In 1961, the day after her 27th birthday, Margaret Marcus, a middle-class Jew from Larchmont, N.Y., converted to Islam. A year later, she left her parents’ home for Lahore, Pakistan, to join the household of the Mawlana Mawdudi, an Islamic political leader and ideologue seen by many as the unwitting father of militant Islam.
In Pakistan, Marcus became Maryam Jameelah and, adopting her mentor’s two-camp worldview consisting of observant Muslims and everyone else, went on to become a seminal Islamic critic of the West. Yet radical conversion is but half The Convert’s story. The other is literary biographer Deborah Baker (A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, 2008, etc.), whose astute meditations on struggles between East and West and bald inclusion of her discovery of Jameelah rivetingly push the envelope of biography to new heights. Kirkus asked this Pulitzer Prize finalist to discuss the many sides of Jameelah’s spellbinding tale.
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How long did it take you to write The Convert?
I discovered the letters of Maryam Jameelah to her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus, in the spring of 2007 in the Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library. Later that year I travelled to Pakistan, arriving in the middle of the state of emergency. Then Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and I put the manuscript away too unsettled to think about it. I didn’t really return to it until the fall of 2008, when I began a fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. By the end of the fellowship I had a draft—but only the first of many.
I notice on the Kirkus site that this work’s subtitled “A Parable of Islam and America.” If that was your original subtitle, how do you see this as a parable? Is the parable the fact of your subject’s troubled life, or your attempt to interpret it?
That was the original subtitle. I rather liked the idea of a parable. I always thought of Maryam’s story as a variant on the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, though of course there was nothing at all prodigal about her, nor did she ever return home to America from Pakistan. I also liked the idea of a parable because it suggests that here is a story with a simple moral and—crucially—religious lesson. Of course there was nothing simple about the story, but by the time I realized that it was too late.
Do you think Margaret Marcus would have ventured to Pakistan had her parents not institutionalized her?
When faced with the prospect of her parents cutting off her financial support and leaving on their ’round the world cruise, I imagine she was fearful of being left to fend for herself or being returned to the asylum. At some point she realized that exile was the only way out of the impasse of her life. She also had aspirations to become a voice in the Islamic world, one that would warn the youth of newly emerging Muslim nations of the dangers of a Western lifestyle in general, and an American one in particular.
How did you feel on discovering Margaret had been taking Compazine?
In the 1950s subversives and misfits and outsiders of all kinds were often drugged and institutionalized. I was just coming off writing a book about the Beats and practically all of them spent time in asylums, diagnosed and dosed with something or the other. So I wasn’t really surprised by the fact that she had been placed on tranquilizers habitually prescribed for schizophrenics. It was an old story.
The volume includes copious notes but no bibliography of Maryam’s Jameelah’s published works. Is that a conscious omission?
I was much more interested in Maryam’s letters than in her published ideological works. I do think they should be more widely read and wrestled with in the West. If anyone wants to read her, I’ve donated my collection of her work to the New York Public Library.
Janet Malcolm has classified biographers as writers who “lack dramatic imagination.” Would you agree?
I think biographers are often constrained by the expectation that they will tell the life story of their subjects in a largely chronological fashion. To the irritation of some reviewers, my first book, a literary biography of Laura Riding, tried confounding this. Though overall the book was written in a chronological order, each chapter unfolded like a short story, so that a certain amount of narrative tension was created.
Similarly, if the subject of a biography is well known, everyone will already know the dramatic highlights, the works of genius, the scandals and the inevitable ending. So that leaches the dramatic possibilities—the tactics of plot twists, suspense, surprise endings are not available.
In my last book [A Blue Hand: The Beats in India], I took as my subject an unknown chapter of a well-known life [Allen Ginsberg’s] so as to give myself some dramatic space. Because few people in the West have ever heard of Maryam Jameelah, no one picking up The Convert will know what is going to happen. Even I didn’t know. Janet Malcolm understands all this better than just about anybody I think. I owe a great deal to her.
Many biographers choose subjects they feel are somehow kindred spirits, yet you hold quite different political views and clearly became disillusioned with your subject as you delved more deeply into her life. Did you ever feel Margaret/Maryam’s was a tale you no longer wished to tell?
I try to start every project imagining myself an empty house without the furniture of political views or value judgments to bump my shins against. That way I can bring my subject fully inside my head. The deeper I got into this story, the more I realized that the attacks of 9/11 were too large and too freighted to remove entirely. This appalling event and the appalling War on Terror that followed sharpened both my resistance to and my sympathy for the woman who called herself Maryam Jameelah. By the end, it wasn’t that I became disillusioned with her, than I began to see the extent to which I had made her up.
Maryam and the Mawlana Mawdudi both turned to religion for absolutes, and you yourself say you relish poetry for getting to the “absolute ‘heart of things.’ ” In this convoluted tale, where so much rests on he-said/she-said, what sort of resolution did you arrive at in relation to the truth?
The resolution is in the writing and form of the book. Whether I got anywhere near the truth of the story of Maryam Jameelah and Mawlana Mawdudi is for the reader to decide.