular cultural and historical moment in our country. What do you think is the significance of stories like A Sister to Honor at this time?
Ferriss: I can’t say for sure, but what I would hope is that first of all people would come to understand the meaning of family. w Because it seems to me that one of the troubles that we have is we think of family so differently in this country from the way it’s thought of in many other parts of the world—the absolute importance of belonging to a family, of being reunited with your family, of being true to your family. We are a very individualistic culture. And I’m brought up in that culture. I tend to think in terms of the rights of the individual. But there are a lot of cultures that don’t. They think in terms of how important it is that you belong to a family. And so, I feel like if I’ve gotten a little bit of that across, then I may have chipped away at some of the misunderstandings that we have about the people who come here. For instance, nobody could understand how it was that Pakistan hadn’t given up Osama Bin Laden. In Pakistan, one of the primary tenets of that culture is that if a stranger comes among you and needs your help, you must protect him. And probably, if we understood that, we would have gone about it a little bit differently from the way we went about it.
PCM: How long were you in Pakistan?
Ferriss: Not that long. Actually, long enough because the ISI, which is their version of the CIA, was on my trail…
Ferriss: I left, I mean not for any good reason, but because it was very weird that I was there. And I’m not sure that I would have been allowed to stay a minute longer. I was only there for three weeks.
I went to the Pashtun area, where the capital of that province is Peshawar, a city of two million people. And Peshawar was once the crossroads of the Silk Road. It was once this incredibly cosmopolitan city—everybody knew where it was and everybody went there. The level of culture was really high and so forth. Now, of course, it’s just fallen on its knees in the dirt. So even for Pakistanis in other parts of the country, they say, “Peshawar? You’re going to Peshawar? Why?” It’s considered sort of the edge of the frontier. If you go on from there you end up in the frontier provinces, which is where the Pakistani government doesn’t even have any control.
It’s a large city, and there was a moment where this guy came running up to me and my host in the middle of the market square. I thought he was going to set up a suicide bomb because he came at it so intently. But he told me that I was the first Westerner he has seen in that city in five years. And so, in a city of two million people, you can imagine how bizarre it was for me to be there.
PCM: No wonder ISI was on your trail.
Ferriss: They learned pretty quickly that I was there. And we also did go driving out to see into the villages in the country and stayed in the villages. Because I didn’t want the family I stayed with to be from Peshawar. I wanted them to be from somewhere a little more remote. And I would never have had the access that I had to all that if I had not had a host family.
PCM: How did you find your host family?
Ferriss: Well, I learned that Peshawar was a city of two million people. I thought a city that big has to have a university. So I Googled Peshawar University and I found the University of Peshawar. And since I have an academic address, I found—it was not a very good website, but I found a department of language and literature. And I wrote to them and said just that I was an American academic coming to do research in their area. Was there anybody that they could put me in touch with to help me? Shazia was teaching at the university. There are women who teach at the university, though many fewer than there used to be, and with not very good working conditions for them. But she was teaching there, and she happened to come into the office as the secretary was looking at this email, trying to figure out where she should send it. And Shazia looked at it and said, “Tell you what—why don’t you send that to me?” The next thing I knew she was telling me that I had to stay with her, that she wanted to learn about my book, that her family would take me all around, etc.
PCM: You open the book with the proverb, “Woman is the lamp of the family.” What does that mean to you?
Ferriss: Well, it ties in with another thing which I did not put in there, which—because it’s not as poetic—is that a woman carries the honor of her family. That’s what the lamp is, I think. It is the light of the family, the honor of the man; she carries that honor. Ironically, a woman cannot have honor. There’s no such thing as an honorable woman. What a woman has is shame. So you are the lamp of the family, but you don’t light it. You have in that sense the responsibility without too many of the privileges. That’s why I wouldn’t choose it. Because from a very early age you learn that it is on you. But there is nothing that you can do to have a position of honor. You just have to make sure that the family’s honor is carried by you. So that’s what it means to me. It’s a kind of utility.
PCM: Looking at your bibliography, your books run such a gamut of topics. You said with A Sister to Honor the genesis was a series of what-if questions. Is that your process for books in general? Or what’s a day in the life of your brain? How do you connect?
Ferriss: I would say what connects all my books is they’re all a little edgy. When I teach, I tell my students that writing that takes no risk is probably not worth writing. And you can take various kinds. Different writers take different kinds of risks. I tend to take risks with my subject matter.
So a day in the life of me is sort of like: How far can I push this envelope? For instance, in A Sister to Honor, one of the issues—and this is the kind of question that comes up for me in the writing process a lot in terms of how far do I push the envelope—was whether or not I was going to include any sex scenes. Because on the one hand, you had a young healthy woman, college age in the United States, with a boyfriend. And on the other hand, I had the sensibilities of Pakistanis to think about. I go ahead and push that envelope. It’s the one thing that upset my Pakistani friends—why I had to include that scene. But for me, it would not have been realistic without it.
So that’s the kind of question that I tend to have at the forefront as I’m writing—that there are all of these quiet signals that we give ourselves all the time, and so we don’t go there. That’s too tricky to write about; you don’t know if you could pull it off; somebody will be offended—that kind of thing. If you do go back, I think all my books have that tension in them.
PCM: Do you have any trepidation or a moment of fear before something goes public because you’re taking such risks? Or do you feel like that’s just ingrained in who you are by now?
Ferriss: No, I always have trepidation. I actually don’t believe any writers who say that they don’t.
The book before this was based on the news in the 1990s about young people of a good family who had been found to be leaving corpses of babies in dumpsters. I don’t know why that was making the news, but it was. Anyway, so I opened the book with an account of a teenage boy and girl basically still-birthing a child. It’s quite graphic. And I thought that, on the one hand, everybody is going to hate this, and on the other hand, this is where the story starts. And I guess if people get past it, then they’re the kind of readers who want to read the rest of the book. And if they don’t, I guess they just don’t like me. So I always feel some trepidation.