Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Jermyn, Lackawanna County
Philadelphia native, Suzanne Fisher Staples brings her experiences in South Asia to books like Shiva's Fire (2000) and Under the Persimmon Tree (2005).
Awards: Newbery Honor
Suzanne Fisher Staples, born on August 27, 1945, grew up knowing she wanted to write. After graduating from Cedar Crest College, she spent nearly a decade serving as a news editor and correspondent for the United Press International. This experience sent her to many countries that later inspired characters and events in her novels.
Suzanne Fisher Staples was born on August 27, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Robert Charles and Helen Brittain Fisher. When she was the tender age of four, she learned to “put a pencil on paper to make words,” and she loved anything physical that had to do with writing—pens, notepads, typewriters. “I began writing when I was a child—diaries, poems. I even started a newspaper,” Staples told Amazon.com, “but I was always most interested in stories.” Growing up by a lake in northeastern Pennsylvania, she was encouraged to write by her grandmother, who, according to Staples, always loved her stories.
Staples attended Keystone College in La Plume, Pennsylvania, and Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she earned her BA in 1967. Her areas of study were English Literature and political science. When she graduated, she knew she wanted to earn a living through writing. Knowing it wasn’t easy to get into fiction writing at the start of a career, she looked for jobs in news reporting. She worked as the Asia marketing director for Business International Corp, and then, for nearly ten years, she served as a news editor and correspondent for the United Press International in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, New York, and Washington, DC. As Staples told Dean Schneider in an interview for Book Links, “My UPI experience gave me the opportunity to live in other cultures and to form the habit of close observation. I have always been interested in why people behave as they do. But until I lived in Asia, I never translated that through other cultures. One of the most important things I learned as a reporter was when not to be afraid.” Following her travels abroad, she worked part-time as a foreign news editor at The Washington Post, but in 1985, she returned to Pakistan as a consultant to the U.S. Agency for International Development to assess the lives of poor women. Since then, she has poured her talent and knowledge into fiction writing.
Although her novels are fiction, the images and characters are based on real stories, real people, and true experiences. Staples said that it’s hard to say where reality ends and fiction begins. Real stories appeal to her because in order for her to care about a story and the people in it, the characters have to seem real. She told Dean Schneider that she also believes in the power of stories to teach people how to live and how to find mystery and magic in the world: “The world is a wondrous, diverse place, filled with more mystery and surprise than we can comprehend in a long lifetime. One of the best places to find surprise and mystery is in the differences among cultures.” She also said that if “a story is good—if it’s art—it will impart something that is recognizable to everyone. It’s this connection that thrills me as a writer—recognizing myself in people whose way of life is very different from mine and sharing the most fundamental and private feelings and hopes.”
Since most of her novels are set in cultures outside of her own, she does a lot of homework to ensure that she portrays the culture accurately and compassionately. Upon traveling to the settings where her novels take place, she studies the weather, such as “the way the sun feels on your skin, the way the moisture nestles in the valleys.” She studies plants, trees, animals, as well as the cultural environment—speech patterns, work habits, relationships, history, food, art, music, literature, and more. She also begins with the stories she has heard from people during her travels. “I combine them and change and rearrange details, so that in the end, they bear little resemblance to the real stories I’ve heard,” she told Schneider.
In 1990, Staples received a Newbery Honor Medal for her first novel, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989). Shabanu, along with its sequel, Haveli (1993), is set in the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan. Shabanu is a coming-of-age story about a young Pakistani woman who realizes that it is not for her to determine the direction of her life; it is up to her father to decide. Haveli picks the story up years later after Shabanu has been given in marriage to an elderly man and has presented him with a daughter. Staples states on her website that almost all of the characters in these two novels are based on people she met in Cholistan. The character Shabanu was inspired by a girl named Maryam, whom Staples met in a settlement named Yazmin. “She was a very fierce, proud, independent girl whose parents had died. She was being raised by her grandmother, and in many ways, she also was the basis for the character of Fatima, and her grandmother was the basis for Auntie Sharma,” Staples said. “The relationship between Shabanu and her sister Phulan probably was based on my relationship with my own sister, Karen.” In a New York Times book review, Maurya Simon said that Staples had “managed to present to her readers an engaging and convincing portrait of an adolescent girl who is alternately bewildered and exhilarated by her changing mind and body. At the same time, the author offers rich and provocative insights into a culture so distanced from rock videos and designer jeans as to seem extra-planetary.”
Her third novel, Dangerous Skies (1996), is not only a shift in subject matter but was also written when Staples returned to the United States and wanted to “make sense out of all her feelings of dislocation” that resulted from the culture shock she experienced. After returning from Asia and moving to the Chesapeake Bay area, she became friends with two neighboring 12-year-old boys—one white and one African-American—who were best friends. By the time the boys reached adolescence, the parents of the white child became concerned with the friendship. The two boys eventually became the models for Tunes and Buck, the two main characters who, despite being raised together, are affected by prejudices. Staples said the idea for the story was also sparked by the fact that she had been living in India and Pakistan and other parts of Asia for many years, and she “expected that racism would be gone by the time she came home.”
Like her first two novels, Shiva’s Fire (2000), a story that centers on a young girl named Parvati who has a mystical aura and a talent for dance, is set in Asia. Drawing Staples to this part of the world is the fact that she lived in India and Pakistan for more than seven years, during which she wrote about and studied aspects of people’s lives. She also spent six years in Hong Kong writing and editing material from all over Asia, including India and Pakistan. “It’s the part of the world I know best,” Staples told Dean Schneider. After living in India for four years, Staples stated on her Website that writing Shiva’s Fire was her attempt to understand Hindu beliefs and how they apply those beliefs to everyday life. “Shiva’s Fire required a tremendous amount of research and two trips back to southern Asia,” she told Publishers Weekly. While researching in India, she interviewed religious leaders to better learn the principles of Hinduism, and she attended a dance school to observe young dancers.
In her fictionalized memoir, The Green Dog (2003), Staples recollects her summer before fifth grade with nostalgic detail. Young, imaginative Suzanne attempts to convince her parents to let her have a dog, only to no avail. Just when she thinks she will have to spend the summer alone, a scruffy, black-and-tan dog miraculously appears at her family’s door. Naming him Jeff, she spends long days outdoors in northeastern Pennsylvania with him, until his mischief causes her dad to lose patience and threatens to send him to the farm. “Staples’ beautiful words and images capture summer’s delicious freedom, and readers will connect with daydreaming, independent Suzanne, who notices everything, fears growing up, and loves her pet with a pure intensity that her parents will never understand,” said Gillian Engberg, who reviewed the novel for Booklist in 2003.
Similar to many of her other novels, many scenes in Under the Persimmon Tree (2005) are based on stories told to her by Afghans. Staples comments: “When I began to hear stories of Afghan civilians killed in American bombing raids in 2001 and 2002, I realized that it was important that we should be able to connect these people with their stories. I hated hearing of innocent Afghans and Iraqis who lost their lives referred to as collateral damage.”
Despite the numerous awards and praise she has received for her work, Staples also has her critics. Both Americans and Pakistanis have questioned her right and ability, as an American woman, to accurately portray the lives of people belonging to cultures with values and traditions so different from her own. According to Lynda Brill Comerford, who wrote a profile of Staples, some Asians were anxious to promote modernization, and they expressed bitterness over Staples’ depiction of poverty and primitive lifestyles. Comerford said, “Once, Staples was even harassed by a Pakistani woman angered by Staples’ novels. After passing out protest pamphlets and accosting Staples at lectures, the woman finally tearfully exclaimed, ‘I should have written that book!’” Staples holds to her view that “an outsider can illuminate the characters and setting in a way that makes things clear, making it possible for readers to understand more about the culture.”
At the time of this writing, Staples lives on a 25-acre farm with her husband, Wayne Harley.
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Haveli. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Dangerous Skies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996.
Shiva’s Fire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.
The Green Dog. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.
Under the Persimmon Tree. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.
The House of Djinn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.
Comerford, Lynda Brill. “Suzanne Fisher Staples: Under eastern skies.” Publishers Weekly. 14 Feb. 2000. ProQuest. 21 Mar. 2006. <http://www.proquest.com>.
Engberg, Gillian. Rev. of The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. The Booklist 100.3 (Oct. 2001). ProQuest. 21 Mar. 2006. <http://www.proquest.com>.
Schneider, Dean. “Talking with Suzanne Fisher Staples.” Book Links 10.6 (Jun/Jul 2001): 35. ProQuest. 21 Mar. 2006. <http://www.proquest.com>.
Simon, Maurya. “Desert Flower.” Rev. of Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. New York Times 12 Nov. 1989: BR32.