Author, an appellate judge, writes short-story collection about Syrian immigrants
By Jennifer Coburn
If you ask most bestselling authors how they made it as novelists, you’ll hear about workshops, writers’ groups or backgrounds in journalism. Rarely will you hear a career trajectory like Patricia D. Benke’s.
Benke was a San Diego appellate court judge who was being considered for the California Supreme Court when she told a newspaper reporter that she enjoyed writing fiction.
Less than a week after the news story ran, a literary agent called her and asked if she’d like to write a book. This led to a four-book contract with Avon/Hearst and the Judith Thornton legal mystery series, which had a loyal following for more than a decade.
Initial print runs on Benke’s books were 100,000. And her publisher splurged for extensive book tours where she was chauffeured to engagements in limousines.
“They gave me the royal treatment,” Benke said.
But despite the success of her legal mystery books, the author was being pulled in a different direction entirely — a feeling that compelled her to write accounts of Syrian immigrants in the United States throughout the 20th century.
The result is a collection of 12 short stories, which Benke recently published independently, titled “Qudeen the Magnificent.”
“I knew that walking away from the Judith Thornton series meant starting over entirely, but I had to write this book,” she said. “I changed, and what became most important to me was sharing my great love of the immigrant experience.”
Her publisher told her she was on her own. Even her agent told her she was crazy.
Benke said when she made this decision eight years ago, she understood the risks of abandoning her successful series to write about immigrants from a nation most Americans had never heard of, but took the leap anyway.
“I desperately wanted to write about immigrants,” she said. “All of the stories are about Syrian girls, but the experiences are universal among people who maintain their deep connection to their past while embracing their new American culture.”
Benke’s family immigrated from Syria in 1911 where Christians were being persecuted. Throughout her life, Benke heard stories about Syrian immigrants in Pennsylvania where she was born, and California where she has spent most of her life. The stories are billed as fiction, although Benke said that many of the pieces have roots in real life.
“I see myself in ‘The Beggar’s Opera,’” she said of her story of a Syrian girl who forges an unlikely friendship with a homeless musician after World War II.
Benke said much of her imagery is drawn from her grandfather’s accounts of his home in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria caught up in the throes of civil war.
“He told us stories about the castle and gave us recipes which they used for the mortar, and told us it was so strong it could never be destroyed,” she said. “I always wanted to see the castle.”
Sadly, the castle, and much of Aleppo, has been virtually decimated in recent years.
Benke said the characters in this book are immigrants who were all expected to assimilate.
The expectation was not only from the community and institutions, but their families.
“I chose to approach the matter of assimilation and change through the eyes of young girls,” she said. “They were all expected to revere American governmental and cultural institutions, and history. Often times these institutions were intransigent in requiring the characters to adjust to America and not the other way around.”
As “Qudeen the Magnificent” hit the bookshelves, a question Benke has been continually asked is whether she wrote the stories as a commentary on the current civil war in Syria or the United States’ immigration policy.
“I started this book eight years ago when no one was talking about Syria and many Americans hadn’t even heard of Aleppo,” she said. “The book does not intend political comment or statements, but it does comment on the culture and lives of immigrants and addresses their assimilation, especially as it relates to young girls. For me, it was first and foremost an exercise in exploring complex universal themes. On a more literary note, it is about all people who are displaced and how they obtain acceptance.”
Despite her literary success, Benke is keeping her day job on the Court of Appeals.
“I love the law and at the appellate level I’m engaged every day in writing appellate opinions. I find that being both analytical and creative helps me remain more agile in both areas of my life.”
—Jennifer Coburn is a writer and author from San Diego. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.