Academic journal article MELUS

Dreaming in Persian: An Interview with Novelist Gina Barkhordar Nahai

Academic journal article MELUS

Dreaming in Persian: An Interview with Novelist Gina Barkhordar Nahai

Article excerpt

Since the publication of her first novel, Cry of the Peacock, in 1991, Gina Barkhordar Nahai has been one of the most consistently engaging and successful voices from the Iranian diaspora. Peacock tells the story of seven generations of an Iranian Jewish family by wedding imagined stories to historical events in a style that frequently has been dubbed "magical realism." Nahai's second novel, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (1999), is another multi-generational tale with fantastical elements, but takes place in both Iran and America and depicts the experience of Iranian immigrants in present-day Los Angeles. Sunday's Silence (2001), a contemporary story set in Appalachia, restages Nahai's concerns with destiny and faith in an American landscape. Her fourth and most recent novel, Caspian Rain (2007), represents Nahai's closest engagement yet with the events of the 1979 revolution.

Nahai was born in Tehran to an Iranian Jewish family and was among the first generations to grow up outside the ghettos to which Iran's Jews had for centuries been confined. She left Iran as a teenager to attend boarding school in Switzerland. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 forced most of Nahai's family into exile. She attended the University of California at Los Angeles, and in the 1980s, after a brief career in law, began conducting the oral histories that would form the basis for much of her fiction. A winner of the Los Angeles Art Council Award, she was also a finalist for the Orange Prize and IMPAC Award.

While her overarching subject is the history of Jews in Iran, Nahai tells this history with a particular attention to the emotional and cultural traumas that have shaped the women of Iran's Jewish ghettos. The longing for escape, especially among women, passes through several generations of her characters, appearing as a curse and, occasionally, as a salvation from fate. In Nahai's books the female protagonists are frequently mothers who seek out self-imposed exiles from Iran--traversing vast physical and cultural distances as they do so--and the daughters who are left to make sense of their mothers' absences, their own connections to Iran, and, indeed, their fidelity to the very notions of home and belonging.

Nahai lives in Los Angeles and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California. This interview was conducted in August 2007 as she was preparing for the publication of Caspian Rain.

Jasmin Darznik: Many Iranians in America have been preoccupied with a certain idealized version of pre-revolutionary history; much of what has been remembered about Iran--in the Iranian diasporic community and its literature--has been bathed in nostalgia. For this reason my first question concerns the role of memory in your novels. So many of your characters are people for whom memory has become, in a sense, their home and their refuge. But in reading stories like Roxanna's in Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, it is clear that memory has its own perils, forges its own horrors. I wonder if you could comment on the place of history and memory in your novelistic vision? Did you feel yourself writing to or in some sense against the tendency toward nostalgia among Iranian exiles?

Gina Barkhordar Nahai: Memory, of course, is a selective device; it never retains the entirety of an experience. What we remember is not what was, but what we saw, and that recollection, in turn, is altered and amended over time by other subjective factors. Near the end of Caspian Rain, Yaas, the young narrator, says, "Memory does not often serve the truth. I have learned this. I know I might have heard a vow my father never uttered, held on to the pipe dream of a promise he never made. But imperfect as it may be, memory is all I have to help me bear witness." That line came straight out of my own experience--out of the years of watching the past and wondering why so much of what I remember is bitter and hard. …

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