Alesa Lightbourne has been an English professor and teacher in six countries, lived on a sailboat, dined with Bedouins, and written for Fortune 50 companies. Born in Carmel, California, she now lives in Santa Cruz, where she loves to boogie board and (of course) ride a bicycle.
Interview with the Author
Where did you get the idea for The Kurdish Bike?
One day, the person who inspired Pat’s character said, “I’d really like to read a book about what happened to those friends of yours in the village.” I’d been grappling with how to start writing about my experiences in Kurdish Iraq. Her comment gave me a zap of inspiration. Suddenly, I could see how to tell the villagers’ stories from a teacher’s viewpoint. Then I just couldn’t stop writing.
How much of the book is true?
My goal was to include as many true incidents as possible, without endangering any of my friends, or compromising confidentiality agreements with my employer. I wanted the outside world to have a glimpse of Kurdish culture, and hopefully come to love and respect it as much as I do. Many of incidents really happened, if not to me then to people I knew, although not necessarily during my stay in Kurdistan. I had to rearrange timing quite a bit to get everything to fit.
How about the characters? Are they real?
They started out being real, because this began as a memoir, not a novel. But I had too many people for the reader to keep track of, and had to meld many characters together. Then, to my surprise, the characters started acting on their own, saying things and making decisions that their real counterparts had not. Suddenly, I was writing fiction, and the whole project transformed.
Did you face any ethical challenges while writing the book?
The biggest was around the issue of female genital mutilation, FGM. It’s something that women there don’t talk about, yet which is an integral part of their cultural identity. I wanted to raise awareness about FGM, because most of the world doesn’t realize that it is still practiced in Kurdistan. At the same time, I didn’t want to embarrass my Kurdish friends, or make them look backwards to the outside world.
This was especially true given the current political situation. At the time of publication, mid-2016, the Kurds had been getting a lot of good press from the West, given their heroics in fighting ISIS. And it looked possible that there might even be a chance for Kurdish independence, if only in Northern Iraq. Thus, I was hesitant to write anything that might endanger their cause. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wanted to do whatever I could to protect future generations of Kurdish girls from FGM.
At the end of the book, Pat criticizes Theresa for wanting to save the world and assume long-term responsibility for her Kurdish friends. How did this play out in real life?
Well, let’s just say that I have committed a portion of the proceeds of this book to go to my friends in the village. Their situation is dire right now, and they are subsisting on almost nothing. Although I agree that Westerners should not become enablers of Third World people, or create unnecessary dependencies, I also know that my Kurdish “family” would give me absolutely anything, were I to find myself in need. Plus, without them I would never have had the material for a book, nor experienced the genuine love that they extended to me with no expectation of gain.
How did you learn to be a writer?
My undergraduate degree was in anthropology from University of California Santa Cruz, a major that required extensive writing about other cultures. I started publishing stories and articles in 1979, while living overseas and raising young children. Earning a masters in creative writing and literature at the University of Washington (the program is now an MFA) gave me a strong technical background, plus an enviable group of peers for critiques. Then I ran my own corporate writing business for 20 years — the ultimate crucible for increasing self-discipline and reducing ego. When a large company is paying you by the minute, and deadlines are measured in hours, not weeks, you learn to stop whining about so-called writer’s block and produce.
Some readers might argue that there’s an anti-male slant to The Kurdish Bike. Do you agree?
Not at all. The book talks a lot about the cultural oppression of women in Kurdish society — as well as the way that many American women still allow themselves to be controlled by men. These are systemic issues, not individual ones. I tried to portray both positive and negative characters of both genders, and of diverse cultures, so that not all men or women (or Kurds or Westerners) were necessarily either bad or good.
Further to the gender topic, the person who deserves the most credit for making this book possible happens to be male — my ever-supportive, understanding and remarkable husband, Richard.
Do you have questions for Alesa Lightbourne? Send her an email.