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Amy Waldman On 'A Door In The Earth'


Parveen Shamsa wants to do something worthy in the world. She was born in Afghanistan, came to the U.S. as a child and gets inspired by the fictional bestselling memoir "Mother Afghanistan," written by a U.S. doctor named Gideon Crane in tribute to Fereshta, an Afghan woman who's died in childbirth. The book, getting Crane's TED Talk and his appearances, bring millions in donations to build a health clinic and Fereshta's village, which is where Parveen comes to help. But what good can she possibly do? "A Door In The Earth" is a novel by Amy Waldman, who reported from Afghanistan after 9/11 and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMY WALDMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What does she hope to do? And is it for herself or for Afghans?

WALDMAN: It's a little bit of both. I think, in her mind, she's going to help Afghan women. In particular, she wants to volunteer at a clinic that this doctor has built in this village. And it's part of an effort to reduce women dying in childbirth. So she's eager to join that effort and feels like she particularly can be of service because she speaks the language, thinks she knows the culture. Of course, she's also newly graduating college into a recession. So this is also something she can fasten onto as a way to both have something to do and channel her idealism.

SIMON: How does it make her feel to begin to discover that the real village she's in and the real people, for that matter, are different than the book that swept her away?

WALDMAN: So a lot of what I was interested in is the power of books. And it's something I think about a lot as a novelist, how they sort of create reality. And in her case, it's a reality she has trouble letting go of, even in the face of facts that begin to suggest it's not all that it seems.

SIMON: Yeah. I read about Gideon Crane in your book, the American humanitarian, and thought he has to be inspired by Greg Mortenson, the American who wrote "Three Cups Of Tea" and was later exposed for fraudulence.

WALDMAN: He specifically isn't isn't. The book - the idea for the novel did come out of that controversy when "Three Cups Of Tea" was revealed by Jon Krakauer to not be what it had seemed. And, as you know, it was this memoir that had inspired so many people to donate money to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it inspired many people to actually to change their lives and even go volunteer there and elsewhere. What interested me was less Greg Mortenson himself than the people who had believed in him. And I really became fascinated by their reactions, which ranged from betrayal, you know? In your idealistic, you think you're doing something good...

SIMON: Yeah.

WALDMAN: And then you find out a lot of the money had been misappropriated. I was interested in what would that feel like to have believed. I was thinking a lot about that. And I was also thinking about the war on terror. I had covered Afghanistan after 9/11 as a reporter. And the war now is in its 18th year. And I think there's constantly been a search for sort of a simple solution. And I think part of the popularity of "Three Cups of Tea" was about that search - that if we just behave a certain way or build schools, everything will be simple. So I sort of took that as a starting point and then started inventing and imagining this world in the village and this young woman - this idealistic young woman who comes into it.

SIMON: Yeah. American soldiers come to the village, which is because of the book now known widely and tell the villagers you need a road here. You can get to and from hospitals. Crops can get to the market. This is what Gideon Crane in his memoir called kind power. From the first, a lot of Afghans don't see it that way though, do they?

WALDMAN: That's true. And Parveen is very skeptical - I mean, is very confused as to why are the elders in his village not more enthusiastic about this project because, at first, to her, it seems an unqualified good. And so partly, what I was trying to explore with that, in this effort to build the road, becomes very central to the novel. And it ends up sort of drawing the war, which had been relatively distant. It draws it closer and closer into the village. And she comes to realize that that was one of the concerns the elders had and also that good intentions are never separate from kind of the consequences they create and that you can't always control that and that maybe it's not enough. That's one of the things she's wrestling with as the novel goes on.

SIMON: And that shiny clinic - I wrote down the - Parveen uses a wonderful phrase like, a pill that slipped from God's pocket - not unalloyed enthusiasm for that either.

WALDMAN: No, there's not. And this I drew from a lot of American efforts in Afghanistan where we built good structures and all kinds of schools and all kinds of things. But we didn't really staff them. And that's one of the issues with the village when this clinic - is that she comes to find that other than a doctor, a female doctor, who comes once a week of her own volition to volunteer there, there's nobody staffing the clinic.

SIMON: So the clinic was built. But it's a shell.

WALDMAN: Exactly, sort of a white elephant but full of beautiful equipment. And at first, she's very moved because she thinks it's saying, you know, these villagers deserve the best just as anybody in the West does. But then as she's realizing that there's actually most of the time nobody there to help the women, she starts to think, what are we doing here? What is this effort I'm becoming part of?

SIMON: Yeah. And yet Parveen notes at one point that whatever might be said about the wide-eyed, innocent arrogance of Americans, the insurgents in Afghanistan really only want destruction.

WALDMAN: Exactly. And I think that it's very difficult to watch civilians, ordinary people caught between sort of these two warring sides. And, you know, the violence, especially recently in Kabul but throughout this war that's been wreaked on ordinary people has been incredible. And yes, the insurgents are ruthless. And she comes to see that as well.

SIMON: I mean, you hate the thought that just because the insurgents might be Afghan, the lives of Afghans would be better if somehow they were consigned to live in that kind of malevolence.

WALDMAN: You know, as we're talking, it sounds like they are hammering out the final details of a peace agreement to end the war. But I think the question hovering over is - are ordinary people, again, going to be at the mercy of this kind of violence? But is it any better for America to stay there indefinitely? - which also is not a solution. So I think, for me, I wrote the novel partly out of feeling like, we have gotten ourselves into this impossible situation. There is no really good answer here. And so, for me, it was just a way to kind of think through that.

SIMON: Yeah.

WALDMAN: I mean, that's one aspect of the novel. Another is just this young woman's kind of adventure as she initially sees it going into this village and having to confront the realities she finds there.

SIMON: Amy Waldman, her novel "A Door In The Earth" - thanks so much for being with us.

WALDMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.