On Saturday, March 1, the Shepherd University Wellness Center hosted the Fifth Annual Common Ground International Book Fest & Expo. Women for Shepherd University invited Patricia McArdle to be the keynote luncheon speaker.
McArdle is a retired United States diplomat as well as the author of the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award-winning book “Farishta.” She has also developed a screenplay for the book in the hopes that it will soon be on film.
She spoke to the crowd about her experiences in Afghanistan and her devotion to the widespread accessibility of solar cookers in underdeveloped areas of the world. She took her experiences in Iraq and turned them into “Farishta” and continues to travel and spread her knowledge.
McArdle has spent a lifetime traveling. Her father was in the marines which “meant moving around a lot.” She also spent a semester in Ecuador, two years in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, three years with the United States Navy, and 30 years as a diplomat at various posts around the world.
She volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2004. She kept a journal while she was there. She said, “Journaling allows you to capture your immediate impressions of the time, place, what you’re feeling, seeing, and thinking; all those fleeting sensations that can evaporate so quickly.” She said it helped her deal with the sensory overload that came along with the situation she was in. It is also how she documented her experiences in her novel.
In her first introductions into the family lives of the Afghan people, she did not give much thought at all to the women in their kitchens, cooking over open flames and inhaling the toxic smoke, as well as having to walk for miles to gather wood for the fires. The children also bore this responsibility.
“It never occurred to me that this was normal for a lot of people on our planet,” she said.
She was also concerned with the sustainability of the wood necessary for the cooking fires. Once she discovered that this was the case in Afghanistan, she began to research solar cooking as a way for the women to provide food for their families without the added stress of collecting firewood or charcoal, as well as keeping the women healthier as they would no longer be required to inhale dangerous fumes while standing over the cooking fires.
She found the Solar Cookers International website, an organization that provides plans for solar cookers. McArdle now serves on their board of directors. She made five different cookers from the plans she had found. She brought one to a meeting at the governor’s house, set it up, and went in to her meeting. When they came out, the cooker had boiled the water. Immediately the men present took to the idea and decided to start making them.
In 2007, she began writing “Farishta” once she returned home, using it as a cathartic way to talk about the experiences she had in Afghanistan. She chose to focus on women’s issues in Afghanistan in the novel because she felt that this was a difficult area to navigate being an American woman in Afghanistan, with solar cooking being a secondary theme to the novel.
In reference to her main character, Angela, a U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan just like herself, she said, “She’s a composite of stories I’ve heard, people I’ve met, and my own experiences.”
The novel took on an autobiographical basis, although names and places had to be changed for the novel due to the sensitivity of some of the subjects in her real life experiences. She cited a story in the novel about a women’s prison Angela visits that is modeled after the prison Patricia visited where women are imprisoned for “marriage crimes,” i.e. running away from an abusive husband without his permission, a teenage girl who refuses to marry an older man to settle her family’s debt, a woman accused of adultery by her husband, etc.
McArdle definitely brought her knowledge and talent to the Shepherd University Common Ground Expo and taught all in attendance about what it takes to break barriers and introduce new ideas to the world. She pushed forward in the face of many adversities in order to bring solar cookers to areas that had never seen such technology in order to provide safer, more renewable cooking options to women. She also successfully completed “Farishta” so that the world knew what her experiences had been. She was an incredibly fitting keynote speaker for this event at Shepherd.