Category Archives: Iranian American

Two Parrots by Rashin, inspired by a tale from Rumi

Two ParrotsAccording to a note at book’s end, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī of 13th-century Persia, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or simply Rumi, “… is currently considered to be the ‘most popular poet in America.’” International award-winning illustrator/writer Rashin wants to make sure that even the youngest readers can access and appreciate the timeless poet. To that end, in a simple, contemporary translation illuminated with captivating pictures, Rashin presents a story about love and freedom from Rumi’s iconic, extensive Masnavi, his six-volume poem of Sufi spiritual lessons.

“Once upon a time, in Persia,” begins this tale of “a wealthy merchant who had everything.” Still, he found himself a bit lonely, and bought a lively talking parrot to keep him company. In spite of all the endless comforts the merchant offers his fine feathered friend, the parrot remains sad in his beautiful golden cage.

As the merchant makes plans for a trip to India, he generously asks all his servants what he might bring back as gifts. Rather than any luxuries, the parrot’s only desire is but a message to a friend: “‘Tell him I would love to see him, but I can’t because I live in a cage.’” The merchant dutifully delivers the missive, only to witness the friend’s sudden death at the news. Upon his return home, how the merchant’s own parrot reacts to his regretful report teaches the merchant “a lesson [he] will never forget.”

Rashin, too, is just as ingenious as her avian characters, as she creates a complementary ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ narrative in Farsi. In case you’re not lucky enough (like grateful me) to have a literary Persian friend, allow me to share a few tidbits. The three servants’ requests penned on a long scroll, begin with the word ‘sogati,’ the Persian concept of gifts gathered from one’s travels to specifically share with family and friends waiting at home (think souvenirs with purpose) – in this case, items include “perfume, clothes, jewels, sweets, wine, fruits, scarf, fabric.” The merchant is surely indulgent.

Most revealing of all is the parroted epistolary exchange: the sealed envelope at story’s beginning suggests that the Indian parrot’s name is Sina, as he writes, “My dear friend, salaam [hello] …,” to his caged buddy; as the ending nears, the scattered pages around the parrot’s cage show a letter in progress, in which the trapped parrot replies to his friend: “Salaam, my dear friend, I wished I could see you,” and “You are lucky because you are free.”

Love should never be at the cost of freedom, and Rashin-via-Rumi offers an important early lesson about healthy relationships (21st-century helicopter parents – who me?! – might take careful note). Thanks to Rashin’s vivid, empathetic presentation, here’s a teachable moment translated into an enchanting, memorable experience.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Iranian American, Persian

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to AmericaA few months ago when I came upon this fascinating article, “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin, I started trolling around for authors venturing into unexpected ‘color’-ful fictional territory. I was fascinated to find two bestselling writers who each took on transracial adoption – with vastly disparate results.

I read Ann Hood’s The Red Thread first; it had an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ Transracial adoption was presented with a disturbing tinge of entitlement and commodification. Thank goodness that in Digging to America (energetically read by the fabulous Blair Brown), transracial adoption becomes less a focal point than a plot detail used to bring three generations of two diverse families together.

On Friday, August 15, 1997, the Dickinson-Donaldson and Yazdan clans become inextricably joined when Jin-Ho and Sooki arrive on the same flight from Korea to join their respective waiting families. Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson and Susan Yazdan are the reason their parents and grandparents become friends, neighbors, even lovers, as their stories intertwine over leaf-raking get-togethers, “Arrival” parties, new year celebrations, binky send-offs, and even illness.

Bitsy and Brad Donaldson are the quintessential politically correct, trying-to-be-culturally sensitive older couple with too-loud opinions and not enough nunchi. Their overwhelming exuberance provides welcome and warmth for the younger Iranian American couple, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, whose child-rearing practices couldn’t be more different, with their double careers, preschool enrollment at age 2, and plans for private education. Soon enough, the dual family ties become further entangled when Bitsy’s father Dave and Sami’s mother Maryam begin to (finally!) spend more time together … until they don’t. Quiet, restrained, ever the ‘outsider,’ Maryam nevertheless will eventually claim the protagonist role with transforming awareness.

Anne Tyler’s own long marriage to an Iranian (who died in 1997) and their two hapa Iranian American daughters (daughter Mitra Modarressi is a children’s book author and illustrator; mother and daughter collaborated on two kiddie titles) surely gives her intimate access to ‘the other’ – her own experiences as both an outsider daughter-in-law, and as the wife to an outsider immigrant. That said, experience doesn’t always guarantee an effective transfer to the novel; Ann Hood became the mother of a Chinese-born daughter years before she wrote Red Thread.

For Tyler, her literary strength is surely in the details. Into what might initially seem to be inconsequential, sometimes even comical, small moments in her story, Tyler manages to weave in life-altering history such as 9/11 and its effects, as well as small personal changes signaled by the purchase of a new bicycle helmet. Again and again, Tyler reveals her Pulitzer Prize-winning mastery, a magical metamorphosis of the tiny into something tremendous.

Tidbit: In a rare interview (she eluded the media for 35 years!), Tyler claims she’s working on what will be her ‘final’ novel (say it ain’t so!); the title, she reveals, will be A Spool of Blue Thread. Staying tuned …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian American, Korean American, Nonethnic-specific

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Teaspoon of Earth and SeaBefore she is even a teenager, Saba Hafezi reveals herself to be quite the unreliable narrator. Telling stories, however, is what will save her youthful soul … and many of those around her. “This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach,” Dina Nayeri‘s ambitious, sprawling debut novel opens.

At 11, Saba and her father are irrevocably separated from beloved mother and twin. Father and daughter quietly settle in a remote northern Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, where a coven of local women raise Saba, feeding her, chiding her, nurturing her, loving her. She is one of an inseparable threesome – the beautiful Ponneh and the desirable Reza whose mother regularly interrupts Saba’s tales with her own. Being only half a family, growing up deprived of her other half, Saba seems to live only half her own life. To compensate, she imagines what Mahtab and their maman might be experiencing on the other side of the world as she carefully constructs their faraway lives based on her obsessions with pirated copies of American television shows and films, and illicit copies of English-language books.

But in spite of her daydreams of (im)possibility, Saba’s must accept some semblance of immediate normalcy. She matures into young womanhood, agrees to an arranged marriage to a much older man who welcomes her with kind gentleness … until she asks for what he deems as too much. She witnesses the controlling, violent, murderous injustices happening all around her, always encroaching closer to home. Safety can no longer be ensured, and both father and daughter realize they must invent a new narrative to guarantee Saba’s future.

“I am an Iranian exile,” Nayeri writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” “This story is my dream of Iran … Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.” Just as Saba feeds her assumptions and dreams, Nayeri had an international team of willing friends, family, colleagues who “helped [her] research this book from the United Sates, France, and Holland.” Takes the world to create a village these days, especially one that no longer exists.

Twenty years after Saba’s last memory of her departing mother and sister (recounted over 420 pages or 15.5 hours if you choose to have Sneha Mathan lull you into imaginary worlds), nothing – and absolutely everything – will have changed: “I must stop telling myself stories, but it is too much in my nature,” Saba ponders on the final page. Even at book’s end with so much revealed, we remain too mesmerized not to continue to believe.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali

Together Tea“In the car, Mina turned on the news. ‘Iran’ was mentioned in the same breath as ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue.’ Just once, Mina wanted to hear the name of her old country mentioned in the same breath as ‘joy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness.’” What Mina longs for is exactly what readers receive in Marjan Kamali‘s toothsome debut novel about an Iranian American mother and daughter, and their “Life on the Hyphen.” [Don't, by the way, read with empty belly!] If you choose to go audible, comedian Negin Farsad (The Muslims Are Coming!) adds pitch-perfect authenticity (except not so much with the Korean names, not that I’m quibbling, ahem!).

In 1982, the Rezayi family escapes their native Tehran, and arrives in Queens to begin their immigrant lives: doctor Parviz makes pizzas, ordered about by entitled teenagers, until he’s able to pass the exams for his U.S. medical license and reclaim authority; math professor wannabe Darya bends over a sewing machine in the window of “Wa-g Dry Cleaning” until her love of numbers (and Parviz) leads her to start a Saturday math club which eventually helps her find number-crunching employment at a local bank. Their children are their successful American dream: their doctor oldest son, their lawyer younger son, and their youngest Mina, who is in the midst of getting her MBA, even as she longs to be an artist.

In 1998, Mina at 25 is still unmarried, and Darya is not above creating complicated spreadsheets that should reveal the perfect permutation for a perfect husband for her precious only daughter. “‘Together tea,’” Mina’s mother Darya says “in her Persian way of speaking English. ‘You come, Mina, and we’ll have together tea.’” In spite of her matrimonial objections, Mina is somehow convinced once more to meet the latest suitor who flies up from Atlanta for a sumptuous lunch and stilted conversation. Mr. Dashti’s matched relief when their visit is over gives Mina a sudden new idea: after 15 years away, Mina wants to visit Iran … and Darya surprises both husband and daughter by announcing she’ll be accompanying Mina ‘home.’

Yes, for the quickest description, Tea is something akin to Iranian American chick lit. But given Iran’s history and ‘axis of evil’ relationship with the U.S., Kamali is well aware of the challenges and tragedies on both sides of Mina’s ‘hyphen’: in Iran, revolution and war destroy parts of Mina’s extended family – including her beloved grandmother – while the vicious new regimes suffocate its citizens; in the U.S., Mina is silenced by a bully who lumps her with hostage-taking terrorists even as he literally gobbles up her Darya-packed meals. Darya’s closest American friends are originally Indian and Korean nationals who can empathize about being immigrants, but are also all too familiar with violently torn-apart homelands.

While Mina’s brothers advise her “‘make it easy for yourself’” by associating their heritage “‘with good stuff – like fancy rugs and fat cats,’” her father insists on a longer history filled with “‘astronomy, science, mathematics, and literature, and … a leader, Cyrus the Great, who had the gumption to free the Jewish people and declare human rights!’” Even as Kamali never loses sight of that longed-for ‘joy’ or freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness,’ she also makes sure to bolster her narrative with memorable, substantive heft.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be MineLet me know if you’ve heard this one before … because I’m convinced this is one of the most unusual narratives I’ve come across in years! Here’s first love with quite the surprising contemporary socio-political twist!

As the daughters of two best friends, Sahar and Nasrin were destined to spend their young lives together. At 8, Sahar announced that she intended to marry Nasrin. Now at 17, Sahar’s mother has been dead for five years, her father never quite recovered – sometimes, he seems to be as much a missing parent as his beloved late wife. Always a serious student, Sahar dreams she will go to Tehran University and become a surgeon. She never imagined that her regular “study sessions” with Nasrin – filled more with stolen kisses than books – would come to such an abrupt end: beautiful, spoiled, pampered Nasrin is fulfilling her parent’s wishes and getting married in just a few months.

Shocked and desperate, Sahar is willing to do anything to claim Nasrin. When she meets Parveen, a friend of her older (wilder) cousin Ali, she’s inspired to change her entire being for the chance to stop Nasrin’s wedding. Parveen is a transsexual; in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death, gender reassignment is not only legal, but the financial costs of changing sex are even covered by the government. After Thailand, Iran has the second highest number of sex change operations in the world! Now Sahar must quickly decide whether first love is worth giving up her identity … 

In an essay on her publisher’s websiteSara Farizan talks about writing the book her “inner teenager … wished for years earlier.” Farizan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was “deeply closeted until college”; as she thought of her own struggles with her sexuality, she considered “what it would mean for someone like me to grow up in Iran, having the same feelings I had but being unable to express them as openly as I can in the United States.” And so begins Farizan’s intriguing, engrossing, unique debut novel.

Tidbit: DC-area folks! Take note – Sara Farizan is coming to Politics and Prose tonight at 7:00. Click here for more information.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Equal of the Sun“Based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom” seems to be the dominant short-hand description (even on its own back cover) of Anita Amirrezvani‘s historical novel set in 16th-century Persia, now modern Iran. Some might find that description misleading, and expect this to be Princess Pari’s story, told in Pari’s voice. The narrative actually belongs to her chief eunuch and advisor, Javaher, who Amirrezvani reveals in the “Author’s Note” is one of several “invented characters.” Lest you feel deprived, don’t: Javaher makes for an excellent protagonist (especially as voiced by a perennial audible favorite, Simon Vance). He takes immediate control with the very first words – “I swear to you …” – as he declares his unwavering intention to “set down the truth about the princess.” He explains, “As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story.”

Scant documentation survives about Princess Pari who was the favored daughter of Tahmasb Shah (1514-1576), the second ruler of the Safavi dynasty which reigned over one of the most significant Persian empires. In Sun, the few known major events of Pari’s royal existence are a vehicle for Javaher to share his enthralling, detail-laden experiences – and Amirrezvani makes exceptional use her fictional freedom – both inside the carefully-guarded harem and considerably beyond the palace gates.

Javaher joins Pari’s service, personally chosen by the revered, celebrated Shah. In order to prove his loyalty to the same royal court that accused and executed his father on distorted charges, Javaher has shockingly emasculated himself as a young man – much later than his fellow eunuchs who were made so in early boyhood. Javaher is determined to reclaim both his shattered family’s honor … and their former power. When the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming his chosen heir, Pari (and much of the court) knows that as his favored protegé, she is by far the best prepared, most knowing successor … if only she were not a woman. More and more, Pari’s brilliant, dangerous machinations rely on Javaher’s silence, his devotion, his intelligence, and his access to outside connections.

Because this is Javaher’s story, Sun moves beyond his royal service with intriguing subplots that include his personal quest to seek revenge on his father’s accuser, his determination to save his younger sister from their greed-driven aunt, and (with enough detail to make one blush at least a few shades of grey) his surprising romantic liaisons (birth control measures not required). Untethered by recorded facts, Amirrezvani’s fictional hero is a fascinating creation, fully aware of his Machiavellian choices, unbending in his determination to succeed: “If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal – although what man hasn’t?” he muses. “Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.” Amen to that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

The Rose Hotel: A True-Life Novel by Rahimeh Andalibian

In the genre of memoirs (which includes based-on-a-true-story, autobiographical novels), I’ve noticed two distinct categories: the titles you read for the importance of the story, and the memoirs that also turn out to be fabulous examples of great literature. Psychologist Rahimeh Andalibian‘s writing debut represents the former; that said, so little is known Stateside beyond the fear-inducing headlines about the Middle East that a personal account of one family’s experiences is a welcome, humanizing addition to any library.

In the holy city of Mashhad – the second largest in Iran after Tehran – Andalibian and her family lived in luxury in her father’s hotel. “The Rose Hotel and I shared a rare destiny: I was born the day my Baba’s grand hotel opened.” As the only daughter of a devout, wealthy Muslim family, Andalibian grew up both privileged and protected.

The events leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution – marked by the creation of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini after overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi –  too soon destroys the family’s comfortable life. Trouble literally arrives in the hotel’s entrance when Andalibian’s father is asked to imprison, then is later forced to employ, two young men who are known rapists, who allegedly repent their vicious crimes. “If only Baba had never allowed the Ayatollah to turn his hotel into a prison; if only Maman had not relented …,” Andalibian, who was just 4 at the time, writes in hindsight decades later.

Tragedy begets tragedy: Andalibian’s eldest brother runs away and is arrested by an unforgiving regime. The family seeks impossible assistance to reclaim their son, moving from refuge to refuge throughout Iran and beyond. Their scattered lives converge temporarily in London, until what is initially presented as a vacation to California becomes a permanent move.

Beliefs are challenged, morals as twisted, fortunes are lost and made and lost again, and most painful of all, multiple family schisms cause irreparable damage. In the midst of neverending chaos, well-intended lies, and wrenching tragedy, Andalibian comes of age caught between the stifling traditions of a world long gone, and the young adult’s need to push boundaries and establish independence. She mourns, falters, grieves, hopes, celebrates, and – clearly helped by committing 33 years of what she has “questioned, listened, and investigated” to the page – finds self-acceptance and peace.

As literary narrative, Hotel suffers especially from uneven pacing, moving from too much information to sudden gaps; the writing wavers, too, between overly simplistic and unnecessarily florid. Having decided to call it a ‘novel’ – clearly marked on the book’s cover – Andalibian seemingly gave herself room to mold and shape her story. Making a few further adaptations to her experiences would undoubtedly have resulted in a better novel. Once begun, however, the pages will keep turning; like a train wreck, averting the eyes from Andaliban’s ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’-life story proves nearly impossible.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Iranian, Iranian American

Zahra’s Paradise by Amir & Khalid

“The authors have chosen anonymity for obvious political reasons.” When you know something like that about a book – that lives were willing to be risked to get a story out – how could you possibly not read it? In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Written by Persian activist/journalist/documentary maker Amir and illustrated by Arab artist Khalil making his graphic novel debut, Zahra’s Paradise began as an online serial webcomic. In the name of worldwide access, the series was released simultaneously in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Finnish. The story – set in the aftermath of Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential elections that declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victor – was considered that important. Now with Iran back in near-daily headlines, the urgency to read Zahra’s Paradise grows ever stronger.

The book opens with a gruesome prologue that will be alluded to again and again throughout the coming pages: a brutal father forces his young son to witness the monstrous destruction of a litter of newborn puppies. In the prologue’s ending panels, the butchered, bagged remains sink down in a watery burial: “Now you too are in the stream touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise.”

“[T]his blog” is the work of a young man named Hassan desperately searching for his younger brother, Mehdi Alavi, who disappeared from Freedom Square (the irony!) while protesting the outcome of the Iran’s elections. From June 16 to August 19, 2009, Hassan records his family’s desperate search via the technological tools remarkably still available to him – his phone camera, his computer, the internet – first for Mehdi himself, and then, as time passes, any news of Mehdi at all. Hassan and his mother beg, demand, even call in dangerous favors to work through a labyrinthine system of hospitals, prisons, government offices, the morgue, and even the cemetery just outside Iran’s capital city of Tehran known as Zahra’s Paradise, named after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter. What Hassan is able to unveil is worse than any nightmare …

That the resulting panes make for an unforgettable story might be enough, but that so much of this graphic fiction is indeed fact is a sobering, outrageous slap of reality. The creators use a “composite of real people and events,” supported by an appendix-like 40+ pages at volume’s end they label “Glossary” that serves as historical record. Most haunting are those final 13 pages of names – real, true, once-living brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – that make up the “citizens of a silent city named Omid (‘hope’ in Persian).” Printed in near-blinding tiny type, these names are an ultimate reminder to “[l]et them challenge our conscience so that in the future we will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Arab, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari

School of FearLogizomechanophobia: the fear of computers. That would be me! Of course, none of the four 12-year-old protagonists in this chuckling read suffer from such fears (young ‘uns these days are all so wired!), but they do each have their own quirky phobias. As every chapter heading repeats: “Everyone’s afraid of something,” followed by some of the funnest -phobia words ever. Leukophobia, illyngophobia, arachibutyrophobia, peladophobia … go ahead, take a few wild guesses.

But back to Gitty Daneshvari‘s gang of four: Madeleine fears bugs like no other (although any mother would be highly worried about all the chemicals she’s exposing herself to, not to mention anyone within spritzing distance); Theodore worries about everyone dying (his native NYC did use to be much more dangerous); Lulu can’t stand being cooped up (and wow does she have an attitude that makes sure no one boxes her in); and Garrison the big star jock is petrified of open water (even though he lives in Miami). They’ve all converged at the super-secret School of Fear atop a big hill in Farmington, Massachusetts where the ex-beauty queen who has definitely seen younger days will use her highly unconventional ways to … well, scare … the living fear out of her latest charges. Let the challenges begin!

Warner Brothers has already bought the rights to the book, by the way … if anyone finds the word for ‘fear of books being made into Hollywood movies,’ be sure to let me know!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Iranian American, Nonethnic-specific

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in TehranFor two years before she left Iran, Nafisi, a resigned university professor, spent almost every Thursday morning with seven of her favorite former female students, discussing Western classics in a secret book group. Nafisi draws a parallel between the young Lolita, who is coerced, denied, and ultimately overtaken by the oafish Humbert and the experience of Iranian women under the totalitarian regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, June 27, 2009

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Iranian, Iranian American