“A Friendship of Words,” an excerpt by Susan Fletcher

In the old tales, there is power in words. Words are what you use to sum- mon a jinn, or to open an enchanted door, or to cast a spell. You can do every- thing else perfectly, but if you don’t say the right words, it won’t work. If you know how to use words, you don’t have to be strong enough to wield a scimitar or have armies at your command. Words are how the powerless can have power.

— Shadow Spinner

I met Hussein “Elvand” Ebrahimi, founder of the House of Translation in Tehran, through my young adult novel, Shadow Spinner. He discovered it in a publisher’s cata- log, bought it, read it, translated it, then invited me to a conference in Iran. I think he must have been intrigued by the book’s subject matter—the beloved Persian storyteller, Shahrazad. What would an American children’s writer have to say about her? he might have wondered. But I like to imagine that what drew him most, in the end, was that Shadow Spinner is about the power of words.

Elvand had more faith in the power of words than anyone I’ve ever known. He staked his career, his hopes for his country, and his dreams for the world on his belief that the printed word can break down barriers, open us up to wisdom, and give power to the powerless. But I didn’t realize this about him until much later.

Our friendship began, grew, ended in words. It spanned eight years, from August of 1999 to September of 2007. I didn’t meet him in Iran at that conference in 1999 or anywhere else. Ours was a conversation untouched by smile or gesture or tone of voice. There was something old-fashioned about it, like those Victorian letter-writing friend- ships—pre-telephone, pre-jet travel, pre-Skype. There were only words to shoulder the entire weight of a friendship, with its shared confessions, hopes, and grief.

In the early days, there were faxes, sent and received on our ancient, crotchety machine. I had to time everything for Tehran business hours—eleven and a half hours ahead of Oregon, where I live—and even then the damned machine chronically chewed up pa- per and spit out stern little admonitions of my “failure to transmit.” The early words were stiff and formal. “Mrs. Fletcher.” “Mr. Ebrahimi.” “I wish you and your honorable family a merry Christmas.” “I am still awaiting word from the United States Treasury Department.”

Those last words are mine. I had made the mistake of following the State Department’s instructions to request permission from Treasury before accepting Elvand’s invitation to the conference, because my visit might violate the US trade em- bargo against Iran. The answer, finally, was that I could go ahead, but it took so long for Treasury to respond—months and months, unconscionably long—that the visa arrived too late. At the last moment, I had to tell him I would not be there.

Elvand’s next fax read, “Last night, all the guests were invited to dinner. Believe me, I was thinking of you all the time. My friends (writers, illustrators, and especially translators) asked me, ‘Which one is Mrs. Fletcher?’ and ‘Is she coming later?’ But I couldn’t answer them. I was sad. What should I tell them? A little later, they read the answer from my face. Many young adults had read Shadow Spinner in Persian and had come to see you. They wanted to speak about the book and to thank you! There were other writers from different countries, but nobody had come to see them; nobody had read their books.”

I slumped beside the fax machine, head in hands, filled with a strange combination of emotions. Regret, certainly. Why hadn’t I just gone?, and to hell with Treasury! But there was something else, too. Surprise. Or maybe astonishment is a truer word: the first, glimmering realization that my own words in Shadow Spinner had connected me, like it or not, to something extraordinary happening halfway around the world.

 

About the Writer

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Susan Fletcher is author of ten novels for young readers including Alphabet of Dreams, Shadow Spinner and, in 2013, Falcon in the Glass. Among her books’ numerous honors are the American Library Association’s Notable Books and Best Books for Young Adults lists. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her at: www.susanfletcher.com.