Meet: Masha Hamilton

I loved The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton, a book that I accidentally found in a store for pre-loved books and picked up. It was a very different story, told in a very beautiful and sensitive manner. As soon as I had finished reading it, I was curious to know more about the author and the other books that she has written.

A quick internet search showed me that Masha has worked as a high-profile journalist for several years, for major newspapers like Associated Press and Los Angeles Times. Involved in the reporting of the conflicts of war and political upheavals, they made a mark on Masha as well, and find a place in most of the books she has authored. Masha has written five books so far, including The Camel Bookmobile, which is based on a travelling library that visits a remote semi-nomadic settlement in Kenya, and how it changes the lives of the people there.

Masha currently serves as the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. She is the force behind two world literary projects – the Camel Book Drive, which aims at helping the camel-powered library in Northeast Kenya, and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which aims at giving a voice to Afghan women.

I was intrigued enough to drop a mail to Masha, and ask her for an interview. She was gracious enough to agree, in spite of her quite hectic schedule.

Without further ado, here’s presenting to you: Masha!

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I understand that your book The Camel Bookmobile is a work of fiction, based on an actual camel bookmobile that operates in Kenya. How and when did you first get to know of the real camel bookmobile? How did you hit upon the idea of writing a book based on it?

My daughter first told me about the real camel bookmobile, because it was featured in a Time for Kids article she’d read in school. I was in the car with all three of my children, and when she mentioned that the equivalent of a library “fine” was to stop coming to an entire community if one person didn’t turn in his or her books, I suddenly saw the dramatic possibilities. We were actually on the way to our local library at the time, and I began making up a story for my children right then in the car. But as my imagination quickly stitched story lines together, I suddenly realized I might have my next book, so I stopped talking. “What happened next?” the kiddos asked, but I told them they would have to get a book from the library; I needed to hang on to this one, keep it inside, so I could write it. I don’t outline and I don’t want to tell a story I already know; I want to learn the story as I write it, and that’s what I did in this case too.

Please share some of your most memorable moments while working with the real camel bookmobile? How was the entire experience like?

I didn’t actually go see the real camel library in action until the book was finished, sold to a publisher, and in the final editing stages. I have worked as a reporter, and I didn’t want to risk “reporting” this story as opposed to fictionalizing it. Then I went out with the real camel library, joined by my daughter, who after all had given birth to the entire concept for me. It was amazing to be in a semi-nomadic area, and I know we were an oddity–the children would get close to us and touch us delicately with one finger, and I know we sounded different, looked different, smelled different. But what was most moving was once the books came out, they forgot all about us. They were totally caught up in the books themselves.

The ending of The Camel Bookmobile is pretty open, and leaves much to the readers’ imagination. Did you always have that kind of an ending in mind? Is there a sequel in the making, so that your readers can know what happened to Kanika, Scar Boy, Mr. Abasi, Matani, Abayomi, Fi and the rest of the characters?

I typically leave the endings a bit open. As a reader also, I don’t like everything all tied up, and I don’t think that is life. But no, I don’t imagine a sequel. Other ideas have captured my attention.

What is with the ‘mosquito quotes’ in The Camel Bookmobile? Is there a story behind including them in the book?

I wanted to break up the sections with something that would contribute to the timelessness quality of the story, and also to the sense of danger, and would also play with fiction versus non-fiction, since there actually IS a camel bookmobile but my story is made up. All those mosquito quotes are also made up, although they look like I could have found them on Google. After my mom read the book, she called to tell me how much she liked it and she also noted how much research I’d put in to finding those mosquito quotes. “Actually, I made them all up, Mom,” I said. “Oh,” she said, pausing a moment. “Are you allowed to do that?”

Are you working on a book at the moment? Do tell us about the gist of it, in brief. If so, when is it expected to be out? 

My fifth novel recently came out; it is titled What Changes Everything, and I’ve felt fortunate with the reviews. You can read the Washington Post review here. At the moment I’m trying to write something about the emotional experience of the last 16 months working in Afghanistan, but I do have an idea for a novel. Like with my kids, I don’t talk about work in progress, though; sorry!

Tell us about your  The Afghan Women’s Writing Project. What exactly is it?  

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project pairs Afghan women with published authors in the United States for online writing classes in three secure classrooms and then publishes the writing on www.awwproject.org. The idea developed after I saw a videotape smuggled out of Afghanistan in 1999 that showed the execution of Zarmeena, a mother of seven, killed by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazni Stadium in front of a crowd for allegedly murdering her husband.

Watching the videotape of Zarmeena kneeling on the soccer stadium and then being shot repeatedly was heart-stopping. Without knowing any particulars, I wondered if in fact her act hadn’t been criminal, but instead one of enormous courage. I was determined to find out about her.

But few details were available, and this made me realize not only were Afghan women hidden beneath burqas, but their stories were silenced. After many years as a journalist, I had come to believe that telling one’s own story is as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter. In response, I began to learn what I could about Afghanistan, reading books and articles, attending lectures. This interest led to my visits to Afghanistan and, in May 2009, the founding of AWWP.

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Thank you so much for this, Masha!

I hope you guys had as much fun reading the interview as I had communicating with her!

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