Monday, May 19, 2008

Strange Inspiration

Debbie Rodriguez (Kabul Beauty School) spoke at the Literary Festival in Kansas City this weekend. Barb and I wandered into the main stage tent, not sure who she was or what she'd written. In moments, we were riveted, held fast to our seats by a mixture of fascination and skepticism.

Debbie is what is called in polite company a "strong personality." My perception, quickly formed, was that the biggest thing standing between her and obnoxious is her ability to laugh at herself. She's large (not in terms of her body but of the psychic space she requires) and loud, perfectly represented by the dyed red hair cascading down her back to her knees.

We walked away in total agreement: "That woman did not write a book on her own."

Anyone who attends readings very often can tell you that not all great writers are great—or even decent—readers. Many are terrible public speakers. Years ago, Bryan and I attended a year-long series of readings. Of the twelve incredibly strong writers who spoke, only Rebecca Wells, a trained actress, held the audience with the power of her presence. The others kept us in our seats with the power of what they had written, and some barely, at that.

So it wasn't that Debbie didn't speak well. In some odd ways, she did. But watching her mind work, listening to the way she described things, people, and situations, I did not believe that her powers of observation and description alone produced a memoir people would pay to read.

Not surprisingly, Amazon and Google revealed 1) a co-author, and 2) huge controversy. The controversy involves how much credit she takes and how much she deserves for establishing the school, whether some of the individual stories told in the book are true, and whether the book endangers the Afghan women described in its pages.

The book was a best seller and the movie rights sold for "high six figures." Things tend to fall apart when boatloads of money pull up to the dock. I have no way of knowing where the truth shakes out of all that.

But here's the thing I'm left with: Kristin Ohlson, Debbie's co-author, is a talented, multi-faceted freelance writer. She has written everything from scientific articles to essays for Salon Magazine. Plus a book of her own, Stalking the Divine. Her life has not been easy. She raised a son who has substantial neurological challenges and an NT daughter. She and her husband divorced after 22 years of marriage.

One essay that appeared in Salon, "Faith in the Baby" is as good as any I've ever read. Another from Brain, Child, "Big Words," rocked my world.

Kristin inspires the hell out of me. Reading her essays taught me huge things about writing and about living. I may not know much about the controversy surrounding Kabul Beauty School, but I can tell you this for sure: Kristin Ohlson is the real deal.


Doubting Thomas said...

If there's anyone who should be able to recognize "the real deal" it's you.

You're writing wonderfully at the moment, as these last few pieces prove.

"The real deal" is that place in between the media whores and monster egos, and the pretentious snobs who sniff at anything that speaks to the heart of real people.

And that, my dear, is your territory. Keep the faith.

Michelle O'Neil said...


I just read Stalking the Divine and subsequently Ohlson's Faith in the Baby article last week! I absolutely loved them both.

Great post, and I agree with Doubting Thomas. Takes the real deal to know one.

Jess said...

Thanks for sharing about this. I had heard both names and been curious about Kabul Beauty School, but now I know where to start.

Wish I could've gone to that event with you, sounds great!

mamatulip said...

Hey, what happened to the post about the nickels? That was fantastic.

Amber said...

Funny! I have this book on my Amazon wish list. Now that you say it is so good, I will put it in my next order. ;)

I have a hard time with people like the author you saw. I know what you mean about the space they take up, energy-wise... I tend to be very sensitive to people, and people like this drain me, you know? Nothing against them personally, it is just the way I have always felt around them. Like I need a nap.


Amber said...

I was talking about Stalking the Devine, not the beauty school one.


Deb said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I'm on my way to read Kristin Ohlson. It would have been great to be sitting next to you and Barb during the talk. =)

kario said...

Ditto, Deb.

Love how the raw reality of some people makes them better writers and the audience can sense it....

riversgrace said...

This is beautifully written, J, and beautifully articulated. What a great tribute. I look forward to the read.

And I'd love to see more essays from you!