Enjoy the journey of this magic carpet

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 8, 2013

Using a hand-woven tribal rug as the main character in her novel, “Ashoan’s Rug,” author Carrie Jane Knowles takes readers from the steppes of Turkey to England, to Boston and beyond, affecting the lives of a young woman, a blind boy, a priest, a teacher, a handyman, a psychologist and more.
The short novel, told in dated chapters, conjures up a world of vivid dreams and superstition, sometimes soothing, sometimes scaring the people who encounter the power of the rug.
In a phone interview, the author confesses, “I love that book! I know you’re not supposed to do that.” But after working on it for 10 years, she’s allowed a bit of affection. She actually started with the final story — the rug being sold at an auction — because it is her story and her rug.
About a dozen years ago, Knowles did something she had never done before, attending an auction at a store that was closing. That’s when she found the rug. “It’s tattered,” she said, but she took it to an expert in Chapel Hill who confirmed that the piece is well over 100 years old. It is decorated with the symbols Knowles writes of in the book, and it was probably a dowry rug, woven by a young woman, and of a certain size, so it could be used as a tent flap, a table cover, a place to rest your head.
Its origins are fuzzy, but “Turkey would claim this rug,” Knowles said. If it was complete, with flat-weave skirts on either end and soft fringe, it would be worth a great deal of money.
It so intrigued Knowles that when she put it in her office, she kept looking at it, “and one by one, the stories came to me. … It wasn’t until two stories later that I realized I could move the rug around and have a book.”
She wanted to write about a “work of art and how it inspires people after it leaves the artist’s hands. … I focused on how the rug is going to change a character’s life.”
The first, and most magical story, is about Ashoan weaving the rug. She is a kind young woman marked with a purple stain on her face, shunned by handsome young men and other women. Her wise mother, Seda, sits down with her precious daughter and dreams and prays about the kind of rug she must weave. Her knots are slow but sure. Seda describes what symbols she must use. Ashoan’s mother knows her daughter will have an unhappy life, that the husband who takes her will be cruel and old, that life will deal many blows. Ashoan must weave a hatchlu, a cross to draw the spirits close; graceful Vs for flying birds; camels to carry her load; and flowers to rest her tired hands.
These are symbols Ashoan would have used over and over to identify her rugs and her tribe, Knowles says.
In the following stories, Knowles and Ashoan’s rug move from the Istanbul bazaar through a rug dealer to a shop in England, to Boston to comfort a blind boy named Angel, and on to a priest who hears Angel’s voice after he dies. To the priest’s superstitious housekeeper who wants nothing to do with it, to the outspoken, eccentric teacher Mary Frances, who starts to hear voices of her own when she buys the rug. And then to another and another until the final story, which is where Knowles started.
“Which characters did you like the best?” Knowles asks. She’s thrilled to hear my answer of Mary Frances, the exacting, endearing, imaginative Catholic woman who teaches at an Episcopal school. Mary Frances begins to realize the rug does have some sort of magic in it and she uses it to call up one of her favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor. “I didn’t know she was going to do that,” Knowles says. “I just wake up every morning and ask my characters, ‘What are you going to do next?’ ”
Knowles likes several other characters, as well, and how they react to the rug and what it prompts them to do. “I focused on how the rug is going to change each character’s life. … It has a power in it for the next person who gets it.”
And that power comes from the fact that it is a work of art and art transforms people. Knowles is adamant about this. “Art is transformative. That’s so important.” She worries that eliminating art from schools will leave children without an important experience. “You see the Mona Lisa and it really IS different than other art,” Knowles said.
Along with that, Knowles is interested in how objects become part of our coping mechanism. Our relationship with inanimate objects is so puzzling to other cultures, Knowles said, to people such as the Aborigines, who have no attachment to things.
She wanted to look at how something found in a junk shop can become as important or more so than something handed down from a great-grandparent. “We use objects to define us,” Knowles says.
“I had a lot of fun thinking of a concept of being inspired and why we should have art.” She points to the universal patterns, especially in tribal art, how the flying birds show up in the Pacific Northwest, in Amish quilts and so many other places.
Knowles had trouble selling this book to a publisher. “The American publishers said, oh, we like your writing, we like the stories, we like the characters, but it doesn’t fit anywhere,” into a genre, like mystery or fantasy or romance. The British publisher said almost the same thing, but wanted to publish it anyway. “I love this book. I trust this book,” Knowles says. “I hope it appeals to lots of people. I hope when the reader gets to the last story, they’ll see that the rug will fall into the hands of the person who most needs it.” She likes the story of the couple breaking up and splitting inventory from their rug shop. The husband knows the wife wants it, so he doesn’t want her to have it, but he relents — if she will tell him a story about the rug, she can have it. That brings a roundness to the tale.
Knowles is also a visual artist and she wanted to look at how a work of art can give you a fresh view of the world. Her hardest task in the novel was moving the rug. “Once the priest had it, I knew he would never give it up … the only way was for him to die.” Knowles returns again to the power of things to control us, and tells how a charm her mother sent her from Florida when she was in college is still with her and she always wears it when traveling, so her mother is always with her.
She struggled with the stories, taking the rug from 1894 to 2002, and says if writing were easy, she wouldn’t do it.
But with inspiration like the rug, she manages. Knowles plans to bring the rug to the Verbosa Mimosa event on Sunday, Sept. 15, when she will appear with three other authors, Angela Davis-Gardner, Peggy Payne and Elaine Neil Orr. (See related story, this page). She might even let you touch it.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or dp1@salisburypost.com