The Flame Tree -by Richard Lewis
Interview by Tamarra Kaida?
Tamarra: The Flame Tree is set in Java and addresses religious/political conflicts between Muslims and Christians as experienced by the main character Isaac, who is the 12-year-old son of American Baptist Missionary doctors. Your biographical notes state that you are the son of Christian missionary parents and you grew up in Indonesia. What aspects of the book are based on your personal experiences of Muslim /Christian tensions?
Richard: Well, my parents were missionaries in Bali, but I went to an American boarding school in Java. When I was a child, the same age as my character Isaac, there were no religious tensions per se, the tensions were political. It was when Sukarno was in power and the communists were trying to take control. In 1998, when Suharto fell from power I had the thought “what if a young American kid gets caught up in the political upheaval.” I didn’t start out to deal with religious issues. I just wanted to tell a good story about a kid who gets caught up in the events of the day. And what I put in regarding religious tensions came from the time I went to university in the states and realized that Americans knew very little about Islam. I started writing this novel in 1998.
TK: What personal experiences of growing up in Indonesia find there way into the novel?
RL: It would have been my boarding school experiences, going to an American school in the middle of a Muslim community. And when you left the grounds of the school you went out and played with your Muslim friends. My personal experiences did not have religious tensions. I put that in later as a writer.
TK: This is your first novel and Simon and Shuster’s “Young Adult” editor picked it up. It is a powerful book and hardly what I remember reading as a teenager. Did you write for a teen or adult audience?
RL: I wrote the book as an adult novel. The editor read it and loved it. I did not write for a young adult audience, which is why it still reads very much like an adult novel. In fact I have gotten most of my feed back from adult readers.
TK: But since the book will be marketed to a young adult readership. What do you hope teenagers will get out of the book?
RL: First of all, I hope they will get an appreciation of a different culture, and a realization that people around the world share the same concerns for life. For example, an American kid might think that a Muslim kid in Indonesia is a totally alien being, but he isn’t. The humanity they share is far greater then the differences. Secondly, everybody shares this common humanity even if there are differences in religion. And third, I hope they will get an understanding of Islam as a religion. I hope they realize that people who practice another belief are not that different than who they are. That’s what I hope.
TK: Both Muslims and Christians can be criticized for their proselytizing fervor. In The Flame Tree you concentrate on the Muslim conversion rituals. How have Muslims and Christians responded to this book?
RL: I have received no feedback from Muslims on the published novel. That may change when the book is marketed here in Indonesia. There will be a book launch in Jakarta on April 7th.
I tried to show good and bad characters that were Christians and Muslims. I tried to illustrate that the bad side of Islam does not stem from Islam but rather from the dark side of human nature. A careful reader will see this and understand that many bad things are being done in the name of religion.
TK: What did you get from writing this book in terms of your own faith?
RL: The Flame Tree? (Long pause while thinking) I think in my heart of hearts I wanted to make things, as they should be. …Where people dialogue with each other rather than shout at each other. I wanted to show Muslims as people of faith, trying to find a way to live a good life, trying to find a moral way, trying to be good people. The same as Christians. Both are searching for a way to live life.
TK: For me, forgiveness and compassion are the books’ moral lessons rather than a particular faith being proved right or wrong. Did you deliberately take a humanist position rather then a religious one? Or do they over lap for you?
RL: Oh, I think they definitely overlap. You know forgiveness is probably one of the most important lessons we can learn from the Bible. But I definitely did not want to write a religious novel. I wanted to show Christianity warts and all. The same is true with Islam. I tried to show that as well.
TK: You have been in Aceh doing relief work for Tsunami victims. In what ways is this affecting you as a writer?
RL: You know I was holed up in my office and my world was shrinking down to the world of the imagination and when this tragedy happened I really wanted to help and in an odd way it helped Richard Lewis the person more than Richard Lewis the writer. It reconnected me. The Acehnese were the most gracious, hospitable people I ever met. Even in the midst of a disaster, very generous, outgoing and giving of them.
TK: What kind of relief work were you doing there?
RL: Oh, I was working with an NGO. Helping distribute a product that helped purify water. I worked on rebuilding homes. The scale of the disaster is unbelievable. You can’t really understand from the news. It was interesting to see that they did not blame God. Through out my time there I did not see one person whose faith had been shaken. They did not say, “why me?” They did not embrace a rationalist position that says a disaster of this magnitude makes one question the existence of God all together. There was none of that. They did not doubt God.
TK: We are running out of space and I want our readers to know how to get your book and can I direct them to your web site?
RL: Well they can get the book from Amazon.com of course. But it will be available at bookstores in Jakarta and other places in Indonesia. My web site is<www.theflametree.com>.
TK: Thank you for your time and I think you deserve great success with this book.
Richard Lewis will be appearing at the Ubud writers & readers festival, 2005.