Q&A: Jeanette Windle
What do you get when an award-winning, globe-trotting journalist writes a fiction novel about Christian converts set in the turmoil of war-torn Afghanistan? You get Jeanette Windle's heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding, and beautifully - painfully - realistic suspense novels Veiled Freedom and Freedom's Stand.
WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION DRIVING THE STORY IN FREEDOM'S STAND?
Freedom's Stand is above all the second half to the story that began in 2010 Christian Book Award and Christy Award finalist, Veiled Freedom, set in contemporary Afghanistan. In Veiled Freedom, three unlikely allies came together on Kabul's dusty streets in their own personal quest for truth and freedom. Beyond an engrossing story, Veiled Freedom addressed the critical question of what is true freedom (true freedom cannot be bestowed on another people through arms or an aid package, but only through individual hearts transformed by coming face to face with Jesus Christ). Which led inevitably to the question Freedom's Stand addresses. Once you've found true freedom in Isa Masih [Jesus Christ], how far will love carry you in sharing that freedom with others? In Afghanistan that is a far from rhetorical question.
Ironically, the real-life story that most inspired Freedom's Stand had not yet happened when I began writing it, though conditions on the ground in Afghanistan were such I knew it was only a matter of time. By the time Freedom's Stand headed to print, Red Cross therapist and war amputee Sayed Mossa was but one Afghan Isa-follower who had found himself on death row for his faith under the current Karzai regime. Though back-door deals recently brought about Sayed's release without every addressing the freedom of faith issue, other Isa-followers with less public press remain on death row in Afghanistan. Meanwhile Sayed himself is now exiled from his country as a condemned apostate. My motivation in writing this sequel to Veiled Freedom was not just to finish the story of Jamil, Amy, and Steve, but to raise a voice for my brothers and sisters in Christ behind bars or suffering unjust persecution for their faith, not only in Afghanistan but across this planet.
OVER THE COURSE OF WRITING IT, WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST DURING THE JOURNEY?
What I found most shocking and discouraging was how little has changed in Afghanistan, despite a decade of American and NATO occupation and trillions of aid dollars. People are still starving, beggars everywhere. After an initial freedom, most women are back in burqas. Mud-brick hovels are still the norm, while less than six percent of the country has electricity. Afghans express more concern over the corruption and brutality of local police and government officials than the Taliban, while Islamic sharia law trumps any pretence at freedom and human rights.
Not that all Afghans have failed to benefit. Partially finished aid projects from police stations and schools to power plants sit empty and crumbling from shoddy construction all over Afghanistan. But there are entire neighborhoods of brand-new turreted, gabled and towered mansions, built by the elite who've profited from both the aid windfall and opium boom, too many of them government ministers.
Still there were other facts that give great hope. Isa Masih [Jesus Christ] is indeed changing hearts. Since sharing those facts can place lives in danger, I can only encourage you to read Freedom's Stand, where I've been able to tell some of those stories in fiction form.
WHAT PARTS WERE INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE (EITHER RESEARCH OR EXPERIENCE)?
If fictionalized, all events and bios in Veiled Freedom and Freedom's Stand are from real life. The background of daily life in Afghanistan, especially for women, is all from actual facts and cases. The female protagonist Amy Mallory definitely has characteristics in common with my own biography kicking around the planet in some of its darker corners. One scene that came straight out of my own experience is in chapter thirteen when Amy shares of her heartbreak working with these Afghan children and the difficulty of learning to let go and let them go into the hands of their heavenly Father. That scene was born directly out of my personal experience working with the street kids in Latin America. The true life version of that scene can be read in my blog posting: Where's Diego.
But I also had many 'boots on the ground' involved in the writing of this story, whether humanitarian, military, private security, and Afghan, including Isa [Jesus]-followers who daily lay down their lives in living sacrifice out of love for the Afghan people and the Savior they serve. I can say honestly it has often been their insights and passion for what they do as much as my own that come alive in the pages and various characters of this story.
There is not word count to cover the many personal experiences while in Afghanistan that crept into the story (Amy and Farah's encounter with a male mob in Freedom's Stand, for instance!) But one particular encounter with a female expatriate impacted me personally as much as it did the writing of this story. Despite torrid summer weather, the woman was decorously draped in hair shawl and enveloping chapan overcoat (as was I!). Unmarried and still young, she'd already volunteered several years in Kabul's revived university system. Now as a foreigner, a woman, and known Isa (Christ) follower, she'd begun to receive death threats. Not from mullahs or Taliban, but fellow professors and male students whose very livelihood and education were being funded by Western aid dollars.
I asked her thoughts about the future of Afghanistan. Did she see things as getting better? Would democracy and freedom eventually ooze out of this mess on its own as Western embassies fantasized? And what did the current deteriorating situation presage for the safety of volunteers like herself? I will never forget the look in her eyes as she paused for a long, silent moment. Then, calmly, quietly, she answered, "It's going to come to the shedding of blood."
She paused again before adding just as calmly and quietly, "And I'm willing for that blood to be mine." In that simple statement, her quiet courage and willingness to lay down her life for others, I found the hope I'd been seeking for my story, the theme of sacrificial love that threads through both Veiled Freedom and Freedom's Stand.
WHY DO YOU THINK STORY IS SUCH A POWERFUL WAY TO COMMUNICATE TRUTH?
I actually began as a journalist, but branched out to fiction in part because I was sitting in the middle of stories too big—and sometimes too sensitive—to tell in any non-fiction format open to me. What I love about writing fiction is the tapestry it offers to weave together countless scattered threads—historical, political, social, spiritual—and the very real people involved, to create a single impact, a single focused spiritual theme. While the books I write are fiction, the peoples and places and issues they bring to life are only all too true.
In the process of jumping from journalism to fiction, I learned firsthand that a well-written story can be far more powerful than a simple imparting of data. The reason is actually simple. An imparting of unadorned knowledge touches our mind. But a good story touches not only our minds but our hearts, engaging our emotions, our whole body and soul. We can assert mentally that something is true. But a story can carry us into a world where that truth lives so that we feel the pain of the oppressed, experience in ourselves the joy of friendship, the darkness of injustice, the hope of right winning out in the end. Or the despair of evil emerging triumphant.
Jesus used story to convey spiritual truth (just read the parables). But I love the fact that Scripture itself gives us the first example of Christian fiction. (and this is for all of you who love reading a good story and have ever felt guilty about it). The story is a familiar one in 2 Samuel 12. David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and conspired to kill her husband Urias. The prophet Nathan appears before the king and begins to tell a story of a rich man who want to celebrate a feast, but instead of slaughtering one of his many sheep, he takes the only sheep of his poor neighbor. It seems at first straight-forward non-fiction journalistic reporting. Certainly the king takes it as such. It is only when the furious king orders the man’s execution that we discover that the story is fiction.
“You are that man,” the prophet declares and goes on with the spiritual application. Which gives us history’s first clear definition of Christian fiction: A story, hopefully well told, designed to communicate a spiritual truth with the purpose of affecting change in the life of the hearer—or reader.
WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
I'm working with Tyndale House Publishers right now on final rewrites of my latest novel, Congo Dawn, set within the current humanitarian crisis and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeast Ituri rainforest.
Its tagline in one sentence: If absolute power breeds absolute corruption, what happens when a multinational corporation with unlimited funds hires on a private military company with unbridled power, especially in a Third World nation where governmental accountability is only too cheaply for sale and the ultimate 'conflict mineral' is up for grabs."
The spiritual theme it explores: How can a world filled with such darkness, injustice and pain be the creation of a God of love? What value beyond our own comprehension might human suffering possibly hold that a loving Creator God permits it to continue?