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Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, calls Sid Balman Jr.’s novel Seventh Flag “the book Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read.”
He chuckles at that, and carefully explains what McCurry means: “What I think he’s saying is that the message of the book, which we’ve been discussing, is that we’re all Americans,” he says. “And it sounds so Pollyanna-ish, but I believe that. We’re all Americans, we all come from someplace else, but we look at the commonalities and work together towards something. I don’t think that’s the current President’s approach or strategy.” Balman doesn’t denigrate any Trump supporters—“where I come from, there’s plenty of friends who were Trump supporters … and I’ll defend to the death people’s right to choose”—but McCurry’s statement makes sense to him. “[Trump] has sown division. He has stigmatized opponents. And, you know, I think that a book that presents the case against that would not be something he’d like people to read and take to heart,” Balman says.
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Seventh Flag, which boutique publisher SparkPress released on Oct. 8, is a book about pluralism. It’s also a book about the tensions increasingly found in pluralistic societies, and about the plague of violent radicalism that sweeps across the novel’s world and two families over four generations. The Zarkans are Syrian Muslims whose ancestor came to the U.S. in the 19th century to join the nascent U.S. Camel Corps (a real, although failed, experiment that attracted many Arabs to West Texas before the Civil War began). The Laws are a white Irish family who have been in Texas since the mid-20th century. The real action begins after World War II, when the patriarchs of both families meet and form a fast friendship; the novel follows their descendants through the Cold War and post-9/11 tension to the present day, as their great-grandchildren personally grapple with terrorism and violence in many forms, including white supremacy and ISIS.
Balman still calls himself a Texan, though he’s been in D.C. for 25 years. After a childhood in the Dallas area and college at Vanderbilt, he came to D.C. for graduate school at American University. He got an internship at the Dallas Times Herald’s bureau in D.C. covering crime, but that wasn’t his long-term goal. “My real interests were in foreign affairs, international relations, security affairs, and traveling,” he explains. In the 1990s, he was a diplomatic and national security correspondent for UPI, covering wars in Iraq, the Balkan states, and Somalia. By the end of the decade, he says, “I started to see that the arc of the content was going to go a little different direction. So I left journalism.” He went into “behavior change communications,” consulting on issues of violence and radicalization using a larger public health model that treats radicalization like a contagious disease. That background infused Seventh Flag: like other journalists, Balman says, he always had a novel in his back pocket. “I just kind of kept gathering string, gathering stories,” he says.
And that titular seventh flag? In the book’s logic, it’s the natural successor to the six flags that have already flown over Texas, a new banner that stands for multiculturalism and an era of harmony. But Balman doesn’t think its current flag, the American flag, needs to be replaced. The seventh flag is a metaphor. “It’s not that there’s a need for another flag,” he says. “I think that if the book accomplishes anything, I hope that it has people thinking about how so many different cultures fit under that same flag.”
Balman is beginning and ending his book tour at home—after he speaks at Tenley-Friendship Library this month, he’ll travel through Texas and make stops in New Mexico and Colorado; then, a month later, he’ll speak at Politics and Prose in January. Today, he lives with his family in Northwest near American University, the campus that drew him to D.C., and he’s watched the neighborhood cycle through residents over more than two decades. He saw older people move out and younger people move in, and now, he says, he’s seeing that same cycle. And though he’s a long way from Texas, he’s happy to have raised his children here. “It’s a great, diverse environment for kids to grow up in,” he says.
Sid Balman Jr. speaks Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at Tenley-Friendship Library, 4450 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Free.