At the periphery of war, lingering emotional casualties and conflicts go largely unrecorded. Masha Hamilton, a former Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, knows this firsthand. In her fifth novel, What Changes Everything, the current Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul skips the harrowing details of bombs and body counts in favor of addressing psychological wounds that can be more permanent.
Todd Barbery, an American working with a humanitarian organization in modern-day Afghanistan is kidnapped, not long after he has promised his wife, Clarissa, that he will soon return home. The event creates a domino effect of change in Hamilton's book, as Clarissa struggles in America to keep from reacting with despair to Todd's kidnapping. While Clarissa awaits her husband's fate, she finds a kindred and suffering spirit in Danil, a graffiti artist whose brother died in Afghanistan.
Mothers like Clarissa haunt the story. Mandy's wounded son lost his legs in the war. Stela, Danil's mother, has an epistolary obsession and a bookstore that helps her manage her grief.
Nuanced, complex women are a recurring theme in Hamilton's novels and the way they interact in her books often starts with a question about the human experience.
She was most interested, as a narrator, in showing the strength of the women in her latest book, "in terms of being the ones left behind and maybe being seen as being the strong ones. Each of these women in their own way displays the bravery you have to show very far from the front line."
At the heart of What Changes Everything is the question of "how conflict and war impact you even when you're far from the front line," Hamilton says. "Four of my novels have had war or conflict at the center or the edges." That includes her debut novel, Staircase of A Thousand Steps, which received a starred review from Kirkus.
She chose the title based on its relevance–how moments of terror and intimacy, strength and sadness can change our lives in an instant.
"Mandy is angry but the subtext of what she's doing is that she's mad at her son because he lost his legs," Hamilton says. "She realizes that she's irrational, but she can't help but feel that way. You notice that rational and irrational are irrelevant–we see that with Todd."
If there are autobiographical elements to the work, Hamilton adds, they can be found in Todd's character, with whom Hamilton says she most identifies. In addition to her novels, Hamilton founded two literacy projects–the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Camel Book Drive. The latter emerged in 2007 in the final editing stages of her novel The Camel Bookmobile. As a reporter, she had interviewed street kids in Nairobi and Kenyans devastated by famine and drought.
As a humanitarian, she saw, too, that books were needed, and organized a camel-borne library. Two years later, she started offering a 10-week writing class for Afghan women. "I quickly realized they wouldn't want to stop after 10 weeks," she says, and the writing project was born. (She stepped down as board president at the end of 2011 to avoid a conflict of interest but the organization is still up and running.)
The combination of her writing and service earned her the 2010 Women's National Book Association award, presented "to a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation."
Because she has absorbed years of living in the Middle East, the details that she illuminates give her work a distinct, compelling edge. Instead of seeking catharsis, Hamilton says that she wanted to write more about the domino effect of war in America–not Afghanistan.
"If you're 20 years old, this war has been going on for half your life, and there's a distance to it, certainly in the headlines," Hamilton says. "This violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has left invisible marks on a generation and I don't think we fully understand that yet." What Changes Everything helps illuminate what we often only see from a distance: the challenges of making peace with the past when the wages of war are still being paid in the present.
Joshunda Sanders is a Texas-based writer. She blogs at jvictoriasanders.com.