Connie Shoemaker has experienced more than half her life in an international setting. Her interest in Muslim women began with four years at American University in Cairo, Egypt, where her husband initiated a graduate communications program and she combined raising three children with teaching English, writing for Associated Press and other newspapers, and publishing a book of poetry. She continues that interest as co-founder and director emerita of Spring International Language Center and board member of Immigrant Pathways Colorado. She has paired her passion for the Muslim world with her commitment to the value of writing life stories.
The following is an interview with Connie Shoemaker.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
The hope of bridging the social and political chasm dividing America today.
Fear of persons of a different skin color, religion, dress, or political party has burst into a flood of hatred that has damaged the paths that should connect us and is being used by those who would divide us.
The Muslim community is one of the major targets of this fear. Just as knowledge frees us and makes us more able to function correctly, ignorance condemns us to the bondage of fear. I wanted “Taste the Sweetness” to chip away at ignorance by giving readers the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with two Muslim women through the life stories they tell.
Place these two excerpts in context. How do they fit into the book as a whole and why did you select them?
The first excerpt focuses on a pivotal event in the life of Nisren, the Kurdish Iraqi woman who has lived her life under the stress of a dictator, six wars, sanctions, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her husband, an interpreter for the U.S. Army, has received death threats by factions against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. His meeting with a Colorado National Guard member changes the course of the family’s life.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I’ve spent more than half my life in an international setting, including four years in Cairo, Egypt, with my husband and three children. He initiated a graduate program in mass communication, and I taught English as a foreign language and wrote for Associated Press. An additional 40 years of my life have been dedicated to international students and immigrants as I co-founded Spring International Language Center and directed the English as a Second Language program in Littleton, Colorado.
My work with Spring International took me to Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East recruiting students for the program, visiting former students, and fulfilling a U.S. Department of State project on the island of Cyprus that sought to build a bridge between the Turkish North and the Greek South of the country. Yes, that’s a lot of years and, yes, I’m rather old—86 to be exact.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The winnowing-down process. I spent more than 300 hours with Nisren and Eman, encouraging them to tell me their life stories, recording the interviews, choosing the most insightful responses and drafting them into their life stories.
I then tried to create scenes that would vividly illustrate the events in their lives, had them review these and add or subtract from them. Then, of course, came multiple drafts, lots of discards, research into politics of Libya, Iraq, and the U.S., and so on.
The interviews were a joy that I’ll always cherish because Nisren and Eman allowed me to experience their lives through their own voices. I discovered that they, too, benefited from sharing their stories. The process validated their experiences and helped them to reflect on their difficulties and rejoice in their strengths.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I’ve always been an early riser, so I usually go to my office upstairs after breakfast, accompanied by resident ragdoll cats, Sophie and Muffy, who like to curl up under the desk.
When I reviewed the audio recordings, I needed to close the door to the office, so I could listen intently to what Nisren and Eman were saying. When my husband and I were under a 14-day Covid-19 quarantine, I needed to listen to light classical music to take my mind away from the cable news that I watch too frequently.
What’s your next project?
I enjoy writing poetry and have a book of poems, “The Last Good Night,” which I would like to revise and complete with new verses. Immersion journalism is a moniker for the genre of writing in “Taste the Sweetness,” and I’m interested in using the same process to tell the story of the amazing participants from ages 70 to 94 in a Silver Sneakers exercise class. Also, at the back of my mind for several years, has been the story of an American family of five living in Cairo, Egypt, during the 1970s.