- Suzanne Fisher Staples: The Setting Is the Story
In this comprehensive treatment of the seven books written by Staples over the last twenty years, Megan Isaac begins with a brief introduction to her life and her development as a writer. Drawing on her personal conversations with Staples as well as her memoir, The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, Isaac focuses on the determined writer who worked as a journalist in South Asia and later as a consultant for USAID studying women of rural Pakistan, a project that gave Staples insight into their lives and customs. As she told Isaac, "The most important thing I did was learning to speak Urdu. It made me able to understand nuance, to listen to stories about people's lives, to take part in relationships" (8). When she turned to writing fiction, these experiences informed her writing and helped give her work the geographical and cultural details that made her settings such an essential part of the story. Readers of Staples's fiction will immediately understand the aptness of the "Setting Is the Story" subtitle. Staples's gift is her ability to create unfamiliar worlds, bringing to life the people of that world and their culture.
Most of Isaac's book is devoted to Staples's best-known works, the Pakistani trilogy. The three books, Shabanu, Haveli, and The House of Djinn, trace the life of a young girl from the desert who is married into a [End Page 117] prominent family and leaves behind the life she knows for the very different life of urban Pakistan. Each book is discussed in terms of the prominent issues, especially the themes that predominate. Predictably, Shabanu, the first and most acclaimed, receives the most detailed discussion, for it is in this book that readers are introduced to the individual characters, the personal and material conflicts they face, and the natural forces and cultural patterns that govern so much of their lives. In the subsequent books, the setting is less strange and Shabanu has assumed the role of an adult. Thus the conflicts are more familiar, allowing a sharper focus on particular themes.
Isaac considers the critical reception of the trilogy in a separate chapter. Each book has been well received; however, as with all books about a culture that is not the author's own, there is criticism as well. Authenticity, the perennial issue for such books, is one complaint. Isaac points out that Staples's extensive work in Pakistan and her knowledge of the language have given her remarkable access to the culture. Yet she also acknowledges the conundrum of all cross-cultural writers, that they are themselves subject to bias and misrepresentation in their own reading and experience. Furthermore, Isaac cites the problem of exceptionalism in the protagonists of cross-cultural stories, where the protagonist with whom readers identify is atypical of the culture she represents. Isaac attempts to resolve the difficulty by arguing that Shabanu's exceptionalism is not culturally based. While it is true that Shabanu at times embraces the customs and values of her culture, it is also true that the journey she has made from the Cholistan desert to modern, urban Pakistan has created many of the same conflicts that Westerners see in the role of women and in the Muslim religion. Shabanu feels confined because she grew up in the desert, but Western readers won't differentiate from where those feelings arise. They will identify with her frustrations for their own reasons and will be confirmed in their own cultural preferences.
As "cultural couriers," bringing a way of life that would otherwise be unknown, to young American adults, the books educate these readers about another aspect of a region that is primarily known for its political unrest and violence. Consequently, these books frequently find their way into classrooms, raising objections from Islamic groups who argue that their religion is not depicted accurately. Their point is that the presentation of culture and religion is not differentiated: young readers will...