You are on page 1of 7

A gripping, cleverly plotted novel with surprising bite.

Phil Klay, New York Times bestselling author of Redeployment


a novel

author of Yo u Know W hen the Men Are Gon e
1. Discuss Fallons portrayal of Amman and the
Middle East. Were you surprised by any aspects
of Jordanian culture? How is life in Amman
different from life in the United States? How
does life at the U.S. embassy fit in between the
two? Why do you think Fallon chose to write democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret
about Amman through the perspective of two things here are different, that our American
Western women? tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker
is not shared in a place where the literal
2. The novel explores two marriages. How did you translation of the name of the faith, Islam,
feel about Cassie and Dan at the beginning of means submission (p. 45). Do you agree with
the novel? Did you feel differently at the end? her? How do you think our American values
How did your understanding of Margarets shape the way we understand others?
marriage change as you discovered her diary?
7. Discuss how Fallon explores military life. How
3. Cassie and Margaret are two very different does setting this story at the U.S. embassy
women with two very distinct approaches to change the portrayal of Amman? Does it
life overseas. Did you relate to one woman shape how the characters understand the
more than the other? Middle East? How are Cassies and Margarets
marriages affected by their husbands work?
4. What does it mean to be a good friend? Is Cassie
a good friend to Margaret? Why or why not? Is 8. Margaret tells Cassie, Theres only kindness
Margaret right to befriend Hassan? (p. 323). What does she mean? Why does
Margaret believe this? How does Margarets
5. Have you ever kept a journal? Why does saying this change Cassie?
Cassie decide to read Margarets journal? Do
you agree with her decision? If you were left 9. Discuss the novels treatment of motherhood.
alone in a friends apartment and uncovered a Is Margaret a good mother to Mather? How
diary, would you be tempted to take a look? has her own mothers death changed her? How
Be honest. does Cassies desire to be a mother affect her
relationship with Dan? How does it affect her
6. Cassie thinks that Margaret doesnt recognize friendship with Margaret?
that the line between us and them is real. Shes
infected with our great American hubris of 10. W hy do you think Fallon chose to set the
assuming that deep down every single person story in 2011, during the Arab Spring? How
wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, does the political climate of Jordan affect the
characters? How would the story be different if
it was set in todays Middle East?

11. Were you surprised by the ending?

a conversation with
The Confusion of Languages is your debut
novel. How was writing this book different
from wr iting your story collection You Know
When the Men Are Gone?

The Confusion of Languages genesis was a short

story I began writing in May 2011. By the time
I finished, it was sixty pagesthats not really a
short story at all. Then it grew into a collection
of interconnected stories that spanned about
two years, from before Margaret and Crick even
met. This collection moved from California to
Oman to Jordan. I have early drafts where each
story/chapter is told from the point of view of
a different character; for example, Crick would
have his say, then it would go to Margaret, then
it would go to Dan, then Cassie, on and to other
characters who arent even in the novel anymore.
But I soon realized that the short story
collection model of jumping from character to
character wasnt giving me enough space to delve
deeply enough into the intimate thoughts of
Margaret and Cassie, and it was their intertwined keep going until you reach a destination you can
story that fascinated me the most. So Id say The live with and that you hope readers will enjoy.
Confusion of Languages is an evolution of short There were a few ideas I wanted to explore
stories into a novel. Ironically, the actual novel while I was flailing all over the place. Expats
you have in your hands right now is quite close abroad are always recounting the crazy things
to the first sixty-page short story version. I wish that happen in the country they are residing
I had figured that out in 2012 and saved myself in. Cocktail parties are full of these anecdotes,
a couple of years work. like how an Italian man put his hand on a
covered female police officers arm in a mall
W hat inspired you to write this novel? in Dubai when asking for directions and was
deported for it. Or a how an American woman
Its impossible to narrow it down to one thing. in Abu Dhabi couldnt get a cell phone without
I think of writing as a huge, messy path that you the permission of her husband (that actually
slowly and blindly navigate. Somethingsome happened to me). And its all very funny to
hunger or a streak of irrational stubbornness listen, too. Its easy to think our Western ways
drives you to the end of that road no matter what. are always the right way and to be indignant
You trip, you kick rocks out of your way, you at the local response. I wanted to write about
climb a tree or two in hopes of seeing how much a well-intentioned American woman caught in
longer you have to go, you get lost, you turn a misunderstanding that spirals out of control,
back, then turn around again, you just doggedly to show how these events, however accidental

Photograph of author Victoria Akbik Photography

and amusing they might seem, can involve Now we see ISIS has risen from the ash of
severe repercussions. Americas departure, and so much has been
Im also always aware of my characters being squandered, so many American soldiers and
human and flawed, and countless Iraqi civil-
I like to tease out ways I wanted that specific and precarious ians have died in vain,
good and decent people not to mention the
perspective of Jordan, how it
manage to do rotten continued slaughter of
things that hurt the
is perched between Iraq and Syria. innocents in Syria.
people they care about. Jordan managed to offer both We see that Egypt has
And the character who a front row seat to the Arab Spring swung back into the
tries to be the most control of a military
unfurling around it...
decent, Margaret, in government, Libya is
trying to do what she still in the midst of a
thinks is right, nearly destroys a man Sometimes civil war, and Yemen is a completely failed state.
a small, unthinking action has the power to Jordan, thank goodness, has a muchbeloved
haunt more than any deliberate cruelty. and fairly progressive monarch, King Abdullah,
and continues to be stable, but the refugee
W hy did you choose to set this story in numbers there from neighboring countries (Syria,
Amman, Jordan? Did you ever consider Iraq, and Palestine, among others) are critical.
setting it elsewhere? So I wanted that specific and precarious
perspective of Jordan, how it is perched
I lived in Jordan with my family in 2011. Like between Iraq and Syria. Jordan managed to
Margaret, my family and I arrived just as the offer both a front row seat to the Arab Spring
Arab Spring was taking hold across the Middle unfurling around it, yet was also safe enough
East. There was so much going on, so much that American families continued to live there
uncertainty and tension, but also so much hope. throughout, rather than being evacuated the
The whole world seemed to be watching Egypts way the embassy communities were in Egypt and
Tahrir Square and cheering on a people who Tunisia. I also appreciated how Jordan offers a
were trying to shape their own destiny. And in balance of East and West. Cassie can remain
2011, America had been finally winning the war cloistered in Abdoun, the ritzy area where all
in Iraq; the surge of U.S. soldiers had established of the embassies are located and the wealthy
a certain level of peace, or at least gotten to Jordanians live. You could find coffee shops, a
a stable enough place for a tentative handover. French bakery, and a few nice restaurants in the
There was, of course, a genuine desire to see vicinity when I lived there in 2011. But if you
the people of the Middle East reclaim power drive across the highway to downtown Amman,
from dictators, but I also think Americans, or an hour farther toward the smaller towns,
from politicians to the taxpayer watching late- youll find something very, very different:
night news, desperately wanted to believe our Bedouin encampments with camels grazing
military presence had had a positive effect, that outside, children selling eggs on the side of
toppling Saddam helped pave the way to the the road, and makeshift shawarma stands, the
end of Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya, and authentic Middle East that would appeal to a
Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and that protests person like Margaret.
across the Middle East would lead to political All of the above creates the illusion that I
reform and freedoms for all. made many clear and rational decisions when
But then the United States pulled out writing this novel. But to be honest, much
of Iraq, in a much more sudden way than like the idea of inspiration, I can t qu i t e
many in the U.S. military thought we should. descr ibe wh at makes me wr ite about o ne
lo c a t io n r a ther tha n a no ther, w hy o ne stor y remaining female characters, and the details
lin e g o e s e l ec tri c i n my b ra i n a nd deman ds and mannerisms that would define them. And
I s p e n d yea rs c o nc entra ti ng o n it wh en though not all of it was conscious, Margaret
c o u n t le s s o thers ha ve b een mu s ed o ver for a was born out of the more nave and overly
fe w m in u t e s a nd d i s c a rd ed . Peo p l e a re always optimistic side of me. She embodies all the
g iv in g m e idea s o r p l o t s u g g es ti o ns a nd sayin g well-meaning but stupid things I have managed
Yo u s h o u ld w ri te a b o u t thi s , o r T his stor y to do in my life. Cassie took on the other side,
w o u ld m a k e yo u a mi l l i o n b u c ks , a nd h eck, I the sarcastic and cynical Siobhan, older and
w a n t a m illio n b u c ks ! maybe wiser but less able to appreciate the
But to sit down day after day for years and small and lovely things life has to offer. Which
write about a handful of characters, their traits was sort of terrifying and enormously fun at
and mistakes, their homes and back stories and the same time, being able to skewer myself on
the moments that break them, well, you just the page, or at least different facets, and letting
love them, and you love your setting, and you these alter egos play against each other. It
love your story no matter how unwieldy it might was also terrifying to realize how schizophrenic
be. And love is impossible to define or plan or I might be.
schedule. It grabs you and doesnt let go until
it is done with you. Jordan was exhilarating, Yo u re k n ow n fo r w r i t i n g a b o u t m i l i -
all the unknowns, the sweeping history, the ta r y fa m i l i es. W h a t d raw s yo u to t h es e
contradictions, I couldnt help loving the s to r i es ? W h a t i n f l u e n c e , i f a ny, d o es yo u r
country, and though I left it years ago, writing ow n c o n n e c t i o n to t h e m i l i ta r y h ave o n
about it let me live there a little while longer, yo u r w r i t i n g ?
and know it a little better.
Im part of a military family. My husband has
Cassie and Margaret are both so real on been an officer in the U.S. Army since I met
the page. How did you come up with each him in 2000. When we got married, I realized
of their characters? Are you more like one how little the rest of us understood military life.
than the other? Which was part of my motivation for writing my
collection of stories, You Know When the Men Are
As I mentioned above, this novel has gone through Gone. I naturally draw from my own experiences,
many, many rewrites and transformations. A and I like exploring themes that seem to touch
character who I had to almost complete excise, all of us (how families work, as well as how
Karen, (the woman in the photo Margaret finds) families fall apart) but I also like to examine
was, at one point, the third weightiest voice communities that mainstream America is less
in the novel. Her role was as large as Cassies familiar with, such as our military communities
and Margarets; the novel opened with her at home, or our embassy communities abroad.
meeting Crick at a Monterey party, she came
out to Jordan to visit him, and she originally Margaret and Cassie both have very different
is the one who goes to the Turkish baths with assumptions about what is acceptable
Margaret. At that stage of writing, Karen was behavior for Western women in the Middle
the character most like me. But the book was East and at the US embassy. How realistic
getting unmanageable and everyone was telling are Cassies rules? Do you have any advice
me that Karen wasnt unique enough, her voice for American women traveling to or living in
was either too similar to Cassies or too similar the Middle East?
to Margarets.
When I kicked Karen to the curb, I had I do tend to think more like Cassie when it comes
to really think long and hard about the two to the image I want to present here as both an
American and a woman. On the one hand, I want Eastern men very uncomfortable.
to be seen as respecting the culture I live in, But ultimately, Im the foreigner here. As
but Im also motivated to dress conservatively a guest, its my responsibility to abide by the
in order to not draw undue attention to myself. local customs just as I would want visitors to the
When I lived in Jordan I tried to cover from United States to respect our way of life. Jordan
ankle to wrist, unless I was in a tourist area, or welcomed me and my family, it was a place I
attending a predominantly Western event, or called home for a very exciting year, and I ought
out with my husband. So Id wear linen pants to honor its traditions and culture.
and a light cardigan over a T-shirt in the
summer if I was headed out to shop, etc. Here in W hat kind of research did you do to write
Abu Dhabi, there are more expats and Emirati The Confusion of Languages?
culture is more accepting of international
styles (its also much hotter here in the Gulf) I always keep a little notebook in my purse and
so Ill occasionally wear short-sleeve shirts and try to jot down the odd thing I see, wherever I
summer dresses. But I try to cover my shoulders might be. Many of the specific images of Jordan
and arms if I can and oftentimes there are signs in the novel, from the young man in the back
outside of the malls or public parks that spell of a pickup truck wearing a Jordanian flag as
out the dress code and proper behavior, such as a cape, to the little Bedouin girl in Petra with
no tank tops or no public displays of affection. a Yankees baseball cap over her veil, to the
To be completely honest, as an American way the sink in the bathroom in my apartment
woman raising two young daughters, both of seemed to breathe in and out when I ran the
whom have spent a majority of their lives living water, to hearing David Grays Babylon play
in the Middle East, I cant help but be bothered over and over again in a grocery store, to the
by some of the social expectations put on travel agency sign that read Titanic: Travel
women and how their adherence to the idea of and Tourism, and more than I could possibly
modesty seems to be different than that of men. list here, were lifted directly from that notebook
According to what Ive read of Islam, men and I kept while living in Jordan.
women are supposed Otherwise I relied on
to uphold similar As a guest, its my responsibility to the guidebooks I used
modes of dress: it is abide by the local customs just as I (Lonely Planets Jordan),
recommended that men as well as books I bought
also wear loose clothing
would want visitors to the United States in Amman (Dr. Muham-
that covers much of to respect our way of life. mad Ali Akhulis Women
their bodies. So I cant Jordan welcomed me and my family, in Islam) and perused the
help but bristle when I newspaper articles Id
it was a place I called home for a
see a man in a T-shirt clipped and saved from
and pair of shorts, or very exciting year, and I ought to honor our time there. I also took
with no shirt at all and its traditions and culture. an enormous amount
a bathing suit at the of photos to make sure
beach, accompanying a woman who is covered images stayed singed in my mind.
head to toe, in long robes and veil, perhaps There are two incredible works of non-
with a niqab over her face. I have had my own fiction that informed my writing and that I
awkward moments, when I unthinkingly tried highly recommend for readers who are curious
to shake a mans hand, or smiled at a man in about the role of women in Islam and the Middle
an elevator, and been quickly made aware that East: Mona Eltahawys Headscarves and Hymens:
some of the social niceties we take for granted Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution
in the West made these particular Middle and Geraldine Brookss Nine Parts of Desire: The
Hidden World of Islamic Women. or nanny). In America, this is rather rare, but
And of course I am still a part of an embassy here, its rare if you dont. Theres a vibrant
community here in Abu Dhabi. So I have all sorts Filipina community in Abu Dhabi, but so much
of knowledgeable friends working in different of their work lives are invisible, and even more
branches of the embassy who kindly let me grill so invisible is our understanding of the children
them about what might really happen during the and families they are supporting with their
situations I portray in the novel. salaries back in the Philippines. Unfortunately,
when you hear or read news about a domestic
Without giving anything away, did you always helper, it is often of neglect and abuse. And
know how the story would end? Or did the expats are not blameless. Im not sure how this
ending change as you wrote each character? will filter into my writing, but its something
that has been simmering in the back of my mind
The ending came to me at the very beginning, for a long time.
way back in 2011 when I thought I was writing a
short story. The ending, for the thousands upon
thousands of pages I have written about these
lives, has always, always been the same. SIOBHAN FALLON is the author of You
Know When the Men Are Gone, which
W hats next for you? won the PEN Center USA Literary Award in
Fiction, an Indies Choice Honor Award, and
Its exciting not to know. But Im mulling over the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First
some ideas. Ever since I first moved to Amman, Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The
I have been curious about the lives of the Washington Post Magazine, Womans Day,
domestic helpers who play such a large role in Good Housekeeping, Military Spouse, The
every household here. In both Jordan and the Huff ington Post, and on NPRs Morning
United Arab Emirates, and seemingly across the Edition, among others. She and her family
entire Middle East, its expected that each house moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently
has at least one domestic helper (housekeeper live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


Ingredients Directions
3 cups chopped cooked chicken 1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2 cans (10.75 oz each) cream of chicken soup 2. Place chicken in bottom of ungreased
13 x 9-inch baking dish. Spoon soup evenly
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese over chicken and top with shredded cheese.
3 cups panko crispy bread crumbs
3. In medium bowl stir together melted butter
or any dry stuffing mix
and bread crumbs. Sprinkle over chicken.
6 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until bubbly.