Soft Hearts, Hard Places

I’m in Toronto this week for the Canadian-er of my two winter residencies as a U. King's MFA student (next year, we go to NYC). I love these little snippets of time when I’m physically in the presence of my classmates. For a few days, there is nothing but passion and perseverance in every direction. We couldn’t have more diverse interests and projects. The sparkling eyes and fast chatter, warm pressure of welcoming hugs and eager questions about how things are going—those we share.

For me, it’s also a time to be reenergized about the task I’ve set for myself. Although I pitched my book to my fellow students, the faculty, and our mentors back in August, this week marks the first time that I will pitch directly to decision makers in the publishing industry. Right now, it’s less about getting the book picked up (although that would be delightful) and more about learning how to get in the door and what to say once we’re there. I’m scheduled to speak with Jen Knoch, from ECW Press, and Michael Guy-Haddock, from HarperCollins Canada. I’m really excited to hear their suggestions about how I might improve  my pitch, which will also inform the next revision of my written proposal. And I look at this as one more chance to explain what’s happening to Mr. Khánjání and, through him, the Bahá’ís in Iran.

He—and they—are always in my head. Above my desk at home, I have a corkboard wrapped in brown paper appropriate for wrapping packages and tying with string. Between my spare car keys, a few pins, and a small dreamcatcher, there are grainy reminders of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Right in the center are the smiling faces of the seven arrested together in 2008, including Mr. Khánjání, just below a tablet from 'Abdu’l-Bahá, written in the early 20th century, which reads in part: 

"Do not think that ye are forgotten for one moment! 'Abdu’l-Bahá is at all times remembering you with infinite love and kindness and supplicates assistance and favor, at the Threshold of Oneness… Become ye not sad on account of any calamity, neither be ye broken hearted by any trials. Be ye firm and steadfast…”

Several years ago, a folk singer from New Zealand put the first bit of that quote to music, imagining the experience of an Iranian Bahá’í prisoner kept in solitary confinement and then shown an unexpected act of kindness in the prison yard. During my 10-hour train ride on Saturday, that cycled through my earbuds and made me wonder whether Mr. Khánjání has any awareness of what I’m doing. I imagine, in a physical sense at least, he doesn’t. Even if word made it to his loved ones in Iran, gently phrased due to phone and data taps (which are assumed if not outright known to be in place on Bahá’ís there), visitors to the prison might be turned away on the weekly visiting day (because Bahá’ís are not guaranteed the right to receive visits as other prisoners are).

Somehow, thinking about that led me to the cats of 'Akká. Initially introduced to deal with the extraordinary rat problem of a 3,000-year-old, seaside walled city that was used as a prison for several hundred years, the felines have overrun the squares and plazas. As pilgrims visiting the prison block, now a museum, where the Ottoman Emperor ordered Bahá’u’lláh and his family incarcerated more than a century ago, we were reminded not to feed, pick up, or pet the cats. The furry little guys (and gals) challenged our resolve on all fronts. These hearty street cats place themselves quietly and adorably alongside humans who might have a little smackerel of something to share and then wait to see who has the softest heart.

I suppose that’s my take on the whole pitch process. I am generally acknowledged to “have a story,” as people say in the industry. In other words, the topic is viable and could plausibly be a book-length venture. That's true of each of my classmates' projects, too. So I see my job being to float my story out to anyone with the power to amplify it and explain why I’m the one to tell it. The question then becomes who, in the corporate world of publishing, has the softest heart. Who will be willing to stand with me and speak into the open air: "Do not think you are forgotten..."