Gayle Lemmon Wants to Show You That Entrepreneurs Are Everywhere|
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who spent a decade as a journalist with the ABC News Political Unit, published The Dressmaker of Khair Khana in hardcover early in 2011. The success of the book-and its instant place on every woman’s “Girl Talk” bookshelf-has led her publisher to release a second edition in paperback this week. Gayle’s experiences in the Middle East (our favorite acronyms on her resume: FT, NYT, and IHT) and her position as a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations have allowed her to create a tableau of Afghan life pre-9/11 that reframes the way that Americans think of that period in Afghanistan’s history.
The Levo League sat down with Gayle between sessions at this year’s The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Women in the World Summit. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana deals with very complex issues-war, the political and civil rights of women, and economic hardship- in a way that has universal appeal. Who’d you have in mind as your intended audience?
My idea was that this should be a universal story. It could be anywhere-it just happens to be in Afghanistan. It’s about diversity, family, faith, and challenge. It’s also about changing the way that we look at women in an incredibly difficult environment. You don’t have to care about women or Afghanistan to love the story. It’s a family story, a war story-and war stories belong to women as much as they belong to men. We just never think of them that way.
Women who are making a difference are not a myth. There are women all over the world creating jobs, creating opportunities-this is something that isn’t an exception. Most women are not victims. There are so many all around the world-and they’re half the population.
You made a conscious decision not to bombard your audience with war imagery.
Part of the challenge with Afghanistan is that n one has ever explained to the American public very clearly why this war matters. People have made it
There are stories of incredible grace, resilience-the best of humanity alongside the worst. You have to give them a story just to show them the universality. You could have born in Kabul as easily as you could have been born in Kansas City. Young girls do great things every day, and no one pays attention-and I wanted to tell this story in a way so that if you are 17 or 77, you can relate.
Is that why you chose a dressmaker instead of a freedom fighter?
It all comes down to family. People survive-and their survival instincts is what brings about humanity amid adversity. There are so many women in Afghanistan who have been stripped of every right-but who are the sole surviving breadwinners, even when they couldn’t be out on their own streets. Despite these things, they were the ones responsible for making sure that those around them didn’t starve. These girls defy every victim image that we have.
Kamila, your main character, has a turning point in your narrative-she goes from raising extra cash for her family to defying death and the risks of life in Kabul to create a large-scale set of opportunities for her neighborhood.
We talked about this a lot. Kamila was always looking for a bigger way to participate in her society. It started with wanting to be a teacher-then taking care of her family, and then her neighborhood.
It’s almost impossible now to remember how isolated Afghanistan was. And Kamila had the opportunity to work with international organizations when almost no one did.
Hunger and ambition and drive are the same no matter where you go in the world. Young girls see a chance, and they go after it like no one else. It was very hard for Kamila-but she took those risks.
The character of Kamila shows so much diplomacy-is that a prerequisite for survival in wartime?
Kamila learned the diplomatic skills she uses with Talib operants during her time in Lycee Myriam, where she brokered the dresses she made. She learned how to interact with them, how to be tactful and barter with them.
One of the main messages of the book is ‘Do as much as you can for as many as you can.’ Doing great things isn’t easy. If it were easy to do great things, everyone would do them. You do things that are big, and that are challenging-anybody can do it. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; anybody can make a difference. Creating jobs is creating jobs. It isn’t easy; but look at these girls-they stood up and they decided to do something. And in many ways they did it because they had to; but they also did it because they could.