(Viking, £14.99 hardback and ebook)
(Viking, £14.99 hardback and ebook)
In Iran, 1953, Behrouz, a driver for the military discovers an abandoned baby in an alleyway, names her Aria and adopts her. As she grows, she is beaten by Behrouz’s wife, given refuge by a wealthy widow, and told secrets by the impoverished Mehri. Rumours are spreading that a religious exile in Paris called Khomeini offers a new future for the country and Aria is caught up in revolutionary fervour that changes the land and its people forever. This Iranian debut novelist’s historical fiction never loses sight of the individual human spirit.
Has Aria been a story you’ve long wanted to tell and how did you realise it?
The last third of the novel was something I began thinking about from early childhood, around age five I’d say, while living in Iran. The climate back then was quite fraught with fear and tension. The Revolution was still in its infancy and government forces were more oppressive when it came to the daily lives of regular people. Added to that we were at war with Iraq. There was confusion and a sense that your basic human rights were being violated at every turn. As a child I was always trying to understand where it all came from, how we as Iranians came to be in this position. So I was fascinated with the early days of the Revolution and how it all came about. That’s where the final third of the novel comes together. The first two-thirds came to me much later, in my late teens to mid-twenties. That was when I became more interested in the human side of things, and less so in the political. I wanted to look at the inner workings of family and societal life that may have led to the sudden shift that caused the 1979 Revolution.
It has a great historical sweep. Could you tell us a bit about your research and how you distilled it into a novel.
The research was two-fold. I spent nearly two years at the library, looking through newspaper articles and historical texts, plus a great deal of memoirs written from a 1950s-1960s perspective, from anyone living in Iran. Of course I had to parse through any possible bias. I especially focused on articles reporting on updates from the days of the Revolution, which lasted nearly a year. The second part of the research consisted of speaking to people who lived through the events. Again, you have to be careful in those situations because individuals carry their own biases and political leanings. But what I was mostly looking for from them was a sense of atmosphere, and of course corroboration. If more than five people were telling me the same story then I could be pretty certain there was some truth to it. One thing I do once the research is done, however, is forget about it. I spend months trying to forget the research and write only the purely fictional elements of the novel. This way when I return to the more historical research-based portion it doesn’t read like a textbook.
What does Aria’s origin as an orphan allow you to achieve both for her character and the story?
By making Aria “rootless” somehow, I can then manoeuvre her through the different cultures and classes of Iranian society. This gives the reader a view into these worlds as well, as they follow Aria. What Aria also becomes in this circumstance is a symbol for Iran itself. The word “Aria” translates directly into “the Iranian ethnicity” or “the Iranian people.” By not giving Aria roots I can in a way allow her to belong to anyone and everyone. She is a child of Iran. By the same token, there is an element of isolation and alienation about her – common in much of Iranian literature – and for an Iranian readership at least this isolation is something that resonates with them.
Many of the children seem to receive more kindness from strangers than from their family. Is there a link between this and how revolutions play out, with their idealism and cruelty?
This is indeed the case. I do often think that if there is something severely amiss on a large political scale, there must be something unhealthy and unbalanced on a more familial level, whatever its reasons may be. Colonialism has often been the root cause for this in developing countries. But a great example of the connection between political upheavals and the everyday home life of children is seen in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, where there is such extreme dysfunction and abuse in a smaller familial or community setting in a town in Germany. We of course find out this abuse is happening just at the onset of the First World War. The root of fanaticism and cruelty begins in the kitchen, as they say, and it’s passed down through the generations.
The novel presents Iran as a more complex society than some western readers may imagine. How do you think Iranian readers will read it?
I think Iranian readers will recognise it. I’ve already had one pro-regime reader decry its sins. But that is to be expected and he proceeded to get several facts wrong. Most Iranians will, I hope, recognise the people and understand that I’ve tried to be very fair and empathetic to everyone. I’ve tried to not judge my characters, even though the actions of some may warrant judgement. But Iran is an ancient nation. Its borders have remained intact for thousands of years. It is home to a wide variety of ethnicities and religions. And on the whole, being as ancient a society as it is, its people are culturally very sophisticated. Therefore their opinions on the book may vary and be nuanced. But what I do know for certain is that they will recognise the people they see on the pages.
How do Iranian-US relations look from British Columbia, where you live?
British Columbia is the most progressive of Canada’s provinces. The general view of the current US administration is not too favourable. I do have to reiterate the word administration, because Canadians and Americans are very close so there is no bad blood there. I think after the events of early January and the murder of the Iranian General Ghassem Soleimani, which without a doubt set off the chain of events that caused the Iranian government to accidentally shoot down Ukrainian Flight 752, the overall feeling in British Columbia, where many of the victims lived, is one of mistrust and concern that the US will once again do something drastic to disturb world peace.
What can we expect from your next novel?
I tend to avoid discussing something I haven’t yet finished. Just to say it is set in Iran again, moved up in time but still historical fiction. It will feature mostly men and explore what it means to be a man.