Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal/Theological Notebook: Two Articles, one on Molly McNett's writing, one on Iraqi Christians

Two articles noted. The first is one Mom grabbed from the Chicago Sun-Times to bring up to Thanksgiving dinner at Uncle Bill and Aunt Helen's, and is about a girl I knew in high school, Molly McNett, turned award-winning author. I didn't really know her: she was a senior when I was a freshman, one of the leaders in our exceptional vocal music program while I was still a plebe, so maybe it's better to say that I knew of her: we probably barely had ever spoken. I was more friends with some of her guy friends from choir, with her younger sister Katie, and with her dad Mike McNett, who was one of the guidance counselors who would faithfully kick my ass just when I needed it, for which I'll always be grateful. (On a trivia note, he was also the officially Most Painful Singer I've ever met, through no fault of his own: his "party trick," to call it that, which I remember him explaining to me once, was that he had a tear of some sort in his vocal cords, which gave him a cool, gravelly speaking voice, but which also resulted in his hitting two notes at the same time when he sang. If he had hit a third or a fifth, so that he was always harmonizing with himself, this would have been beyond cool. Alas, it was more a half step up, and C and C# together continually just isn't cool, no matter what the 20th century composers might want to sell you.) Anyway, so it was interesting to see what Molly had been up to and the success she is enjoying.

The other article is more the norm for the sort of things I'll jot down here, in this case being an article on the ongoing destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity in Iraq. The persecution of these people, already heightened in the last generation by the rise of militant Islam, has been awfully exacerbated since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Those who survive the attention of their neighbours are being scattered across the globe, which is no formula for the survival of a culture.

Writing was on the wall: So mom-to-be Molly McNett made dream come true with workshop, award-winning collection
Some fearful Christians hope to flee Iraq

Writing was on the wall
CHICAGO LIT | So mom-to-be Molly McNett made dream come true with workshop, award-winning collection

November 23, 2008

Improving her writing skills wasn't the only reason Molly McNett applied to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. There also was this nagging feeling that life as she knew it was "about to be over."

McNett was pregnant with her first child when she applied to the prestigious program, a longtime dream that was fading fast.

"I just thought I'd see if I could get in," McNett said. "The surprise was that I did. I didn't know what to tell them when they called."

Iowa wouldn't let McNett defer the program, but it did offer to help her manage the new mother situation. She drove the 2½ hours from her home in Oregon, Ill., once a week, cramming all the coursework into that one visit.

"It was actually a great way to be a new mother," McNett said, laughing. "Most of the time I was in this sleep-deprived stupor, and then once a week I got to feel like a normal person again."

McNett's hard work paid off in her first collection of short stories, One Dog Happy, which won the University of Iowa's 2008 John Simmons Short Fiction Award.

McNett says studying with writers such as the late Frank Conroy and Marilyn Robinson was a great honor. "Just being in their presence was inspiring," she said.

The seven stories in One Dog Happy are dark and sometimes disturbing. McNett has a gift for witty dialogue that gets right to the core of a situation. There is much disillusionment in the lives of her characters who seem at times right out of a Flannery O'Connor landscape.

In the collection's best story, "Catalog Sales," two young sisters cope with the pitfalls of adolescence while also dealing with their father's mail-order bride.

The older man-younger woman situation is something that both bothers and fascinates McNett.

"I've wondered why it's acceptable, why it's considered something approaching normal," she said. "I thought using the point of view of someone who's trapped inside of it without a choice might be an interesting way to explore it."

McNett and her husband, writer Dan Libman, and their two children, 10-year-old Ben and 6-year-old Madeleine, reside on her family's farm in Oregon.

After living in Chicago and other cities, moving back to small-town life was a big decision.

"I love the city, so I'm always kind of divided," McNett, 42, admitted. "Oregon is where I grew up, so I have a connection to it. But it's also pretty isolated. We thought we'd only stay for a while but it's been 10 years and we're still here."

McNett studied acting at Illinois State University and briefly worked with several Chicago theaters before turning to writing. She wrote a few plays, but it wasn't until she met Libman (he hated theater and actors; she was instantly fascinated) that she turned to fiction writing.

"Dan was writing short stories, and I knew I wanted to go in the direction of fiction," she said. "He helped me figure out what form that would take."

The couple continues a friendly battle over writing time; there's a "constant tension" hovering over them.

"But because we both write, we understand each other and understand what's important," McNett said. "But that doesn't dispel the fact that finding time to write is a constant source of frustration. I think it must be that way for anyone who writes."

McNett pulls many of her story ideas from the community in which she lives. She laughs when asked if this is another source of competition with her husband.

"We're kind of isolated and that can be challenging for a writer," McNett said. "So when we get a new neighbor or there's a big storm, we just look at each other. Who's going to take it?"

Both McNett and Libman teach freshman English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. She feels this back-to-the-basics class is a perfect side job for a writer; teaching creative writing takes too much of the same energy needed to do her own writing.

"With a creative writing class, you read a lot of other people's stories. So when you come to your own work, I think you feel kind of depleted," McNett explained. "What I'm doing now is teaching how to use a colon and a semi-colon."

McNett is now working on a longer piece that may be an interconnected story cycle, or it may grow into a novel. She's not sure. She does know that after 10 years of writing fiction, her interests have changed.

"I like the stories in the collection but I feel I'd never write anything like that now," she said. "When you get older, you get a better perspective on what it is to suffer the disappointments and the losses that are part of life. Now I'm more interested in the complexities of middle age and the challenges and delights in having a good marriage."

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times features reporter.


By Molly McNett

University of Iowa Press, 118 pages, $16

Some fearful Christians hope to flee Iraq
Nov 25, 12:01 PM (ET)


TAL KAEEF, Iraq (AP) - Young Christian women in tight jeans mingle easily with Arab matrons draped in black, head-to-toe robes. Both church spires and mosque minarets rise above the low-slung houses. Violence is rare.

"The people here look out for each other - Arabs, Christians, Kurds, Yazidis. If all of Iraq was like this, it would be a great place," said 1st Lt. Jeremy Glosson, leading a U.S. Army patrol through Tal Kaeef's medieval-like alleys.

And yet, many Christians here say they want to flee a town where their ancestors have lived for generations and, if possible, to abandon a country where their religion has survived for some 2,000 years - longer than in Europe - but one they fear is growing ever more violent.

"Nobody is threatening us, but it's still dangerous. All the Christians want to leave. I want to leave now," said Robert Esho, a 35-year-old resident, reflecting a national community on nerve-edge, where even small-scaled incidents can spark panic.

Last month, in the nearby northern city of Mosul, about 10,000 Christians by government estimate bolted from their homes after several killings and intimidating incidents, generally believed to have been carried out by Islamic militants.

Most recently, their fears were heightened when gunmen attacked the home of a Christian family in Mosul, killing two sisters and wounding their mother. The attackers booby-trapped the house and an Iraqi policeman was injured in a blast when he came to investigate, U.S. officials said.

Some Mosul residents are filtering back, but others are living with relatives in the safer countryside or have sought refuge in neighboring Syria despite government pledges of financial support and protection.

The recent flight of Christians occurred against a backdrop of violence against the faith.

Churches, priests and businesses of the generally prosperous, well-educated community have been attacked by militants who denounce Christians as pro-American "crusaders" - a reference to the European knights who warred against the Muslim Middle East in the 9th through the 11th centuries. Some Christian women now wear Islamic veils for fear of being set afire or killed.

In an exodus which began after the 1991 Gulf War, and escalated dramatically after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has lost more than half its Christian population of some 1 million.

In Mosul, now Iraq's deadliest city, this year opened with coordinated attacks on churches and monasteries as Christians celebrated Epiphany. The body of Paulos Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, was found in March following his abduction by gunmen after a mass.

"Over the last six to seven years we have endured only tragedy so the future may prove to be just like the past," said Youell Adam al-Reekami, owner of a dry goods store here whose brother lives in New Zealand. Some relatives left for Syria two months ago.

Tal Kaeef, with some 20,000 people, has been largely spared the worst violence, having made an effort to isolate itself from Mosul, some 12 miles to the south, and retain its traditional tolerance.

The town includes many of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups - the Kurds, who dominate Iraq's northernmost provinces; much-persecuted Yazidis, adherents of a faith that combines ancient beliefs with elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; Christians of several ancient sects; and Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority.

It is encircled by a defensive earthen wall erected in recent years and protected by Iraqi forces and Kurdish militia, said Glosson, a platoon leader with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Huntsville, Ala. Violence in general is rare here, with Glosson and police saying there were fewer than six incidents in the past year.

But Tal Kaeef has not been able to cloister itself from the general atmosphere of fear.

When a car bomb exploded this summer at the town's police station, Christian families living nearby fled their homes in the mistaken belief that they had been the targets, the lieutenant said.

And last month, some 200 Mosul families found refuge here, further fueling anxiety. These included Hanny Kamel Nasser, his wife, five children and other relatives, who fled to the town after his cousin was killed by gunmen in Mosul "just because he was a Christian."

Nasser said he was more afraid of the climate of violence in Iraq than the religious divide between Christians and Muslims.

"There is just no law in this country. Judges won't sentence criminals because they are afraid," he said. "How can there be a future here, in a culture like this? "

Nasser said he wants to sell his vehicle repair shop and move his family to where many are fleeing - villages farther north and west in Nineveh province which are predominantly Christian and protected by the Kurds and even their own armed guards. Some Christian groups harbor what is probably a hopeless dream: carving out an autonomous zone in this region.

"It is all terribly sad," said al-Reekami, talking of the diaspora of his people and Tal Kaeef's deep Christian roots.

Down a narrow, winding alley crowded with square, stone and mud houses with high walls and inner courtyards - variously reminding Glosson's soldiers of medieval Italy and biblical times - stands the imposing Church of the Sacred Heart of the Chaldean Catholic Church, some of whose members still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, and recognize the authority of the pope.

Others in the town adhere to the Ancient Church of the East of the Assyrians, descendants of an ancient empire who converted to Christianity in the 1st century A.D., six centuries before the coming of Islam.

"We used to live as one family. Here is my neighbor and brother, an Arab. And here is my Kurdish friend," said al-Reekami, gesturing toward two old men, who both nodded assent. "I have known some of these people for 50 years."

Nasser described how his Arab neighbors stopped masked intruders from trying to break into his house after the family fled. Others from his al-Saah neighborhood told assailants, "If you want to kill the Christians you must kill us first."

Maher Jebraeel Asmar, who returned to Tal Kaeef from Detroit to help his pregnant wife with the process of entering the United States, also expressed hope.

"If the situation becomes better, if there is safety, my family will come back," he said. "It's our country. We have lived here for centuries."
Tags: books, christianity, eastern orthodoxy, high school, interreligious, islam, middle east, oregon illinois, personal, theological notebook, writing

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