A stirring novel set in Afghanistan about two women—an American aid worker and her local interpreter—who form an unexpected friendship despite their utterly different life experiences and the ever-increasing violence that surrounds them in Kabul.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Gwen Florio about her novel, Silent Hearts. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
What I found interesting about the book is that the tension takes place after the events of 9/11, yet the book press doesn’t explicitly capitalize on that. I was wondering if that was intentional?
Yeah. 9/11 obviously is what launched everything that happens in this book, and I wanted to touch on it, but move quickly beyond to the aftermath.
The book is instead billed as a story between two women—an aid worker (Liv) and a local interpreter (Farida). . . One of the refrains of the book is a saying Farida learns from her sister which is: “You are stone. You are ice.” What is the necessity of women developing this type of armor? And what is it in response to?
I think it’s really important to have that defense against the daily panoply of everything bad that happens to you, and every way you’re reminded you’re a second class citizen: that you don’t matter, that you don’t have ownership of your actions, that you can be punished horrifically for very slight misdeeds at any moment. You have to always be on guard; if you let yourself feel all of that I think it would destroy you. I think in some ways you have to build that exterior and that shell. I think women in every culture do that to an extent.
That’s right at the end of the book it acts a bit of a contagion and Liv adopts it, herself. Can you speak to why an American woman would need to become stone and ice?
I think everyday life tells you that. But again, we’re so fortunate here in so many ways because largely, but not particularly, we don’t worry that a misstep is going to get us killed. Except we do worry. I’m always bugging my partner about this: “You never think twice about walking down the street at night. It just is not a factor in your life, whereas for us you’ve got to be on guard." It’s smart to be on guard. That makes me a little crazy. Largely we don’t have to worry about it in the way women over there do.
One of the things I loved about talking with women there is that we really bonded with things like taking care of kids and being exhausted, and having a job. Then you come home and your kids are saying, “Feed me! Talk to me! Play with me!” . . . There’s that universal thing that goes on between women and then also the unspoken acknowledgement that there are threats and they’re real.
You’ve reported on the Columbine school shooting, what does reporting on violence do to your understanding of the human condition?
Wow, I think if I think about it too much I would despair. Columbine really affected me—it was my second school shooting to cover—and at the time I thought, “Oh my God, who has to do two of these?" We also thought at the time, "It will never get worse than this. This is the most hideous thing I can imagine: kids shooting each other." It was really tough on me because I was living in Denver at the time. I had teenagers in high schools in the general Denver area so it felt way to close to home.
There was just that sense this is the worst story I will ever cover. There were times I wanted to get out of journalism because of it, and then 9/11 happened and Columbine felt like a little baby story by comparison. So, you talk about it with other reporters who cover those things, and you swap experiences. I don’t think other people understand unless they’ve been through it. Our experience is just a tiny, tiny inkling of what the people directly involved go through and I can’t even imagine what that must be like.
About the Book:
In 2001, Kabul is suddenly a place of possibility as people fling off years of repressive Taliban rule. This hopeful chaos brings together American aid worker Liv Stoellner and Farida Basra, an educated Pakistani woman still adjusting to her arranged marriage to Gul, the son of an Afghan strongman whose family spent years of exile in Pakistan before returning to Kabul. Both Liv and her husband take positions at an NGO that helps Afghan women recover from the Taliban years. They see the move as a reboot—Martin for his moribund academic career, Liv for their marriage. But for Farida and Gul, the move to Kabul is fraught, severing all ties with Farida’s family and her former world, and forcing Gul to confront a chapter in his life he’d desperately tried to erase. The two women, brought together by Farida’s work as an interpreter, form a nascent friendship based on their growing mutual love for Afghanistan, though Liv remains unaware that Farida is reporting information about the Americans’ activities to Gul’s family, who have ties to the black market. As the bond between Farida and Liv deepens, war-scarred Kabul acts in different ways upon them, as well as their husbands. Silent Hearts is an absorbing, complex portrayal of two very different but equally resilient women caught in the conflict of a war that will test them in ways they never imagined.
About the Author:
Gwen Florio grew up in a 250-year-old brick farmhouse on a wildlife refuge in Delaware and now lives in Montana. Currently the city editor for the Missoulian, Gwen has reported on the Columbine High School shooting and from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. In 2013, Montana, her first novel in the Lola Wicks detective series, won the High Plains Book Award and the Pinckley Prize for debut crime fiction.