There’s a joke about Twitter that goes something like this: Every day the site has one main character, and the way you win the game of Twitter is by not being it.
Natasha Tynes, sadly, had a turn in the barrel as Twitter’s main character: one morning a year or so ago, she tweeted about a Metro employee eating on a train, snapping a photo of the offending worker when she did so. Tynes’s heart was … well, not in the right place, exactly — she was, after all, trying to get a worker in dutch with her bosses — but not out of the norm for how people in Washington, D.C., react to the various indignities of the city’s subpar public transit.
Her tweet quickly spiraled out of control after influencers like Roxanne Gay determined that Tynes’s tweet wasn’t just mean-spirited, but racist. Never mind the fact that Tynes — a Jordanian-American immigrant whose accent gets her special attention at TSA checkpoints — made no mention of race in her tweets. Didn’t matter: Twitter’s outrage police had decided she deserved a smackdown. Her soon-to-be-published novel, They Called Me Wyatt, was canceled. She received death threats. She went to the hospital after enduring a panic attack caused by her world crashing down around her. She even fled the country for a while.
When I was hired by Dallas Sonnier to run REBELLER, he mentioned that he was working on acquiring They Called Me Wyatt from the cowardly publisher that abandoned Tynes in her time of need. And I was glad. As a student of Twitter’s habit of spiraling into life-destroying outrage at the smallest of offenses, Tynes’s story long jumped out to me as particularly egregious. Did she make a mistake? Sure. Was she some sort of horrible bigot who deserved to have her life’s work destroyed? Absolutely not.
I’m thrilled REBELLER has decided to publish They Called Me Wyatt. You can buy it here on paperback or for your Kindle. And I hope those who played a part in destroying this poor woman’s life will read this and consider the damage they’ve done to a person who should’ve been the posterchild for the modern immigrant success story.
Sonny Bunch: How are you holding up, in this, the age of quarantine and lockdown?
Natasha Tynes: It's hard with the three kids at home, but I'm managing. Try to stay sane. Working out every day, which is really helping. And just surviving on those endorphins. But I'm okay.
SB: Did you have a little gym set up at home before? Or did you have to make one?
NT: I joined Beachbody. And then I had to look for their weights and I couldn't find them anywhere. So I had to go to sites like Craigslist and Letgo, and it was a whole drama finding weights. But I found some.
SB: I have two small children so my exercise is basically walking them around the block and then carrying them back up the hills when they get tired.
NT: Yeah, I have a two-year-old and an eight-year-old twins.
SB: That's a handful right there. So let's talk about Wyatt and everything that has happened with it. What was it that made you want to sit down and actually write a work of fiction?
NT: So, I've been writing since I was really young. I started in my hometown of Jordan where I grew up, and I started writing in Arabic, which is my native language. And then when I moved to the U.S. 15 years ago I was busy living the immigrant life, trying to survive. And then I read a profile of a Chinese-American author, her name is Yiyun Li. And I was blown away by her story. And her story was that she moved to the U.S., I think she was a teenager, and she didn't speak a word of English. And then she was a Science major and then she quit everything and then she became an author. And she started learning English and then starting writing short stories. And then she won tons of awards and now she's a best-selling author.
And so I got her book, start reading her short stories. And I was so inspired by her journey that I decided to start writing short stories. So, I joined The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. And I started taking short story workshops and just started writing short stories. And then I formed my own writer's group and 10 years later we still meet. We actually met yesterday over Zoom. And we started writing stories and exchanging stories. And then through the years, after many rejections, I managed to get published. I published three short stories in different publications. And then I wrote one short story based on a dream that I had, which is that I was killed and I was reincarnated in a body of a three-year-old boy. And I wrote it as a short story and I presented it to my writers group. And one of the writers told me, "Natasha, this is a fascinating story, I suggest you turn it into a novel." And so I guess the rest is history.
SB: Can we talk a little bit about writing a work of fiction while also trying to maintain a day job and all that? Because I'm always inspired by hearing stories about people who, they're not Stephen King, they're not paid to write fiction full time. They just kind of sit down and either bang out two or three pages of a script a day, or five pages of a novel every day. Describe that process to me.
NT: I would set the alarm at 5:45 to give myself time to drink my coffee and just wake up. And then six to seven-ish I would just write whatever I ... I mean, some of it was just garbage, but the idea of showing up to write was really helpful. Sometimes I would think of what I'm going to write the day before, like while I'm on the D.C. Metro, ironically. Or if I'm walking from my office to the Metro or whatever, I would let the ideas would come and I would sometimes just write them quickly on my notepad on my iPhone so when I wake up the next morning I know what I'm going to write about. So, I just like dump it, I just dump three, four, 500 words. Some people call it the vomit draft. I would not just go back and revise, just write, write, write, write. And I had a goal of finishing the first draft before I turned 40. And on my birthday, the day I turned 40, I wrote the last page. And that was the last page of the first draft. And of course after that I continued waking up at 6 AM every day, but just doing the revision.
I found very little literature that is based from someone who actually grew up in the Middle East ... my kids are the first-generation immigrants, I am the immigrant. So I felt there's also a huge need to expose that part of the American culture.
SB: Let's talk a little bit about the book itself and kind of that idea of melding the cultures. Because that's what's really fascinating about the novel to me, is the way it kind of pulls together all of these different life experiences. And I think really, it does add a new and kind of unique voice to the literary scene.
NT: The way the book developed is because I wrote about what I know. I decided to stay true to myself and to what I know. And what I know is growing up in the Middle East and then moving to the U.S. And based on that experience of melding the cultures, I wrote the book. Because for example, my husband is from the U.S. and he was born in the U.S. and grew up in Virginia. So my kids as well, are exposed to these two different cultures. And so all my life, while I grew up in the Middle East, but I traveled around. I studied in the UK, and then I moved to the U.S., and I lived in different countries. So this melding of culture is really the core of who I am and it influences my writing.
And there are many authors that I really admire and that influenced me. One of them is Jhumpa Lahiri, who's an Indian American author. And then I liked Junot Diaz. I loved his voice, which is informal, funny, smart voice. And one of the things that I noticed about American literature, which was it's mostly written by first- and second-generation immigrants. So you have the author basing mostly the American experience on their parents moving to the U.S, or growing up in a family of immigrants.
But I found very little literature that is based from someone who actually grew up in the Middle East and lived that life. Grew up in the '80s and '90s and then moved to the U.S. So someone like me who has an accent. Someone who did not grow up in the U.S. My kids are the first-generation immigrants, I am the immigrant. So I felt there's also a huge need to expose that part of the American culture.
SB: The initial response to the book was pretty positive on Goodreads. I went back and I looked at the earliest reviews and it's got lots of four stars, five stars, people talking about you being an exciting new voice. What was your take on the initial response to the book?
NT: I was pretty happy. I was pleasantly surprised. I think that women in general, doubt themselves all the time and I had my own self-doubt. And I was not sure people would relate to the story because it's a bit bizarre. So I was happy and encouraged and I started thinking of writing another novel. I mean, there were some criticisms, which is fine. Every book has people who might criticize it, but I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't expect people to like it the way they did initially.
So it was online for maybe 49 minutes, that was it. Just 49 minutes.
SB: And now of course, we turn to the unfortunate backlash. Let's talk a little bit about what happened that day on the Metro, and then we can talk a little bit more about the backlash to the tweet.
NT: [Deep sigh] I woke up in the morning and I think, did some writing or maybe I was doing some marketing stuff for the book, I think maybe responding to some questions for someone who wanted to interview me or something. So I woke up at six that day and got dressed, got the kids ready for school and took the train to the Metro. When I got on the train the Metro employee comes inside the Metro whatever car where I was and suddenly the whole place starts smelling of food. And I look at her and she had that huge plate of food and she was eating from. And I was just shocked because this is a rule, no one can eat on the Metro. And I remember once I had a banana on the platform, not even inside the Metro, and I was yelled at and I was asked to throw it in the trash, which I did.
So I was just really surprised and I guess I was just compelled to say something. And I think part of me is I grew up as a journalist. I have a Master's in Journalism and I always look at things from a journalistic point of view. And so I first, I just went and talked to her and I told her, "Hey, I thought you're not supposed to eat on the Metro." In retrospect, I should have minded my own business, to each his own. But a lapse of judgment and I went and talked to her. And I was really taken aback by her reaction, which she told me to pretty much, "Worry about yourself, da, da, da, da." And which, for a Metro employee in uniform, that's not the kind of reaction I expected. So I told her that I'm going to report this. And I took a picture of her and I posted the tweet.
And part of me, I thought I was exposing how the Metro needs to work, improve its service. Because it's part of the D.C. culture to complain about the D.C. Metro.
So I've been tweeting about the Metro since I first started tweeting, for years. So I'm on the Red Line in Rockville, so complain about the Red Line. And people always tweet about the Metro, it's the D.C culture. I understand that I should not have taken her picture. But I felt compelled to do so because she was in uniform and part of me felt like I'm exposing the hypocrisy on the D.C. Metro. Again, if I can take this back, I would. And I should have done this in a more private manner like just turn it to them.
And I think what compelled me is the Metro's policy of see something, say something. And they encourage you to report stuff. So when I tweeted at the Metro account they responded back thanking me. And saying, "Thank you for quote, unquote "catching" this. Please give us more info." So I just responded back with the info that they asked for. And I remember when I responded back I was like, "Shit, did I just jeopardize this woman's job?" And I started having these conflicting feelings. And like, oh my God, I should have done this. And then when I started getting negative feedback to the tweet I was like, "Oh shit, that was wrong." So I just deleted it.
So it was online for maybe 49 minutes, that was it. Just 49 minutes.
But of course knowing the internet, somebody took a screen capture of it. And then the influencers started take it. And then I didn't even know the existence of something called Black Twitter, and then all these major African American influencers started retweeting it and just my phone exploded. And I was at work, I remember, I had a meeting at 10 AM and I was out of it, I couldn't focus. I was supposed to discuss something, I was leading the meeting and mind was elsewhere like, "Shit, what did I do?" And I went to talk to my boss immediately to flag it. I told her, "I think this is going to be an issue, I wanted to let you know about it before it explodes."
SB: Sure. I’ve been there.
NT: I just could not stay at work that day and I left. I called my husband told him to come pick me up. And he picked me up and on the way home from D.C. back to Rockville the phone is ringing and I talked to my publisher and he said, the main publisher which is Rare Bird, my publisher was, he's like, is really pissed off. And I told them over the phone, "Let me talk to him, let me explain." And he's like, "I don't think it's a good idea." And then I hung up the phone and I started crying. And I felt really awful, like panic attack, had really a meltdown. And I told my husband, "I think I need to go to the ER." I was just melting down. So he took me to the ER and they sedated me of whatever. And I was discharged the same day. And I didn't know what was happening because I put my phone away, I couldn't look at it. And then while I was at the hospital, that night the publisher issues the statement saying that they're not going to publish the book. And I didn't know about that. My husband and my friends hid that from me because they wanted me to be better. So the next morning I couldn't resist and looked at my phone and I saw the statement.
NT: My mom in Jordan, she didn't know what Twitter was, she didn't know anything. And she called my cousin and asked him to open her a Twitter account so she can follow. And her English is not great so she would ask, "What does snitch means? What does bitch mean?" Because she would read all these insults thrown at her daughter and I felt guilty for putting her through this. She's a 75-year-old woman who does not know English well and seeing the whole world cussing out her daughter. And so I decided that I need to leave so I went to Jordan. I wanted the support of my ... I guess to be with quote, unquote "my own people." I wanted that sort of support. My parents, my sisters, my friends are all back in Jordan. I went on my own. I went to Jordan, stayed there, I felt much better. And then I had to come back because I had the kids and the family. And then I continued searching for jobs and trying to rebuild my life. And then in the midst of that, I was talking to a lawyer to see what I'm going to do about the contract and we decided to sue the publisher for breach of contract, for defamation. And eventually I ran out of money, honestly, and had to drop the case.
And in the midst of that I was approached by Dallas and I decided to republish the book with CINESTATE, and now REBELLER, and I'm very happy with the outcome, that there is a happy ending.
Did I deserve this? Did I deserve the death threats did I deserve to have all my Google entries, when future employers Google me, find this about me the snitch and the bitch or whatever? Did I deserve all of that?
SB: Yeah. Well, yep, we're glad to be here too. It's funny, you mentioned the culture of Twitter and the culture of complaining about the Metro, and this is a culture I know: I did live in D.C. for 15 years or so. I just moved to Dallas about four months ago. So I am very familiar with that culture and it is kind of an interesting thing to think about, just from an outsider's point of view here. You thought you were playing the game, right? You were playing the game of Twitter.
SB: And then it kind of backfired on you. That has to have been just a horrible, terrible feeling.
NT: Yes. Because, as you said, I am playing the game of Twitter. And I always follow the Unsuck DC Metro and I retweet his stuff. And I joke, we laugh about his stuff. It really was the game of Twitter. And I did not even think twice about it in the beginning because I've seen so many pictures of people doing silly things on the Metro. People post pictures of people eating, people throwing stuff, I'm sure you've seen those tweets.
SB: Sure, sure.
NT: And we just laugh about them. And for me, the fact that she was in uniform, I thought that was a carte blanche to take her picture because, look I exposed something, I'm the journalist. And looking back I realize that I have almost 10,000 followers and I realize how I used my influence for the negative. Because I feel I did not think much about how it would impact her, the employee. I was more about the public good of how the Metro sucks and how we paying all this money and the Metro keeps sucking.
NT: Did I deserve this? Did I deserve the death threats did I deserve to have all my Google entries, when future employers Google me, find this about me the snitch and the bitch or whatever? Did I deserve all of that?
I worked so hard to get to where I am. I grew up, and I'm not like an Arab princess with rich parents, I grew up in a lower-middle class family in Amman. We lived in a teeny, tiny apartment. We couldn't afford anything. I didn't get gifts for Christmas or whatever, or birthday parties. I remember I learned how to ride a bike inside that small apartments because there was nowhere to go. When I got my master's in England it was a full scholarship from the British government, fully paid.
I really, really worked hard. I was the immigrant success story. And to have all of this taken away by a stupid tweet that was intended to do good, is. And how was interpreted into this racism, which was the shocking part for me is mind-blowing.
SB: This is one thing I actually am really curious to get your take on here. Because this is what has always jumped out to many of us who follow these stories of cancel culture or whatever, right. Your case in particular is one that it seems to have been twisted pretty radically. Because like you say, you were tweeting about the Metro, you were trying to improve the Metro. Even if you went about it the wrong way, you're playing the game of, “here's a thing that's bad on the Metro.” It's a game that the D.C. public is very familiar with. And instead of it being treated as, here's something about the Metro, it's treated as, here's something about a black person.
NT: Yeah, for me, that was the most shocking part. Because I don't think people realize that at least, I think was 95% of the Metro employees are African American. So it's not like I singled her out because she was black. And plus we live in D.C. for God's sake, it's not like we live in an all-white town, we're not used to people of color. I, myself, am an Arab American. And I get all these racist comments is probably more than an African American, because first of all, I was not born here, I have an accent, I'm from a scary place called the Middle East where I always get stopped at the airport, I get randomly selected. I have all of this baggage that I carry around.
So the fact that I singled her out because I'm this white supremacist, what some people called me that on Twitter, is ridiculous. And plus I'm in D.C., I work in the World Bank. Do you know how many culture I'm surrounded with? I did not want to respond by saying, "Look at the picture of my black friends," because that's silly. But the idea is in D.C. we have friends and neighbors from all over the world, African American, Nigerian Americans, Hispanics, wherever. At my kids' schools the whites are a minority. So the idea of I single her because she's black, it's ridiculous. It is ridiculous. I did not grow up here, I should not carry the white guilt. I'm an outsider to both, to the African American culture and to the white culture. And I should not be the scapegoat for race relations in the U.S.
That is the part that was so unfair. I think the minute the people would actually see me, and hear me talk and hear my accent, and hear my story, they realize that their accusations are completely false. I'm not the same woman who in, wherever it was, in Chicago who called the cops when people were barbecuing or whatever, that is not the same. You cannot equate me with all of the other stories that happen because I was just trying to complain about the D.C. Metro and I did it in the wrong way. But race was the last thing on my mind. And again, in D.C. seeing an African American person is not going to make you think twice. Because this is what D.C. is, we all live in a multicultural society.
And that's what I hoped the book would do, is just send a message, change people's hearts.
SB: What do you hope for the book now that it's actually going to get out there and people will get a chance to read it?
NT: I'm hoping that people will enjoy it, that's number one. And what I hope from any book is what I'm hoping for my book, that will change something in them, change some sort of perspective. Ironically, the book itself talks a lot about racism. And talks a lot about race relationship in the U.S. and seeing things from an immigrant’s eye. And even from, let's say, from the eyes of a Caucasian looking at an emigrant. And I just wanted people to have a better understanding of not only the emigrant [inaudible 00:38:39], but also as being a woman. Because being a female emigrant is a double whammy, honestly, because you have to deal with a lot. And I was also on the Middle East and I was harsh on the U.S. also. I was harsh on both. And it's just, I wanted people to have a better understanding, I think. And that's what I hoped the book would do, is just send a message, change people's hearts. Just if they can come up with one thing about it is just that would be something in it that is memorable. Not just like a cheap mystery that you read on the airplane and then toss away. I want people to remember the book or to remember scenes from it.
And realize as well, that authors are not perfect human beings. And you cannot just judge a piece of art based on the actions of the author. Because although it was innocent from my part, I had a lapse of judgment, but that does not mean that the work itself should be tossed. Because no one is perfect. And people are throwing stone on Twitter and those people themselves are not perfect and you cannot expect the same perfection from an author. You just can't. Because we are humans and that's part of what makes us humans, we make errors, we learn, we ask for second chances, we improve, and that's the life's journey. And expecting perfection from an author is unrealistic.