Here, I describe the background to writing The Heroine Next Door (Genre: historical fiction). Readers explore a woman's emotional and physical journey between the US and South Africa to combat HIV/AIDS and, in the process of helping others, to discover her own identity.
Labels build the lens through which we see each other. Black. Female. Muslim. Immigrant. Homosexual. Tragedies and injustices – the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and apartheid in South Africa are three prominent examples – can reinforce biases to the detriment of future generations. The story of The Heroine Next Door was constructed with these themes in mind.
US President Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” What if the word “country” could be replaced with “world”? The heroine in my book, a Muslim immigrant, uses knowledge acquired in one country, the USA, to bring hope and health to another country, in this case, South Africa. Her actions embody the spirit that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, despite modern life’s complexities.
Wikipedia describes a tribe as “a group of distinct people who are dependent on their land for their livelihood, largely self-sufficient and not integrated into the national society.” Leila’s “tribe” is “the other – poor and marginalized Africans perpetually relying on health, money and food aid from the West. “ By actively contributing to “her tribe,” she rediscovers herself.
By the same token, the world has become a digital village. Bringing health and hope required many brains and a body of knowledge nurtured in diverse countries. Perhaps the Latin motto, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (Out of many, one), serves as the best takeaway.
That same concept was also visually depicted by a Cuban-American artist, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, who created a sand portrait of a photo-realistic sketch. One needs a bird’s eye view to understand that the grains of sand (“human beings”) form a face (“the world”). I wrote a poem based on this theme which also appears in the book.
If one could draw an analogy between the middle-aged female scientist, Leila Hassan, and that of a movie character, it would be Forrest Gump. She seems to move blithely through the chaos of apartheid-South Africa, with an almost childlike innocence – focused only on books and knowledge. But the challenges of life induce a brutal transformation or what some would euphemistically refer to as ‘teachable moments.’ Her pragmatism, viewed in isolation as being a cold nerd when compared to her passionate friends, then becomes an asset in carving her own identity and helping others.
To date, 9/11, marks one of the highest-profile suicide attacks in more than a decade—102 minutes of fear and destruction that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3000 people. Symbols of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and science (National Academy of Sciences) near Ground Zero serve as reminders of humanity’s kindness, resilience, and creativity in the wake of this cataclysmic event.
International collaborations in the fight against HIV/AIDS serve as another reminder of what can be accomplished when people work together for the common good. But 21st century events, like viruses, are always evolving and Leila, unlike some of her friends, realizes that change is inevitable and the need to adapt to change.
It was the 1970s and 80s. South Africa’s first HIV epidemic was quietly decimating (mostly) white homosexuals. Few people cared at the time. This was especially true for the disenfranchised blacks and coloreds living in the Paarl wine valley. Renowned for once being an Afrikaner (an Afrikaans-speaking person in South Africa) cultural epicenter, it is also the place where Leila comes of age and tries to carve a better life amidst the turbulence of personal relationships and apartheid-South Africa. Fast forward several years later, in the 9/11 aftermath, Leila returns to South Africa to help her former countrymen and, in the process, herself.
Related stories have been condensed from a series of blog posts and appear as a lengthy epilogue (Chapter 13: Perspectives). The one story that particularly resonates with me, references black gardener and unsung hero, Hamilton Naki. How he made his way to the University of Cape Town and impressed a generation of South African doctors with his surgical skills, is chronicled in the annals of South African history. One can only imagine what heights he may have reached with support and exposure to global knowledge.
The conflict between piety and modernity is one that plays out for people raised in any faith. Then there is the struggle that every first-generation immigrant experiences in adjusting to life in an adopted country. Add to those ingredients, the conflicts about sexuality experienced by the secondary characters, Shuaib and Khadija, and one gains an understanding of the complex emotional landscapes of many adherents to the world’s youngest major religion.
I think that the listed reviewers most accurately capture the strengths and limitations of the book. I have also included related news headlines:
Review: An immigrant experience and midlife crisis viewed through the prism of a Muslim woman
Review: Heartwarming with a real purpose
Related news headline: What impact did 9/11 have on the world?
Related news headline: Saving South African lives from HIV and AIDS epidemic
Based on the feedback from all past and future readers, I am eager to expand this message-driven work in a new direction.
Although I have used some of my own experiences to infuse the story, it is not a memoir.
Health-related information is meant to supplement and not replace medical advice. Please consult a doctor for any specific condition.
My debut novel was first published in 2015.
I take responsibility for any errors.
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