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Read an Excerpt from A Hostage by Charlotte Mendel, A Timely Tale of Power, Politics, & Media

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When Charlotte is kidnapped by notorious dictator Kassem in Charlotte Mendel's A Hostage (Inanna Publications), she does what she has to in order to maintain sanity, from creating a compartmentalized "Inner Voice"—whose disassociated dark humour and outrage provides some relief—to indulging Kassem, pretending to sympathize as he strives, for his own mystifying reasons, to justify his bloodthirsty actions to Charlotte. 

When she is finally released following a harrowing hunger strike, though, she finds her ordeal is not over: Kassem has turned her into a propaganda tool, live streaming their conversations, in which Charlotte appears to empathize with the dictator.

Suddenly infamous, Charlotte is hounded by the press, torn to pieces online, and terrified for her children's safety. Slowly a twisted truth emerges: though she is now free, Kaseem has insured a new kind of confinement. 

Raw and captivating, Mendel's tale explores survival, social media, and power dynamics through the lens of Charlotte's evolution from her Western political naiveté to a tough and resourceful survivor. Using dark wit, sharp dialogue, and timely political and technological observations, Mendel creates a spellbinding story. 

We're sharing an excerpt from A Hostage today, courtesy of Inanna Publications, in which we get a glimpse of Charlotte's ribald inner voice, the strange connection she is forced to form with Kassem, and the seeds of what's to come. 

CW: Imagined images of graphic violence

Excerpt from A Hostage by Charlotte Mendel: 

Author Charlotte Mendel

Author Charlotte Mendel

December 12: 6 a.m.

I wake up at the crack of dawn. Didn’t sleep a wink.

You snored for hours.

Did Kassem kiss me last night?

At what point does imagination become insanity, would you say?

I’m taking that as a no?

He bent his head toward you at one point…

That’s it?

You hugged. Then you started spouting about not destroying your family. He must have realized you were nuts. If he hasn’t already.

Man, I need some Adam cock.

I wash, then pack my wash things and dress in the clothes I’d laid out the night before. I sit primly on the side of my bed.

It’s 8:00 a.m. Foolishness.

Maybe, but I’m happy sitting here, waiting. I’ll wait for as long as it takes.

At 9:00, Sami comes in with my tray. I savour every morsel of the pita, salad, boiled egg, muhamarra, and the thick goat labane that’s so delicious.

At 11:00, I take off my travelling clothes and put on my tent to do my workout. My thighs are looking pretty damn good from all this exercise, so the mirror tells me.

Time isn’t moving today. The meagre remains of my dope stash beckon seductively, but it’s easy to be restrained on the last day.

After lunch, I meditate, thoughts ricocheting off my firmly closed eyelids, and it’s so boring I must have fallen asleep, because when I wake up it’s almost 5:00. A twinge of anxiety in my gut, but it quickly subsides; obviously, it’s better to travel at night.

Keep those crazy thoughts at bay.

Gotta stop talking to myself all the time. That’s totally looney. It’s just because I have nobody else to talk to; once I get home, there will be so many damn people the last thing I’ll want to do in my rare alone-moments is talk.

I feel a fuck-you day coming on.

What if Voice can’t be shut off? What if I’ve actually gone a tiny bit insane in here? What if I keep hearing that annoying whine on and on in my head...

Don’t worry; they’ll pack you off to a shrink first thing.

At 7:00, he comes. My heart cavorts in joy and I smile and smile into his sombre face.

“Is it time to go yet? I’m ready.”

For ten hours already.

He collapses into the chair, weeping. Okay, it’s sexist, but I feel totally embarrassed for him.

This pathetic boob is running a country?

Where’s my compassion? I stand beside him and rub his back. I wish I could fast-forward to when I’m gone already. Surely he’s not coming with me? I don’t have the energy for this—I want to save my energy for my long journey, for my children. Pull yourself together and act like a man, for God’s sake.

“I’ll never see you again,” he weeps. “I can’t do this alone.”

Yeah, yeah, whatever.

It’s important to hide my irritation and impatience; it’s just another man, clutching the last remnants of my attention before he’s inevitably shoved out of centre field. Much like he’s doing in his country.

“There, there,” I murmur mindlessly. Can’t we just say our goodbyes already?

“There, there.” Pat, pat. “There, there.”

He raises his head, his eyes shimmering in turquoise undulations.

“What will I do, without your input into my decisions?”

Give me a fucking break.

I try to speak gently. “Come on, Kassem. Can you point to a single action you’ve taken as a result of my ‘input’?”

Without lying.

“How can you say that? I’ve told you that I’m thinking differently now. You said that thinking about my actions and making it clear—clarifying—to myself why I’m doing them is a major step... and the result has been different actions on several occasions. If you’d shown interest in recent events of the war...”

“I’ve listened endlessly to you...”

“I’ll show you!” he cries, shouting through the door in Arabic.

Within minutes, a guard has appeared with a laptop in his hand, closely followed by Sami with the tray. We’re having tea? I’m not sure how much more of this bullshit I can take.

Kassem’s slender fingers are slithering over the keyboard. I stand beside him, jumping a little as he shouts, “Look!”

“Kassem has finally allowed humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Eleppy,” says the BBC reporter. “Thousands of near-starving people lined up in an orderly manner to receive food and medical supplies.”

I could kiss the feet of that clipped, British voice.

But Kassem is already moving on, double-clicking on another icon; he has pasted these video clips to his desktop. But it’s not like he could fake a BBC reporter, is it?

CNN. “Kassem has always denied the use of barrel bombs, but now he’s promising to punish his own soldiers if they are used in any capacity...”

I restrain the urge to burst into song,

Hello to Nova Scotia the sea-bound coast,
Let your mountains dark and dreary be,
Since I’ve been away on the briny ocean tossed,
Have you ever heaved a sigh and a thought for me?

He’s playing another video clip, so he doesn’t notice my eyes fill with sentimental tears. I’m glad he’s trying to be good, truly I am, but he’s picked the worst possible hour to ask for my attention. He’s already fading into my past.

He jabs toward the screen, and I try to focus. No way, is that the CBC? The silly tears spill onto my cheeks. “Kassem has been discussing the possibility of negotiating a cease-fire with the leaders of the rebels, through an American/Russian combined approach...”

This is truly remarkable, and little boys must be endlessly praised to continue to be good. My finger slides under his chin and urges his wet, turquoise gaze upwards. “I’m so proud of you,” I whisper and bend to brush his lips.

He leaps to his feet (but not before carefully shutting off the video stream) and clasps me in his arms. “You see? Now you believe? You are changing me. Because of you.”

I hug him back, full of affection and pride. I was right about him all along.

Yessiree, you never doubted for an instant.

“I am so glad to have spent this month with you,” I whisper. “Thank you for your rare capacity to grow and change as a human being.”

“You are changing me as a human being. I cannot lose you. I can’t do the right thing alone.”

I pull back a little, so I can gaze into those beautiful blue eyes.

Hopefully for the last time.

“First of all, you can do this without me. You’ve already started, and look at how the whole world watches and commends you! Second, why shouldn’t we stay in contact? We just have to pick up the phone.”

“It’s not the same.”

As when you’re enslaved in a cell.

“What time am I scheduled to leave, anyway?”

“Charlotte,” he says more insistently, “please listen to me. I have proved that your influence is making a difference—a huge difference. I need you. To stay on this path.”

Suddenly, I get it. Was I being deliberately stupid? It’s hard to describe this sudden feeling: like a python has wrapped its coils around my heart. It makes for difficult breathing, so I open my mouth a little.

Don’t panic.

“Kassem,” I say, as gently as I can, “I am leaving tonight. You promised. If you force me to stay, all trust will be extinguished, forever. And all influence with it.”

“Just a few more weeks,” he cries wildly. “You claim that you live according to your principles; can you forsake—can you harm a whole nation, by leaving too soon?”

Stay calm. Stay calm.

“It’s not my physical presence here that’s making the difference—it’s our conversations. We can talk on the phone. Every day if you like. I will commit to meeting you once a year, or more if you feel you need it. We can arrange a neutral meeting place through the Russians. I promise it.” I stare him in the eyes. “I never renege on my promises.”

“I agree to that,” he says. “I trust you. Now try and trust me. I swear by Allah that I will let you go in another two weeks. Two weeks is all I ask—is that so much? When we’re making such headway?”

A rage of violence so intense that I clench my hands, so as not to bash his treacherous face, rip his flesh with my teeth, penetrate his eyeballs with the tines of my fork.

“I can’t stay within these four walls a minute longer,” I scream, shoving him away with all my strength, so that he stumbles over the edge of the chair and almost falls, casting him away so I don’t try to kill him and lose any possible chance of escape.

He doesn’t get angry. “I’m just asking for another two weeks; it is now that progress is being made—it took time for me to start listening. Really listening.” He tries to insert a note of tenderness in his voice, but I’m rocking back and forth on my bed, fighting the panic, which burrows like a weevil into my stomach and cackles that I am here forever, forever, forever; I will never get out.

“Perhaps we could arrange for you to walk outside for an hour a day. Tell me what you need. Try to stick to your own values—helping the Syrian nation toward peace is an important task which Allah has given to you. It would be wrong for you to leave now. It would be a selfish act.”

You hypocritical, lying shit.

I cast my eyes to the farthest confines of my prison, whimpering. “I’ll go mad if I stay here.”

“Two weeks. If you stay, I promise to begin the process of inviting the rebel leaders to talk tomorrow. I will contact the Americans and the Russians.”

An image of him trussed like a chicken dances before my eyes. I am sawing off his penis with my dinner knife, and he is writhing and screaming. I shove the bloodied flesh down his throat while his screams morph into gags.

“I will go on the television tomorrow and swear to release you in two weeks. Before the whole world. Then you can believe me and focus on the important job we have to do together.”

I eye the teapot that Sami brought in. If I move quickly, can I throw the hot tea directly in his face?

“Talk to me.” He crouches beside me so his face is level with mine.

It wouldn’t be long before the guards came. I just have one moment of surprise. Adrenalin and rage shoot through me and I jump up and knee him with all my strength—visualizing my knee smashing into his face and snapping his head back, breaking his neck and killing him. That would be as good a way to end the war as any.

But my knee pings off his chest, and he’s on his feet in a moment, pinning my arms to my sides and gazing at me sorrowfully; then he’s gone and I am all alone.


Excerpt taken from A Hostage, a novel by Charlotte Mendel, published by Inanna Publications. Copyright Charlotte Mendel, 2023. Reprinted with permission. 

Charlotte Mendel is a traveller, an author, a parent, a farmer, a teacher and an environmental activist. Her two published adult novels have both won prizes; her first YA novel, Reversing Time was published by Guernica Editions in 2021. Charlotte has lived in Nova Scotia for 20 years and raised two wonderful children; this year she left her partner of 32 years and is in transit—her first destination is Europe.

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A Hostage

When Charlotte is kidnapped by Middle Eastern dictator Kassem, panic is only held at bay by a sardonic Inner Voice, which alternately consoles and condemns. While Kassem appears determined to explain every warlike action, Charlotte attempts to instill humanity in the dictator. Inner Voice’s incredulity at such hubris provides much-needed comic relief in an increasingly tense situation, as unbearable loneliness unleashes a storm of unexpected sexual fantasies and complex feelings.

When the promised release date comes and goes, Charlotte embarks on a hunger strike, which ultimately brings about a joyful reunion with her family. However, home life quickly disintegrates into another form of confinement, as Charlotte discovers that Kassem had used her for his propaganda, live streaming their interactions online. Media interest drives the introverted writer even further inward; as her ability to function normally deteriorates, Charlotte becomes convinced that her existence is a liability for her children.

Ultimately a post-modern fable, the novel cleverly plays with perceptions of truth while exploring the concept of imprisonment, the wider impacts of social media, and challenging widely held assumptions about fame. A Hostage probes Western political naiveté along with novelistic hubris as it, often hilariously, explores the relationship of the individual to society.