Part mystery, biography, memoir, history, narrative nonfiction escapade, Deborah Baker’s The Convert doesn’t fit in any one category. Like its subject, Margaret Marcus/Maryam Jameelah, the book is a misfit. And like creative nonfiction should, it poses questions, and in wrestling with those questions, it jigs loose more questions, bigger questions, questions that tie you in knots, give you an unscratchable itch, or maybe incite you to hurl something not unlike a hardback volume across the room. In any case, it is a book you want to discuss.
First, you probably want to discuss Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, an American Jew born in Westchester County, New York. After coming of age during the postwar period, she converted to Islam, dubbed herself Maryam Jameelah, rejected America to spend the rest of her life in Pakistan, and became a well-known figure in the Islamic world. According to author Deborah Baker, Jameelah’s books “continue to influence the way the Islamic world thinks of the West—America in particular.” Her writings have been described as “broadly responsible for cementing the global cultural divide between Islam and the West.”
With your next discursive breath, you’re liable to want to cover Jameelah’s transformation from Peggy Marcus. In the lead-up to Jameelah’s relocation to Pakistan, land of her dreams, you’ll chat about Marcus’s commitments to New York psychiatric hospitals:
Margaret Marcus was not the sole misfit in the 1950s asylum. Artists, poets, homosexuals, communists, and unhappy housewives joined her.
Like them, Margaret found it impossible to comply with those little understandings, those slippery accommodations that made the world she was born into run smoothly.
Thus, outcast from the world into which she was born, Marcus sought another. In Islam, she found a world ruled by rigorous discipline, strict obedience of moral law, and struggle in service of the faith—the “one true path” from which one strayed not by the width of a single burqa thread. And through Islam, Marcus found Abul Ala Mawdudi, your next likely topic of discussion.
Celebrated throughout the Islamic world for his writings on Islam as well as his advocacy of an Islamic political order, Mawdudi invited the outcast American woman to live in Pakistan as his adopted daughter. This came about through correspondence initiated by Marcus before she officially converted but after she had begun publishing essays in English-language Muslim periodicals. Once she arrived in Lahore, Mawdudi discovered that her brand of crazy was more than he and his family could handle. He foisted her onto loyal followers before committing her to a Pakistani madhouse. One of his loyal followers, however, smelled money in her madness and took her as a second wife, thus springing her from the asylum, fathering her children, and continuing to support her as she published book after book rejecting the West’s evil ways.
Before you go much further, you’ll want to pause—as the author does throughout—and ask some questions. How and why did Islam become the remedy? When examining Margaret/Maryam’s life choices, do you look only at cultural biases (Islam vs. the West), or do social biases (lunacy vs. sanity) enter the frame as well? What was really going on between Mawdudi and Margaret/Maryam? It purports to be Margaret/Maryam’s story, but isn’t it just as much Baker’s? Ultimately, the lion of the desert’s share of your questions could address the author herself, specifically the author’s motives and methods. For this you might blast straight to page 225, “A Note on Methodology.” More often than not, if creative nonfiction authors have a disclosure, they often fess up in the end material, and Deborah Baker has just such a disclosure. But let’s say you’re in a linear mood, and you don’t like to read a book’s end material until warranted; that is, until the end.
Baker’s story begins in the New York Public Library archives, where she discovers the “Maryam Jameelah Papers,” containing letters Margaret Marcus sent to her parents, as well as her published articles. As the Pulitzer-nominated biographer tugs at the thread of how a woman like Margaret Marcus became Maryam Jameelah, eventually following that thread to Pakistan, she finds that small questions only lead to larger ones. The author writes:
Anonymity is my vocation. I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them. Behind the doors of my study, I wear them like a suit of out-of-date clothes, telling their stories, interpreting their dreams, mimicking their voices as I type. I find myself most susceptible to those tuned to an impossible pitch, poets and wild-eyed visionaries who live their lives close to the bone. Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls; unearth dramas no one would ever think to make up.
That is, until Baker attempts to sound the innermost chambers of Maryam Jameelah, who, it turns out, punctuated much of her own drama with made-up scenes, made-up props, and made-up lines.
I felt like a carpenter who, while he is dutifully milling old boards, sees his saw bite on a hidden nail, sending splinters flying in all directions. Only then did it occur to me that I had made the same mistake [Mawdudi] had made. From a series of letters I had conjured an entire being. I imagined I knew Maryam Jameelah.
A Brooklyn-based writer, Baker continues to follow the Marcus/Jameelah thread for personal reasons stemming from the 9/11 attacks. In the end, as she discloses in “A Note on Methodology,” she finds she must condense and rewrite Jameelah’s letters in order to make sense of Jameelah’s life, and to investigate certain questions about the world, as well as her own mindset. “Some readers,” Baker says, “might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled.” You, on the other hand, might see this as one more way the author inhabits Jameelah’s life, mimicking her voice as she types. Either way, The Convert will give you lots to talk about.