I once had an amazing friend called Leila Abu-Saba. She is still my friend, even though she died three years ago. She was an incredible woman, large in every way—six feet tall, a great mane of hair, a large laugh, a far larger heart. When she lost her fight against breast cancer, she was forty-seven years old, and she left two beautiful boys, a peerless husband, a popular blog, and a beautiful unfinished novel set in Lebanon, her homeland.
For two years after her death, I co-edited this manuscript with Leila’s widower and another dear friend, the novelist Micheline Aharonian Marcom. The book is now with a literary agent, and the journey I’ve taken with it has taught me a great deal about grief, friendship, spirit, and the ancient, essential power of art.
Above all it’s affirmed, for me, that love is actually stronger than death. And that the beautiful things we do while we are here matter more than we imagine.
I’ve written an essay about Leila—about loving and losing her, and about what it meant to take in her novel as though it were an orphaned child—and it’s just been published in the anthology Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships. It’s edited by Las Comadres para las Américas, and amazing Latino writers, from Luis Alberto Urrea to Reyna Grande, can be found in those pages. If you read this book, you’ll find extraordinary gems inside.
I will be reading from my essay, “Every Day of her Life,” on Friday, November 9, at 7 pm, at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland. Come join me if you can. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt:
“The first line of Leila’s book didn’t quite fit in chapter one, but we couldn’t cut it. To me,
it seemed to hold what Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls the “secret center” of a novel. So we placed it before that, on a page all its own:
‘A daughter whose village is lost to her forever belongs to the world.’
Leila is in that sentence. She still breathes there. Somehow, she managed to forge a single line that sweeps up into its syllables all the sorrow and triumph and yearning of her tremendous heart.
There have been times when I’ve despaired about the limits of the manuscript as we received it, the holes we cannot fill, the continued writing only Leila could have done. As we approach the end of what we can do for the novel and prepare to offer it to publishers, I have to accept that we’ve done the best we can, done what Leila would have wanted for us to do. She will never have those two extra years of health in which to finish the book on her own terms. No amount of work we do will give that time back to her.
But the heart of writing is never about the end result. What matters most is knowing, like Lily at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, that you have done everything you could to realize your vision. And when I read that first sentence of Leila’s—and other sentences in her book—and feel how much she left us, how much she gave her art, something in me silently shouts Leila, darling, querida, comadre, no matter what happens from this moment forward, you did it. You did it. You did.”