Today I have the privilege of interviewing author, poet, and journalist Mary Smith. Mary Smith has written No More Mulberries, and Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women, as well as Thousands Pass Here Every day, which is a full length poetry collection. Having spent time in Afghanistan herself, she is able to offer a unique perspective on life for afghan women.
Hi Mary, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Please tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was born on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland but grew up on the mainland in Dumfries & Galloway. For a number of years I worked for Oxfam in the UK: fundraising, campaigning and public opinion forming. I went to Bangladesh to visit some Oxfam-funded projects and although only there for a month I was well and truly bitten by the travel bug. When I was given the opportunity to go to Pakistan for a holiday I jumped at it and while I was there, staying with a Pakistani family, I went to see the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre in Karachi. I was so impressed by the work being done I said I’d love to be a part of it in some capacity – and was offered a job setting up a health education department. At the end of my three-year contract I moved across the border to work in Afghanistan for a sister organization involved in leprosy and tuberculosis work. I established a small mother and child project, training village women as health volunteers.
During this time I started writing articles about life in Afghanistan for various publications back home, drafted a manuscript of a non-fiction book (unpublishable but a useful source of material for subsequent writing projects), got married and our son was born in Pakistan.
When we returned to Scotland I went to university to get a degree (I think I had the longest gap year in history) which I followed up with a Masters in Creative Writing. I worked for a couple of years as senior reporter on a local newspaper and a further two years as a features writer for a lifestyle magazine before going freelance to give myself more time to work on my own writing.
Wow, that is an incredible background! I can see how your life influenced your work, specifically your book, No More Mulberries. What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I want to publish more novels, try my hand at biography and continue to write poems towards a second collection. I would also like to try writing for radio – too many ideas and not enough time!
Which writers inspire you?
I always find this a tough question to answer because I read very widely and am inspired by so many writers. I love work by Scottish novelist Margaret Elphinstone who writes literary historical fiction. I am in awe of the depth and breadth of her research. Her last novel, The Gathering Night, is set in Scotland 8000 years ago and her research included going on archaeological digs and building a coracle so she knew how it would feel to paddle one. Voyageurs is set in 19th century Canada and she paddled a canoe up the Hudson River for that one! Wonderful books in which the research sits so lightly.
That is impressive! I can’t imagine researching for a book set 8000 years back! Kudos to novelist Margaret Elphinstone!
What have you written?
I have written countless articles and features for newspapers and magazines. I came very late to writing poetry (apart from the dreadful teenage angst-ridden stuff) and began to have poems published in various magazines and pick up some competition prizes before my first collection, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, was published in 2012.
Short stories – a few, some of which have won prizes.
I have written one novel, No More Mulberries. I was short-listed in a national competition for the opening of a novel, which gave which gave me a huge confidence boost and spurred me on to complete it.
My narrative non-fiction, Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women was short-listed in The People’s Prize which is an award decided by the reading public rather than a panel of judges. I reached the last three and had to stand on the stage at the award ceremony trying to look pleased when someone else’s name was read out!
I share a blog called Novel Points of View (http://novelpointsofview.co.uk) with four other writers. It seemed a good idea to share so we each only have to post once every five weeks – my turn still seems to come round very fast, though.
Thank you for sharing. You sure do keep busy as a writer! I am certainly glad that you were spurred to write No More Mulberries.
What are you working on currently, and what is it about?
I’m working on a couple of projects. One is in collaboration with a photographer, Phil McMenemy. Together we are exploring our favorite places in Galloway and I am writing poems to accompany his superb photographs.
I am also researching for a biography I want to write about an inspiring woman who was an engineer in the early 20th century. She was the only car manufacturer in Scotland and she did trial driving, competing against men (after winning a battle to be allowed to take part). I’ve been engaged on this off and on for several years, have masses of research material but am still struggling to find the best way to tell her story – straightforward biography or a fictionalized account.
I look forward to seeing that published! I’m curious as to what way you will go with it. 🙂
I recently reviewed No More Mulberries, a story set in Afghanistan, which I enjoyed very much. What was the inspiration behind No More Mulberries? And what drew you to write a story about life for Afghan women?
I wanted to write about life for women in Afghanistan because I feel we are generally only shown the worst aspects of their lives in the media and in novels. They are invariably portrayed as downtrodden and completely dominated by men when this is by no means always the case. I don’t want to downplay the hardships Afghan women face but I get cross when the picture is always so one-sided.
I think you accomplished this. 🙂 Excellent work! It really was refreshing to see the middle east painted in a different light.
What inspired the title for No More Mulberries?
I loved eating mulberries in Afghanistan so I made them Miriam’s favorite fruit. And I miss them.
I don’t blame you. The mulberries in Afghanistan are nothing like the puny ones we have here in the United States.
British born Miriam, of No More Mulberries, learns the Afghan way of life quickly when her husband forbids her to teach, as it may ruin her, and therefore his reputation, if rumors begin. She learns the village mentality, and accepts her life for what it is, now. In your personal travels to Afghanistan, did you know women like Miriam? Did anyone in particular inspire her character, or was she pure fiction?
I met one or two women who worked hard to understand and accept the culture in which they were living and working but Miriam is completely made up, a totally fictional character. I did meet a German woman in Pakistan who had been happily married to a Pakistani for 25 years and I just started wondering ‘what if?’
Living in the U.K., did you find traveling to Afghanistan, what with the cultures being so drastically different, difficult? What did you take away from your visits to the Middle East?
I found it more difficult coming home on leave and when I finally returned to the UK – that’s when culture shock hits. I think when I went to work in Pakistan and then Afghanistan I expected things to be very different and was mentally prepared. I was fascinated by everything I saw and experienced. In time, I found we share more similarities than differences in things like rules of hospitality, loyalty to friends and family, even superstitions – they may be different but we all share them.
In No More Mulberries, Miriam’s husband Iqbal is a very sympathetic character. At first, I found him to be controlling, but as the story went on, his behavior made sense to me. Miriam, being the strong independent woman that she is, disobeyed her husband by traveling without him on a work assignment, which made him very upset. It all boiled down to what would the village think about Iqbal’s foreign wife not knowing her place in the home? My question is, in your opinion, why is reputation seemingly so important for Afghan men?
Thank you so much for saying as the story went on Iqbal’s behavior made more sense. When I started writing No More Mulberries I didn’t really like Iqbal, which is a strange thing for a writer to say about her main male character. However, as I came to know him better, I changed my opinion. The ending of the book changed as a result.
I don’t think I know the answer to your question about the importance of reputation to Afghan men (and men in other countries, too). But, if I look back in time – not so very far – in my country it is not so long since men felt insulted if their wives wanted to go out to work because it might look like they could not support her and fathers insisted on ‘shotgun weddings’ if their daughters became pregnant. And look at the trouble our world leaders (men) get us into because no one will back down because of losing face! It will change, but slowly.
You must have done a lot of research for both No More Mulberries, and Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni, (by the way I love that title). What did your research consist of?
I have kept a diary since I was about 16 so I had a lot of material already to hand when I began writing. Many of the events – such as the medical teaching camp Miriam attends in No More Mulberries – actually happened. I was a translator in the women’s clinic so the stories are true although the characters are not the real people. I also read widely books about Afghanistan: its history, the war, travel books and works about Islam. I also pestered Afghan friends for information on points I wasn’t sure about – such as what Margaret would need to do to convert and the method of washing before prayer.
Thank you very much again Mary for agreeing to be interviewed. I loved your responses. Is there anything else you would like your fans and readers to know, that I haven’t asked?
Thank you for interviewing me. You asked some searching question which made me think hard before answering them.
I am always delighted to hear from readers who can contact me through my website at www.amarysmith.co.uk
Mary Smith was born on the island of Islay, Scotland and grew up in Dumfries & Galloway in south west Scotland. She worked for Oxfam in Lancashire for ten years. She later spent ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan, firstly for the Pakistan Leprosy Control Programme based in Karachi followed by establishing a mother and child health care project in the Hazara Jat region of Afghanistan and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
After returning to Scotland she worked as a freelance journalist while writing her first book, Before The Taliban: Living with War, Hoping for Peace. This narrative non-fiction account of her time in Afghnaistan lets the reader meet some of the ordinary Afghan women and their families with whom Mary worked.
Her second book, No More Mulberries, also set in Afghanistan is her first novel.
Mary’s years in Afghanistan – often working in remote rural areas – allows her to bring a high degree of authenticity to her work.
Mary Smith is now a freelance journalist while working on her second novel and first poetry collection.
For more information on Mary’s journalism, poetry and other projects visit her website at http://www.marysmith.co.uk
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