An Interview with Naseem Rakha
Naseem Rakha is a journalist, geologist, author, and mother. Her debut novel, The Crying Tree (Broadway, 2009; in paperback, 2010), has been translated into 11 languages and received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award in 2010.
The Crying Tree explores the challenge of forgiving the unforgivable. Irene Stanley, a conservative wife and mother of two, faces a parent’s worst nightmare: her son, Shep, is murdered. Irene struggles for many years with her son’s death and the protracted death sentence of his murderer until she decides she must forgive both the criminal and the crime.
As a reporter, Rakha covered executions in her home state of Oregon, where her novel’s murder also takes place. The Crying Tree regained public prominence in December 2011 when Oregon’s governor placed a moratorium on the death penalty. This decision granted reprieve to Gary Haugen, a death row inmate who had read The Crying Tree and had met with Rakha to discuss the book.
Katherine J. Barrett, Literary Mama’s co-editor for reviews and profiles, spoke with Naseem Rakha about forgiveness, guilt, motherhood, and social media.
Katherine J. Barrett:The Crying Tree was sparked by a real woman, a mother who, like Irene Stanley, forgave her child’s murderer. Can you describe your meeting with Aba Gayle and how she influenced your novel?
Naseem Rakha: I first met Aba Gayle at a peace rally in my small town. Someone pointed her out to me: “You’re so into that death penalty stuff. She’d be good to talk with.” It was 2003, and I had been “into that death penalty stuff” since 1996 when I’d covered Oregon’s first state execution in over 30 years. Back then, I’d wanted to tell the full story of that execution, a tale of tolls paid by the condemned, the victims, and the people who carried out the “procedure.” I discovered that there was very little real story to tell. We reporters were given no access to the inmate, no willing words from the victims, and no unscripted messages from prison staff. After the execution, I left the prison determined to learn more about the real costs of capital punishment.
My research led me into many prisons where I spoke with staff, inmates, and innocents who had lived on death row and were finally released. I thought perhaps a radio essay might come from these interviews (I reported for public radio at the time). I certainly had no idea when I walked up to Aba Gayle, a short, bright-eyed woman in her sixties, that my life was about to change.
“I was visiting a friend on death row over in San Quentin,” Aba Gayle told me and paused. “He was the man who killed my daughter,” she added.
She told me her story: a break-in, her daughter stabbed, the killer caught and sentenced to death. She spoke of her depression and rage, and how she believed that once her daughter’s killer was executed she would have closure. Aba Gayle told me that one night, 12 years after her daughter’s death, she woke up, went to her desk, and wrote a letter to the man who killed her daughter to tell him that she forgave him. “It wasn’t for him,” she said. “It was for me. I did it for me, so I could live.”
I went to Aba Gayle’s apartment a week later loaded with my microphones and tapes, but after listening to her, I felt dwarfed and confused by her journey. I simply did not understand how she could forgive and then befriend the man who killed her child. Yet I could not disregard her story as the words of a nut. Aba Gayle had walked through fire and was absolutely piercing in her perception of people and place. I left her apartment humbled by the transformative power of grace, and determined to answer two questions: how and why do some people forgive the unforgivable, and what toll does a system of justice based on vengeance take on our lives and society? From this quest came The Crying Tree
KJB: Irene Stanley is an intriguing mother-character, both naive and wise, conservative and radical. At points in the novel, she rejects ready-made codes of ethics — the church, the law — and devises her own. Do you think motherhood instills in us an urge to rethink values, to reconsider notions of right and wrong?
NR: Obviously, one does not need to be a parent to rethink values. That happens all the time by all kinds of people, with children and without, and sometimes by children themselves. In fact, I think parenthood might have the opposite effect: it often sublimates the desire to take risks and question traditional values. Instead, we parents often seek the more well-worn paths and institutions, hoping these tried and true structures will help us raise “well adjusted” children.
That was certainly Irene’s experience in The Crying Tree. At the beginning of the novel, Irene was both naive and conservative, raising her children without questioning her patriarchal household, conservative church, and unforgiving community. Her life was stable and the children seemed to be doing well. She never thought to question her values. It was not until crisis struck, and all her efforts to right her life within those conservative structures failed, that she began to rethink her values.
We moms want to find the best, safest, most life-giving way to raise our children. We look to the people and institutions with whom we are most familiar to help us do that. I tend to think that people who do not have children have a much easier time of questioning authority. Parents have skin in the game, and it is our duty and obligation to make sure that precious, innocent skin is not too badly bruised.
KJB: For me, the saddest line in the book is Irene’s to a stranger she encountered while caught in a snowstorm: “I’m going to be with my son,” Irene said. This is so simple, yet expresses so much guilt about her mothering. How is Irene, in many ways the most innocent character, scarred by guilt? Is she a typical mother in this respect?
NR: One of the things The Crying Tree explores is the multiple ways families fail one another, and the multiple layers of guilt that exist when tragedy strikes a family. When Shep Stanley is murdered, the blame seems to fall on two people, the murderer, Douglas Robbin, and Shep’s father, Nate Stanley, who forced his family to leave the comfort of their Illinois home and move to Oregon where Shep is killed.
As the story unfolds we see that guilt is much more complicated and widespread and Irene, the innocent and devastated mother, sees her own role in her son’s death. Her guilt, I believe, is the guilt of all mothers: the guilt of what one “should have done.” Irene’s “should have done” was her failure to see her son for all that he was, to listen when he tried to talk. Irene’s statement, “I am going to be with my son,” said on her way to visit Shep’s grave, is her way of saying I am sorry.
KJB: I love your portrayal of forgiveness as power. How did you come to this idea?
NR: In writing The Crying Tree, I learned that forgiveness sprouts from a variety of seeds. For some it is a product of their spiritual traditions and community. For others, like Irene, forgiveness is found when there is no other alternative — forgive or die. These paths lead to the same thing: forgiveness is power.
Violations of any type — crime, divorce, false accusation — strip people of power. Typically, we try to replace that power with anger and retribution, but neither restores any legitimate power to people’s lives. Temporarily, maybe. But for long? No. What does restore power? The act of saying that the violation is no longer the window of your world, and that you will no longer feed your limited energy to the bitter emotions of hate, anger, and vengeance.
This idea is certainly not new, and coming to it, as you say, was an almost inevitable result of the topic’s exploration. Most people know from their own experience that hate and vengeance drain them physically, emotionally, and spiritually (some even financially.) Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees us to be bigger, better, fuller, and more alive. It is a powerful act of beauty and grace.
KJB: You have met with prisoners on death row, and have discussed your book with them. How has your book been received by inmates sentenced to death, and how have these meeting shaped your views on capital punishment?
In September 2011, I received a letter from a condemned killer on Oregon’s death row. He had read The Crying Tree and wanted to speak with me. I went to the prison and we spoke for over two hours. He told me the book deeply affected him, and made him think about his crimes and experience deep remorse. I have met with many other prisoners, all of them inviting me after reading the book. They want to know how people come to forgive. They want to know, I think, if this would ever be possible for them. Could they ever be seen as more than the worst they have done in their life?
I now firmly believe that the death penalty is an overly expensive, unfair, and cruel form of punishment which is also riddled with error. We have a choice as a society: treat inmates as humans and help them find a better life, or treat them as misbehaving animals, and hope for the best when they are released. The latter option has not proved very effective.
More importantly, however, I believe that executions do nothing for the people we should be most concerned about — crime victims. We tend to tell victim survivors that a death sentence will bring justice and closure. What we do not say is that a sentence of death condemns them as well. From the moment the sentence is handed down, a victim must wait, not days, months, or years, but decades for that “punishment” to be exacted. In the meantime, the wound of the crime is reopened each time there is another appeal, hearing, or press report. Contrast that with a life sentence. At least once that sentence is made, the family can walk out of that courtroom and try to get on with their lives.
KJB: On November 22, 2011, Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty. I was struck by Governor Kitzhaber’s words during the announcement. Like Tab Mason, the prison superintendent in your novel, he had been tormented by overseeing state executions. Were you surprised by the governor’s announcement?
Yes and no. Yes, because while many lawmakers have told me, off the record, that they oppose the death penalty, few will take the risk of saying those words in public, much less take the unusual step of stopping an execution.
On the other hand, I knew Kitzhaber had to be tormented by the thought of sitting though yet another execution. There have been only two executions in Oregon in the last 44 years — both of them when Kitzhaber was governor in the 1990s. Kitzhaber, as governor of our state, has the authority to stop an execution at any point. On the night of those executions he sat in his office beside a specially installed phone. All he had to do to save a man’s life was lift that receiver, and the phone would ring in the death chamber. Yet Kitzhaber, an emergency room doctor, did not do this.
When he told me that the nights of those executions were the hardest of his life, he was not being flip. I could see in his eyes and hear in his voice that his decisions weighed heavily on him, and I had a hard time believing that he, governor again after a seven-year hiatus, would want to go through that experience again.
Kitzhaber’s act took moral courage, and will do what I can to inform the discussion that has now begun in our state about whether we should continue to kill killers.
KJB: Nature is a powerful force in The Crying Tree, often arbitrary, even lawless and yet beautiful. I’ve read that you have a background in natural resource management and that you love to garden. How has your experience of the land — both in Oregon and Illinois — shaped your writing?
NR: My academic background is in geology and I spent a good part of my early career working with farmers, ranchers, and tribes to turn unproductive, overgrazed land into healthy ecosystems. In my mind, land and the regional landscape, shape people.
The Crying Tree is set in two places I know well, each of them different in landscape from the other. The first setting, southern Illinois, is very bucolic, very humid and cloying. These elements set the stage for a family relationship that mirrored those qualities. On the other hand, Shep’s death occurred in Oregon’s high desert — a land seemingly bereft of vegetation. It is raw and exposed land, offering very little protection from the elements. I wanted to draw all of these characteristics into the story.
KJB: The Crying Tree took several years to research, write, and edit. What kept you on track during that time? How did you balance writing and raising your son, Elijah?
NR: I began writing The Crying Tree in June of 2006, and it was sold to Random House in May of 2008. I can honestly say I was not much of a friend to anyone but my family during those two years. I was too consumed by writing. Any free time — and I mean even a couple minutes in line waiting for coffee — was spent writing. I would wake every day at 4 a.m., write until 6:30 when I woke my son and got him off to school. I would sit in coffee shops the rest of the day and write until I picked him up from school. I would think about my characters and conflicts all of the time, taking a moment between dicing onions and sautÃ©ing them, to write a few notes. I was, in a word, utterly consumed.
Balance? I hope I created some semblance of balance. I would go to my son’s school functions, volunteer to drive, occasionally help in class. I would cook and clean, and take Elijah to play in the snow or watch buildings get constructed or torn down. But, you know how it is, I could have always done better, or more, or more and better. . . . That is the bane of being a mom. We always know we could have done better.
KJB: Your blog on Red Room is fascinating and current. Have you found Red Room and other social media sites useful for promoting yourself and your book? What advice could you give to aspiring writers regarding self-promotion?
NR: Honestly, I don’t know how useful social media is. Sometimes I just feel like a little piece of flotsam in a very big sea of voices all of them crying, “Over here, over here!” What I have decided is that there is no “over here.” There is only where you are. If you have something to say, write it down and say it. But it’s a cacophony out there, and worrying about how to stand apart from the rest takes too much time away from what I like most: writing, family, taking walks, taking pictures, petting my animals, reading, and just watching the seasons roll in and out. My advice on social media is to get yourselves accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Red Room are good, so is Backspace. Meet people, seek advice, share what you do and be helpful. But limit your time doing this!
KJB: What are you working on? Will you return to journalism or continue with fiction — or both?
NR: I am currently working on a book about a family faced with deciding which is kinder, trying to save their mom’s life, or letting her die. It will examine what happens to families when faced with sudden catastrophic illness in the United States, where more people enter poverty due to healthcare problems than for any other reason.
2 replies on “An Interview with Naseem Rakha”
Thank you for this wonderful interview. The Crying Tree sounds like a powerful, moving book. Can’t wait to read it!
Your interview with Naseem Rakha is prompting me to further explore my own level and this whole issue of forgiveness. Right now I feel pretty low on the scale but I certainly believe that “Forgiveness…frees us to be bigger, better, fuller, and more alive.” I am so looking forward to reading The Crying Tree. Thanks!