“You’ve found your voice -- as a 12-year-old Muslim boy,” a friend joked.
After struggling for three decades to finally become a well-published memoirist, I was suddenly being rejected as myself: a middle-aged married Jewish journalism teacher. Instead everyone preferred the saga I was chronicling of the young single Islamic war refugee.
I’d jumped into the collaboration when it was the only jumping I could do. Kenan, my tall, slim physical therapist, was fixing my damaged spine at a local rehab center. “Where is pain?” he asked in an Eastern European accent, examining the ligaments I’d torn kickboxing. It was my first serious injury. Doctors said I might never heal. I felt old and weak as Kenan showed me strengthening exercises. To distract from the pain, I asked him questions about himself.
He was 30, Bosnian, exiled here in 1993, after the Balkan War’s ethnic cleansing campaign against his people. His father and brother had been sent to a concentration camp, he said. His friends and teachers had turned on him because of his religion. I was stunned out of my self-pity. He was like the male Muslim Anne Frank -- who’d lived to tell the story.
“You should write about that.”
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s healing. You can turn your worst experience into the most beautiful.” I gave him an exercise. “Try three pages.”
“I do not write. I fix backs,” he snapped.
But the next session, Kenan hooked me up to electrodes, then he handed me three pages about how he’d recently returned to his homeland after 20 years. There he’d confronted Christian Serb neighbors who’d betrayed his family, like his karate coach who came to his home with an AK-47, yelling “You have one hour to leave or be killed.”
“Blows my mind,” I said.
“No good?” He frowned, missing the colloquialism.
“Great,” I simplified. After revising several times, I gave him an editor’s email address. Kenan’s debut ran in The New York Times Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, and was William Vollmann’s choice for The Best American Travel Writing. Nobody ever put my work in that prestigious series. My beginner’s luck had been an “Outrageous Opinion” called “Love Labels” in Cosmopolitan.
Soon Kenan was confessing to me his revenge fantasies towards classmates who’d betrayed him, details of his exile to Connecticut, losing his beloved mom, Adisa, to cancer. He seemed traumatized by the past he suddenly couldn’t stop spilling. I became his Jewish mother, personal Maxwell Perkins, his femme Freud. After the Boston Marathon bombing by two Muslim brothers, I urged him to write about how he and his brother had gone the other way, turning into proud American citizens. A Wall Street Journal editor I knew said yes to that piece too.
“Try a flashback of the war,” I next suggested.
“No way. Can’t remember,” Kenan said. A week later he handed me 43 pages, standing over me as I edited, pointing out his best lines, asking what I thought. I’d turned my mellow Muslim physical therapist into a neurotic Jewish freelance writer.
It had taken me 23 years to land a small literary agent. In three months, Kenan was signed by my colleague at William Morris -- an agency he’d never heard of. The writers' organization I made him join awarded him top essay prize for his Wall Street Journal piece. (I’d been runner-up the year before.) Kenan caught the meteoric rise I’d spent three decades chasing.
I recalled my Jungian astrologer’s ominous prediction: “You’ll take others higher than you can take yourself.” Indeed, after publishing many essays mining my relationship and addiction issues, I’d helped several students sell books while I couldn’t sell mine. I suffered through 30 rejections until I nailed my first commercial book deals in my forties. Now 6 serious editors wanted Kenan –- and the memoir he’d never considered before meeting me. I attributed the buzz to his battle tales, background, muscles and masculinity, crying "Sexism! Ageism! Everybody wants the hot Islamic guy!"
Well, not everyone. Kenan wanted the seasoned Jewess to coauthor. “Can’t do book without you,” he pleaded. I said no, recommending classes, ghost editors and memoir coaches he could hire. “I see patients full-time. English not my first language. I studied science,” he argued. “I only write medical reports.” He’d never told the whole saga to anyone else and refused to try. It was either me -- or his important story of modern religious persecution would remain untold. For a Muslim, he’d aced Jewish guilt.
I reluctantly acquiesced. Our deal was: you fix my back, I’ll fix your book. I put aside my latest project to mold his manuscript 50 hours a week. He gave me rough drafts I fleshed out, interviewing him by phone, email, text. Professional collaborators I knew signed contracts for $20,000 to $75,000 upfront per proposal alone; I did it for free. But I was ambivalent about being an invisible ghost writer behind the scenes, penning text officially credited to Kenan. He offered to share all subsequent payments 50/50 along with the byline, using “and” Susan Shapiro, not “with.” We shook on it.
I crash coursed in Yugoslavian history, overwhelming my weekly writing workshop with pages filled with foreign cities, expressions and accents. I tried to compartmentalize, but Kenan’s past took over my present. Connecting to his feelings of abandonment and betrayal, I sobbed while typing. I had dreams that the son I didn’t have was taken away by the Gestapo. Instead of reporting Kenan’s journey third person or in omnipotent narration, I chose his first-person child’s perspective, cutting myself out of the narrative.
No problem, because I planned to keep publishing my usual work too. Yet soon the humorous personal pieces submitted with my own “I” turned out to be “not right for us” –- or ignored, while everything I co-crafted in Kenan’s voice was called brilliant and mesmerizing. Even my father –- a history buff who’d always hated being my subject -- preferred Kenan’s story, proclaiming, “Finally, you’re focusing on something worthwhile!”
It had taken years of psychotherapy to exorcise the drama from my life –- only to be eclipsed by the turbulent saga of my alter ego. Of course, I recognized that the mundane obstacles I’d conquered paled in comparison to the harrowing bloodshed he’d seen as a kid. I couldn’t be jealous that he’d lived through a European genocide while I sat in my warm Manhattan apartment, analyzing my withdrawal from toxic ex-boyfriends, cigarettes, and Diet Coke. Could I?
The Bosnia memoir sold during the blackout week of Hurricane Sandy, when my neighborhood had no power. It seemed apt for this shared book, born of trauma. Yet I was taken aback when the publisher’s cover showed his name big and bold, my moniker beneath it tiny. Their book catalogue, a BBC interview, Barnes & Noble ad and Vanity Fair blurb left my name out altogether, as if I was a midwife -- not the proud mom birthing 300 pages in nine months. It felt like my baby was being stolen from me while I was suffering post-partum depression.
“But what everyone loves is my hard work, isn’t it?” I asked my husband.
“You’re Clark Kent,” he said, patting my head. “Kent was envious everyone favored his doppelgänger.”
Embarrassed, I confessed my resentment to Kenan.
“I am author who can’t tell my own life without you,” he said. “You know how I feel more than me. I spend hours on new pages, to give you pride. It pisses me off you make better in seconds.”
At least our symbiotic misery was mutual.
By the time the book came out, my spine and Kenan’s grammar were better and Kenan saw himself as more lucky than bitter. I pretended it didn’t bother me that he was traveling around the country on a national tour while I sat home, proofreading press releases and posting his TV/radio links on Facebook.
Arriving home, an exhausted Kenan said he’d dreamt he visited Bosnia, where he was about to brawl with a rival classmate when I appeared, telling him: “Don’t fight. You have a big future in New York.” In the dream, he went to his childhood house and his late mother woke from a nap to shake my hand and thank me for helping him.
I was moved and reinspired. I returned to telling my own story that he’d become part of, grateful for the new material.