In the waning days before my novel Her Own Vietnam is released, I’m writing about 30 Women Novelists You Should Know. Today – Masha Hamilton.
I know this isn’t fair
It’s not really fair to consider a novelist’s non-writing life when you think about her literary work. For example, we all know of highly lauded male writers who are famous for being misogynistic jerks in real life. (OK, I admit I don’t read those writers for that very reason.)
But with the novelist Masha Hamilton, it’s difficult for me to separate my admiration for her books from my admiration for the way she conducts her life.
Are you tired yet?
She spent most of her career as a journalist, reporting from Afghanistan, Kenya, Moscow and the Middle East, among other places. She served as the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Now she works for Concern Worldwide, an NGO that seeks to eliminate extreme poverty around the world. In her spare time, Masha founded two world literacy projects, the Camel Book Drive in Kenya and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
Oh, and she’s written five acclaimed novels.
It’s true Masha Hamilton is a friend of mine. But c’mon, who could fail to be impressed by this level of literary and humanitarian accomplishment? Just reading about it makes me tired.
Oh, right – the books
Masha’s novels are Staircase of a Thousand Steps (2001), The Distance Between Us (2004), The Camel Bookmobile (2007), 31 Hours (2009) and What Changes Everything (2013), which has a wonderful book cover.
Her books deal with the vital issues of our time through the lens of compelling human stories. To enjoy the novels, you don’t need to know anything about the concerns she addresses – the lives of women in the Middle East, the toll of war on journalists and civilians, the challenge of spreading literacy in Kenya, the dangers of cultural naiveté, the lure of radicalism, the power of parental love. You can just let yourself be gripped by the plot, the suspense, the characters, and the tactile details that make you see, hear, smell and feel the locations, whether Afghanistan or Brooklyn.
I happen to be fond of books that persuade you toward a point of view. But Masha’s novels don’t do that.
They invite you instead to look behind all the warring points of view and find compassion for the striving, suffering human beings who are simply trying to do the best they can – for themselves, their families, their nations – with their one fleeting life.