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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM ANN CHAMBERLIN!
Gender issues, especially as reflected in religion, have always been a focus of my fiction as well as nonfiction. It goes without saying that expressions of homosexuality are usually crushed in monotheistic religions and supported in earlier reflections of belief. That is part of the reason my attention is drawn again and again to the Middle East where religions are not only born, but where the expressions of gender differences have historically been most starkly drawn. Think of the white-robed Saudi and his black-clad women. Black and white indeed. In my search, however, I’ve also seen that even where there are lines of starkest black and white, the gray between also has historically had a place.
More than likely, the time period that fascinates us had no name other than “unnatural sin” for same-sex attraction. The problem is compounded when you want to write fiction that is in the mind set of the time. How can your characters do other than deny what they cannot name? And yet, often monasteries were the refuge of men and women who had no desire for heterosexual relations. The way to embrace what you cannot name always offers drama.
“What is this love you speak of?” Turkish readers have asked me. It has no name. And writing in the minds of historical characters, I cannot give it its modern names full of pride and acceptance.
Those readers who get what I mean are not always sympathetic. I have, in fact, received hate mail declaring that I need to apologize to the world for suggesting that the Ottoman empire had such expressions of love. “We were pure,” I’ve been told. And yet, in the early modern period, it’s known that a number of men left Europe and went to the Turks in order to express themselves. That certain Middle Eastern societies within living memory had “an accepted third gender” (see the Wikipedia article on Khanith http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khanith and the writings of anthropologist U. Wikan). I use those terms when I can.
This “purity”, I feel, is part of the culture we keep trying to force on the East. Like “democracy”. Why else would a female US soldier, winning over “hearts and minds” between fire fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, have told the young men she was instructing that they could never be liberated until they stopped walking arm in arm together down the street. Not that I see such expressions as rampant “depravity”, only a freedom of expression of even heterosexual affection. Such pushes towards “freedom” turn into pushes for “purity” in the next edit.
For me, such cultural expressions are better investigated in historical fiction than in military directives.
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Ann Chamberlin also spent big blocks of time as a child in Europe where her father was visiting professor of mathematics. After flitting from school to school and major to major including theater, history and English, she finally majored in Archaeology of the Middle East at the University of Utah. She spent a summer in Israel excavating the biblical city of Beersheva, traveling throughout the Holy Land and living in the old city of Jerusalem for a month. She reads Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Akkadian as well as French and German. She has traveled across all of North Africa, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. She lives in an old farm house on nearly two acres near Salt Lake City.
Ann is the author of eleven historical novels and a non-fiction HISTORY OF WOMEN’S SECLUSION IN THE MIDDLE EAST. Her trilogy set in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire was on the bestsellers list in Turkey for over six months. Her most recent novel is THE WOMAN AT THE WELL, set in early Islam.
She is the author of many plays which have been produced across the country from Seattle to New York. JIHAD, produced by New Perspectives Theatre in New York City, won The Off-Off Broadway Review’s best new play of the year in 1996.
Comment! A paperback copy of my most recent novel The Woman at the Well will go to the commenter who wins the draw on Christmas Eve. Happy Holidays!
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)
9. Where was it “always winter but never Christmas”?