Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Angie Chuang: Ice Cream In A War Zone

When I went to Afghanistan in 2004 as a journalist, I expected to document the rebuilding of a country devastated by a quarter century of war. I did, producing two newspaper stories and two magazine articles about the topic.

But there was so much that never made it into newsprint or glossy magazine pages. My most memorable experiences in Kabul and the rural village I visited were studies in contrasts: The screech of an F-16 across the dawn while the muezzin’s ethereal voice intoned the morning call to prayer. The ubiquitous odor of seething medieval-style open sewers cut by the heavenly waft of bread from a communal bakery. College women who flung off their burqas at the university gates to reveal flashy, fashionable outfits and voluminous hairstyles peeking out of sheer headscarves.

These were the moments that compelled me to write more about Afghanistan, and about the Afghan immigrant family with whom I traveled. I wrote in first-person, subjectively, without an end in mind, simply because I had to get these stories out of my system. In time, they became my nonfiction book manuscript, The Familiar Hearts of Strangers.

One summer day, while I was immersed in drafting the book, the tinkling music of an ice cream truck drifted in through the open window. I started free-writing; a mad rush of thoughts and sensations about tasting Afghan ice cream in Kabul. I worked backwards: The buttery sweetness of the unpasteurized cream on my tongue. The nostalgic joy of my Afghan-immigrant friend as she recaptured a part of her childhood. The anger she felt when she couldn’t buy ice cream in a Taliban-controlled Kabul, where women eating ice cream in public was banned. The importance of ice cream in a war zone.

Through countless critiques from trusted teachers and fellow writers, many of whom I met at The Writer’s Center, the chapter took shape and also became a free-standing essay. A version of that essay was chosen by Lavinia Spalding, the editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, to appear in the anthology.

I’m glad that the only essay in the book about Afghanistan is about something delicious and playful, because we hear so much that is the opposite about the country. It’s not that the piece – which after all is titled, “Vice and Virtue,” after the Taliban’s brutal Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue – shirks the harsh realities of Afghanistan’s recent past and present. But it is, like those moments that inspired me to write my book, a study in contrasts. Like the ice cream and all it symbolizes, it is foul and fair, heaven and hell – all in one spoonful.

Angie Chuang is a writer and educator based in Washington, D.C. She is an assistant professor of journalism at the American University School of Communication. She was a newspaper reporter for 13 years, as a staff writer for The Oregonian, The Hartford Courant, and the Los Angeles Times. She is currently revising her nonfiction book manuscript, The Familiar Hearts of Strangers, and hopes to have it ready to shop around this fall. Several Writer’s Center faculty / workshops have been instrumental in shaping her project and proposal, in particular Barbara Esstman, Richard McCann, and Shannon O’Neill.

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