What Inspires You? Roberta Gately, Author of Lipstick in Afghanistan, Writes About Inspiration

17 May

Lipstick in Afghanistan by Roberta Gately

I’m thrilled and honored to introduce today’s guest blogger. Roberta Gately is a modern heroine. She has put herself in some of the most demanding and heart-wrenching spots on the planet, serving as a nurse in third-world countries, including Darfur and Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for The Journal of Emergency Nursing as well as a series of articles for the BBC World News Online. She speaks on the plight of the world’s refugees and displaced and has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs. Gately lives in Boston where she works as a nurse at The Boston Medical Center.

While these credentials are impressive enough, Gately is an incredibly fluid and elegant writer who has completed her first novel, Lipstick in Afghanistan. The novel is based on her experiences as a nurse in Afghanistan after 9/11. I’ll give you more information about her book after we hear from her.

I’m going to intersperse her article with photos showing her at work in Afghanistan. I think you’ll find the images as impressive and moving as I did. First, let Roberta Gately tell us where she finds inspiration.

Sandy Nathan

Roberta Gately and Afghan People


Girl in a Bombed Out Alley


Inspiration – that elusive gem, that idea that transforms our thoughts and our maybes into the essential themes of our stories.  But, from what magical place does that indefinable pearl emerge?   For me, as a nurse and humanitarian aid worker, I find inspiration everywhere.  I stand in line at the bank and watch as a woman peers into a glass shelf, and seeing her own reflection, preens with undisguised admiration.  I write furiously.  I want to capture the set of her eyes, the slight grin as she realizes how much she likes her own image.   Everywhere I look there is inspiration and, eager to record it all, I am never without a pen and paper.


When I first went to Afghanistan, I knew at once that everything there was inspirational, not just the people, but the rugged landscape, the steaming green tea, all of it sustenance for this  writer’s soul.    Afghanistan is a place bursting with inspiring people and inspiring stories at every turn, and my first novel, Lipstick in Afghanistan, was written not just to share my images of that land, but to help dispel the ceaseless illusion that the people of Afghanistan are either terrorists or wild eyed peasants.  While Afghanistan’s ethnic and border wars have long shaped its violent and stubborn history, it has unfairly colored the world’s view of its citizens as well.  But the reality is that the Afghans I know are at once both resilient and graceful, and it was those diverse, dissimilar and ultimately inspiring qualities I hoped to bring to my story.

Afghan Women Walking to the Mobile Clinic

Until 9/11, Afghanistan was essentially off the world’s radar screen.   People knew little and cared less about a land that seemed so alien and so far away.  All of that changed of course after 9/11,  and as the world’s attention finally focused on that destitute and long neglected corner of the world, the devastating truth of the Taliban rule began to emerge; torture, murder and unspeakable crimes against these people.  It was worse than any of us who knew the country well had imagined.


In the spring of 2002, I volunteered with a French aid group and was posted to a remote region of Afghanistan, and I was struck, not for the first time, by the wretched reality of daily life for Afghan women.  While they have quite literally woven and then held together the fabric and traditions of their families and country, they have often been invisible – the last ones fed, the last ones heard, the last ones to really matter.  They suffered at every level, and under the Taliban, access to health care for women had been severely restricted.  As a result, Afghanistan had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.  UNICEF recently reported that an Afghan woman dies of complications related to childbirth or pregnancy-related complications every twenty minutes, a fact that still my makes my heart ache.

Mobile Clinic

And yet, despite it all, these are women who inspire with every breath they take, for instead of living with bubbling hostility, the women of Afghanistan choose to live with a quiet grace and a hardiness of spirit that takes my own breath away.  And even with their countless recent miseries, the women of Afghanistan are nothing if not resilient, and that is especially evident in the long-standing myth of the lady rebel.    The lady rebel is revered – a warrior for goodness, they say, whose exploits are legendary, whose reputation for courage is boundless.  She is said to have slain more Taliban fighters, and saved more of her own countrymen than her male counterparts.  To hear the stories of this remarkable warrior is to believe.  Even now, I can almost see her as she flies on horseback across the top of a distant mountain range, her plaited hair flying out behind her, a bandolier strung across her chest, a gleam of determination in her eyes as she saves her countrymen from one calamity or another.


Roberta Gately Examining a Child

Roberta Examining a Child

That intriguing legend was the seed, the beginning of my idea for Lipstick in Afghanistan, but the lady rebel was only one of many inspirational characters I encountered there.   I often spied a tiny young girl as she trudged along the village pathways and fields.  This young girl, who was destined to live a life of drudgery, of endless chores and arranged marriage, never missed an opportunity to pummel whatever local boy crossed her path.  For a female who was surely destined for a life of never-ending work, it seemed to me that she was releasing a lifetime of power in the short time she had to be free, really free.   She had a mischievous, engaging spirit that gave me hope for Afghanistan’s future, and gave me yet another seed for my novel.


But Afghanistan is a place filled with possibilities, with achingly sad stories, where even a rock can be a source of inspiration.

But there is inspiration here as well.  I find it in my patients struggling to get well, or in the faces of the fretful refugees I know.  I find it too in rush hour traffic and in lines at the bank.  The world is filled with miracles and with inspiration, and I hope that everyone, especially writers, finds their own miracles and shares them with the rest of us.

Roberta Gately


Roberta Gately

Author of Lipstick in Afghanistan

Published by: Simon & Schuster


Continued below . . .



Are in interested in knowing more about Roberta’s novel?

“Absorbing debut… In this utterly engrossing read, Gately vividly evokes
the beauty and tragedy of Afghanistan.”—Booklist

“Engaging characters…an informative glimpse into the lives of women in challenging times.”—Library Journal

Reminiscent of A Kite Runner, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Three Cups of Tea, Lipstick in Afghanistan takes readers through war-torn Afghanistan and deep into the lives of a people brutalized by the ruthlessly violent Taliban and subjugated by poverty and squalid living conditions.

East meets West in this compelling tale of two unlikely friends: Elsa, a volunteer nurse from Boston and Parween, a young Afghan widow whose husband was murdered by the Taliban. Parween is loosely based on a long-rumored lady rebel in Afghanistan—a warrior for goodness, they say. Her exploits are legendary, her reputation for courage boundless.

Roberta Gately Seeing Patients in Afghanistan

When naïve Boston nurse Elsa Murphy volunteers at an aid agency, she thinks it’s a good way for her to fulfill her lifelong dream of helping others and seeing the world. But a few months after September 11th, she is sent to Afghanistan to serve a year in the trenches, and is forever changed by the bond she makes with Parween, who exhibits unyielding resolve to fight back against the despotism that is the scourge of women of her country.


Told from the alternating points of view of both Elsa and Parween, Lipstick in Afghanistan gives readers a raw and personal glimpse of the war in Afghanistan from the perspective of everyday women who are trying to hold together their families, their friendships, and themselves.  And even through the horror of war and differences of culture, Elsa and Parween form a bond forged out of their commonalities, which transcend their differences.

Roberta Gately and Young Afghan Children

Lipstick in Afghanistan describes the cruel reality a people face, especially women, whose lives are brutally oppressed by the Taliban and by the harsh squalor of their living conditions. Yet, the bonds forged by Elsa and Parween are a testament to the power of friendship and of the human spirit to transcend cultural differences, poverty and misery.







3 Responses to “What Inspires You? Roberta Gately, Author of Lipstick in Afghanistan, Writes About Inspiration”

  1. Jim O'Neill May 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    I knew Bobby Gately many years ago when we were both young pups cutting our eye-teeth in Emergency Medicine. Roberta was an ER Nurse on the Accident Floor at the then Boston City Hospital and I, a young EMT working in the ambulances. Roberta joined my partners and I, Tommy Kenney, Richie Serino, Alan Tate and so many others, on the streets of Boston on many occassions. Maybe that instilled the adventure in her that shows in her workis in other countries.

    I can remember her as always being a loving and caring person. Sure, sometimes the stress of the job showed through but for the most part she was what many refer to as a “trooper”. Always there, always ready to serve and always with that wonderful smile she wore most of the time. Bobby may not remember me but I will always remember her and the great staff of nurses who served the people of the City of Boston.

  2. Tim Greaton June 16, 2011 at 8:23 am #

    Hi, Sandy. I couldn’t find a follow link for your blog. Great information. I was especially fascinated with the book contest information on one of your previous blogs 🙂

    • admin June 16, 2011 at 8:59 am #

      Hi, Tim! Good to hear from you and glad you’re enjoying the blog. I am the least computer literate person in the world. I think the RSS subscribe little orange emblem on the top of the page is what you hit to follow. I don’t know… Recently added a Share button at the bottom of each post. That was an achievement. I’ll forward your comment to the web guy I’m working with, trying to bring my web stuff into the new world. Please keep checking. If the RSS thing isn’t it, I WILL get some kind of follow button up! Just redid my website: http://sandynathan.com Please take a look!