Like many reporters, Foreign Service officers overseas often say they have a novel in their heads that they've been trying to write for years. Patricia McArdle actually wrote hers. A retired Foreign Service officer who has served in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, it was McArdle's final posting in northern Afghanistan that served as her great inspiration.
Her debut novel, Farishta, tells the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat whose husband died in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983. For 20 years, she mourns, she hurts and drinks too much. But then, like McArdle, Angela is summoned to serve for a year in an isolated British Army compound in Afghanistan, where she finds new purpose, new friends and even new love.
While McArdle and her main character share many experiences, she decided against writing a memoir; she wanted to protect her associates still in the country and to reach a wider audience. "There is a good deal of me in Angela although she is a completely fictional character," McArdle tells NPR's Scott Simon. "... I also drew on the experiences of other female foreign services officers and journalists that I met or heard about while I was in Afghanistan."
One story in the novel was inspired by an experience McArdle had while on patrol with British soldiers. In very remote areas, McArdle noticed groups of Afghan children dragging large bundles of kindling back to their homes in the blistering heat — and it got her thinking: "I remembered that I had built a solar cooker when I was a Girl Scout many years ago," McArdle explains. "I wondered if the Afghans knew about solar cooking because they had all this sun and they have no wood." McArdle searched online, and found instructions for building cookers on a site called Solar Cookers International. "The people were fascinated," she says. The story not only appears in the novel, but McArdle now sits on the board of directors for Solar Cookers International.
Not all of McArdle's experiences ended so positively and she hopes her book will draw attention to some of the issues — such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — facing soldiers and Foreign Service officers. While she was never the victim of any direct attacks, the experience of living in a combat zone affected her long after she returned home. "I was afraid to take my dog outside at night for a walk," she admits. McArdle doesn't believe she experienced PTSD, but she says it got her thinking: "What about people, civilians and soldiers who had experienced this? It's quite horrifying because it's all inside, nobody can see it, and you can't explain it to anyone."
In Farishta, McArdle also addresses what she views as the misallocation of American resources. "I really think that in a country like Afghanistan we should be focused much more on sustainable reconstruction," she says. McArdle cites a 2004 Department of Energy report which shows that Afghanistan has abundant natural resources that could be developed. Instead of importing American building and farming techniques, McArdle feels that the U.S. should be working with locals and taking advantage of practices that have been employed in the country for thousands of years. "Afghan farmers are the ultimate locavores," she says. "They grow their own crops, they have very little arable land and they take very good care of it. We should be helping them with organic techniques ... instead of bringing fertilizers and seeds that they'll have to replace."
In the wake of Osama bin-Laden's death, many Americans are calling for the end of the United States' nearly 10-year involvement in Afghanistan. "I can certainly understand that," McArdle says. "[But] having been there, and knowing the Afghan people, I wish we could do a little more to help them. They're wonderful people. It's a beautiful country."