The Sweetness of Tears: A Novel

( 5 )


When faith and facts collide, Jo March—a young woman born into an Evangelical Christian dynasty—wrestles with questions about who she is and how she fits into the weave of her faithful family. Chasing loose threads that she hopes will lead to the truth, Jo sets off on an unlikely quest across boundaries of language and religion, through chasms of sectarian divides in the Muslim world. Against the backdrop of the War on Terror—travelling from California to Chicago, Pakistan to Iraq—she delves deeply into the past,...

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The Sweetness of Tears: A Novel

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When faith and facts collide, Jo March—a young woman born into an Evangelical Christian dynasty—wrestles with questions about who she is and how she fits into the weave of her faithful family. Chasing loose threads that she hopes will lead to the truth, Jo sets off on an unlikely quest across boundaries of language and religion, through chasms of sectarian divides in the Muslim world. Against the backdrop of the War on Terror—travelling from California to Chicago, Pakistan to Iraq—she delves deeply into the past, encountering relatives, often for the first time, whose histories are intricately intertwined with her own . . . only to learn that true spiritual devotion is a broken field riddled with doubt and that nothing is ever as it seems.

A story of forbidden love and familial dysfunction that interweaves multiple generational and cultural viewpoints, The Sweetness of Tears is a powerful reminder of the ties that bind us, the choices that divide us, and the universal joys and tragedies that shape us all.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A high school biology course in Mendel's laws sends Jo March on a cross-continent journey that challenges her very identity. Haji's sprawling second novel (after The Writing on My Forehead) is a family saga that expands over several decades to explore the history of Islam, the reach of Christianity, the horrors of the war in Iraq, and several other hot-button issues. Predictably, the author alternates viewpoints to deepen and connect her characters: Jo's newly discovered biological father, Sadiq, is a Pakistani taken as a child from his mother Deena, who moved to America, remarried, had another child, and later briefly reunites with Sadiq. Angela, Jo's mother, also abandoned by a parent, went on a journey of her own almost 20 years ago that led to a brief affair with Sadiq (hence: Jo). As each character's life unfolds, Haji's focus expands to the breaking point, covering Christian missionaries and fundamentalists, the Sunni-Shia conflict, the status of women in Muslim society, the suffering of soldiers, the U.S. military's handling of Iraqi civilians, and enhanced interrogation tactics. Somewhere in all of this is a family story, and the many threads eventually cleave to illustrate how a complicated blend of race, religion, culture, and tradition can create peace rather than conflict. (June)
The Columbus Dispatch
“The type of storytelling that opens the reader’s eyes to other lives.”
The Columbus Dispatch
"The type of storytelling that opens the reader’s eyes to other lives."
Library Journal
Born into an Evangelical Christian family, Jo March (obviously independent-minded, with that name) has her doubts. To find some answers, she embarks on a journey—even heading to the Middle East—and meets some previously unknown relations whose fate is tied to hers. Haji did nicely with her debut, The Writing on My Forehead, and her new novel will appeal to readers interested in the clash of cultures. Promising for discussion, as the reading group guide suggests.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061780103
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/17/2011
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,413,739
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nafisa Haji's first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, was a finalist for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award. An American of Indo-Pakistani descent, she was born and raised in Los Angeles and now lives in northern California with her husband and son.

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Read an Excerpt

The Sweetness of Tears

A Novel
By Nafisa Haji

William Morrow Paperbacks

Copyright © 2011 Nafisa Haji
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061780103

Chapter One

"Through the night of doubt and sorrow
Onward goes the pilgrim band."
Sabine Baring-Gould (1867 Hymn)
Originally written in Danish by B. S. Ingemann

The first time I ever experienced doubt, I tried to climb over it.
Literally. The way I'd been taught, doubt was a seed planted
by Satan, the fruit of which led to disobedience. But my doubt
had nothing to do with God or the Bible. My doubt was closer
to home—though it would take me far from it, eventually, across
oceans and continents, stretching bonds of love and loyalty to the
breaking point before I could return again, finally, at peace with all
of who I was. Back then, I did everything I could to avoid the hiss
of that serpent—the temptation of knowing what I didn't want to
know. At first, I simply ignored the whispers, pretending I didn't
see what I saw, as if there were a way not to believe what your own
eyes tell you. I knew how the story of original temptation ended
and I had no wish to be cast out of the garden.

It was a struggle I kept to myself through the whole of tenth
grade. To give voice to the questions—even in my own head—
would have been to give them power, to confirm the presence of
doubt, to risk eventual downfall.
The effort of denial drained me of words—a remarkable thing
that did not go unnoticed.
"You're so quiet lately, Jo. What's wrong?" Mom asked me
worriedly at dinner.
The second she did, Dad dropped his fork to reach over and put
his hand to my forehead, shaking his head when he found it cool to
the touch, running a calloused thumb down the length of my nose,
tugging at my ponytail in that way that he did.
"No fever," he declared. "Only stops talking when she's got a
fever. Normally. Never lets anyone else get a word in. Now's your
chance, Chris," Dad said to my brother, who shrugged, flashing
a brilliant smile, teeth, shine, and sweetness lighting up the
expressive face that was all Chris ever really needed to communicate
with, the face Mom always said was worth a thousand words. Dad
was stingy with his—complete sentences being a luxury in which
he rarely indulged. He wasn't so frugal with his ears, though, lending
them to me generously through all the girly, childhood prattle
I subjected him to as I grew up.
Mom listened, too, more actively, in fact, inserting herself into
my monologues, upstaging me, in a way, with her anxious and
worried engagement, always scanning for problems she felt compelled
to help me solve, to pray over, quick to feel slighted on my behalf.
Conversations with Mom were tiring. For her, I know, because of
the effort it took to be so emotionally invested in the events of my
life, in my successes and failures. For me, too, because her anxiety
was contagious, making me want to hide things from her to spare
her the worry. Though I never did. Until now.
"Is it school?" Mom asked again, unconvinced by Dad's reassuring
diagnosis. "You can always go back to Christ Academy,
you know. I never liked the idea of you transferring to Garden Hill
High." She'd made her objections loud and clear in the summer
before freshman year, wanting me to stay with my brother, Chris,
at Garden Hill Christ Academy, which we'd both attended since
preschool, instead of going to the public high school around the
block, which is where she'd gone to school herself.
"Nothing's wrong, Mom. School's great." It was. But I wondered,
still, if she hadn't been right in wanting me to stay at Christ
I felt Dad's eyes on my face and ignored the instinct to avoid
them—the same way I had to fight not to avoid Mom's and Chris's
for most of that year, still only managing to look at their eyes, in-
stead of into them, like focusing on the glass of a window instead
of seeing through it.
It wasn't until summer that I could admit the doubt that plagued
me, even to myself. At camp. Pilgrims' Progress Summer Youth
Camp, which Mom had founded when I was eight years old.
Pilgrims' Progress Summer Youth Camp—PPSYC, which
Chris started calling Psych for short—was Mom's special project.
The brochure—which Chris and I helped to stamp and label,
sent out to churches all over Southern California—described it
as "an experiential summer learning program for Christian children,
firmly rooted in the teachings of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus
Spreading the Good News was a family tradition spanning four
generations, a glorious one that I knew I would one day follow.
My great-grandfather was The Reverend Paul Pelton. The. If
you know anything about the evangelical world, you've heard of
him. He was the son of an Oklahoma preacher, born just after the
First World War, who took off to circle the globe as a missionary
just after the second one, wife in tow. Their only daughter, Faith
Pelton—my maternal grandmother—was born in China. When
she was ten years old, her parents brought Grandma Faith to the
States for a visit. It was her first time on American soil.
They arrived just in time to see Elvis Presley make an appearance
on The Ed Sullivan Show—one of his first, before they decided
to cut his pelvis out of the shot. There and then, shocked by
what he saw that night in grainy black-and-white—Elvis making
love to a bunch of screaming girls with his voice, swinging and
gyrating in a way that must have looked, to him, like wild, simulated,
non-missionary sex—my great-grandfather decided to stay in the
States, realizing that while he'd been away, spreading the Good
News to poor, ignorant souls who would otherwise have perished,
the Christian nation he called his own—the land of the Puritans
from whom he was descended—had itself been lost.
Two years after he decided to stay in the States, Great-grandpa
Pelton's book, Evilution, was published. It was a bestseller, and
made him a hero in conservative Christian right circles. Years
later, Great-grandpa Pelton's fame helped to inaugurate his grandson's
career in the same medium that had so horrified him when
he returned to the States. Uncle Ron, Mom's brother, moved more
than a hundred miles north from home in Garden Hill, a suburb of
San Diego, to the suburbs of Los Angeles, becoming the youngest
ever televangelist, launching a weekly TV show when I was
still a kid. Uncle Ron said his mission was to turn Hollywood into
Mom carried on the tradition, too, in a more quiet kind of way.
Her focus was children. My brother and me. Our cousins and all
the kids from our congregation. From the beginning, the camp
she founded—PPSYC—was a family affair. As the camp director,
Mom practically became everyone's mother for the two weeks
we spent in the hills of Southern California, making sure all the
kids were well-fed, always locked and loaded with plenty of Bactine
and Band-Aids. Grandma Faith, who was a nurse, spending
most months of the year off on medical missions around the
world, sometimes joined us, flying in just in time from someplace
far away. Uncle Ron would make an appearance, even televising a
sermon from camp once. Dad was in charge of the nuts and bolts
of the operation—literally. He's a carpenter and handyman and he
was the one who rigged up all the fun stuff beforehand. The
construction of the elaborate obstacle course, under Mom's direction,
was his baby. And the obstacle course was what did me in.
Every day, after breakfast, we'd jog through tires and try to swing
over Sloughs of Despond—huge mud puddles specially hosed
down so that there was no way to avoid getting covered in muck if
we let go of the Rope of Faith. We ran through the woods, hiked up
rocky hills, through "valleys" of Humiliation and Shadows. Most
of the obstacles were named for the path that Christian's journey
takes in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, symbolic landmarks on a
trek of faith carefully designed by Mom every summer to illustrate
a specific detail of the allegory of salvation that was one of Mom's
favorite books—the reason, she said, that she was a Christian.
Before we even learned to read, Mom gave Chris and me our
own copies of the book at Christmas, stuffed into our stockings,
explaining later how the March sisters in Little Women—another
book Mom was a big fan of, chock-full of subtle and overt references
to John Bunyan's seventeenth-century Puritan classic—had
gotten the same gift from their mother in the frugal days of sacrifice
during the Civil War. She always jokes that part of the reason
she married Dad was that his last name was March. She named my
brother Christian, after the pilgrim in Bunyan's work. She named
me Josephine, after the tomboy in Little Women. Josephine March,
aka Jo, just like my namesake.
I loved camp. But not as much as Chris did. He was the first to
finish every project, every treasure hunt, every race. Except for
one year, when we had a crazy, mixed-up race that Mom called
The Give Place Race. The idea was to be last.
The race began right after breakfast. When Mom said: "Ready,
set, go!" no one moved. Not one step was taken. Eventually, we all
sat down. We sat and sat, giggling at first. It felt like hours passed,
even if it was only a few minutes. We weren't allowed to talk. Some
of us bowed our heads and prayed. Then Dad wheeled out a gas
barbecue and fired it up just beyond the finish line. We watched
him, hyper-alert, as if we hadn't just stuffed ourselves at breakfast,
while he carefully opened a package of hot dogs. Then another.
Mom laid out all the fixings. Dad took out a cooler and propped
it open so that we could see the delicious assortment of sodas it
contained. Bags of chips were brought out, too, and displayed at
one of the picnic tables near the finish line. And potato salad. One
by one, taking each other's measure, most of the kids started to
move, taking steps, slowly, haltingly, giggling again, toward the
finish line.
Only my brother, Chris, sat patiently, still at the starting line,
chalked in white at the beginning of the dirt track. I tried to hang
in there with him for a while. But I was bored and hungry and
more than a little hot. I crept forward, still hanging far behind the
Pete McGraw was in the lead. This was no surprise: Pete had
never yet managed to demonstrate any of the virtues of a spiritual
pilgrim that Mom's carefully crafted curriculum required,
destined to be sent home from camp the very next year, expelled
permanently, for climbing up on a crate to peek into the girls' bathroom.
When Pete reached the finish line, which was within sight of
the start of the race, he hesitated for a long time before finally stepping
over. Mom patted him on the back and congratulated him.
Pete had been afraid before. Now he smiled and nodded happily.
Mom handed him a hot dog, a Coke, and a bag of chips. The boy
took them, muttering thanks, still painfully aware that by the rules
that Mom had set up, he had lost the race. After a second, he ripped
into the bag, popped open the soda, and took a big bite out of the
hot dog.
The rest of us drooled at the sight. Within seconds, we were all
right there beside him, claiming our own hot dogs, bags of chips,
and cans of soda. Mom stood to the side, her eye on the stopwatch
she had held and not yet needed. I had barely taken one bite of my
hot dog, savoring the taste of the mustard and relish, only had time
for one swig of pop, when Mom blew the whistle around her neck.
Loudly. She advanced on us with a big trash can in hand, taking
everything away from us to dump. Then she stood at the finish line
and beckoned to Chris, the only one among us who had never
wavered from the start. As Chris approached, she gathered the same
treats for him as she had for us. She handed them to Chris, who
took them warily. Mom led him to the picnic table, where none of
the rest of us had bothered to sit.
"Take your time, Chris. There's no hurry. Not for you, who
has had patience," Mom assured Chris. She watched for a moment
as Chris dug into his meal and then whipped out her worn pocket
copy of The Progress, opened the book to a marked page, and read:
"Passion of the men of this world; and Patience, of the men of that
which is to come. For as here thou seest, Passion," Mom gestured
to all of us who had finished first, ". . . will have all now. . . . So are
the men of this world; they must have all their good things now;
they cannot stay till next year, that is, until the next world, for their
portion of good. But first must give place to last . . ."
We, those who represented Passion—and lack of Patience—
sat and watched as Chris finished his first hot dog and then had
another. At that point, Mom decided that we had all suffered enough
in the way of a good lesson and passed us all another round of
hot dogs, saying, "You get it don't you? That this world is temporary?
So are all the prizes in it. Here and gone before you know
it. The real reward, the one worth waiting for—everlasting life in
Heaven—is what it's really all about."
None of us were surprised that Chris was the one who "won"
the race. He took himself very seriously at camp, embracing the
identity of the pilgrim he was named for with a conscientious zeal
that none of the rest of us could ever match.


Excerpted from The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji Copyright © 2011 by Nafisa Haji. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2012


    A truly great read that deserves your time!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 26, 2011

    Unforgettable, Riveting, Transforming...

    Great Read ! I was captivated by the The Sweetness of Tears and it continued to haunt and heal me much after the last words. Tears were involved but luckily sweet ones :)

    This exquisitely written novel takes the reader through an emotional journey full of self-reflection, courage, hope, challenge, learning, acceptance, submission, and ultimately, redemption---universal themes affecting all of us as individuals, as Americans, and above all as human beings. After her highly acclaimed and beloved The Writing on My Forehead (which I read and treasured), Haji has outdone her first achievement with another rich, multi-layered story that is a must read for everyone, especially given the post 9/11 times we live in.

    The Sweetness of Tears is a riveting tale that revolves around the life of Jo March, an Evangelical Christian that is courageous enough to challenge her faith and beliefs. Uncovering a haunting, hidden fact about her family, her life is thrown upside-down, setting in motion a mesmerizing journey around the globe that connects her to a different culture and religion than her own and ultimately transforms her to face greater life truths. The story is told from multiple generations and voices---all central to Jo's quest---which deepens the readers understanding of the characters and their perspectives and allows us to appreciate and embrace the complexity of the issues and choices facing Jo.

    In the end, this novel is a timely and powerful reminder of our universal potential to face conflict, transcend differences--of religion/country/faith/ideology, and embrace and celebrate the unity and rich diversity of our existence.

    Thank you, Haji, for pouring out your heart and soul through your writing.

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  • Posted May 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The Sweetness of Tears is a complicated family drama that focuses on the convergence of religion

    The family of high school student Jo March is Evangelical Christian. However, she has doubts. Adding to her concerns is that she only recently found out who her biological father is. Her dad Sadiq is a Pakistani who met Jo's mother Angela when she went on a soul searching trip years ago.

    Now Jo seeks the truth and she hopes inner solace. Following in her mother's footsteps by leaving home, she begins a sojourn to find her roots. This soon means also traveling to the Middle East for her paternal heritage.

    The Sweetness of Tears is a complicated family drama that focuses on the convergence of religion, not all in a positive way as clashes and conflict occur in the name of God. The multifaceted story line is diverse as Nafisa Haji looks at the Iraqi War from various strife viewpoints. Yet Jo keeps the multiple plots focused in her quest to learn who she really is as she is the metaphor of peace between religions, cultures, genders and people of all types of backgrounds.

    Harriet Klausner

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    Posted July 3, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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