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Deconstructing Terrorism

VCU awards a journalist-turned-novelist for her depiction of Algerian refugees.

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"Because of the strictures of newspaper practice," she says, "the most important things that I knew, I couldn't say. You can look at the story I did write [published in the Washington Post in June 2001], and it doesn't resemble the novel at all. To know how much power was in this story and not be able to tell it was devastating to me." In a novel, Adams believed, she would finally find the room she needed to tell the complete truth.

Using humor and humanity to illuminate situations that are often judged only from the outside, Adams deconstructs today's two-dimensional stereotypes of Arabic men and delves deeply into the nuanced history of their lives. "I'm really interested in things that happen in the kitchen and bedroom," she says. "Even with these men. I was trying to demystify these seemingly undomesticated, violent creatures known as terrorists." Adams skillfully portrays the two lives of the central characters in "Harbor": their real ones and the ones pieced together by the Boston terrorist investigation team.

How was Adams able to make such a tremendous leap across the oceans of gender, culture and language to so believably render the psyches of her central characters? The answer, she says, is desire: "You are driven to be immersed in something and to not be able to let it go. And that's what happened to me. I kept telling myself, I've got to stop caring about this. But I became obsessed."

Even more obsessed after 9/11, Adams began to study Arabic and dedicate herself fully to comprehending the motivations and lives of the men she writes about. Adams knows that she will likely have a smaller readership with her novel than the newspaper, but this does not bother her. "I have reached a million readers on the front page of the Washington Post. But I'd rather reach fewer people and say what I mean."

Because of Adams' background as a journalist and the nature of her book, the English department at VCU is partnering with the School of World Studies and the School of Mass Communications. This is the first time the First Novelist Awards have been co-sponsored since their creation in 2002 by VCU professors Tom DeHaven and Laura Browder. As many as 25 faculty members and students read more than 50 novels submitted by publishers, agents and authors from all over the United States and judged the novels on a rubric designed to evaluate language, plot, ending, vision and originality.

Patty Smith, a creative writing and composition teacher at VCU who headed up the awards, says that not only did "Harbor" score high in every category, but it is also an important book that can help raise awareness in today's political climate. "Aziz's personal issue of not knowing who to trust is a microcosm of our global issue," Smith says. "Adams did a great job of conveying her message without becoming preachy. She doesn't hit you over the head with the lesson, but lets the story unfold." S



Lorraine Adams will read a selection of "Harbor" and then participate in a discussion panel with Patty Smith, local nonfiction author Caroline Kettlewell, Wendi Kaufman (editor of The Happy Booker blog) and a literary agent Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. at the VCU Singleton Center. The event is free and open to the public.

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