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1. Does the story of Saba Hafezi (who also experiences Iran after the revolution) in any way mirror your own?
I was born in 1979, the same year as the revolution, and so my knowledge of the tensions and anxieties of that time is second-hand. I was too young to feel it for myself. In my novel, however, Saba is born in 1970 and so she experiences the changes brought on by the revolution in tangible ways in her own life. She becomes a woman in Iran at a moment in history when becoming a woman is something to cover up, rather than a milestone to celebrate. I was lucky enough to be out of Iran during those crucial years (though an awkward Iranian puberty in post-Gulf-war Oklahoma isn’t that fantastic either… but I’ll leave those details for my second novel).
While Saba faces the revolution in ways that I didn’t, I lived through the Iran-Iraq war in a way Saba didn’t—because I grew up in a big city (Isfahan) and Saba’s story is set in a village. I went to a girls’ school in Isfahan where I had to wear hijab and chant ugly anti-Western slogans each morning. Iraqi planes often bombed our city, so that my childhood was dotted with warning sirens and rows of taped-up windows, crowds huddled around radios and mad sprints to the basement.
My story and Saba’s are very different, and someday maybe I’ll write a much more personal narrative based on my years in Iran. An interesting fact, though, is that this novel did begin as a much more personal project (see essay under Teaspoon section). Initially, I wanted to write about two sisters, each in a life I might have lived—one in Iran, one in America. At first the Mahtab half of the novel was based very much on my own American life and education. But in the end, I decided to reduce that to its present dream-like state, and to focus on the fictional life of Saba. As I researched Gilan, and shomal region of Iran, the story took on its own unalterable form. So many of the landscapes and customs of that region are uniquely its own, not found anywhere else in Iran, and so trying to make Saba’s life reminiscent of my own started to become futile. However, there are some powerful similarities: We were both raised Christian in a staunchly Muslim land. We both love losing ourselves in fictional worlds. Saba lives in a village that is very much like the one I often visited as a child (or as much as I could manage, given the differences in time and region). Though our villages are in different parts of Iran, I’ve used the culture of my own beloved Ardestan to populate Saba’s life. Also, Saba’s adolescence is colored by the pain of a missing parent, and that is something I too have experienced.
2. How much of Saba is based on you?
Saba and her family are fictional characters, and so they are not based on any one person. Naturally, since this is my debut novel, and Saba my debut protagonist, she is close to my heart and in some ways very much like me. Saba loves to read, she is single-minded and determined, but often confused and unsure of herself—in these qualities, her personality matches mine. But where Saba is afraid of greater possibilities ahead, I’ve always been bold and eager to take big risks with my life. In that way, Saba is my fear of what my life would have been had my mother not been brave enough to take me out of Iran, and had I not been hungry enough to try for the best of everything the Western world had to offer. This brazenness is my mother’s greatest gift to me.
Another way that Saba and I differ is in Saba’s constant search for a stable, peaceful existence. I spend my life searching for drama, and so I can be careless with my blessings. I am constantly looking for the thrill of a good story in my own personal narrative. Though Saba tries to avoid them, I’m addicted to heart-break and to trauma and to the next glorious thing.
So, I would say that the character that’s based on me is not Saba, but her twin sister, Mahtab.
3. Was it difficult to imagine a story in the north of Iran, where you haven’t been for 20 years?
I did an amazing amount of research for this book. It started with a vague interest in the region, a fuzzy memory of having visited the north of Iran with my family, staying in a villa and swimming in the Caspian. I began to read piles of books about Gilan and its various cities and villages, often ordering volumes from specialty bookstores in California and Iran. The packages from Iran were wonderful. They always carried a far-away musty smell and were covered in masking tape. Over the years the research grew deeper and more specific. I did interviews with natives of Gilan and Mazandaran. I asked for their personal photo albums and books. I read and listened and even watched movies until I was immersed in every detail of the north. Still I made mistakes, and so I finished a draft and began to put it through a gauntlet of Western-educated Gilaki readers. This portion was fascinating. I would give the draft to two readers, incorporate all their changes, and then give the new draft to two more. I did this several times, until the readers were no longer coming back with concrete changes, but rather saying subjective things like, “well, I don’t know if a Gilaki would think that way, but maybe she would.” That was when I knew I was ready for the ultimate test: a man who is possibly the world’s foremost Gilaki scholar, having spent a lifetime researching the region, and having written the Gilan section of the Encyclopedia Iranica: Christian Bromberger. I found that Professor Bromberger had retired to France, but he was kind enough to read one of the final drafts of my book and to point out several more mistakes. At this stage, they were minor things, edits that only a true scholar of the region could make (e.g., the kind of fish served at a dinner, or the materials used for the building of a house). He was delightfully insistent that I never leave turmeric out of any recipes. “And also turmeric!” he would say, with exclamation marks.
I’m sure I’ve made other mistakes as a result of writing the novel from far away, just as Saba makes mistakes when she imagines a fictional America for her sister, Mahtab. But I take responsibility (and a measure of delight) in those inevitable errors. They’re part of a process that nurtured and changed me as a writer and as an Iranian exile. If I could go back, I wouldn’t choose any other region or time for my debut novel.
I have such a longing to visit Gilan someday soon. It is something I think about daily. But that longing is also what made this research a joy and not a burden. As I spoke with my interviewees and readers, I began to imagine myself there, and to feel the depth of their memories as my own.
4. How did you become a writer? What was your motivation in writing this book? What was the process like?
My passion for writing came before my desire to write this specific book. Growing up, I had a distinctly immigrant experience. My family left Iran when I was eight, spent two years in refugee communities, and was given asylum in the United States when I was ten. We moved to Oklahoma, where I went from being the star of my school (in Iran) to being a foreign kid, a kind of outcast. I became very ambitious early on. I wanted nothing more than to be the perfect American high-achiever, to attend an Ivy League school, to live in New York and to rocket my way through the wide world. In many ways I was successful. I sailed through Princeton and two jobs in New York and Harvard Business School, feeling satisfied with myself because I was working toward my future as a great leader of something. I was very good at it, but also very unhappy. This is when I began to write fiction. It was the kernel of joy in my otherwise bleak routine. Then, for personal reasons, I moved to a village outside of Paris where I began my research into my own culture. I became obsessed. I had already discovered my love of writing, and now I wanted to experience so much more of my home country. I began cooking its foods, learning its music, reading its poetry. In 2009, the stolen Iranian elections captivated me and I made friends within the Iranian exile community of Amsterdam (where I had since moved). I started to write this novel and to retreat into my own world. Over the years, I gained a deeper sense of my identity and my desires for the future. Sadly, this meant the end of many beautiful things that I had spent years building.
5. How did the book evolve? What did it look like at first?
At first my vision for the novel was to write a work of magical-realism about two sisters, separated at an early age. I imagined that one would live an exciting American life full of possibility (paralleling my own), while the other would lead a somewhat romantic and peaceful existence in an Iranian village (the life I might have lived). The first draft of the novel was much like an old Persian fairytale. It had monsters and jinns and paris. It had a magical disembodied hand in a hammam. It had characters so hideous they could only exist in fairy tales. Some of the remnants of that old world magic are still left in the Mahtab stories that Saba tells to her friends. They are contained now, in the place they belong, in Saba’s imagination. But in the original version the mystical stuff was everywhere.
Another feature of the earliest draft was that it was a six-hundred-page epic. I had devoted three-hundred pages to each sister, following them from early childhood all the way through marriage and motherhood. It was a fascinating, winding story, and the magic of it was much wilder and less restrained than it is now. Maybe one day, I’ll resurrect some version of it, but as I recall, it was like a fairytale monster itself—yes, it was big and magical and fierce, but it had many useless arms and legs, and a hundred ugly deformities.
6. Did anything surprise you, or anything surprising happen, during the course of writing the book?
I think I changed as a person during the writing of this novel. Before I started I was almost oblivious to my Iranian background and very happy not to have it advertised. I was an American and a Francophile and very happy with my life and choices. But as I discovered more about Iran, I developed this sense of something missing. I thought it would wear off, that as I did more research, it would be quenched through books and songs and conversation with Iranians. But it only highlighted how much I’d been missing. This novel launched me into a year-long depression that coincided, strangely, with the stolen Iranian election in 2009. At that point I was in Amsterdam, and I tried to throw myself more and more into the Iranian world, but even that wasn’t enough. I toyed with the idea of going back, but I was (am) too frightened. In the end, it became a grief I’ve learned to live with. It’s like an amputated limb. At first you struggle and wail and throw things, trying so hard to deny the truth of what’s missing. But then you calm down, you accept it, and you learn to use what you have. I listen to a lot of Iranian music now. I’m obsessed with Viguen. He’s a singer that brought western style music to Iran and melded it with traditional folk music. He’s revered by Persians everywhere and his career went strong from the 1950’s until he died in 2003. I can’t stop listening to his songs. As an Iranian-American friend said to me once, “With all our sophisticated tastes toward world music and culture, we basically end up in love with the Elvis of our own.”
7. What writer or writers have had the greatest influence on you?
Kazuo Ishiguro: Ishiguro is the first writer that I followed with fan-like loyalty. At first I was drawn by the moral dilemmas he presented, but eventually I came to love his simple, powerful storytelling, and his subtle way of resurrecting moments or objects that have been deeply embedded earlier in order to bring emotions to the surface.
Chang-Rae Lee: Lee’s Native Speaker made me think differently about “the immigrant story” because not only did he show in exquisite detail the ordeal of being an exile, but his storylines and prose surprised me on every page. His subplots were so bizarre and wonderful and heartbreaking. I think I took ten pages of notes just on technique as I was reading that.
Marilyn Robinson: Housekeeping is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s hard even to describe what I learned from it, except maybe that it’s possible to achieve transcendence in writing.
Lan Samantha Chang: I recently read Hunger and every sentence blew me away. The title novella in particular was almost painful to read because of its realistic portrayal of so many different kinds of anguish. Watching the deterioration of a talented musician, an exile, through the eyes of his helpless wife was particularly compelling for me.
Jhumpa Lahiri: I love the way she describes things. There are details that I’ve seen and noticed and written about, and then she describes them and they’re new again.
Jeffrey Eugenides: I’ve read all of his works and the one that I loved most was Middlesex. In that book he not only unfolded a rich family saga, but he created an entire world spanning countries and generations that I found both completely understandable and completely baffling.
Michael Chabon: Each sentence reads like it took a week to write. It exhausts me to think about him working. He’s a genius. I’d love to watch him work for just an hour.
Tobias Wolff: In Old School I was struck by how convincingly Wolff wrote from the perspective of an adult telling his childhood story. He presented every voice, every detail, so vividly yet believably from far in the future. I found it incredibly brave that he took on the speaking voices of Frost, Rand, and Hemingway, and they were spot on. How can anyone have such guts? It was amazing.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I don’t think I’m qualified to give advice… except maybe this:
Show your work humbly and gratefully to anyone who will read it.
And don’t self-publish.
9. What are you working on at present?
Funny you should ask! Check out the link for my second novel, here.