Stephanie Saldaña is no stranger to writing about intimate topics. In her first memoir, The Bread of Angels, Saldaña focused on her transformative year in Syria where she learned not only to pray, but to love. In her second memoir, A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, Saldaña tackled marriage, faith, and motherhood while living in war-torn Jerusalem. Having grown up in Texas, Saldaña received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She was a recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and a Fulbright scholar and has been featured in The New York Times. Saldaña is also the founder of The Mosaic Stories, a project that “aims to collect and protect intangible cultural heritage in the Middle East through research, storytelling, and education.” She currently lives in Jerusalem with her family and teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University. Literary Mama editor Christina Consolino corresponded via email with Saldaña on her thoughts about finding beauty in chaos, writing as a means of coping, and raising children in a setting strewn with conflict.
“And it occurred to me that the greatest gift a child might give me would be to release me from the burden of myself.” S. Saldaña
Christina Consolino: You explored this “burden of myself” in The Bread of Angels, where you wrote about your search for “God and self-knowledge.” In your second book, A Country Between, your focus shifted away from you to your family. Were you anticipating a second book when you wrote the first, or was this more or less an unfolding of consciousness?
Stephanie Saldaña: A Country Between unfolded naturally. I was having a child, and I was living in the middle of a region of conflict, and I knew that I needed to stay in Jerusalem. I just didn’t understand why. Writing the book was a way to make sense of my own choices and to explain them to my child who was coming into the world. The process of writing the book began very simply with letters I wrote to my unborn son as I went to my prenatal visits at the hospital in Bethlehem. It unfolded from there over the next several years.
CC: Writing letters seems to be a dying art form in this day and age, yet, as you stated, the book began as a letter to your unborn son, Joseph. How did you choose a letter as the vehicle to begin this story, and why?
SS: In some ways, I was very scared to write this book. It deals with some of the most intimate aspects of my life: my marriage, my faith, my fears about motherhood, and my life in a very conflicted Middle East. Each day, as I wrote the book, I simply wrote it to my son, Joseph. I didn’t show it to anyone else the entire time I worked on it. It was an intensely private experience, and, by writing it as a letter to my son, I forced myself to be completely faithful to the story I needed to tell. I decided that if he was the only person in the world who ever read this book, then that was enough for me.
CC: In your first memoir, you wrote, “I didn’t have . . . a concrete plan for what I was going to do with the next twelve months of my life.” That same sentiment was mirrored in your most recent work: “We had no idea of what we were doing next. I was beginning to suspect that we had set out on a long-distance journey for which we were woefully unprepared.” This feeling of being unprepared resonates with people of all ages anticipating some form of transition. What do you do in order to feel better prepared for what’s to come?
SS: I think that A Country Between is about the fact that we can never be prepared. Nothing prepared me for the shock of marriage, the radical change of having children, the trauma of war, and, finally, the deep sadness I felt as I lost people I loved in my life. My answer is to search for beauty in chaos and to hold onto it as a kind of anchor. I believe that terrible things pass but that beauty contains something of eternity and that, by paying attention to it, we can navigate our way out of very difficult times. This was the lesson my own father taught me and that I was trying to teach my son in writing the book: to never lose hope and to always turn towards the beautiful.
CC: The literal and figurative presence of borders permeates your newest book, beginning with your house on Nablus Road, which is situated “close to the invisible line dividing Jerusalem into East and West, Palestinian and Israeli.” Later, during pregnancy, you describe the linea nigra—the long, hyperpigmented, vertical line that appears on the bellies of many pregnant women—as another type of border. It marked “the passage from one stage of my life to the next.” Did you purposefully write about this theme, or did it arise organically?
SS: When I first began the book, I thought that Nablus Road was simply going to be the physical location of the story—a street straddling the place between east and west Jerusalem referred to as the “seam line.” But as I began writing the material about the birth of my son and the death of my father, it soon became clear that the “country between” was not a geographical space but a space in time—our life balanced between the past and the future, between loving those coming into the world and those leaving it. It became a book not only about physical borders but about the many borders I was crossing: into married life, into motherhood, into moments of confronting death. It is also, I guess, about the historical moment that each of us is born into and the role we are meant to play in it.
CC: The book includes the birth of Joseph and his younger brother, Sebastian, who was born in the same year that your father died. Much of Nablus Road had been changed by that point due to war and destruction. You wrote, “My little boy had grown up that year. Death will do that to a person. He had knowledge of things I had hoped I could withhold from him a little longer.” In a setting with conflict and violence, how do you decide what to explain to your children and what not to explain?
SS: Growing up with children in Jerusalem can be challenging. I have always tried to keep my children away from the news when things are particularly bad, and I have always done everything possible to keep them physically safe, of course. In many ways, they have had normal childhoods, full of school and soccer games, birthday parties and treasure hunts, with dozens of friends both from Jerusalem and from other countries. It is no less physically dangerous than similar cities in America. Yet the potential for conflict has always been part of our life in the Middle East, and, perhaps, that is what makes it unsettling.
When I wrote A Country Between, our case was somewhat unique to my family. Now, the threat of violence has spread, and our friends in America and Europe feel similarly insecure. When my children became scared of terrorist attacks, it was not because of anything that they had experienced in Jerusalem but because of the attacks in Paris that they heard about at their French school. To feel anxiety about the future of our children is, unfortunately, part of modern parenthood for nearly all the parents I know: in America, in France, and in the Middle East. Countless readers of the book have reached out to tell me that, while it was written about Jerusalem, it rings true to the uncertainties they are currently experiencing in America.
We choose to talk to our children about some challenges and stay quiet about others. We talk to our children about our friends from Syria who have become refugees, about children who have had to flee war, and about those heroes who are trying to help those in need. It is important to me that they care about those who are suffering. When my father died, I took my son, who was five years old, to the funeral, because he loved my father so much, and I felt that it was necessary for him to have closure. There are no hard and fast rules about how to navigate difficult realities. The only rule is compassion. I want my children to feel safe and secure as much as possible, but I need them to be aware of those in need and to grow up searching for ways to help.
CC: The story takes place when tensions in the Middle East were high, leading to more than ten years of wars. These wars leave tremendous pain and “invisible scars” in their wake. What coping mechanisms did you use to get through these catastrophic moments? What did you learn about yourself and the women around you?
SS: I was working on writing this book during what were very traumatic years in the Middle East, beginning with the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, fought in Lebanon in 2006 (during which we arrived in Jerusalem), and continuing through the conflict between Israel and Hamas, fought in the Gaza Strip, and the onset of the war in Syria (where I had lived in the past). The epilogue takes the reader all the way until 2015. The writing of the book itself became an important means of coping, and many of the moments in the book about birds and trees were part of my own process of intentionally turning towards the beautiful in Jerusalem as a means of fighting off despair. I learned to believe that the very act of writing is a means of resistance and should be transformative.
As I became a mother, teaching my children about beauty and allowing them to teach me about beauty also became a means of staying sane in an increasingly uncertain world. I learned that motherhood is a great act of hope: it is investing in a future beyond what we can see. I learned from women around me that sometimes focusing on the small things: cooking delicious meals, investing in our friendships, planting trees and learning languages—can be enough to help us survive difficult times. Above all, I learned to love. It sounds naïve, but it is not; love is the only way forward, no matter where we find ourselves in the world.
CC: At the end of the book, you tell Joseph to “keep watch” because, at any time, a “miracle can strike,” and recognizing that miracle “depends upon the noticing.” The art of noticing, of observation, is crucial to life, in general, but especially to writing and parenting. What other traits do you feel are important for writers to acquire to be effective in their craft? Do you feel as though parenting has positively influenced your writing?
SS: It has been oft repeated that so much of writing is showing up. Being a parent has made me a much more efficient writer: I take advantage of every single moment that I am given to write because the time is rare and precious. I schedule time, and I remain faithful to it or else the writing will simply not get done. And, of course, since so much of writing is “the act of noticing,” my children have been wonderful at reminding me to see the miraculous in the everyday, in the color of insects, in clouds.
But the greatest gift that parenthood has given my writing is a kind of integrity. I know that my children will one day grow up and read my books, and so I feel the need to tell the truth, all the time, and with as much clarity and music as possible. I wrote A Country Between with the hope that my children would always have it. I tried to communicate as much of myself and my love for them as possible in the book. That was a gift.
CC: Someone once told you “that the city [Jerusalem] is divided, but at least everyone comes to the same hospitals to be born and to die.” What do you feel that we, as citizens of the world, need to do to draw ourselves nearer to one another as opposed to pulling ourselves further apart?
SS: I believe very strongly in reading as an act of compassion. When we read, we fall in love with the characters in the books, we dream their dreams, we worry about them.
With the world so divided, reading has become a powerful way of moving closer to those who seem distant from us. I think everyone in America should be reading books by Arab and Muslim authors, books from all over the world. We should be reading our children books that open them up to the world. We should tell our children stories that make them feel closer to those from different communities, particularly places in need.
I also believe that cooking is a powerful way of connecting to people who seem far away. At the height of the conflict in Aleppo, Syria, I bought a book of recipes from Aleppo, and I cooked a huge meal for my friends. By sharing the food culture of those in the headlines, we touch their humanity.
Finally, we should all travel! Whether it is to another country or to another neighborhood that we usually drive past, we learn most when we meet new people and realize how much we can learn from them. So many Jerusalemites have read A Country Between and said, “I’ve lived there for decades, and I never went to your street!” I hope that now they will go.
CC: What are you working on now?
SS: I’m currently researching the disappearing cultural heritage in the Middle East, a project that has me traveling and speaking to refugees who have been displaced, particularly from Iraq and Syria. As a speaker of Arabic and someone who has lived in this region for so long, I feel compelled to try to understand some of the immense upheaval that people are living through. I vaguely have an idea in my head of a book that begins with me following a woman’s dress like a map, in search of the world she left behind. I’ve already found the dress! Now I just need to find the story.