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The power of women's words to help us understand the human condition
By Glenda Martin.
from BookWomen, February-March 2011

Gabrielle Giffords
Gabrielle Giffords
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BookWomen readers are perhaps aware of my ongoing references to "connections." Basically, I believe all is connected and the fascination, for me, is discovering, sharing and pondering the connections.

What we do to each other as human beings is often so unbelievable, how can they be true? Many book group women tell me I choose dark books, and my return is, "Complicated stories are part of life." The challenge is how we maintain a balance between the positive and negative in our lives as well as in our reading.

A major connection occurred for me on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011. I was rereading Once in a Promised Land, by Laila Halaby, preparing to discuss it with my book groups beginning on Tuesday.

Halaby has lived in Tucson most of her life. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and American mother, she received a Fulbright and studied Arabic folklore in Jordan. I've been taken by her poetry and "An Open Letter" she wrote to President-elect Obama in January 2009.

Late in the morning, my reading was interrupted by a call from BW Carol St. John, who was in tears. "Gabby is dead," she said. I was stunned and couldn't comprehend. Carol had been one of the first to hold an open house for Giffords, who is our Representative, in her initial run for Congress.

I spent the rest of Saturday following the media stories.

Then I returned to Halaby's novel, the story of a husband and wife who leave the deserts of their native Jordan for those of Arizona. When 9/11 occurs their lives change.

For me there was a strong connection between the novel and the atrocity that occurred in a shopping mall in Tucson. So during the next week I asked women in seven book groups (86 women, from 19 different states and three Canadian provinces), "What similarities did you find of the human interaction in this novel and what happened in Tucson on Jan. 8?"

The responses were powerful.
"Best not to make quick judgments, instead use restraint."
"One needs to be careful with what language is used."
"It's not just now."
"We have a responsibility to look out for each other."
"Lives of really good people can be destroyed in a moment."
"People think they know, and the gossip starts."
"There are nuts in every culture."
"9/11 opened the gates to negativity."
"Sick feeling in my stomach after 9/11, same after Jan. 8."
"Our dark side surfaces and we turn away."
"Inclination to make assumptions of people who are different & we blame them."
"Jan. 8 colored my reading of the book."

Carolyn See reviewed Halaby's novel in the Washington Post. She quotes a character who says, "It doesn't matter to them if they get the people who did whatever it is that they are angry about, just as long as they've done something large and loud." And, writes See, "Add to that the fact that rational societies are only as rational as their craziest citizen ..."

Seemed more closely connected than I would wish.

Gabrielle Giffords did not die, though several fine people did.

President Obama came to Tucson and spoke eloquently. A traditional blessing for the memorial service was presented by a native Tucsonan of Mexican and Yaqui heritage. Individuals who were heroes were recognized.

A community came together in pain and care.

I chose Halaby's book for my groups a year ago—in part because it tells a fictional tale set in Tucson. Then an actual event occurs in Tucson that seems unimaginable. Book group was an opportunity to share our reactions, to explore the connections between real life and fiction, and to be reminded again of the power of women's words and literature to help us understand the human condition.

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