In June 2000, Ann Chamberlin BS77 stepped off a
plane in Istanbul to discover that she had become a celebrity there.
Fans cheered and cameras whirred as Turkish television crews covered
her arrival. She was met by local dignitaries and whisked off toward
All the fuss in a foreign land seemed surreal to a young writerespecially
one born, raised, and educated in faraway Utah.
Chamberlin grew up in a family with strong ties to the University of
Utah. Her grandfather, Ralph V. Chamberlin BS1898, taught at the U,
as did her father, Richard E. Chamberlin BS48, and mother, Francis
E. Maude BA50 MS52.
A precocious child, Chamberlin jotted her first stories in blue books
that her father brought home from work. At first, I told my stories
with pictures, Chamberlin says. The words came later. But
even as a child I knew I wanted to write historical fiction.
Chamberlin developed an interest in Islamic culture when she traveled
with a BYU archaeology class to Israel to work on a dig. There, the
class uncovered the remains of an Ottoman settlement, which included
the grave of a woman.
The arm bone was protruding from the earth, displaying a rusted
metal bracelet inlaid with beads, Chamberlin says. I knew
she had been someones grandmother, mother, or wife, and she became
real to me.
Later, the group relocated to the Sinai Desert, where it set up camp
on land belonging to a Bedouin family. Chamberlin met the family matriarchan
Islamic woman wearing the traditional veil who, in spite of her hidden
features, seemed to radiate a power and command a respect much greater
than one might expect of a Muslim woman.
That moment was an epiphany for Chamberlin. She became intrigued with
the notion of a womans role in Islamic society and decided to
major in anthropology at the U, focusing on Middle Eastern culture.
It was in Laurence D. Loebs anthropology class that she realized
she could mix her love of novel writing with anthropology. As Loeb told
her, People who think anthropology is just a science are wrong;
it is also an art.
Chamberlin eventually began writing about Muslim women, advancing the
theory that they once manipulated the harem system as a means to power,
thereby challenging the traditional Western notion that harems were
designed by men to keep women subservient. She theorized that women
once used the harems to separate themselves from men and, by so doing,
held sway over them. According to Chamberlin, Muslim women referred
to the harem as the wall of seclusion, behind which they
ruled. As time passed, however, their ideals became corrupted, and infighting
led to a breakdown of the system. Ultimately, they found themselves
at the mercy of the sultans.
Chamberlins book Sofia, the first in what came to be known
as the Ottoman Empire trilogy, was published in 1996, followed
by The Sultans Daughter in 1997winner of the 1998
Critics Choice Award for Overall Historicaland Reign
of the Favored Women in 1998. The stories proved immensely popular.
In 1999 Turkish author Solmaz Kâmuran discovered the books on
amazon.com. Intrigued by the novelty of Chamberlins ideas and
their cultural significance, Kâmuran offered to translate the
books into Turkish. A deal was eventually struck with a Turkish publisher
and the trilogy was released in Turkey in March 2000. Two weeks later
they topped the countrys bestseller list.
Anns books are everywhere, says Kâmuran, and
people love her. When she visited Istanbul, some of her fans brought
gifts and flowers; many hugged and kissed her. Kâmuran and
Chamberlin traveled together throughout Turkey to book signings and
television and Internet interviews. An enduring friendship developed
between the two writers.
Chamberlins interest in women in Islamic culture eventually led
to an exploration of similar themes in a medieval saga called the Joan
of Arc Tapestries, a trilogy of historical fantasies that recreate
the world that spawned Joan of Arc. The first book, Merlin of Saint
Gilles Well, was released in 1999; the second, Merlin of
Oak Wood, was published in June 2001. Chamberlin is currently working
on the third novel in the trilogy.
A devoted and systematic writer, Chamberlin starts her day at 4:00 a.m.,
working until her family awakes. After a busy day as wife and mother,
she retires at 7:00 p.m. to read and reflect. Much of her research is
done in the quiet of the night, a time when ideas for new novels come
to her. A sentence, scene, or even a single word will make her wonder,
, and a story begins to take shape.
Chamberlins novel writing has also led her to explore the challenges
of playwriting. The results? In 1998, her play, Jihad, won the
Oober Award, given every year to an Off Off Broadway production. The
play features three main characters, Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted,
and a woman called the Goddess of the Land, who appears spirit-like
throughout the playa symbol of the historical importance of women
despite the hidden roles they have often had to play.
Says author Kathleen Daugherty, who attended dress rehearsal and opening
night of the play, I already knew Ann breathed life into history
through her novels. Now I see how her words bring the past into the
here and now.
Chamberlins fascination with writing and her love of history continue
to fuel her insightful storiesthose once hidden behind historys
Kathi Oram Peterson BA00 is a former Continuum
editorial intern, 2000-01. This is her first article for the magazine.