Why Deborah Baker Is Not Janet Malcolm

Posted on | May 24, 2011 | Comments Off play online blackjack ipad

I had a very short review of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker in Sunday’s issue of The Daily, but given the constraints of both space and technology, I figured I’d embellish here.  The Convert is, superficially speaking, a short biography of Maryam Jameelah, formerly Margaret Marcus—a Jewish convert to Islam who became famous for her religious tracts denouncing the West.  It’s an engrossing story, and one worth reading for its sheer unlikelihood, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d landed in a Janet Malcolm book gone awry.

Deborah Baker happened upon Jameelah’s story as she was browsing, with no particular direction, in the archives of the New York Public Library. I know this because Baker narrates The Convert in the first person, interspersing Jameelah’s letters with her own efforts to make sense of her subject.  (That Jameelah donated her papers to the Library before she moved from Larchmont to Pakistan says a lot unto itself about the extent to which she cultivated her own myth.)

Everything from the subtitle to the jacket copy—“a profound meditation on the roots of terror in our age of dread”—to Baker’s account of her own experience of 9/11 sets The Convert up to be an inquiry into the nature of radicalism.  There is merit to Baker’s claim that Jameelah’s life “went straight to the heart of the heated debate over the notion of a divide between Islam and the West,” but her hints at a causal link between Jameelah and the rise of a radical Jihadi ideology in Pakistan remain no more than hazy imputation.  If anything, Jameelah is symptomatic of a militancy that was already gaining traction in the wake of Partition.  The problem is that there are really two narratives at work in Baker’s book: that of Margaret Marcus’s journey to becoming Maryam Jameelah, and that of her rapidly declining mental health.  As the New York Times review pointed out, Baker refuses to answer her book’s central mystery: “Was Maryam Jameelah a schizophrenic? I couldn’t say,” she hedges.  What Baker does tell us is that Jameelah left the US for Pakistan as a way to avoid institutionalization, and that she was eventually committed again in Pakistan.

That Jameelah is, if not schizophrenic, at least some kind of serious crazy, makes it harder to figure out how literally to take her conversion narrative (not least because Baker almost never quotes from her many books, rendering it difficult to gauge their force).  Of Jameelah’s break with her mentor, Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the leader of Pakistan’s Islamist faction, Baker writes, “Every narrative possibility turns on a question of character.  In this case, the characters of Mawlana Mawdudi and Maryam Jameelah.  I could imagine any of these as possible scenarios”—Mawdudi and Jameelah gave differing accounts of why she was thrown out of the Mawlana’s home—“but before I could advance any further, there was one more question I was obliged to consider.  Which one did I secretly want to be true?”

The way the storyteller’s biases disrupt and distort the delivery of information has been Janet Malcolm’s obsession across several books, most recently Iphigenia in Forest Hills, which originally ran in The New Yorker. What Malcolm does so well, and so singularly, is to build suspenseful narratives even as she tears down the architecture that props those narratives up.  It’s a high-wire paradox that uses the presence of the journalist or biographer within the story to undermine the objectivity, and thus the legitimacy, of journalism and biography.  And yet somehow, the very fact of a narrative’s unreliability, in Malcolm’s hands, recalls us to what makes a story so fascinating in the first place.

In writing herself into the book, Baker seems to be up to similar tricks.  Alas, she is not nearly so deft as Malcolm.  Baker makes us yearn to see the truth but can’t seem to find it; Malcolm shows us that the truth isn’t what’s interesting.  It would be dishonest of me to claim that Baker didn’t hold my attention, but my growing sense of frustration with her methods—the incessant reliance on rhetorical questions, the portentous chapter endings—was validated when I turned to the “Note on Methodology” at the end:

Though I have called this book ‘a tale,’ The Convert is fundamentally a work of nonfiction.  However, unless her words are accompanied by quotation marks and a specific citation, the actual and imaginary letters of Maryam Jameelah do not appear here as she wrote them.  As I make clear at the close of the book, I have rewritten and greatly condensed these letters… Throughout these reconstituted letters, I have tried to retain Maryam’s distinctive voice, one that often came more easily to me than my own… Some readers might find this unorthodox, others may well feel misled.  In my defense I can only say that faced with the particular puzzle and the letters presented and the moment in history when I found them, I tried to use them, as Maryam Jameelah herself often used them, as a way of making narrative sense of her life and my response to it.

Count me among those feeling misled.  It seems sketchy, at best, to save this revelation for an appendix.  As a simple story, that of how Margaret Marcus became Maryam Jameelah, The Convert is a gripping read, but Baker’s desire to hold her entire biographical enterprise to account backfires.  Sometimes rhetorical questions need answers.

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