The Rumpus Book Club talks with Deborah Baker about her new book, The Convert.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club, click here.
Stephen Elliott: Hi Deborah! Thanks for joining us today.
Deborah Baker: Yes, hello everyone. Thank you all for hosting me.
Betsy: There appear to be two distinct camps of readers in TRBC–one that approves of the methodology and believes there are larger truths to uncover and reveal. The other feels duped and wronged, especially having the disclosure at the end of the book. I am of the former camp.
Stephen Elliott: Ha! That’s starting it off with a bang. Would you like to talk about that Deborah? Maybe you could talk about how you got into this story and also address Betsy’s comment.
Betsy: I wonder, though, Deborah, if you felt duped and sort of rearranged things to get revenge. It’s funny, but I mean really. Did you start out with direct quotes and move away from that? Why do some among us feel duped, do you think?
Deborah Baker: Well, I got into this story exactly the way I lay it out in the book. And it wasn’t my intention to change the letters, initially. And it wasn’t revenge. I just felt that the kinds of questions, assumptions I had when I was first reading the letters, fresh, were revealing. And I wanted the reader to confront their assumptions while reading the letters.
Betsy: It’s not until page 207 that we find out MM changed her own letters. To me, she was the one doing the rearranging and “covering up,” for lack of a better term. I felt your methodology saved us a freaking headache. The book was fascinating, by the way. Thanks for writing it.
Deborah Baker: Thank you. MM didn’t change all her letters. The ones that open the book, I still believe are the actual letters she sent to her parents. The childhood letters were written later, the letters she sent to Mawdudi–those were reconstituted.
Georges: I kept returning to the letter her parents wrote to “Mr. Mawdoodi.” The meaning of that letter kept changing for me. As you uncovered more and more of the reality of her story, that letter became different entirely.
Heather: What do you think M/M’s story finally says about the power of language to make reality?
Deborah Baker: Well, I think that as a researcher–a biographer, we often tend to take at face value primary material, like letters, diaries, as if these are more true than later recollections, but in fact they are equally suspect. Not necessarily true, but more true.
Erin: Which assumptions, exactly, were you trying to get the reader to confront? If you mean our societal and cultural biases and prejudices toward a story like MM/MJ’s, then it seems to me that that purpose would be better served by her own words rather than your rewritten ones.
Deborah Baker: I was trying to confront the assumption that everything would end badly for her. She was an innocent abroad. But I was also trying to create a compelling narrative that would be more involving than if I had written a straightforward, authoritative sort of biography.
Betsy: Some of us were speculating about MM’s “condition,” or however to refer to it. Our armchair diagnoses came up with autism and other things. Did you get the feeling you weren’t dealing with a full deck or was it something else? I’m trying to be respectful. We were trying to understand how she got to that point where she would fabricate, flip out, get committed (twice), and wind up in a little room that she rarely leaves. And that sad, sad moment where her baby is lying dying. Jeez.
Deborah Baker: I also speculated about her condition as well, but I didn’t think that would get me anywhere. I did suspect there was something up, but I’ve written about a lot of writers who weren’t entirely sane.
Caroline: I loved the way the book was arranged in such a way that the “truth” kept shifting. I thought it said a lot about how what we accept as fact and how various angles can really shift perception. It was done very subtly, in a way I haven’t often seen in non-fiction.
Heather: I thought this really fed into how religion works also. The shifting narrative truth, I mean.
Deborah Baker: There was a shifting narrative truth. I was looking for answers, too.
Besty: I thought the letter from you, Deborah, to MM was an interesting insertion of your self into the book. And that she got you so worked up when she’s obviously wired to unnerve.
Deborah Baker: I think part of the reason I felt that I could play with the letters, was that I didn’t have a publisher. No one wanted to publish this book. I tried to walk away from it myself after all the rejections, but like Peggy and her Arabs, I kept coming back, kept thinking that I could make some editor understand why it was an important story. When I realized that Peggy was also trying to find the right narrative, I felt free to try to find the right narrative, and part of that was trying to understand what was it about the story that was meaningful to me.
Georges: I found the letter from her parents to Mawdudi astonishing in the beginning–they seemed to have every confidence that MM/MJ would flourish abroad. And then we come to find out that her father had her committed and then left for 6 months. It sort of puts his statement, ” as [she is] a person of fine character we shall maintain a continuous interest in her welfare,” into perspective. People tell the narratives they want the world to believe. So the letter ends up being a horrific sort of collusion to unload their daughter into a situation they couldn’t have possibly had any confidence would turn out well for her.
Deborah Baker: But it did turn out well and it was what Margaret wanted and insisted was best for her. It just didn’t turn out perfectly in all respects.
Stephen Elliott: It seemed Peggy was treated better in Pakistan than in America. I mean, in regards to her mental illness.
Betsy: Because she was an American, she got better treatment.
Stephen Elliott: She got some better treatment because she was American but they seemed more understanding of her overall than her actual family.
Sarah: I think she was still treated better in Pakistan than in America. Much easier to slough unwanted people off in ’50s America.
Deborah Baker: Pakistan, or more particularly the very traditional society of the Pathans she found herself in, does have a place for the “afflicted,” whereas in Margaret’s time, if you didn’t fit in the Freudian model, you were warehoused. Similarly with the elderly. I’m not sure Herbert was trying to get rid of her, but he was not willing to spend the rest of his life chained to her. As Sarah just said.
Betsy: Would you know what to do with her? She sounds like a total pain in the ass!
Deborah Baker: I think she was a pain in the ass!!!
Neal: I think the fact that people took more interest in her well-being in Pakistan contains some explanation of why organized religion is appealing to some people. They will take you in and care for you if you’ve been abandoned, provided you adopt their beliefs.
Stephen Elliott: It’s amazing that Peggy fell in with such an important political figure. I was as interested in the Mawdudi as I was in Peggy.
Deborah Baker: I think it was particularly moving that Mawdudi might have sent her back, and perhaps he didn’t because he had invested so much public capital in her and was trapped, or perhaps he just felt she was a sincere person, just a little crazy.
Rayme: Getting back to the methodology question, can you explain your decision to discuss your methodology at the end of the book instead of the beginning. Also, was the use of ‘tale’ in the title supposed to be a tipoff?
Deborah Baker: I didn’t put it at the beginning, but we did tip it off a little with the Freud quote. The original sub-title (and one I still prefer) was, “A Parable of Islam and America.”
Rayme: And why did you choose to change from “parable” to “tale”?
Deborah Baker: I didn’t want “tale” but the sales people thought that was better.
Betsy: I’d like to see more of her [Margaret/Maryam’s] paintings and drawings.
Deborah Baker: Betsy, see my website!
Cruise: Seeing as how we all agree Peggy was out of her mind, how was she able to publish so widely?
Caitlin: Ayn Rand seems like she was pretty bananas, yet she got a lot of her stuff published pretty widely. I wonder if the certainty provided by that kind of, uh, firmness of mentality makes for better polemical style writing than someone who is all, “I see all sides.”
Deborah Baker: –definitely harder to “see all sides.”
Cailtin: It seems like that’s why Fox-style punditry is so popular, you know? And equivocating is seen as pansy-assed elitist intellectualism or whatever.
Deborah Baker: I guess I’m pansy-assed then.
Neal: We should all be proudly pansy-assed.
Isaac Fitzgerald: The Rumpus Book Club: We’re Pansy Asses.
Deborah Baker: Ok pansy-assed of America unite.
Caitlin: Seriously. I’d buy that coffee mug.
Sarah: Deborah, do you think there was any truth at all to Farooq’s claim that MJ was husband-chasing? I felt like he had to have been full of crap, but I wonder why he would make that up, if so.
Deborah Baker: I don’t really know. I think she wanted and didn’t want to get married. She was very fearful. And of course, once she did get married she was very proud of herself. It was like she had finally proved something to her family and cousins.
Caitlin: I wonder how much of her wanting to get married had to do with feeling as though it was the Islamic thing to do…because she didn’t really strike me as someone who was all that interested in intimate sexual relationship. Probably as a function of her earlier abuse or her mental…I don’t want to call it a “condition.”
Deborah Baker: Was getting married an Islamic thing to do or a Westchester thing? In this way 1950s America and traditional Muslim society were quite similar.
Caroline: I was curious about the marriage question too– in her letters before she gets to Pakistan, she (I think more than once) discusses her virginity in terms of fearing that she wouldn’t know where to draw the line with men. It seems to have been a very fraught issue for her. (Not to side with her Freudian Dr.s, by any means, I just thought it was interesting.)
Neal: Did you see any other commonalities or convergences with 1950s America and traditional Muslim society?
Deborah Baker: Good question. I think 1950s American girls had more freedom to know boys. They weren’t strangers to them.
Heather: So then was her devotion a way out of being a woman?
Deborah Baker: It might have been a way to simplify her life, keep a rein on those unruly passions, hatreds, needs for attention/affection that got her into trouble.
Eileen: I thought her devotion was a way of giving the world boundaries and definition. It’s easier to live in a black and white world.
Deborah Baker: Her fear of death, her focus on getting into heaven and avoiding hell, all this kept her on the straight and narrow path. It was completely necessary for her. And, Mawdudi would argue, necessary for every human being.
Caitlin: Heather, if that was her intention then she seemed very misguided in pursuing it. If anything her life as a woman would have been more codified. I agree that it seemed like she wanted a life that was sharply delineated between right and wrong, with no room for messy complication and contradiction, which is was what the U.S. was starting to head toward.
Caroline: Agreed. but it also seemed like she had difficulties sticking to the rules set for Muslim women, with respect to keeping her mouth shut. She relished her intellectual relationships with men in a way that seemed to be frowned upon in the Pakistani culture she was living in.
Deborah Baker: Yes, she expected a different set of rules for herself. A very American trait.
Heather: She played neither the American nor Pakistani female role. I asked because of the baby thing too, and her relief at covering her body–like there was some deep shame around her femininity.
Deborah Baker: –terrifying and seductive, particularly for young men.
Betsy: The last line of your book, “I’m still trying to decide what books I will send instead.” Did you decide? And why not the National Geos? Did you want to send her something to give her a different perspective?
Deborah Baker: Yes I did send her a book and sort of hoped other readers would too. The Nat Geo was a coffee table book of photographs of refugee children put together by Warren Buffet’s brother. It was sentimental. I wanted something to challenge her but also something she would read.
Ann: I get the sense, especially from Deborah’s comment in the book about Margaret not being alone in the 1950s mental ward, that Islam was to Margaret what “mother’s little helper” pills were to women in later decades. Is that an accurate comparison?
Deborah Baker: Ann, well self-medicating is a kind of escape, but I think her faith as she practiced it was actually a kind of rigorous discipline.
Cruise: Have you continued to correspond with MJ?
Deborah Baker: Yes, I have. She really liked the book I sent her, better than the one she asked for. But recently, I have been corresponding with a granddaughter of hers who lives in Chattanooga, and she has become kind of a liaison (because she is on email).
Neal: How much do you think the seductive nature of fundamentalist Islam has to do with the lack of material resources and advantages? I have always believed that plays a big role, but it didn’t seem to factor in to its appeal for MJ.
Deborah Baker: I think there is a particular appeal of fundamental religion (and this goes for all faiths) where there is the sense that the only control you have is over your own behavior. That is what gives you moral dignity.
Betsy: And moral certainty.
Deborah Baker: And moral certainty. Which makes up for a lot of things.
Eileen: Do you think that your connection to India in any way influenced how you viewed MM/MJ?
Deborah Baker: Eileen, I don’t know. India is both very similar and very different.
Cruise: I noticed that in the book that several of her kids live in the US. Has that caused a rift between MJ and her children?
Deborah Baker: According to MJ, her US sons disagree with her (they didn’t answer my letters so I don’t know for sure). I think her Pakistan daughters are close to her but none of them are intellectuals or ideologues.
Georges: Has MM/MJ read the book and if so, has she commented on it?
Deborah Baker: Maryam hasn’t read the book because I haven’t yet sent it to her! I only just got my copies today, but I have a broken foot and haven’t made it to the PO. But excerpts have appeared in both Pakistani and Indian newspapers.
Betsy: In a self-serving way, this discussion, along with the book, have helped me in my continued examination of how/why I wound up in an American evangelical church for 15 years. Confused and unhappy, I remained. Much to do with certainty, for sure. This is exciting! No need to comment; I’m just saying.
Deborah Baker: Betsy, my brother and his wife are Evangelicals and they were among the first readers of the MS.
Betsy: I haven’t been affiliated with a church for about seven years. But I’m at ease with the lingo and I know my understanding and experience help me navigate the waters when I’m up against zealots. It was interesting, too, how Peggy interpreted and examined what happened to the Jews during and after WWII and how she felt about the Jewish state being erected in Israel.
Deborah Baker: It is probably because I love my brother so much that I wanted to understand the nature of zealotry. I am not unsympathetic! My sister in law was disturbed at the idea that Margaret might have been crazy, as if that undermined her faith in some way.
Sarah: Deborah, did any of your editors (or friends, or whoever) want you to pull yourself out of the narrative more, or take a stronger stance in any particular direction? I guess I ask because the book shows soooo many gray areas and doesn’t offer any definitive “truths,” though there’s a narrative.
Deborah Baker: It was so hard for me to insert myself to begin with. Initially I put myself in as “she” because I hate first person so much. But I understand the frustration of readers who are looking for authority and expect the author to provide it, but between the war on terror and the aftereffects of 9/11, I was never going to be an authority. I was always going to be a little too emotional on these subjects.
Sarah: I liked how it was written, I thought it seemed appropriate.
Deborah Baker: Thank you. I really wondered if anyone would understand why I chose that route.
Caroline: I liked it too, I thought it really enriched the book to frame it as your search for answers/truth and I loved the contrast between your opening line about anonymity and your relatively strong presence in the narrative.
Deborah Baker: I guess it is time for bed here in NYC. Thank you so much for all the thought you all put into this. If you have any further thoughts feel free to write me anytime: [email protected]
Cailtin: I mentioned in the email discussion that i had very strong reminders of Janet Malcolm throughout the reading of this book. The idea of having the author as a character in the book rather than narrating from attempting to affect an omniscient perspective seems like a very honest way to handle a challenging, complex, emotional subject. And also it’s a handy way of side-stepping that whole ‘objectivity’ question.
Deborah Baker: I love Janet Malcolm!
Betsy: Thanks Deborah! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book!
Deborah Baker: My pleasure. Thank you all. It is wonderful to hear your thoughts.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Sam Riley.