Ancient Inspiration, a guest post by Cristin Bishara
Back in the 1950s, my great-grandfather dug up a jug full of ancient coins in his mountain village in Lebanon. Of course, whenever I heard stories about these coins as a kid, I thought buried treasure. Honestly, I still do. They’re about 2,000 years old, Roman and Greek. Unfortunately, they’re not worth much money, since most are made of bronze or silver alloy (not gold—bummer!) and are in relatively poor condition. But in my mind, they will forever be magical and priceless. They were, after all, the initial inspiration for Vial of Tears.
Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but as a kid I was soaking up many family stories. Every Sunday we gathered for dinner at my grandparents’ house, and while we feasted on stuffed grape leaves and squash, pita bread, hummus, shish barak dumpling soup, tabooli, and other homemade dishes, I listened to stories about life back in the old country. It’s no wonder that hyenas, kidnappings, and mysterious caves found their way into Vial of Tears. And, of course, so did the food! There are recipes included in the back of the novel, in case you’d like to try some of my grandmother’s Lebanese favorites. I’ve also included a couple at the end of this blog post.
Aside from the initial inspiration of the coins, writing Vial of Tears required a tremendous amount of research. (Thank you, libraries, librarians, and information specialists!) My father was contagiously interested in the Phoenicians, an ancient seafaring people who traded along the Mediterranean Sea. Most of their principal city-states are in modern Lebanon. After my dad passed away, I ended up with one of his books about the Phoenicians, which I’ve read from cover to cover, many times over. I pored over photos of artifacts, and took notes about everything: jewelry, pottery, their famous purple clothing dye, the Phoenician alphabet and lost language, along with their brutal wars, gods, and mythology.
Speaking of the Phoenician language, that was a research challenge in and of itself. After reading an early draft of the manuscript, my literary agent suggested that I give my characters a language, even if I had to invent one. (I said, “Sure, no problem,” but I was thinking Um. . . okay?!) The Phoenicians are usually given credit for the invention of the modern alphabet, but ironically we know little about their language. In order to tackle the challenge, I turned to books and research again. Using Ancient Ugaritic, Classical Syriac, and Aramaic phrases, I pieced together dialogue for my underworld characters.
So it wasn’t until after a few terrible drafts and countless hours of research that the story began to take shape. I could finally see a full cast of characters, a few major plot points, and the setting: A teen girl receives a collection of mysterious coins from her great-grandfather. She’s pulled into a glittering and dark world, which is full of Phoenician deities and monsters.
At that point I knew I’d gathered enough creative material for a novel—one that seemed unique. As far as I can tell, I’ve written the first traditionally published YA novel incorporating ancient Lebanese mythology. The themes in Vial of Tears are universal, though—stubborn hope, deep family roots, gritty perseverance, fighting for those we love—so I hope this epic adventure and its characters will find a way into everyone’s imaginations and hearts.
As an author, one of the most rewarding milestones is seeing my own book in libraries. Not all that long ago, when I started submitting my Lebanese-inspired stories to publishers, there were only a few niche companies that specialized in “multicultural” books. I’m thrilled that the market and readership have evolved, and that I’m able to bring my voice to this overdue movement. We’re living through an exciting time in publishing history.
Have you tried Lebanese food? Here are two easy recipes I make often at home. When you get your copy of Vial of Tears, flip to the back and try baking my grandmother’s homemade pita bread, too. It goes great with hummus and tabooli, especially when served warm, straight out of the oven.
1 can garbanzo beans, drained (reserve liquid)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup tahini (sesame seed puree)*
1 clove garlic
½ tsp. salt
In a food processor or blender, combine everything. Add the reserved bean liquid until you reach a smooth consistency. (I usually add about 1/8 cup.) Serve with pita chips, fresh veggies, or use as a sandwich spread.
*Pro-tip: Tahini separates much like natural peanut butter. It can be a challenge to stir without making a mess. Take your new unopened can, turn it upside-down, and leave it on your counter for a few hours. Then give it a good shake before opening.
3 cups chopped fresh parsley
2 diced tomatoes
2 minced green onions
¼ cup chopped mint
1/3 cup cracked wheat (#1 fine burghul, Ziyad brand recommended)
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup good quality olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
dash of cumin (optional)
Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together, then add the wheat to soak and soften for about 20 minutes. Core the tomatoes to get rid of the seeds and excess juice. Other than that, you can consider this recipe more of a guideline. Stir everything together and adjust whatever you like.
Sahten! (The Arabic translates as “double health,” but it basically means “enjoy!”)
Meet the author
Cristin grew up in a small Ohio town where she got her first library card at age three. She’s been reading and writing ever since. Before publishing Relativity, Cristin worked as a freelance business writer, authoring magazine articles, as well as copy for food catalogs, ads, websites, and tourist guides. She’s taught composition and creative writing, both at the college level and in community workshops. In her spare time, she loves to travel, attempt to learn Spanish and Arabic, and cook, especially her grandmother’s Lebanese recipes. Learn more about Cristin by following her on Instagram.
About Vial of Tears
Two sisters become trapped in the underworld—and in the machinations of deities, shapeshifters, and ghouls—in this lush and dangerous Phoenician mythology-inspired fantasy.
Teenage sisters Samira and Rima aren’t exactly living the dream. Instead, they live with their maddeningly unreliable mother in a rundown trailer in Michigan. Dad’s dead, money’s tight, and Mom disappears for days at a time. So when Sam’s grandfather wills her the family valuables—a cache of Lebanese antiquities—she’s desperate enough to try pawning them before Mom can.
But she shouldn’t. Because one is cursed, forbidden, the burial coin of a forgotten god. Disturbing it condemns her and Rima to the Phoenician underworld, a place of wicked cities, burning cedar forests, poisoned feasts of milk and lemons, and an endless, windless ocean.
Nothing is what it seems. No one is who they say. And down here, the night never ends.
To get home—and keep her sister safe—Sam will have to outwit beautiful shapeshifters, pose as a royal bride, sail the darkest sea… and maybe kill the god of death himself.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/05/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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