JULY 21, 2020
“SITTING ACROSS THE dinner table was a man who had paid a massive price for hoping and trying for a just world, who had fathered and then neglected me, who wasn’t aware that the rage he harbored had killed all other impulses in him […] And here I was, sliding down a similar inevitable path.”
So goes the story of Leila Saman, daughter of a Kurdish activist and the protagonist of Ava Homa’s fiery, soul-nourishing debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire. Like her protagonist, Homa grew up in the Kurdish region of Iran, home to a minority group so oppressed by the government that its people represent nearly half the country’s political prisoners. Like her protagonist, Homa was an infant when her father was imprisoned. Homa was lucky: she immigrated to Canada to study English in graduate school. But she was the exception for a Kurdish woman, which brings us to the novel’s central question: what if she hadn’t made it out? “Would I have been one of those women who chose death as a solution?” she says.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire is the relentless and tender story of a sister desperate to save her brother from execution, of children finding their way out from under the weight of their parents’ trauma, and of how oppression steals a woman’s agency twice, first for her ethnicity and second for being female. Finally, it’s the story of how, nevertheless, a woman’s desires remain intact.
Homa drafted the novel in English, her third language after Kurdish and Persian. We spoke via phone about why the book took 10 years to write, the problem with anger, and where she finds hope in the face of oppression.
AMY REARDON: The story strikes me as the one you had to write. Is that the case?
AVA HOMA: When you are a stateless woman, you’re a minority within a minority, and there’s so much pressure that you either break down or you get out. If you have been able to survive, you are probably exceptionally strong. Over the last couple of decades, Kurdish women have been able to do great things. They became painters and parliamentarians. They fought and defeated ISIS. As a Kurdish woman, I wanted to be part of that group. If you have a tool for becoming a voice for your people, I believe you should use it. For me, that was writing. I also knew how exclusive the publishing industry was and how few Middle Eastern women ever get published.
So how did you get there?
There’s a moment in life when we have to decide, am I going to accept things the way they are and try to fit in and belong and make my way in the world by embracing the status quo? Or do I want to join this group of people who are trying to move the world and humanity toward a better place? And so for me, two things have enabled me to join that force for improvement, one of them is writing and the other one is activism.
Was it writing or activism first, for you?
Writing first. Writing has been with me all my life.
What was that moment?
This is a decision that I have to come back to consciously, every so often, and maybe that’s why going to nature is so important to me, to revisit that question. I grew up in a society that was deeply patriarchal, because of — you know — human history. Humans have been patriarchal for centuries and centuries, partly due to religion. I grew up in a society that kept telling me: you’re the inferior gender. You’re not as smart or as capable as men. Just accept that: it’s how it is. It’s how God made things. So I became a feminist long before I was able to read feminist theory, before I even heard the word feminist because something in me kept saying, this is not true, this is not right.
The answer I got was, well, look at the women. Look how unimportant they are. Look how they gather in the kitchen, how they’re more interested in gossip and their looks. So as a child, I was more interested in the men’s world, where they were talking about the news. The reality was that we haven’t been giving women the chance to grow. We have been keeping the women and their mothers and their grandmothers in the kitchen. How do you expect a human being to grow if you just keep repeating this vicious cycle?
If I wanted to be someone who believed in gender equality when everything in school and at home and in society was telling me that was not possible, that meant I had to constantly fight, and that was exhausting. And that meant I didn’t belong, and I was tired, and I was angry. When I was 24, I left the country [Iran] that told me I wasn’t able to work without a man’s permission. I wasn’t even able to leave without a man’s permission.
How did you get out?
I don’t even know how. To this day, I don’t know why the officer who saw my passport didn’t ask: where the hell is your father’s official permission to let you leave? I booked the flight to Canada and I went to the airport, but until the last second I didn’t know if I would make it out or not.
In the book, Leila experiences an intellectual awakening. Her brother calls it a “rich inner life,” and “one’s only reliable investment in the most loyal companion.” Can you talk about what that idea means to you?
I see this world and our life as classrooms, and I feel it is our job at some point to stand up and say at least half of what I have been taught is BS, and I’m not going to buy into this anymore. For me, it’s an ongoing process, an ongoing discovering, an ongoing revisiting of values. Like if we look at Leila’s sexual awakening in the book, for years it has been something she has repressed. The first time she starts desiring Karo, she’s shocked to know that her body is capable of desiring, and that it’s capable of wanting and not just being wanted. And her life is already in danger. She could get arrested at any second, and yet her desire still exists. In the novel, you can pinpoint the moment it happens. But for the rest of us, if we don’t constantly try to wake up as much as we can in terms of gender, in terms of desire, in terms of our humanity and our place in this world, then I feel like we haven’t learned our lessons at all.
The other thing that I am interested in as an author is the suffering happening in different forms to different people. It could be you’re suffering as a political prisoner, someone whose life is denied because of your beliefs, and usually those beliefs are in good things. Or you could be suffering because of illness, suffering because of coronavirus, suffering because now you can’t leave your home and can’t be social anymore. There is a role that suffering plays in our lives. Haruki Murakami wrote that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. If you break a bone, you experience pain, and you can’t do anything about it. But he separates pain from suffering, the idea being you may suffer less if you change your perception of things. I’m very much interested in Joseph Campbell’s ideas of personal transformation and mythology. How much can we shift pain and suffering into something else? For example, what makes me a writer is the anger that I feel about all the injustice I saw around me. But if I give into this anger, I’m just another angry person. And what anger does to you is to take away your wisdom. We are extremely stupid when we are angry. So, thinking about transformation, can we transform anger and oppression into awakening and art and compassion? If I can make this transformation inside me, then can I help with the transformation that I hope to achieve outside of me in the world?
I feel like awakening — as a woman, as a minority, whatever your packaging is in this world — your awakening and your growth as a human is in your ability to turn all these negatives around you into positive outputs. To me, that’s the sign of maturity, that’s the sign of becoming humane.
You’re talking about compassion?
This is what I was hoping I could somehow convey through my fictional characters. Can I turn gender oppression into compassion? So here’s the other thing, I don’t know how much you can relate to this, but as a Kurdish woman, you share a fight alongside the men, right? You’re fighting ethnic oppression, and you know how much men suffer. They’re denied the right to go to good universities, to get good jobs, to get all things that they deserve. You see their pain. You know how oppressed they are. But then they come back and oppress you as a woman.
So you’re fighting with the men, and at the same time, you’re fighting the men.
That double-think in my life as a Kurdish woman really helped me understand that I can bring compassion to, for example, an uncle, and say, I know how you’re hurting. I know you may never recover from the tortures the Islamic Republic has inflicted upon your body. I feel for you, and I love you, and I want to take care of you, but no, you cannot take away my rights. So I’m trying to understand these contradictions. Can I bring a little bit of compassion to people who are my oppressors and also are hurting? Can I be part of their healing too? I don’t know, it’s really tricky.
I hear a lot of philosophy and history and literature here. Can you talk about some of your influences?
Books. I read books. There are a lot of great minds out there. When I was in this small town on the border of Iran and Iraq, it was one of the worst places in the world. It’s poor, it’s oppressed, it has bad roads. You don’t have good clinics, doctors, libraries. You’ve got nothing. You’re stuck, and it’s war-torn, and people are dying from all these different terrible things or else they are being executed. So what was there for me as a young girl? What helped me know that this was not the whole world? I majored in English, and I started reading Emily Dickinson, whom I love. Ernest Hemingway. I started reading Rumi in elementary school. He is perhaps the biggest influence on my philosophy of life. I loved The Catcher in the Rye because I could relate to Holden Caulfield — who’s still one of my favorite fictional characters — so much. He was a lot more privileged than I was, but also he just hated everything and he could see the fakeness everywhere, and then his teacher tells him that there are great minds in this world, and you have to connect to them through books. That was something that saved me. The other idea I loved from that book was that the sign of an immature man is that he dies for a cause, and the sign of a mature man — please forget about the patriarchy in this sentence — is that he lives for a cause.
So books showed you the way out?
Yes. They showed me how I could live for a cause and how I could connect with humanity without being swallowed by all the problems and insecurities. Where I grew up, the greatest thing at the time was to give your life for the cause. You pick up a gun and you go to the mountains and fight Iran. It’s a legitimate cause, but for me a better question was: How do I live for a cause? And how do I find out about all these great minds across the centuries? That’s where Joseph Campbell has really shaped me. I mean, here’s the other thing. Campbell uses the word “man” to talk about humans. Mythology can be patriarchal. Or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning about the Holocaust. It’s also very patriarchal, but if you forgive his limited view on gender equality, he still gives you a lot about humanity and human nature. Books literally, literally saved my life.
Was there someone who gave you permission to be a writer?
When I was taking my first creative writing workshops, back in Iran, I was a student of a famous Iranian writer called Siamak Golshiri. He didn’t like my first story. He was really nice about it, but then I took months and months, and when I finally gave him my second story, his reaction was: Did you write this yourself? I started laughing, like I should be offended, because, did he think I stole it? But yes, I wrote it myself.
Over the years, whenever he would host workshops, I would follow. By then, I was a graduate student in Tehran, because obviously where I come from, there were no writing workshops, at least back then. I’m sure things have changed. When I finally got my admission (to another graduate program in English and creative writing, this time in Canada), and I was ready to leave, Golshiri was the one who told me: Listen, follow up on this. Don’t give up. I know for a fact that you will be a good writer one day, because you have two things that usually people don’t have together. You have the talent and the determination. People usually have one or the other. That was really good advice, because I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the challenges I had writing this book.
What were the challenges?
How do I present an unfamiliar world through fiction? Because everything that my characters see and talk about has to be within the context of life in Kurdistan. My characters can’t have a Westerner’s perspective. But I was working in fiction, where you don’t have end notes and footnotes, and you can’t go on long descriptions and lecture people. How do I present a foreign world through fiction?
Then I had to figure out how to balance politics and fiction, and how to balance history and fiction. Where I grew up, people talk about politics nonstop. When I first got to Canada, I was surprised by how much people didn’t talk about politics. At least that was the case until they elected a crazy mayor — Rob Ford — then everybody was talking about politics. In Kurdistan, you wouldn’t talk about the weather because most of the time it was nice. But in Canada everybody talked about the weather because most of the time it was really cold, and you have to know how to dress properly. In Kurdistan, there’s also this sense of insecurity, like what people are now experiencing here with coronavirus and the lockdown.
So my challenge was how to place history and politics in the background of the story so it didn’t take away from the story, but also give readers enough to know this is another world. How many times can I have the father turn on the radio and listen to the news? I had to come up with new ways to describe what’s going on in this world. That’s why it took 10 years and so many drafts. I figured it out through writing. I would write, let it sit for a while, and read it again. I’d realize: Oh, this is too much history, so then I’d write it again. Rewriting helps so much.
One of the things I noticed in the story was how a parent’s trauma can bend the trajectory of a child’s life. I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and I can’t help seeing the parallels between Little Dog’s mother’s trauma from the Vietnam War and that of Leila’s parents, living under the Khomeini regime. How do you think trauma and oppression affect the children who grow up under it?
God, isn’t that book gorgeous? Trauma becomes part of your DNA as children because the constant insecurities and anxieties convince you that you live in a very, very scary world. It’s common for parents that were traumatized themselves to have difficulty knowing how to love. If you look at Canada, for example, First Nations adolescents in Canada have alarming rates of suicide. These are children whose parents were put into and survived residential schools, and they became parents who don’t feel safe in this world. Parents have a lot of power over kids. I don’t know if it’s easier to be the firsthand victim of atrocities and traumas or the secondhand victim, because you carry their trauma and then you develop your own trauma, as well.
As the person who inherits the trauma, can you somehow not pass it on the next generation? Can you shift it into art or activism or something else, to avoid having three generations of trauma?
One of my Kurdish friends who grew up in London was telling the story of when she went back to Kurdistan with her mother. Their entire life, her mother was always worried about packing and having things ready just in case, and the daughter always thought the mom was overdramatic. Come on, mom, take it easy. Stop it. Then she was in Kurdistan when ISIS attacked, and they had to run for their lives, and for the first time, she understood her mom.
What do you think about the idea of a consolidation generation, whose responsibility it is to assimilate change that happened during their parents’ lives?
I think that’s our job as humans. I don’t think we are here to destroy the environment and procreate. I think we’re actually here for that transformation. That’s what makes us human. Among my activist friends, we always have this argument about whether activists should be angry, and whether activists can be kind. I’m always saying, if you hope to change the outside world, you can’t do it without at least first trying to shift the world inside you. It’s not a one-time thing, it’s not like you make that shift today, and then you’re done. It’s something you have to do every day.
The oppression of the Kurdish people in Iran … it’s your novel, and also, it’s everywhere. It seems to be gaining momentum.
Have you read Tommy Orange’s There There? You will love it; it’s so powerful. Because oppressors are so unoriginal. They all use the same methods. That’s why we can win, because they’re so dumb and afraid and predictable in their ways of oppressing and using humans. The [problem is] the oppressed group has a very strong tendency of turning against each other. So much so that the oppressor can just stretch out his legs and relax because we’re busy destroying each other.
Ava, what do we do about it?
How do we come together? I don’t want to repeat myself, but through books. How am I able to relate to First Nations? Through Tommy Orange’s There There. How do I connect to Vietnamese people? Through Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He also helps me connect to the LGBTQ community. It’s through books that we can see the humanity in others. When I was writing this book, I interviewed as many political prisoners as I could. One of the very interesting things that one of them told me when I was asking how could the guards be so inhumane was that the guards didn’t see the prisoners as human anymore. That’s what books can do. They humanize the other. Because as humans, by default, we are ignorant, we are racist, our brains are lazy, we have to divide everything into binaries as good and bad, so I can say that I belong to the community of the good, and those people over there are bad. Right now we have people, and we have un-people. We have grievable lives and we have un-grievable lives. Can we get out of our default? It goes back to the idea of transformation. Can I change this first within myself, and then somehow convey it to other people? Not by preaching it, but by actually being that person whose compassion goes beyond these boundaries, these stupid boundaries. Because look, genetically, we’re like 99.99 percent the same. When are we going to wake up? Look at how the coronavirus made its way across all the customs officers and all the borders. We keep pushing, and maybe one day they will see the humanity in everyone.