Publisher: Book Venture (January 7, 2015)
Category: Modern Day Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Health
Tour Dates: October/November, 2015
Available in: Print & ebook, 154 Pages
The emotionally-wounded survivors of the 9/11 attacks include a fifty-year old, South African Muslim scientist, Leila, who lost her fiancée, Khalid, on that fateful day. She is the narrator of a story threading together the lives of four South African Muslims navigating a technologically advanced and increasingly-complicated world.
Initially tentative in pursuing her dream to aid patients with HIV/AIDS and other diseases (following deaths of loved ones to these illnesses) in the face of adversity encountered as a US immigrant, Leila finally asserts herself in middle age to carve her own identity and provide possible solutions to the management of diseases rampant in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Chapter 2 excerpt (What a wonderful world):
- “When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don’t stand still and look around”
― A Time to Talk by Robert Frost (1874 –1963)
- YouTube video of Louis Armstrong singing “What a wonderful world”
“The bright blessed day, The dark sacred night. And I think to myself, What a wonderful world”
Place and timeframe (1970s): Paarl (hub of South Africa’s wine industry). A cooperative representing wine growers, the KWV, is located in Paarl. In addition to being a part of the Cape Wine lands the town is also home to a thriving and diverse colored community. The mixed-race group is comprised of several ethnicities, including Muslims originally from Maritime Southeast Asia. Some of the community’s ancestors were Javanese slaves, dissidents and religious leaders who opposed the former presence of the Dutch in Indonesia.
It was quiet in the colored township, except for the sounds of Tito Puente’s music coming from Leila’s home. The young Muslim girl’s father viewed Tito as his stress-reliever. A tall jovial man with stooped shoulders, he needed downtime after working two jobs: one as a professional teacher at her primary school and the other as a moonlighting cab driver. He was usually in a grouchy mood when he entered the house, especially after ferrying workers from the train station to their homes in mostly crime- ridden areas. His passengers received tots of alcohol and were usually drunk or about to consume their liquid salaries. Back in the day, the tot system, which dates back to European settlers of the seventeenth century, was deemed a cost-effective way to compensate farm laborers.
Leila’s father saw firsthand the toll the system had on his customers. They were poor, semiliterate and, in many cases, alcoholics. However, they were always unfailingly grateful that he never left them stranded, regardless of the hour. Because they had very little money, they would pay him with unpasteurized milk or boxes of grapes. The workers also informed my father about harvesting and bottling processes. Soon, Leila’s father felt that he was becoming as knowledgeable as oenophiles about South Africa’s top wines.
Boeta Mansoer, her father’s best friend, was a cooper. In a region with an economy largely driven by wine, this devout but poor Muslim relied on an unusual profession to feed and clothe his family. Constructing an oak barrel was not a topic to engage in with educated Muslims between waktus at the local mosque. However, the same dedication that came from years of daily prayer stood the top-notch artisan in good stead when he patiently created the containers for storing and aging different
wines. Leila’s father was the only person to whom he opened up about his profession, and they would compare notes about their views of the wine industry every Friday night over tea and a game of dominoes.
One day, much to the chagrin of their respective spouses, a Friday visit continued into Saturday morning. Leila’s father returned home, exhausted after work and play. He napped for a few hours, possibly to recover from the tongue-lashing he had received from her angry mother. Her mother left the house, probably to complain to female friends, and the remorseful man sought refuge in his music. He put a vinyl record on the turntable, stumbled into his reclining chair and asked his young daughter to make him a cup of Slamse tea. She knew immediately that it meant steeping a black or rooibos tea bag in hot water for five minutes and then adding two heaped spoons of sugar and one spoon of condensed milk to sweeten the beverage. He also asked her to dish up some of the food her mother had left in the warmer.
Leila’s father may have never left South African shores, but he taught her to appreciate other cultures by listening to their music. She could sense that he enjoyed listening to Tito Puente. Leila would sit at his feet and sway to the rhythms, wondering if the waters on the other side of the world were the same mixture of blue and green as the Atlantic Ocean. Her father placed a ghoema record on the turntable. She wondered if this music was similar to the sounds heard at the New Orleans Mardi Gras.
Luckily for the Hassan household, her mother eventually returned home and patched things up with her father. Her parents’ fights were explosive but mercifully brief, and soon the loving couple discussed visiting with Boeta Mansoer and his wife, Sis Hajiera. They chose a Friday night, at a time when Boeta Mansoer’s family had completed the last two prayers of the day i.e., Maghrib and Eshaai. Khalid spoke about the latest surahs he had mastered with Boeta Mansoer, and they had a long conversation with visiting tablighis. The one-two combination of a pious Boeta Mansoer and the boboties of Sis Hajiera, was irresistible to the traveling religious scholars. They monopolized their time to the extent that the boy felt jealous and labeled them freeloaders behind their backs.
Word of Sis Hajiera’s cooking skills and Boeta Mansoer’s open-house policy traveled quickly among the different mosques, and the house was soon bursting at the seams with guests. Some of the guests would stay for months. Boeta Mansoer wanted to learn as much as possible about the life of the prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.). Therefore, he did not mind talking to the scholars. However, Leila’s father sensed that the patience of the other family members was melting as quickly as ice in the heat of the African sun.
He offered to babysit Khalid when Boeta Mansoer had to entertain the latest self-invited religious group. Leila’s parents planned a road trip to Devil’s Peak—a spire that forms part of the sandstone landmark, Table Mountain. The thermometer registered 36 ◦C on that blistering Saturday when Khalid arrived at Leila’s house. Her mother added Sis Hajiera’s bobotie to the other snacks in the cooler, and the entire party crammed into her father’s old Mercedes Benz. Khalid and Leila were both happy, although Leila’s mother scolded them repeatedly for teasing each other and distracting the driver. Luckily, her father saw that Leila’s mom was working herself into an apoplectic fit and saved the day by popping an audiotape of Louis Armstrong into a recorder. The children napped in the back of the car (Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” always had that effect on them) until Leila’s mother woke them up at the camping site on Devil’s Peak. They chose a picnic spot close to Rhodes Memorial.
Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902) was a British mining magnate and founder of De Beers company in South Africa. However, the zoo on the Groote Schuur estate bearing his name was more fascinating to them on that particular Saturday, especially because they were able to get a bird’s-eye view of aggressive lionesses and an elderly male lion eating lunch. Leila’s parents curbed the natural curiosity of the children by telling them stories about people who had climbed over a wall to pet the lions. Those people ignored their parents’ warnings and were devoured by the predators.
It would have been an uneventful Saturday, except for Khalid and Leila’s decision to wander away from the adults who were napping on a blanket. The curious pair followed tourists who were searching for plane wreckage. Three South African Air Force Hawker Siddeley HS125 (code-named Mercurius) aircraft, in anticipation of the upcoming Republic Day celebrations, had apparently flown in close formation and crashed into the mountain. There were no survivors.
Leila’s frantic parents eventually tracked the errant children down and disciplined them for their behavior. The anxiety on both adults’ faces was palpable, and the stony silence in the old car spoke volumes on the way home. Khalid stole a glance at Leila and saw a shy smile appear on her face. They had shared an adventure together and, though the punishment now suited their “crime,” they were both secretly happy about the day. It would be the first of many adventures for the pair
Interview with the Author
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Before delving into my background, I first have to thank you for acknowledging my work and providing me with a forum to spread my fictional interpretation of life to prospective readers. This is definitely a first for me on many levels: my first book – one that has been languishing on the Amazon digital shelves– unseen and unheard, except by a few curious passers-by and now I finally get a chance to speak. It is also the first time that I have had a chance to reach other people and potentially turn some strangers into interested readers, even if they end up finding my book weird or fall in love with the content.
Now on to my background: I am a scientist-turned writer who has spent most of my adult life in the United States, after moving here from South Africa in 1989. I represent one of the untold number of South Africans who came of age during the tumultuous pre-Nelson-Mandela, apartheid years and who witnessed the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. Being a scientist by training, I have been uniquely positioned to understand the scientific and social contexts for the delayed response to this infectious disease and other chronic illnesses. In addition, I belong to a minority ethnic group called the Cape Malay population. Cape Malays are mostly Muslim and can trace their ancestral roots to Maritime Southeast Asia ie, Brunei, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
Where and when did your writing journey begin?
It was a piece-meal endeavor that I have been engaged in my entire life. It really only took shape approximately three years ago, when I started blogging on the Norwalk Patch (while living in Connecticut) and tried to organize the innumerable and diverse experiences I have been through into coherent stories. I thought that it would become a meal ticket, but as many entrepreneurs will tell you, first one has to convince someone that you have an idea worth hearing and then it has to be explained and scaled so that one can reach a large enough audience. However, I do enjoy the creative process and it has been an outlet for me during the ups and downs that we know as life.
3) Who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your writing?
I will divide my favorite authors into two groups: the South African and non-South African contingents. I am forever grateful to a group of South Africans known as “Die Sestigers”(Sixtiers),whose gifts for narrating ordinary peoples’ lives through racial and liberal-Afrikaner-lenses reinforced my love for the musicality of the Afrikaans language. Paradoxically, this was viewed as the language of the oppressor and enforced education in this language sparked one of the race riots in the country. The effect of racial oppression is well illustrated by Mark Mathabane in Kaffir Boy. It took the healing hand of someone like Nelson Mandela, who recited a poem (The child is not dead) by a Sestiger-poet, Ingrid Jonker (whom I also admire), to unite the diverse voices of the South African”rainbow” nation during his 1994 state-of-the-union address.
International authors such as David McCullough and James Michener are role models for intricate writing of well-researched epics. So is Karen Armstrong for her compassionate views and marvelous interpretations of the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. I am a signatory to the Charter for Compassion launched under her stewardship.
What does a typical day in your life look like? And how does your writing routine fit into your day?
Like I said, I need a day job to survive, until a Pulitzer Prize flows from this pen. So, I usually get up early, do some exercise, fall asleep during a long commute, and try and get some creative writing done, before I tackle paying gigs.
How did you make the decision to incorporate your life experiences into a fictional novel?
I thought that I would first start writing about what I know. I knew that, as a nerd, I wanted to provide people with enough information if they ended up being interested in the content and wanted to make up their own minds about the numerous subjects that I have tried to cover in less than 200 pages. Please understand that the main character and her experiences do not reflect my entire life. Had I been a meticulous diarist, I would have called it an autobiography. Now it is semi-Utopian thinking cloaked in a lot of recent South African history.
What do you think sets your novel apart from others current on the shelves?
I have attempted the impossible ie, bridging the gap between science and faith, viewed through the eyes of a Muslim woman. Wiser novelists who hone their craft through character development and weaving stories together in linear narratives know better than to attempt such an unrealistic task.
Which character in your book is your favorite and how much of yourself is reflected in that character? Was this character based on someone in real life?
Only the main character, Leila, has bits of me in her (naturally, she is my favorite character). The other characters are composites infused with Hollywood-style melodrama that I have encountered during the course of life. I have great sympathy for the homosexual Shuaib character who tries to conform to so many identities to fit in and be happy and ultimately just fades away.
Which scenes in your book did you have the most fun writing?
The first couple of chapters reflect youthful innocence blissfully unaware of the complexities and contradictions that taint our every-day world. So naturally they are my favorites. I have included Chapter 2 (“What a wonderful world”) as an excerpt to give people a flavor of what was considered “normal” activities circa the 1970s in South Africa. The heavy dose of history and colloquialisms are explained in footnotes and references throughout the book (a “tease” for interested readers). Should anyone have the urge to travel in that part of the world, they will hopefully become aware of cultural sensitivities and this would be a good way to continue constructive communication.
What do you hope for your readers to take away after reading your book?
Treat other people as you would treat yourself. Individuality matters. Understanding matters. Ordinary, seemingly boring lives matter. Do not stereotype any human being based on what you read in the news. Learn and take care of your own health, even if you live in a poor country.
What are your hopes for this novel?
More integration of spirituality, health, and technology that will expand my potential readership
What do you have in store next for your readers?
After completing 6 books, including 2 poetry collections (Mist over Peace and Scatterlings) I am giving myself a break. I am going vacillating between a story about a Holocaust survivor’s journey (a cynical Forrest Gump character, if you will) and a futuristic take on the great American novel. However, I intend to keep readers posted on my blog.
Buy The Heroine Next Door by Zeena Nackerdien:
Zeena Nackerdien is a dual US and South African citizen. She obtained a PhD degree in Biochemistry from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Zeena has been a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland and a senior research associate at The Rockefeller University in New York.
She is the author of several publications in scientific journals and two poetry collections, “Mist Over Peace” and “Scatterlings.” As a scientist turned patient advocate and writer, she is intensely interested in building relationships with people from different cultures through story-telling and education. Zeena currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.