From Mormon Idaho, Through Youngstown, to Everyone in Palestine and Israel
How does a book become a bestseller? This question has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, coming in second to the question that tops my list, How is it that some people and communities simply can’t see that their understanding of the world is just seriously flawed? Without a doubt, reading Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover significantly advanced the answers to both questions. Gently placed within every chapter of this memoir are deep life learnings, ones that emerge from Idaho, but relate to my upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio and current residence in Occupied Palestine.
Educated is the story of Tara Westover. Her Mormon fundamentalist parents were survivalists living in the remote mountains of Idaho. She had a difficult life, having to do hard labor in a junkyard, and having to face domestic violence from her brother. Growing up she did not go to school. Her father was so adamantly against educational institutions, including mere textbooks, that even homeschooling was out of the question. He clutched a conspiracy-theory view of the world and lived solely for his faith and to prepare for the day that the State would seek them out. After self-teaching herself as best she could, at seventeen Tera walked into her first-ever classroom. Her amazing journey took her from Brigham Young University (where she graduated magna cum laude) to Cambridge University in the UK and Harvard University. The result of all this was a Ph.D. in history in 2014. Then she wrote her first-ever book, Educated, which became an international bestseller.
At times it felt like I was reading fiction and I had to remind myself that this was a real person and a real-life story. At points, it pained me that someone would have to endure such a lifestyle. Then, I took a mental step back and reflected on the fact that this was not about her specific life, per se, albeit that’s what the book chronicles, but rather it was reflecting on entire communities, in the US and elsewhere, that are living in totally parallel realities than mine.
Sometimes those parallel realities pop up in the nightly news; some of the names I remember are Robert Gregory Bowers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Timothy McVeigh from Oklahoma, Dylann Roof from Charleston, South Carolina, Waco in Texas, and the like. Incidents of American domestic terrorism, mostly white, male, “Christians” from America’s heartland, or some other flavor of violent fanaticism. But these were all short-lived in the news cycle, unlike any act of violence perpetrated by an African American or “Muslim” which are framed to stay in the public’s conscious in perpetuity.
As for Educated, Tara writes, “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.” I could not agree more.
The COVID-19 pandemic has done wonders in getting me back into reading as much as I would like to; this is my silver lining during these troubling times. Having overdosed on reading and analyzing rather heavy-read volumes on the topic of my life focus, Palestine, in all its forms — mandated, partitioned, annexed, occupied, separated, battered, bleeding, and building, I needed a break.
I was happy to receive an email from my alma mater, Youngstown State University (YSU). They were launching their first-ever “YSU Alumni and Community Book Club” and the initial discussion was which book should be the first we all would read. I was too busy liberating Palestine (and Israelis) by writing book reviews for books I was reading on the conflict I did not find time to contribute suggestions, assuming I had any that were not conflict-related which would give those Youngstown Penguins sleepless nights. Educated was the selection.
As much as I tried to use this book to give me a break from Palestine and Israel, I failed. As I swung back and forth between Tera’s Idaho and my Youngstown, Ohio, where we lived near the Amish which gave me a reference point to the story, I found myself landing in Palestine, 6,000 miles away.
My experience reading this book encompassed the message of the book itself. Whatever reactions I was having to the numerous events, I was reading and comprehending them through my lens, one that only I can see in full focus. Likewise, every other reader experienced their reactions based on their lens. Each of our upbringings and ecosystems defines our starting point. Starting points, as Tara proved, can change if we exert enough energy. Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by Israel by a car bomb in Lebanon, together with his seventeen-year-old niece, was a master of this message. He wrote Return to Haifa (A’id lla Hayfa) (1970), among other timeless novels that are well worth reading.
Like many of Kanafani’s novels, they reached readers around the world because they have been translated into other languages. I was pleased to learn that Educated will be translated into 39 languages, including Arabic. Languages, if ignored, create echo chambers for our intellectual assets. We must always seek to read translations to broaden our understanding of others around the world or right next door.
In a GPS Fareed Zakaria interview with the author that I watched after reading the book, she noted that “people who don’t live in the urban centers” of America “are disenfranchised in meaningful ways” and, for many, are watching “parts of the country … dying.” Her cousin shared with her that it seems like the only thing to do in town these days is to “die.” Her words took me to my hometown of Youngstown, one of the poorest and exhausted cities in the U.S., after being one of the beating hearts of America’s industrial core, producing steel; today the area from Central New York to Southeastern Wisconsin, with Youngstown smack in the middle, is coined The Rust Belt.
Tara sought out the source of today’s populism in American by conducting a study on the poorest 25 states, finding that 21 of them had voted for Trump. Populism has a source, she claims, and I would agree. When I apply her train of thought to Palestine, the same results emerge. The further away you live from the urban centers of Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus, the more you find communities that are losing hope at an alarming rate. An additional accelerator in Palestine is the boot of Israel’s 52-year military occupation that is pressing hard on our necks to ensure Palestinians have less than a fighting chance to create a new reality for themselves.
In Jewish Israel, the reality is not much different, just more complicated. In addition to the urban-rural chasm there is a deep religious non-religious tension too; the more degrees that separate you from the Ashkenazi elite, the more you pay the price for a society heading fast to nowhere. Disenfranchised communities — such as Russian Jews, North African Jews, Ethiopian Jews — all entered this country with great personal hopes, but with little, if any, knowledge of the reality that awaited them. Tara has a line in Educated that resonates with me as I think of these neighbors of mine, my people’s oppressors, “I would never again be made a foot soldier in a conflict I did not understand.” I would hope no one ever needs to be a soldier, but history has taught us that to be one blindly leads to untold human tragedy.
So. back to my original question on best sellers and understanding of the world. The publishing industry has always fascinated me. Having engaged in it several times to support friends, I learned the hard way (and after hundreds of unanswered emails) that publishing houses are black boxes, no matter how transparent their website makes them look. Random House’s website for Educated lists these amazing achievements:
#1 NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, AND BOSTON GLOBE BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW • ONE OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR • BILL GATES’S HOLIDAY READING LIST • FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE’S AWARD IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY • FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE’S JOHN LEONARD PRIZE FOR BEST FIRST BOOK • FINALIST FOR THE PEN/JEAN STEIN BOOK AWARD • FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES BOOK PRIZE
NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • O: The Oprah Magazine • Time • NPR • Good Morning America • San Francisco Chronicle • The Guardian • The Economist • Financial Times • Newsday • New York Post • theSkimm • Refinery29 • Bloomberg • Self • Real Simple • Town & Country • Bustle • Paste • Publishers Weekly • Library Journal • LibraryReads • BookRiot • Pamela Paul, KQED • New York Public Library
I chose to reprint these here (Tara’s website lists even more) because this stunning success does not happen because someone merely has an intriguing story. Such stories can be found from the four corners of the earth. Tara’s story is fascinating no doubt, but I assume her education gave her the tools and language to craft it so succinctly. But there must be something more. That something more, I trust, was her securing an agent which led her to a leading publisher. Once a professional publishing house is locked in, the rest is marketing. Tara’s story is the contents that make all this possible, but that hardened, cold, and heartless publishing industry is what brought it to me in Palestine. Publishing houses may frustrate many of us but let us never forget that they bring to someone’s story the vehicle that takes it far and wide.
As for why some communities simply cannot see that their understanding of the world is just seriously flawed, I will delay sharing my thoughts because Educated invoked more upon reflection than that which is gleaned from reading it.
That noted, we are all different and our diversity — all our diversities — should be celebrated. However, diversity cannot be accepted for one group of people to oppress another, no matter what the issue at stake happens to be. We may be different, but we must accept common norms to guide our time on this earth.
Several years ago, the late Polish mathematician from Youngstown State University, Dr. Zbigniew Piotrowski, walked up to me at the Youngstown Arab-American Community Center and shared a bold observation after I delivered a talk on the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom and independence. He said the silver lining of the WWII tragedy, and in particular, the Jewish loss thereof, was that the world reset how it operates; post-WWII, international law (I would add human rights too) became the order of the day to avert a repeat of history. It was as if all the nations of the world pressed the reset button and rebooted with this new operating system, one that obligated all states to respect a set of collective norms, rules, and regulations.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have its silver lining too, in addition to mine. One that brings us all to respect each other for more than the time we are all troubled and staying home. It is past time that all life stories are brought to the forefront in the best way possible, not only in books but by not allowing any single person to wait to die. This is being called by some as The Great Realisation. That message from Idaho would be well worth heeding in Palestine and Israel by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Druze, and all others.