In 2013, Oak Park author Emma Gates was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. She has lived in Oak Park for 15 years, moving to the community after her husband accepted a position at the University of Illinois Chicago, and despite a dozen years in a number of writing groups had never published a novel.
But cancer became her motivator.
"I needed to have my children nearby and finish my novels," Gates said.
Her diagnosis, plus the support of physicians, friends, family, and the wider Oak Park community, was a galvanizing force that propelled her to complete not just one novel in the past year, but four — Walking to Israel, Detours, Praying for Rain and Private Lines — with Wells Street Press, located in Chicago.
Praying for Rain, which debuted in April, is the story of a 24-year-old woman named Arden Armstrong who travels thousands of miles away from her home state of Ohio to teach English at the Women's College in Saudi Arabia. She has no certain expectations about the future except making enough money to repay her student loans.
In roughly 300 pages, Arden collides with the strict socio-political norms of Middle Eastern culture yet falls in love with the country and its people while on her journey of self discovery.
The novel is set in 1997, after Operation Desert Storm.
Gates, who worked as an international business and telecom specialist, is no stranger to the Middle East. She received her MBA with a concentration in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, and she worked and lived in Saudi Arabia for five years, teaching English composition at a women's university. Later she sold audiovisual equipment to universities around the Arabian Gulf.
"The [9/11] attacks shocked me into going back to Saudi Arabia in my mind," said Gates. Those memories contributed to Praying for Rain.
Gates said she did not want to directly address issues following the attacks because she lacked the ability to get deep inside the mind of a terrorist. She did, however, want to know what would push a person toward fanaticism.
"I was interested in knowing what was going on with the intelligentsia," said Gates. "I was curious about what caused their level of frustration."
That's where Arden's love interest, Faisal comes into play.
Described in poetic language as a man with dark, curly hair and glowing green eyes, he is an archeologist and professor within the university where Arden teaches.
The half-American, half-Saudi archaeologist intrigues Arden because he smiles often and genuinely and looks her directly in the eyes, a gesture men refrain from expressing toward women as a sign of respect.
However, after returning from Haj, the ritual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Faisal seems different. In addition to his long beard, symbolic of a deeply religious man — or in the eyes of non-Muslims, an extremist — Faisal seems angry about political relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. His anger is sparked by learning that an archaeological site has been taken over by the U.S. military.
Eventually, Faisal befriends two unlikely characters: a U.S. pilot and Saudi Arabian prince, Johnny and Nawaf. While the two men are different in their cultural upbringings, both share a deep respect for order, rank and nationalistic interests.
Faisal often responds to Arden's questions about his sudden shift toward radicalism with the phrase, "The enemy of your enemy is your friend."
Arden quickly learns that, in Saudi Arabia, if you know wealthy, influential, powerful people, anything can be covered and buried easily.
Praying for Rain seeks to defy stereotypes and misconceptions.
As the story of Arden and Faisal progresses, it is evident they are drawn to each other because they are similar, not because of their differences. They are both discontented with how the world functions.
"So much is uncertain in Arden's life," said Gates. "She is afraid of being ordinary and resists the status quo."
Arden's desire to see rules change at the Women's College and her outward displays of love for Faisal are evidence of standing up against social norms. Even her quick grasp of Arabic and her authentic interest in the Koran represent taking a stand against Western prejudices.
While Gates continues to undergo cancer treatment, her desire to write more is unwavering. She is working on three more novels, one a "rags to riches" tale set in the western suburbs of Chicago, another about gang violence and a third about politics and the Middle East.
Gates will discuss Praying for Rain at the Oak Park Public Library on Sept. 30.
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