For those of us who were old enough to follow the news in 2001, the events of September 11 are a dark milestone. As with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the explosion of the Challenger, the 9/11 attacks are terrible collective markers in time; we remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. We cannot forget the terrible footage we watched of planes exploding into the towers and victims leaping from fiery windows. Few can fathom why anyone would commit such a crime.

In her new novel, “When We Were Twins,” Danuta Hinc explores this very question: what drives a person to commit an atrocious act of violence against innocent people?

The story tells of a young Egyptian boy, Taher, and his twin sister, Aisha. Through vivid scenes of Taher’s childhood and adolescence, we begin to understand the ways in which his love and loyalty were corrupted by war and radicalized into weapons. 

Hinc, born in Poland under the communist regime, originally used this material in a novel called “To Kill the Other.” As she told the Baltimore Sun at the time of its publication in 2011, “I realized that I needed to know what leads people to make such extreme choices,” says Hinc, who teaches literature and writing classes at the University of Maryland College Park. “And the next question I asked was: Am I capable of killing someone?”

In an unexpected plot twist, Tate Publishing closed its doors shortly after the book was released and it quickly went out of print. Frustrated, Hinc eventually decided to re-imagine the storyline and seek another publisher. “Unfortunately,” she told the Fishbowl, “the subject of radicalization and terrorism, including domestic terrorism, is more relevant today than when I did my research for the original book.”

She elaborated further on the ideas behind this troubling novel in an email interview.

Baltimore Fishbowl: “When We Were Twins” explores the motivations behind someone who is involved in an appalling act of violence against innocent people. Why was it important to you to show the events from the point of view of one of the perpetrators? 

Danuta Hinc: I wanted to explore the question of humanity. What does it really mean? How far can we go? What is empathy, really? Is it possible to see humanity in a person who commits an unspeakable act of terror? It was difficult for me to say yes, and that was my challenge, to construct a character that makes us see his humanity despite his actions. I was hoping that by doing this I would be able to discover the missing link, the moment in life that turns someone into an extremist, a radicalized person, who stops seeing others as fellow humans and starts seeing them as someone who needs to be judged and further, as someone who needs to be punished, and even killed. The romantic in me is hoping to change the world. The realist in me wants to understand the process of radicalization. 

I am hoping that “When We Were Twins” inspires readers to learn about the world, to be curious. I am hoping that they would feel compelled to learn about other cultures, other customs, other religions, other countries, and people who are different from themselves. One of my literary idols, Toni Morrison, said this: “When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Imagine it, create it.” 

Writing from the point of view of one of the perpetrators was the best way to see the inner workings of someone who undergoes the slow and gradual change from a studious, kind, and carrying boy to someone who commits acts of violence. I wanted my readers to be in his head, and say, “I hate what he did, of course I do, but I understand why he did it.” I wanted to present a character who shows that radicalization is possible even for someone who was the perfect child, the perfect friend, the perfect son, the perfect grandson, and most importantly, the perfect twin brother. I believe that this is an extreme kind of empathy. 

BFB: As a white woman, you have taken a risk by exploring the point of view of a character who is not only male, but also from a background that seems very different from your own. Why did you feel it was important to proceed with it, even in a climate that is quick to criticize authors for appropriation?  

DH: The question of appropriation is one of the most important and urgent questions of our time and needs to be explored and discussed until the need for it disappears. 

But this concern goes too far when critics demand from novelist to write “what they know,” limiting fiction to autobiographical exercise. What would happen to readers of “Harry Potter,” “The Handmaid’s Tales,” “The Shining,” or “Blindness” to name just a few? 

BFB: The novel takes place in several locations quite far from Maryland. The central characters are born in Turkey, and later Taher moves to Afghanistan. Could you describe the research you did to write this novel?

DH: I visited Istanbul for the first time in June this year, and it was an exceptional experience. I felt like I was visiting an old dear friend. All the places I researched – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Istanbul Cistern – turned out to be even more magical than what I imagined while researching the city for the novel. 

While working on the novel, I relied on research and interviews. I learned about the Middle East from books. I studied the Torah and the Quran. I read online magazines and newspapers from the Middle East. But most importantly, I interviewed people from Egypt, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Pakistan and Iran, and this novel would have been impossible without their help. They opened their homes to me and invited me to sit at their tables. They shared their experiences and taught me about their cultures, customs, and religions. This was the best part of my research, and I am lucky to still count them among my friends today.  

BFB: Twins and the motif of duality appear throughout the novel. Could you talk a bit about the idea of twins and how this symbol informs the themes of the novel? 

DH: In exploring the theme of duality, I constructed a world in which everyone is connected to everyone on a deep spiritual, even mystical level, like twins in a womb, but only some (especially women, unearthly creatures of flesh and soul) can see the connection. Women, the one giving life in the novel, are entangled in the world of men at war, trying to save—throughout history—anything they can. 

Launch at Bethesda Writers Center
Saturday, September 23, 6:30-8:30
registration required
more information here

Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, American Literary Review, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and other journals. Alan Squire Publishing released her...