A Q&A with biographer Deborah Baker, author of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, released last month by Greywolf Press.

by Ashley Baxstrom

When biographer Deborah Baker came across a collection of letters at the New York Public Library, she opened a window into a particularly complex life. The letters told the story of Margaret Marcus, a Jewish woman raised in post-World War II upstate New York. Peggy, as she was known to her family, lived in search of community.

Marcus was a “social misfit” with a passion for National Geographic articles who found distressing the Israeli treatment of Arabs. She painted and wrote but couldn’t hold a job. Her parents sent her to a psychiatrist and, for a time, a mental institution. She exchanged letters with a noted Pakistani Muslim intellectual, Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, who would become a leader of the radical political Islamic group Jamaat al-Islamiyya. In 1961, under Mawdudi’s tutelage, Peggy, then 27, converted to Islam, changing her name to Maryam Marcus. Then she packed her possessions and moved to Lahore to live as a guest of her mentor.

Maryam’s writings on Islam have been widely read in conservative Muslim circles, and may have played a role in the rise of militant jihad over the past half-century. As narrated in The Convert, just as interesting, however, is Maryam’s personal life – particularly as we, and Baker, come to realize that she may not have been as honest, or perhaps even as sane, as we first thought.

The Convert tells two tales. First is that of Peggy/Margaret/Maryam, as recorded in her own letters and the correspondence of her friends and family. And second is Baker’s, as she reads and learns about the life of another and rises to the challenge of structuring it all in a way that makes sense. We sat down with Baker to discuss sorting through a life in letters, the disparity between her subject’s presentation of herself and the reality of meeting her, and looking back on it all when so many big questions – about Islam and the West, sanity, faith, writing, and the truth – still linger.

You say early on that at first, when coming across these letters, you weren’t sure if you had found a book. What was it about Maryam/Peggy’s voice that made you feel that she spoke not just to you but might also speak to a larger audience? And who was the audience you were writing for?

I’m never really sure about the audience that I’m writing for. You have a few serious readers in your head and you have a cloud of confusion about certain questions. I organized the book as a way of confronting those confusions and trying to resolve them: who Maryam Jameelah/Margaret Marcus was, and also what was going on in the whole debate between Islam and America, and how we had gotten there. It had seemed like yesterday we were immersed in the Cold War and the Soviet Union and now suddenly we turn around and have this new demon in our midst. So I wasn’t really sure that I was ready to weigh in on all those weighty issues, because I have a hard time as a writer summoning a voice of authority. I have an easier time summoning a voice of perplexity and speculation.

As far as summoning a voice, you describe ulam al-hadith, the science of Hadith study, as a way for the community to inhabit the Prophet’s thinking. This, to me, seems similar to your own way of writing and researching: you say that you inhabit their lives until you think like them. Do you find that this kind of biographical writing is similar to the interpretive task people face when confronting religious texts or teachings such as the Hadith?

I think this is true for all religions. By inhabiting the spirit or character of Jesus, for example, we get close to God, because we can’t actually inhabit God’s thinking. But we can inhabit Jesus or whatever prophet. In a way I feel that that’s kind of a necessary illusion for a biographer, because you can’t really entirely inhabit another person. The thing about writing about writers is that their insights about themselves and humanity, they’ve put in writing. [That writing offers] a sense of access, especially poetry, which seems like magical writing almost. Sacred texts would probably fill the same role for the majority of people. But in this instance I was able to confront my delusion by actually going to Pakistan and meeting Maryam Jameelah and being sort of rudely awakened by the person I was supposedly ventriloquizing. She was not at all the person I’d thought she’d be.

So how do you distance yourself when you inhabit this person so deeply? Where’s the room for analysis? Did facing her in Pakistan give you the way to step back and reestablish your own voice up against hers?

I think there comes a point in every traditional biography where you get very exasperated with your subject, whether they’re dead or alive. It’s sort of like a relationship: you know you’re in love, you don’t see their faults, you see only their insights and the beauty of their writing. There comes a part where all of sudden it becomes claustrophobic and you start seeing their blind spots and you get exasperated with that. Now what most biographers do is they step back and provide a historical context and they make all these noises that suggest that they’re objective. I could’ve done that, researched the whole book, fact-checked everything and then turned to the reader and provided this little factual package. But for me it was the idea of making narrative sense of a life, not necessarily factual sense but a narrative sense. And that seemed to me her project, as well. Her entire life was trying to figure out her place in the world. And to do that she fantasized, she mythologized, she propagandized, however you want to see it. But there is something sort of earnest and sincere about that. I don’t think she was trying to fool anyone, except maybe herself and her parents. She didn’t want her parents to worry about her. So I wanted that whole project of making sense of a life to be the reader’s as well. And being somewhat confused and somewhat uncertain, having to go back, I think that’s exactly where a reader should be at the end of the book.

In creating the narrative, how did you organize the book in a way that made sense while struggling with Maryam’s personal contradictions?

The structure comes really late in the process. I knew the first part of the book would be those letters leading up to the insane asylum because that’s how it unveiled itself to me. I wanted the reader to have that same shock that I had.

It did feel that we were exploring and coming to know her in the same way that you did.

I didn’t want to just paraphrase her letters. I do summarize the texts of a lot of her letters but I wanted her voice in there somehow, and I also wanted to control the information and the way it came out. I don’t distort it. I was paraphrasing a lot of her letters but I was paraphrasing in her voice as opposed to a neutral biographer’s voice.

That was the beginning. I found those letters in the spring of 2007 and by December of 2007 I was in Pakistan, and so I had the end of the story. But it was so disturbing an experience being in Pakistan at that particular moment, meeting her and finding her so different from what I imagined, and then Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, that I nearly just tossed the whole project because it was just so complicated. And then discovering that the letters from her childhood were … not fraudulent … but made-up, that just seemed really to create another layer of problems. I just thought, I’ve been led down this rabbit hole and I didn’t know if the reader would be willing to go there with me. So I just struggled and struggled, but I couldn’t somehow bury the book. And as soon as I began writing it, as soon as I began reading Mawdudi and really in-depth study of political Islam, of Islamic theology and law – of course, then I had finished the whole book, at least the first draft. It was structured in the way that it all happened and I didn’t know how it was going to end for a really long time. I wasn’t sure I had the right ending.

Deborah Baker

Did you consider spending more time with Maryam after your upsetting initial meeting? Did you ever want to go back or really try and work through the letters with her?

It really wasn’t possible. When I would interview her there was really very little back and forth. She had her spurts. And her presence was completely disconcerting. Her actual presence. I felt very vulnerable around her. And also I felt filled with coldness. I didn’t know if that was because I held her responsible in some ways for 9/11 and the War on Terror and the suicide bombings going on everywhere in Pakistan or if it was just because she has an affect that was so disorienting for me. But there was really very little to penetrate there.

In the end, after you leave her, you write a letter where you ask her to really  confront herself, to address the things that she wrote versus how she lived her life – how was what you got different from what you expected, or maybe hoped for?

I wanted to find a reason to dismiss her, to say, “You’re a hypocrite.” For someone who had such a fine nose for hypocrisy of Americans and American culture, I think she perceives these things within herself but was able to pave it over with the Jamaat al-Islamiyya line. I really wanted to confront her but I also wanted in my heart of hearts to just get her out of my system.

The Pakistani poet and writer Fatima Bhutto has noted that in The Convert you explore the fine line between “the urgency and lunacy of conversion” – do you have a reaction to the idea of a comparison between insanity and religion?

There’s this Susan Sontag quote: “There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. The truths we respect are those born of affliction.” I think we’re in such an era. We’re in the very slow changing of the gears between the Cold War and World War II nostalgia and the War on Terror. I didn’t find that quote until I was in the midst of this book, and it really may be wrong, but I somehow feel that these so-called “misfits” (Maryam’s word), whether they’re poets or homosexuals or black people or whatever, they do have a sharper eye when it comes to picking up the illusions and delusions of society. And I don’t know if that’s a dated idea now, or maybe it’s romanticizing but that’s what it said to me. I think those were the truths that Margaret was trying to articulate, being not a part of this society that she was commenting on. She had no loyalty to it.

How does Maryam’s story speak to the questions of Islam vs. the West or Islam vs. modernity?

I think what I found by looking into Mawdudi’s writings and other things is how clearly he saw Islam’s future as lying with modernity, with science and technology. He just thought that Islam could appropriate them. They [Militant jihadists] are very adept at using technology in pursuing their military agenda. But Maryam was actually very much anti-modernity. She had a much more romantic notion of simple traditional village life, the way the world was before industrialization and technology and depravity. So her heart was on the side of traditional Islamic Arab culture, as she imagined it. There are many people in America, the back-to-nature people, that are doing their best to send the clock back – for good reason, because we’re destroying our world. It’s not militant Islam that’s destroying the world, that’s just little explosions on the edge. It’s really the huge grinding of Western technology, capitalism, exploitation – it’s really destroying the world. That’s not exaggerating. And Maryam’s very focused on this. She realizes at this point that to go back is an impossibility, but there is a kind of millennial thinking in Islam that in some ways she embraces just the way the Christian right does – almost hopeful expectation that the world will be destroyed and they will be saved and no one else will be. The Christian right and Islamic fundamentalism, they have a lot in common, in their modes of thought.

About being in the wake of 9/11, you write, “when I turned, alone, to thinking about the hatred that occasioned the attacks, I didn’t doubt it was real and it was frightening, but it was hard, at first, to catch hold of.” You begin to think you could find better answers. Do you think you found some answers for yourself?

No. You have certain fantasies when you start a book, they’re sort of delusions of grandeur in a way and that was one. But it keeps you going through all the discouragement. If I can get two people to rethink their prejudices or their assumptions or stereotypes that would be great.

In the beginning you say you often felt the impasse between Islam and the West was unbridgeable, and your attitude toward Maryam was curious but distant. But you’ve also said, in an interview this Spring with Publisher’s Weekly, that you don’t know if your attitude toward her would ever settle down. How do you feel about Maryam, and the impasse, now?

What you have to remind yourself of is that the impasse is totally an abstract. It’s not real; it’s not reality. You talk about it and you create these realities by talking about it and writing about it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a cultural difference or that you can’t create equivalencies between the Christian Right (an abstraction as well) – you can draw vague similarities to modes of thinking. But what was interesting to me was that, having just come off of writing this book about Allen Ginsberg, I was struck by how they both came out of the same ground in a way and they both had a similar critique of America, and they went in completely different directions. What I found wonderful and positive about Ginsberg’s version of India was how it liberated his spirit in some way and relieved him of a large part of his fear of death, his heavy neuroses, and made him more comfortable in his own shoes, because it was so liberating for him. Because he saw the crazy people or the potheads or the gay people – there was a place for all those people in India. I think the mistake that we in the West relates to the whole idea that you can lock people up, that you have to be a sovereign being, that you are a master of your fate. Her father said if you can’t get a job, go on welfare, and that wasn’t the answer to her. That strikes me as a deep criticism of our society, that this is our solution.

And Maryam?

The interview was a few months before the book was published. My response was also an anxiety about how the book would be received. And now that it’s out there, now that I’ve heard some people, not just book reviewers and interviewers but just ordinary readers – my other books have never really had ordinary readers – people that are just earnest and are as confused by all these things that I was, now I feel more at peace with the book and there seems to be more closure about my feelings about her. I loved writing the Allen Ginsberg book. He had such a great sense of humor, and I missed that lightness when I was writing this. I was quite nearly unhinged by this. I felt guilty all the time as well as totally haunted by her.

Ashley Baxstrom is a graduate student in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.