Earlier this week, the morning, already dreary from the dampness and rain, brought the news that Leila Abu-Saba had died at her home in Oakland. Cancer finally took her. She had beat it before, but it returned.
It is a familiar, painful story. Eight years ago, my younger sister, about the same age, died after a three-year battle with breast cancer. I write these lines from her house where I’m temporarily staying, and I often remember her in these rooms as she struggled through chemotherapy, fought nausea and dehydration, and watched her world fade. She too had beat the cancer once, but when it returned, she chose to accept the inevitable. Leila, I understand, tried hard to fight it all the way through.
In our family we have often wondered, would my sister have lived if she had resisted? We have always had to face the sad truth: there are no guarantees. Some people do beat it and continue to live — others do not. A fierceness of spirit may help some, but with others it proves inadequate. There is so much that we do not understand about cancer. And yet when someone dies young, it is impossible not to be brought low by the utter unfairness of it all. We’d like to blame someone, something — but there’s nothing to blame. Sometimes death insists on its mystery.
Leila was a friend, but we didn’t know each other that long or all that well. We met in October 2005 in San Francisco, at what used to be called “A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books” on Van Ness Avenue. We were both there to hear Laila Lalami read from her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Leila and I recognized each other from Mills College, but we had not met until then. She was a student in the writing program. By that time I had already graduated from the same program, but I was still working on campus. We exchanged website/blog addresses.
The reading that night prompted me to write a post on my blog, ‘Writing in a foreign tongue.’ Leila Abu Saba stopped by to drop a comment. After that we came across each other now and then on campus, sometimes at the Tea Shop, sometimes on the walkways. She read my blog occasionally, and I remember one small exchange touching on war and violence.
She had said, “War is coming home to us.,” and added, “The homicide rate in Oakland exploded this year, people are killing each other just blocks from where you and I sit in our leafy green enclave—as you know I’m sure.” I brought up the murder of the manager of a Thai restaurant near my apartment, shot recently during a robbery. I wondered aloud: “I try to imagine what goes through a man’s head at such a point when he goes on to pull the trigger. What boils over? How does one human come to consider another’s life so cheap? Is it because he considers his own worthless?” Leila replied, “Re: the Thai restaurant manager—he had asked to keep his green card. I imagine the robber was drug-addled and possibly quite mentally disturbed, perhaps frightened and edgy. Unfortunately I believe that it’s very easy for humans to kill. Make the conditions right and almost everyone is capable of it. For those whose conditions have been all wrong since before birth, killing is no big deal.”
I had wanted to keep the conversation going. I was not persuaded that the murderer was mentally disturbed. I wondered if it was simply his words or the mention of the ‘green card’ that had set something off in the man. But my feelings also had a personal dimension. Some months earlier, a friend and I, standing outside my apartment building, had been held up by a man with a gun. He had asked for our wallets, and we handed them over. I felt the weight of silence. Many a time in life, words had helped defuse tense situations. But this time, I worried about the effect of words. After the killing at the Thai restaurant, I would wonder, if my green card had been in my wallet, would I have asked for it. I might have been tempted. And I still reflect on that grossly unequal equation: a simple question, no defiance, no rage involved, ‘can I’, answered with the pull of a trigger, a gunshot, a life taken.
It seemed Leila and I shared an interest in violence, that we had our own questions and answers, some the same, some not. Later when I read her own blog posts on war in the Middle East, I understood that this concern, to a large extent, came from a personal and family history in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of violence in the last fifty years. I too come from a country that changed dramatically once it had experienced war in 1971. I lived through that war, and I continue to think about its causes, how it went, and its effects on individuals and society. Some gets filtered through in my fiction.
I had wanted to continue the conversation with Leila, but I got busy with my preparations to move away from Oakland. After I returned to Bangladesh, our contacts became limited to infrequent email exchanges.
Then in May-June 2008 we had a flurry of exchanges. On a Mills alumni mailing list, I’d seen a note indicating she was ill. When I asked her, she told me; until then I had not known she had been stricken with cancer. I was encouraged by her resilience, her optimism, and I was especially glad to know that she was surrounded by love and caring.
She wrote about the novel she was working on — she had started her second draft. It was a return novel and she asked for an essay I’d written surveying a collection of ‘return home’ novels. When I sent her the link to the paper, she said: “I saw you commenting today in a blog I got to by following my green obsession into a discussion of Detroit, which also interests me. The random coincidence of discovering your note in such a context prompted me to email you this –I’ve been meaning to ask you about the return novel essay for a week now. Synchronicity…”
Synchronicity? Perhaps, but it emerged from common interests. The distance from violence and war to urban life, the life of ravaged cities—Beirut, Dhaka, Detroit, Oakland—is not far. And out there in cyberspace, in some corners still a small place, you run into familiar people.
I was excited to hear her describe her novel. She said her main character goes back from New York to Lebanon a few years after the civil war — to bury her father’s ashes in the family village, to look for her grandmother’s body who went missing during the civil war, to attend her cousin’s wedding, and mainly to heal a split within herself. She said she might not keep all the story lines, but she felt compelled “to write the story because the religious hatred fueled by political and economic stresses has an echo in America today.” Rightly I believe, she thought Lebanon’s stories of division and war are not that country’s alone but should make us all consider them.
I tagged her email, put a star next to it, intended to write her back. But soon after, a chain of events pushed that intention to the back: a friend’s death, me racing to finish a translation project, then preparing to return to the U.S. from Bangladesh, plunging into revisions of my own novel. I would have liked to talk more with her. But before it could be, I learned from Facebook that she was fading, and soon she was gone.
I had hoped that between fighting cancer and living life, she would manage to make progress on her novel. I knew from one of her own blog posts that she was torn between novel writing and blog posting and other internet activities. I am familiar with the tensions. The internet, her own blog, her wandering around to read and post on other blogs, to argue, to comment — these activities brought her many connections, new friends. After her death, I have read some heartfelt tributes from people who did not know her personally.
She did the best she could. Those of us who are writers are more than that. As her own life weakened, she could not abandon those parts of life that gave her joy and sustenance in other ways. As for the novel, I have heard that others who knew her project well will finish it. In the meantime Leila’s words, the vitality of her being, remain accessible to all of us at her blog Dove’s Eye View. She wrote on family, war, food, travel. I had only read a few before, but I keep going back to read more. My words about her here are inadequate: go find out for yourself what she was like.