A Writer's Lust for Life -- And Death

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"I always thought I was destined to be either a serial killer or a mystery writer," says M. Sindy Felin.

Pregnant with triplets, she doesn't look like a serial killer.

Felin, who lives in Kensington, is the author of "Touching Snow," a young-adult novel of suffering and survival that has been nominated for a 2007 National Book Award. The winners will be announced tomorrow night at a black-tie to-do in New York.

In the cafeteria of the National Geographic Society, where she works as a paralegal, Felin -- tall and bookish in cream blouse, black slacks, silver-rimmed glasses -- talks about the similarities and differences between the life of her main character, Karina Lamond, and her own life. "Nobody was killed," she says of her upbringing.

The same cannot be said for Karina's story.

"Touching Snow" is a cringe-inducing novel about domestic abuse within a Haitian American family in the suburbs of New York. Here is the first line: "The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone."

The novel has received critical acclaim. "Despite its disturbing imagery, the book carries a strong message about the complexities of abuse and why victims are not always willing to take a stand," wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.

"Readers of this stirring first novel," according to Booklist, "will find well-developed characters both in the adults and in the young people, particularly Karina and her sisters, who learn to set limits on the abuse that they will take."

There was corporal punishment in Felin's home as she was growing up. Plenty of it, she says. Beatings with belts, among other brutalities. "Abuse is not uncommon in Haitian families," she says.

She was born in Brooklyn in the spring of 1972. Her mother moved to the suburbs -- Spring Valley, in Rockland County, N.Y. -- when Felin was 5. But her life had already changed: She believes she was in a Head Start class reading circle when she first learned about books and the power of storytelling. "I knew even then that I was going to make up stories when I grew up," she says.

There is at once a nurtured innocence and a natural toughness about her.

She grew up with a mother, a father, stepparents and lots of other family members in and out of the picture. Her mother's father, for instance, had 40 or so children by several women. "My mother was very savvy," Felin says. "She knew that education was the only way out."

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