My First Novel
In 1999, I took ten months off from my work as a human rights advocate with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) to finish writing my novel, Where Such Unmaking Reigns (The title comes from an Adrienne Rich poem, “Natural Resources.”)
The need to write it arose out my work with CPT in the West Bank city of Hebron, where I witnessed daily small and egregious cruelties and sometimes just bizarre manifestations of the Israeli military occupation there. I wondered how it would appear to someone with no agenda, a sort of modern Candide, and thus my character Tess McAdoo, whose only allegiance was to the gods of women’s fashion magazines, was born. My secondary character, Eugie, with a propensity to feel everything too personally, was the person who got to say all the snappy comebacks to soldiers and settlers that I always thought of about two weeks too late.
As noted below, Where Such Unmaking Reigns was selected as a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize and won the PeaceWriting award from the Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology. I used the proceeds from that award to publish the novel with Xlibris. My CPT friend Rick Polhamus designed the cover and other CPT friends helped with proofreading. Interestingly, all these years later, I was able to publish Because the Angels through CreateSpace at a fraction of what it cost me to publish through Xlibris, and I don’t have the yucky feeling that they’re oppressing their employees. The first chapter of Where Such Unmaking Reigns also garnered me a fellowship to workshop the manuscript with prize-winning short story author Lee K. Abbott.
It’s been a decade now, of course, since I’ve won these awards, and I’ve wondered whether there’s some statute of limitations on citing them. I actually think Because the Angels is a better novel, because I was more experienced when I started to write it. Because the Angels hasn’t won any awards though–it just got the nice Kirkus Indie review and the really nice review on the Beneath the Tangles website.
Here’s the 2003 description on my Xlibris page followed by a review on Amazon:
When a terrorist accidentally blows himself up in an East Jerusalem hotel, rendering Tess McAdoo’s fiancé Yossi comatose, she finds herself propelled into the world of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fortunately, she is so preoccupied with finding the right sunblock that most of the tragedies she witnesses do not cause lasting damage.
Yiphat, an Israeli human rights lawyer and Yossi’s sister, sends Tess to Hebron to stay with the Reformed Anabaptist Peace Team, aka the RAPTors. There she meets Unmerited Grace Yoder, known as Eugie (U.G.) Eugie, unlike Tess, feels all that happens deeply. Her grim theology and disappointment with relationships give her a subversive energy that feeds into her passion for justice. She had been in love with Yossi prior to his meeting Tess, and, unwilling to admit her jealousy and hurt, she begins projecting on to Tess the same seraphic qualities most men who encounter Tess do.
Eugie and Tess provide dueling viewpoints of subsequent events, which include the demolition of two Palestinian homes, the bombing of Ben Yehudah mall in Jerusalem and an attack on the RAPT members by Israeli settlers.
Since the Israeli police wish to use the testimonies of the team members to prosecute the settlers involved in the attack, Tess and Eugie are kidnapped by a group of right-wing Israelis and Christian Zionists (who believe that all Jews in the world must emigrate to Israel in order to precipitate the end times.) Another settler, David Fogel, rescues the two women. Tess, Eugie and Fogel are then snatched by ‘Adel, a group of left-wing Palestinians and anti-Zionist Israeli and American Jews.
The recently recovered Yossi, Tess’s fiancé, turns out to be a member of this group and to have mobilized ‘Adel to rescue Eugie and Tess. When the Israeli military storms their hideout, Eugie saves Yossi’s life by telling the soldiers he is Jewish, knowing that Yossi will never forgive her for doing so.
Yossi’s sister Yiphat gets Eugie out of jail a week later and tells her, “Sometimes I think that only people who have had their hearts broken understand what it is like to live and work over here. You fight so long and so hard, thinking that if you just care enough, people will change, that you’ll be able to convince people about the right thing to do. But your heart just keeps getting broken over and over again. And . . . maybe we stay because we know you can survive a broken heart.”
A catastrophic event at the end of the novel, gives all the RAPTors further insights into their hearts. Tess, however, is especially affected. In the process of grieving, she finds she can no longer detach from the violence and manifestations of contempt she sees on the streets of Hebron, and for the first time in her life begins to behave without decorum.
To demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction, the author has interspersed the chapters with short pieces of nonfiction, e.g., non-fiction essays and letters written by Israeli human rights activists, verbatim conversations the author had with soldiers and settlers while working in Hebron, poetry by Nizar Qabbani, right-wing Christian propaganda regarding Israel, actual e-mail death threats that the author’s agency, Christian Peacemaker Teams, has received because of its work in Hebron, etc.
Where Such Unmaking Reigns also includes a glossary of Hebrew and Arabic terms with which some people may be unfamiliar.
Where Such Unmaking Reigns was selected as a finalist in Barbara Kinsolver’s Bellwether Prize in 2001 and won the 2003 PeaceWriting Award.
Kathleen Kern has worked as a human rights advocate with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) since 1993, serving on assignments in Haiti, Washington, DC, Hebron, West Bank, Chiapas, Mexico, South Dakota and Colombia. She has authored two nonfiction books and her essays have appeared in Tikkun magazine and The Baltimore Sun. Her chapter describing the work of CPT, “From Haiti to Hebron with a Brief Stop in Washington, DC,” appeared in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding. Oxford University Press, 2000. In October 2002, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior denied Kern entry into Israel as she tried to rejoin the team in Hebron. She has appealed the denial of entry at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. While she awaits the outcome of this appeal, she is working on a history of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Short non-fiction “Interludes” between each chapter and written by Kern and a handful of others (from an Israeli human rights lawyer to a Palestinian poet) give us a look at the real life on which Kern’s novel is based. You don’t need to get far into the book before her preface – “The non-fiction portions of this book are 98% true. The fictional portions are only half true – becomes terribly self-evident.
The tenderness and concern that Kern feels for her characters and for the land they all care so much for is especially discernible in the heart of her story. Eugie Yoder, a solid and experienced but depression and anxiety prone activist takes the clueless Tess MacAdoo under her wing when Tess is randomly and involuntarily thrown into the conflict as the result of a botched suicide bombing. Together they experience house demolitions, beatings, and kidnappings. Neither one has any earth shattering epiphanies or undergoes any radical transformations, but then I would have felt cheated if they did. Rather, each begins to understand the other a little better; each has her perspective opened a few degrees wider. After all, that’s how these things really happen, isn’t it?
Kathleen Kern has captured the surrealism, the ironies and the absurdities of the current Middle East conflict. But she has also captured it’s living sights, sounds, and smells. Most importantly, she has captured its people in all of their vibrant paradox and seeming contradiction. And to top it all off, she’s given it all to us in a whopper of a good story.