An instructive, educative, and revealing interview with Author, Poet, Journalist and Blogger: Mary Smith.
FP: You describe yourself as an author, poet and journalist but, from all these three designations, which do you think defines you most of all?
Mary: I think it all depends on what I am working at the time! It’s probably the combination of all three which defines me.
FP: Can you please give my readers a short biography about yourself?
Mary: I grew up in south west Scotland. When I left school I went to work in a bank. My mother had a dream I would become the country’s first female bank manager but I very soon realized this was not for me. I hated working with numbers. I travelled in Europe for a while and, on my return I started working with Oxfam in England.
My job was a combination of fundraising and trying to form public opinion on issues from the sale of arms to the adverse effects of promoting baby milk powder. During this time I visited Bangladesh on an official work tour and fell in love with the country. As I have not returned, I don’t know if my reaction was because it was the first country outside Europe I had visited and I hope one day to return to see if it still makes me feel the same.
A few years later, I went to Pakistan on what was a life-changing holiday. While there I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Control Centre in Karachi, with an introduction from someone in Oxfam. I was deeply impressed with the work I saw and wanted to be a part of it. I went out to Pakistan on a three-year contract. At the end of it, I signed up again, but this time to work in Afghanistan. I had already started writing articles and was working on the non-fiction book when I returned to Europe.
FP: How was your experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan? To be very frank, I am curious about this because indeed you were present in these countries at a very crucial moment in their history. Can enlighten my readers about your work there and experience?
Mary: I have lived through interesting times in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. I was in Pakistan when General Zia lifted Martial Law (which he imposed) and when he later died in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash. When Benazir Bhutto was first elected Prime Minister in 1988 I remember watching the celebrations with women dancing in the streets. I lived through times of civil unrest and curfew in the city.
I went to Afghanistan a few months after the Soviets left so it was a time of huge unrest as the mujahideen groups fought to oust President Najibullah. When he stepped down the various factions, previously united in the face of a common enemy, began a power struggle to take control of the country. We opened our office in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif which was under the control of General Dostum and relatively peaceful.
My work in Pakistan was to set up a health education department in the Leprosy control program’s headquarters in Karachi and to find and appoint a local counterpart to take over at the end of my contract. I worked to spread the word about leprosy through various media including newspapers, television, leaflets and posters. I also worked with para medics who were working in the field. Once I had my very able counterpart in place, I turned my attention to establishing a fund raising department which could tap into the wealth in the city. I spent most of my time in the city of Karachi but was able to travel fairly extensively around the country.
In Afghanistan I established a low-key mother and child health care program, training village women as health volunteers. I loved this job because it meant working closely with women, some of whom became good friends. I was impressed by how quickly the women learned and how well they retained information. While I still often had to refer to my teaching manual to remind myself of things, the women absorbed new knowledge like a sponge and never forgot anything they learned. I guess my own prejudices were shown there and I realized illiteracy does not indicate unintelligent. I spent several months at a time in the area where I was teaching and over the years was made to feel very much part of the community. It was such a remote area the fighting over Kabul seemed very distant – people concentrated on growing sufficient crops; keeping their families healthy; sorting out local problems in their own way.
FP: What made you return to Europe after spending so many years in Afghanistan? Do you think you would want to go back there any time in the future?
Mary: I decided to come home for a couple of reasons. Taliban was becoming increasingly powerful and moving towards taking control of the country, which meant security was more of an issue. Secondly, my son was five years old and I had to think of his education and future. I felt he should be allowed to put down roots and belong somewhere. Although he was bi-lingual in both Dari and English and never thought of anywhere else as ‘home’ I knew he would always be regarded as a foreigner in Afghanistan and the longer he lived there, the more difficult it would be for him to adapt to the culture of Scotland. We have been back once and it was wonderful to meet up with many of my Afghan friends. I would like to return some day, but I can’t see it happening in the foreseeable future.
FP: Your critically acclaimed book No More Mulberries is set in Afghanistan and it is a fiction book. What I would like to know is that, how much of ‘fiction’ and how much of ‘reality’ is contained in it?
Mary: The story of the central characters – a British midwife married to an Afghan doctor – is fiction, born of a ‘what if question’. What if a British woman were to marry an Afghan and live in Afghanistan? What difficulties would she face, would he face? Could the relationship survive the huge cultural differences? Their story is rooted in the reality of life in rural Afghanistan and many of the episodes which are described are based on things I witnessed or heard about. The scenes at the medical teaching camp are disguised accounts of how it was and the leprosy story is also based on something which I heard about.
FP: Did your other non-fiction work titled Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women influence you to pen down No More Mulberries or was there another catalyst that made you wish to write No More Mulberries?
Mary: I had written the non-fiction work first and originally published under a different title. The publishing company went into liquidation and when I found another publisher I wanted to add some extra chapters to tell of what it was like when I went back after ten years. In the meantime I was thinking about writing a novel because as not everyone reads non-fiction I hoped to reach a wider audience.
FP: Many people from the ‘developed’ nations have a lot of stereotypes about people from ‘developing’ countries like the ones which you spent almost ten years of your life in. Which is the weirdest stereotype that you come across?
Mary: There were lots. I remember a European doctor telling an Afghan mother her child had died. As she sat there, stunned, disbelieving, he turned to me and said: “They have so many children I don’t think women here feel the loss of one in the same way as women in the west.” I couldn’t believe he could have so little empathy or understanding of what that woman was feeling. Really, I wanted to hit him.
I wrote to someone back in the UK telling her of a weekend I’d spent in Karachi with Pakistani and Afghan friends going to the beach, to the funfair and eating delicious ice creams and she wrote back saying she would never be able to cope with all the poverty. I hadn’t mentioned poverty but to her mind – and many others think the same – everyone in Pakistan was poverty stricken and lived in shanty towns. She couldn’t conceive of there being so much more besides that, including opportunities to do fun things.
Often stereotyped views include people from ‘developed’ countries (certainly from mine) confuse arranged marriage with enforced marriage; assume all Afghan husbands beat their wives and all Afghan wives are deeply unhappy – which I suppose they would be if it were true! I am often asked to give talks about my work in Afghanistan and take along artefacts and photos. Invariably someone comments that the women don’t look poor when they wear such brightly colored dresses. On one occasion someone asked about opium production and I said in the region where I worked I never actually saw poppies being cultivated. He didn’t believe me because he ‘knew’ that they were grown all over Afghanistan and were the cause of the heroin problem in the UK. I don’t think he had any idea of how vast a country Afghanistan is.
And then, of course, people assume all Muslim men have four wives when, in fact, the majority have only one. Yes, they can have more and some do but certainly not most.
Of course, it works the other way, too. Some Pakistani and Afghan men have the idea that all women from the West will be prepared to jump into bed with them. Or, that we all star in porn films.
FP: Most of the books that are printed about the area which your book No More Mulberries is set in are about either:
- A fanatical organization who call themselves the ‘Taliban’
- About the degraded state of the women in this area
- About its fanaticism etc.,
How different is your book compared to all this?
Mary: My book is very different and your question really hits the nail on the head as to why I wrote No More Mulberries. Almost everything I read before I went to Afghanistan, while I was there and since coming home focuses on those points you’ve made, which makes it understandable why there are so many misconceptions about the country and its people. I wanted to write something which gets behind the headlines to focus on ordinary, everyday life. I feel very strongly that the people of Afghanistan, especially the women, deserve more than to be defined by the headlines and stories about fanaticism and violence against women. Stories which focus on these things – whether in books, newspapers or television – are actually NOT stories about women but about men. I wanted to show that, however difficult life can be for many women, they are not all passive victims. And I wanted to do it in a quiet, low-key way.
FP: What is your view about the growing fanaticism and militant disturbances occurring in almost every part of the world? What can stop the madness and bring peace to every troubled nation including ‘developed countries’?
Mary: Oh, my goodness, those are big questions. I only wish I knew how we can stop the madness. If only we could turn the clock back and stop Bush and Blair from bombing Iraq. The world has become a much more dangerous place since then. I wish we could somehow shout ‘stop, let’s talk’ and find a way to allow countries/governments to find a way for everyone to back off from military engagement without losing face. In No More Mulberries quite a lot is shown about the importance of not losing face and a number of readers have remarked on it. They are surprised at how important it is, seeing it as a peculiarly Afghan thing, while I see it as something which has led many nations into war because backing off will make those in power lose face – and that seems to be much more important to our world leaders than the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
FP: ‘Her characters are complex with layered pasts’, says Janice Galloway about your novel No More Mulberries. Do you agree with her on that point? Are you also at times a person who can be termed ‘complex’?
Mary: Yes, I do agree with Janice Galloway on this. I think at first the reader probably finds Iqbal fits their stereotypical view of an Afghan man – dictatorial and misogynist – but as the layers are peeled back they realize things are not as they first supposed. He carries a great deal of baggage which contributes to how he behaves. Miriam, too, is more complex than she first appears. She has always felt herself to be a misfit in her own country, which is partly why she is so determined to make a success of her life in Afghanistan where she feels a sense of belonging. I guess we are all complex characters, myself included.
FP: When you left Asia and returned to Europe, what did you do with your life next?
Mary: Soon after I returned to Scotland the University of Glasgow opened a campus in a town close to where I live and, as a mature student, I finally went to university to study for a Liberal Arts degree. I also began to carve out a career in journalism, as a freelance, later as a staff reporter and then feature writer. After my degree I did a Masters in Creative Writing, during which I worked on my novel, No More Mulberries.
FP: Who encouraged you to write your collection of poems titled Thousands Pass Here Every Day? Do you still continue to write poetry?
Mary: Well, it’s quite funny how I came to write poetry. During my degree course there was a creative writing module offered. I told the lecturer I would take the course as long as I did not have to write poetry. Although I enjoyed reading it I did not feel I could write it – probably a leftover from my teenage years when I scribbled very bad, angst-ridden poems about love and death! He said I would have to write poetry as the portfolio must include at least one poem. We had quite an argument about it but I decided to take the classes and I can still remember how I felt when I read out my homework and realized I’d written a real poem. The lecturer, a very fine poet called Tom Pow encouraged me and I began to write more and send them out to magazines. Eventually, there was enough for a collection. I still write poetry and am slowly building a body of work about my father, who died in 2014, and looking after him when he had dementia.
FP: Are you working on another book(s)? What are some of your future ventures?
Mary: I would like to write a follow on to No More Mulberries. Readers often ask me what happened to Miriam and Iqbal and what are they doing now. I have made a start on this but my first priority is to work on turning my blog (My Dad’s a Goldfish https://marysmith57.wordpress.com ) about caring for my dad into a book. So many people are now caring for a parent or a spouse with Alzheimer’s.
FP: To whom have you dedicated your book No More Mulberries to and why?
Mary: It’s dedicated to Jon and David – my husband and my son because they are an important part of my life. I also give thanks to Andrew Radford my supervisor and author Janice Galloway one of my tutors on my Masters in Creative Writing course and to Liz Small who was my mentor and asked questions such as ‘why would Miriam do that?’ or ‘what made Iqbal to feel this way?’ which were hugely helpful.
FP: From all your three books that is No More Mulberries, Thousands Pass Here Every Day, Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women which one was the most difficult to pen down and why?
Mary: All were a joy to write and equally difficult!
FP: What message would you like to give your friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now via my blog insaneowl.com?
Mary: I can only say I hope one day there will be peace.
Thank you Mary, for enlightening insaneowl.com, and its followers about your work as a writer. Continue the good work and all the best for your future ventures. I do hope that we may be able to speak through the medium of my blog once again in the near future. Warm regards from Fiza Pathan.
Author Mary Smith books are available on Amazon. Her latest book with Allan Devlin:
No More Mulberries: a novel set in Afghanistan:
Poetry collection: Thousands Pass Here Every Day
Non-fiction: Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women
Blog: My Dad is a Goldfish; dealing with dementia
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