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Harbor by Lorraine Adams
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Sep 13, 2005 | ISBN 9781400076888

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  • Sep 13, 2005 | ISBN 9781400076888

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"Captivating. . . . Intricately plotted and beautifully written. . . . A remarkable act of artistic empathy." —The New York Times Book Review"Luminous. . . . Heart-stopping. . . . Adams draws her characters with compassion and humor." —The Washington Post Book World “Razor-sharp. . . .  A vivid, fast-paced entry into an immigrant’s story that is part thriller, part social commentary and at times darkly funny. . . .Terrific.” –The Miami Herald “A great, gutsy first novel. . . . Outstanding.”–Entertainment Weekly Deeply introspective and tantalizingly beautiful. . . . Harbor is one of the best new novels of the year.”–The Baltimore Sun“Complex, vibrant, and imaginative . . . as compelling as it is necessary.”–Esquire"Endlessly fascinating. . . . Convincing and utterly compelling." —Time"Mesmerizing. . . . A ripping read. . . . A heart-rending cautionary tale of American justice gone awry." —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Remarkable . . . brilliant. . . . Compelling and haunting. . . . Adams creates an exquisite tension in a character who is at once unseen and yet hunted, both estranged from society and deeply enmeshed in a complicated social order. . . . [Harbor is] a work of art that lifts the veils of many of our assumptions that have formed since 9/11.” —Boston Globe"[A] great, gutsy first novel. . . . Outstanding." —Entertainment Weekly"Fascinating. . . . [Adams] writes convincingly from within the hearts and minds of her characters. Though topical, the narrative flies well beneath the headlines." —The Oregonian"A chilling story of identity and loss culled from real-life experiences. . . . A cautionary tale that asks readers to be open-minded. . . . [Adams] never loses sight of a story that alternates between incredible moments of joy and sadness." —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review "Insightful. . . . Adams adds welcome shading to the usual portrayal of the war on terror." —U.S. News & World Report “A disturbing tale where suspicion is enough to trump innocence and the consequences of naivet? are potentially disastrous. . . . Adams humanizes the terrorist threat and convincingly shows how a confined worldview can breed generalizations that may hatch tragic consequences." —San Francisco Chronicle“Brilliant. . . . A strong and disturbing book.” –Annie Proulx, Book-of-The Month Club News “Adams displays a gift for detail and character that takes us fully inside the complex systems of survival, kinship, and religious ideology which form Aziz’s world.” —The New Yorker“Adams is a sharp observer of the current war-on-terror politics. [Harbor] counters the media’s easy perceptions in our age of xenophobia by immersing readers in the depths of myriad characters.” —The Dallas Morning News"Mesmerizing. . . . A timely and grippingly written book, Harbor helps give the war on terror a human face." —People “Adams drags her characters through the wheels of fate and makes them sing . . . . [Her] sentences move with speed and visual economy, but also contain poetic beauties. . . . A compelling story with great characters–timely, suspenseful and profound.” —Ruminator Review“A powerful look at America through immigrant eyes that is not only timely but essential in our post-9/11 society.” —Ft. Worth Star-Telegram“[Adams] writes with verve and is so convincing that it often seems that this is a true story instead of fiction . . . A story about complex interaction between human beings of greatly differing cultures, written by an author of enormous talent.” —Deseret Morning News


Los Angeles Times Book Prizes WINNER

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Lorraine Adams

Q: Before writing Harbor, you worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for 11 years. Is it true that Harbor grew out of investigative reporting you were doing for the Post?
A: Yes. I was assigned by the Post to cover the FBI and Justice Department in 1999. As part of that beat, I wrote about a terrorist plot planned by Algerians in Canada near the turn of the millennium. That conspiracy involved an Algerian who came over the border near Seattle with a trunkload of explosives he intended for Los Angeles International Airport. The FBI believed that the plot was wider than this young man, and they launched what was then the largest counterterrorism investigation on American soil. The Post assigned me to investigate the FBI probe. It was to be an anatomy of a counterterrorism dragnet.

I began by looking for Arab Americans who had been arrested by the FBI in the weeks after the young man’s arrest. I immersed myself in the Algerian communities of the United States and Canada. I wrote a story focusing on one Algerian who had pled guilty to conspiracy to support terrorism, using his case as a way to explore how the FBI handled counterterrorism investigations. The FBI was overly dependent on technology such as wire-tapping instead of human intelligence. Its rudimentary understanding of Muslim and Arab politics often led it to place innocent people under surveillance while the guilty, too difficult to track, went undetected.

Q: Tell us about your protagonist, Aziz.
A: Aziz flees to the United States as a stowaway in desperate circumstances. He is one of the people in America that we see but don’t think about much–he gets by as a gas station attendant, a dishwasher, a house painter, a deli worker. He has the usual grab bag of immigrant deficits–no English, no legal identity, a homeland lost, a permanent sense of dislocation. What makes his story unlike others about exile is terrorism. Terrorism drove him out of Algeria; it finds him in the presumed sanctuary of America. I don’t want to get too deeply into the plot, so I’ll leave it at that.

What I can say is that I began writing Aziz’s story after the Sept. 11th attacks. He grew out of my frustrations with the conventions and limitations of newspapering. So much of what I knew about the Algerians I had met was a radical departure from the prevailing journalistic narratives I had read about young Arab men drawn to terrorism. I had a childhood friend die in the twin towers, and I saw the World Trade Center burning in the minutes just after the attacks, so I was also motivated by a desire to try to understand what to so many seemed beyond understanding.

Q: How did your work as a reporter help you as a novelist?
A: Journalism has permitted me to invade people’s privacy. It opened worlds otherwise closed. I was schooled in the experiences of other people in a way that was distinctive. When you know a friend, you can’t report out their lives, interview their critics and admirers, check what they say against written records. You don’t get to say, “Hey, you said this, but your brother says something else.” Reporting is a circling over time that acquaints you with what someone wants to believe about who they are and what they appear to be to others. My reporting often elicited confessions and confidences that people did not want published. I honored them; those unwritten disclosures accumulated in me.

Most of the young men I tracked for the terrorism project were distrustful at first. I was too. There were language difficulties. There was prejudice against women. One told me later he thought I was an undercover FBI agent. But I drank enough tea on living room floors and hung out enough at kitchen tables, gas stations and front stoops that I began to see them, and they me, in ways neither of us expected. I started taking Arabic classes; their English developed. So much–their intonations, the suits they shoplifted, the women they loved, the poetry they read–I saw or heard. Word traveled in the Algerian community that I wanted to hear their stories, not only about how the FBI treated them, but what they left in Algeria, and who they believed among them were terrorists and who was not. I got calls from federal jails, pizza parlors, pay phones–as far away as Vancouver and as close as Brooklyn.

Q: Harbor opens with Aziz hiding in a tanker hold from Algeria to Boston for 52 days, jumping into the icy waters of the Boston harbor and swimming to shore. The title refers to the Boston harbor–is this common in real life? What is life like for Algerians to make them choose such harsh conditions to flee?
A: It was common for Algerians during the 1990s to stowaway on tankers headed for Boston harbor. Youth unemployment there had reached 41 percent. Aziz’s was a generation of ennui, disappointment, and disenchantment. After more than a century of rule by France, Algeria became independent in 1962. Algeria, like Egypt and other Arab countries in the post-colonial period, devolved into one-party rule under a corrupt elite. In the face of economic misery, the government failed to provide basic social services. It was in this atmosphere that Islam, which was a unifying force during the revolution against colonial rule, reemerged. Its attraction was a practical one at first: it was the mosques that subsidized food and housing. The devout and increasingly impoverished middle class, betrayed by the ruling elite, gravitated to a new Islamic party. Drawn too were urban and campus youth–Aziz’s contemporaries. The governing class, to pacify growing unrest and demonstrations, legalized the party. The party began modestly by winning local elections, but then in 1991 national balloting, a strong showing led the military to intervene, outlaw the party, and postpone the second round of elections, which the party was predicted to win.

A decade of civil war followed. With party leaders in exile or imprisoned, the remains of the movement advocated violence, arguing democratic means had failed to bring change. The military government responded in kind. As in any civil war, civilian casualties were rampant. The government called these attacks terrorism. The militant Islamic elements accused the government of torture and murder. Women, children and the elderly were the victims of atrocities committed by both sides. Amnesty International has documented human rights abuses committed by security forces, armed groups and militias armed by the state. The government acknowledges that between 100,000 and 150,000 civilians died between 1992 and 2003, but restrictions on information have made it impossible to confirm details about the identity of the victims or how they died.

Q: Why is the story set in Boston, where the suspected terrorist cells in the novel are located (instead of New York or D.C. for example)? In what time period is it set in relation to the actual terrorist attacks of 9/11/01?
A: This is a work of fiction, so there is no exact date for the events described, but they are set sometime between 1993 and early 2001. Boston is the setting for several reasons. I think of Boston as the cradle of liberty, a hallowed place in the idealized American history of the nation’s founding. Boston harbor is familiar to every school child as the location of the Boston tea party, a protest against colonial subjugation. These young men jumped into the same harbor out of a desperation for freedom not unlike the motivating spirit of the American experiment.

Q: In probably the first novel of its kind since the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, Harbor delves into the lives of suspected terrorists–where and how they live, what they think of America, among others. What is life like for them in America? Do they find it better than Algeria?
A: There are Algerians from many strata of society in the United States. Some are stowaways. Some are petty criminals. Some are middle class, highly educated and have stable jobs and families. One of the goals of Harbor is to avoid generalizations in favor of the individual. There are many young Muslim Arab men depicted in Harbor; they are each singular. They create the life they lead. They are not inexorable victims of circumstance. The imaginative force inherent in anyone constructing a life is more bluntly revealed when someone is a refugee, but is common to all of us. Having said that, one of Harbor’s central predicaments is that what these young men fled in Algeria finds them in the United States.

Q: Is this the goal of the novel–for the reader get a unique view of the people we call "terrorists"? (In other words, you show them in a much different light than we’ve ever seen them before–what are you hoping the reader takes away? Personally, as I read it, I sympathized with almost all of the characters–and found the ending quite ironic, especially that the circles around the subway stations translated into, for the FBI, targets for terrorist attacks.)
A: My goal is not to defend terrorists, but to attempt to give voice to the interior lives of young Muslim Arabs who may or may not become terrorists. It is something of an exploration, yes, of that set of common essences people tend to call “their humanity” when talking about marginalized and despised populations. Some excommunicate terrorists from the human. But terrorists, as the cliché has it, are made not born. They are with us and among us. I believe in the value of trying to understand that which threatens us. Understanding is not a substitute for action. It is, however, part of any enlightened rational mind.

Q: Without giving too much away, a part of the story centers around a U-Stor-It locker. Could you sum up why this is so important in the novel?
A: In the simplest terms, the U-Stor-It is where the characters stockpile what they need to conceal. Its contents are alternately and simultaneously comical, sinister, plain to the eye and unknowable. You’ve heard of a cabinet of wonder–the 17th century forerunner of the modern museum, a repository of oddities. We are even more aware of the Freudian subconscious, a storehouse of unexamined, unsocialized repressions. The U-Stor-It of Harbor incorporates these ideas. It functions also as the presumed locus of all the answers to the characters’ questions about who they are, who their friends are and who their enemies might be.

Author Essay

A Note from the Author About Writing HARBOR

I write out of necessity. There is no technique. I have no schedule. I believe in nothing about the hows and whys of writing other than the organizing clarity of desire. What does that feel like? For me, it is first fierceness about a story’s importance and then, over time, a self-abnegating allegiance to a story’s being told. It is also an awareness that a story will sink into the dark if I don’t record it. I am partial to orphans. The planet is overpopulated with stories already retold, competent books birthed and well-parented because the writer needed them to assume the identity of a writer. The best story is the one no one wants to hear until after they’ve heard it.

I write about others. Memoir scares me. Autobiographical fiction is my idea of a footless hands-tied purgatory. So where did my first novel come from? Harbor is an act of imagination. I made it up. It’s that simple and yet, there are footnotes. I was a journalist, and I reported on a terrorism plot that resulted in a Washington Post Sunday magazine story. My editor at the time, himself an accomplished non-fiction writer, felt the piece should focus on one individual. Including a second would break with a journalistic convention that one “character” is more powerful and comprehensible for the reader than two. It was not in my interest to argue, but I did, forcefully. My editor cut the second man out.

The excised man stayed with me. He became one of the signposts that pointed me away from journalism. At night, after working on reviews, essays and reported articles, I started putting down his story. I intended it to be concealed writing, a pointless project for only my eyes. It was not quite fiction, not quite fact, not quite polemic; it was a cry.

This unnamed writing at night was like a forbidden lover. It was on my mind all day. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I became a new person when with it. I had no fixed ideas about what it was or where it was going. All I knew was I felt such unbidden sympathy for the characters. Compassion, taboo in daily journalism, was my guiltiest pleasure. I had started with one man’s untold story. After a while, there was a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth–a world. Soon, the original excised man was only inspiration, quite different from the written character Aziz.

I endowed him with what I crave in fiction I read. Aziz is a moral creature with an inner life. He is what Isaiah Berlin calls an untamed human being, “with unextinguished passions and untrammeled imagination.” He is an example of no one thing. He cannot be reduced to an object of derision, satire or scorn. He is conscious, with all of the mysteries and presentiments that brings.

I put Aziz in a novel I would like to read—one that can be read many ways, as Albert Camus put it, “at the same time both obvious and obscure.” I wanted it fleet—no dragging around in sociology, political analysis, cultural critique or brand names. I wanted it generous—a big fat raft of religious faith, farce, sadistic violence, tenderness, nobility and desperation. I wanted prose that took risks. I wanted to be surprised.

These inclinations are with me as I write my second novel. The fierceness, the allegiance—they’re here. I’m not sure completely where the writing is going but I still have the sensation that I can’t help but go.

—Lorraine Adams

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