Author Naseem Rakha became the only American on the UK’s coveted Richard & Judy’s Book Club list with her book, The Crying Tree. Her debut novel explores issues connected to capitol punishment, mercy, self-reflection, atonement, and forgiveness.
GalleyCat caught up with Rakha for an interview about the book club, the incarcerated, and the human ability to forgive.
Q: What was your reaction about receiving recognition from Richard & Judy’ s Book Club in the UK?
A: They’re very nice people … I had to go off of what my British publisher, they were absolutely off the charts and so excited. They were telling me, ‘Naseem, this is the Oprah-equivalent in the UK.’ Of course, I had never heard of Richard and Judy. So I was delighted, it meant I got to see London for the first time. And as I started researching them and researching what this meant and learning that The Crying Tree was the only title they chose from the United States at all. I was really really stunned and incredible honored.
Q: You started off as a journalist; someone whose goal is to write factual stories. What inspired you to write a fiction novel like The Crying Tree?
A: What inspired me were two separate events. One was covering the [Douglas Franklin Wright] execution, it was the first execution Oregon held in more than thirty years. At the end of that task, after Douglas Wright was executed, feeling like I didnâ€™t have enough material to tell the story the way I wanted to tell the story. I really wanted to convey to people all the different ramifications, all the different ways people are affected by capitol punishment.
Essentially, as a reporter we were given props; we were given very scripted press conferences to attend. We were shown all the different equipment that it would used to execute a person, all the different procedures and laws. But, the emotional content of the story wasnâ€™t available to us. How did it really affect victims? How did it affect the condemned? How does it affect other prisoners? How does it affect the people who have to do the job? So that was one real strong motivating force; to one day tell that story.
And in the process of following that up with other interviews; I interviewed lots of different people including Sister Helen Prejean, men who had been on death row, some of them for more than a decade and were later exonerated. But then I met a woman in my own small town who introduced herself to me as someone who was just taking a drive from San Quentin where she was visiting someone she knew on death row. When I inquired about her friend she said, “Oh, it was the man who murdered my daughter twenty years ago.”
I was just really struck by the idea thatâ€¦you know Iâ€™d met victims that were living for the day that one day they would get to see the man who killed their mother or father or some loved one die. They were living for that. You could see how that hate was just eating into them physically, mentally, spiritually. Here was this woman who said, “I’d been on that road and I was waiting for that execution. I was living for it as well. But, I came to a point where I couldn’t live with that hate anymore and I forgave him. And now, we’re friends.”
That was such a remarkable arc to me and so incomprehensible at the same time. My son was three-years-old at the time and I couldnâ€™t comprehend forgiving, let alone calling someone who might kill him a friend. I wanted to understand it. So, I thought perhaps the best way for me to understand it was to do that through fiction and just create characters; walk with their walk with them to see how can it happen, does it happen, what does it take.
Q: What is your opinion on rehabilitation versus retribution?
A: The original word for ‘penitentiary’ came from the word ‘penitence'; to consider and think about what youâ€™ve done to society and to make amends for that. Just last week, I spent 3 hours with 45 men; all of them murderers and all of them who have read The Crying Tree. We sat in a chapel in the prison; there were no guards in that room. There was just the clergy, myself, and these men.
It was absolutely the most intellectual and heartfelt conversation with any readers so far and Iâ€™ve met with dozens of reading groups. These men would ask me questions such as, :Well, we’ve studied what the Koran has said about forgiveness and what the Bhagavad Gita says about forgiveness and what the Bible says and what Buddha says. What have you learned about forgiveness?” And then they would start telling me their stories.
I leave these places absolutely humbled and stunned. I have such a sense of compassion for people who everyone else has given up on. There’s so much they have to offer the rest of the world because theyâ€™re looking so deeply into themselves and what theyâ€™ve done wrong and how can they possibly every forgive themselves for it let alone be forgiven. My book leads to that conversation.