Gardens in a War Zone: A Conversation with Gian Sardar

May 31, 2021   •   By Yoojin Grace Wuertz

GIAN SARDAR’S SECOND NOVEL, Take What You Can Carry, is a high-stakes love story between a Kurdish immigrant turned Hollywood actor and an aspiring photojournalist, who together take a trip to the man’s hometown in Iraq. The novel explores the burden and blessings of family, ambition, and privilege during times of political upheaval. The author’s father is from Kurdistan of Iraq, where he grew lush gardens amid turmoil, and the book is based on his stories as well as a trip the family took in 1979. 

Gian and I became quick friends after she commented “Ooh, which David Austin?” on a flower photo I posted on Instagram. Name-dropping the famous rose breeder was a secret handshake, inciting a flurry of conversations. We discovered that we are both novelists, mothers, first-generation Americans — all because of a picture of a rose (it was a Darcey Bussell).

This interview was conducted over Zoom and via email. We discussed risk-taking, travel, and the safety of Kurdistan. We knocked on wood.

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YOOJIN GRACE WUERTZ: You know the double-edged expression, “May you live in interesting times.” I’m curious how you thought about time, history, and legacy as you were writing Take What You Can Carry, which is set in 1979 and moves from Los Angeles to northern Iraq. The novel is bristling with an awareness of history and what you carry forward from it, which changes for the characters throughout the novel. What did history and history-in-the-making mean for Olivia, an aspiring American photojournalist? Or for her boyfriend, Delan, an immigrant from Kurdistan?

GIAN SARDAR: Olivia’s goal, toward the beginning, is to be a component of change, to affect people, and — in the grand scheme of things — to have a life that matters. At the start, she believes that to have a big impact one must do something big, but later she learns that’s not the only way. For Delan, I think there’s sadness at the fact that history repeats itself for the Kurds, in terms of political betrayals and strife. And naturally, where they come from affects how they see their places in the world. Delan’s past was vastly different from Olivia’s — a fact that’s driven home for her when he actually forgets to mention curfews or military occupation as something she should expect when they arrive to his hometown. But to him, that was just life, which raises the question of what we become immune to. What do we normalize and how does that affect a relationship?

But as well, as an American, Olivia dreams big. There are obstacles she faces as a woman, but the fact that she’s able to dream big is a result of her white American privilege, and her ability to see the sky as the limit. His past, which involved a struggle simply to exist, has made his goals much more survival-focused, and also much more immediate. From the beginning, he saw the importance of affecting the person next to him, while she was thinking on a much larger scale.

I’m fascinated by that moment early on in the book when Delan is speaking on the phone with his mother and misinterprets her code on the government-tapped line. He believes she has said it’s safe to come to Iraq for the family wedding, but that becomes questionable very quickly. The subsequent conversation between Delan and Olivia, with Delan trying to explain layers of implied communication and her bewilderment over it all, felt so familiar to me as a person who often straddles cultures. Was it fun to play both — all — sides of this? Did you find yourself feeling more sympathy for one side over another?

This actually happened! My dad was trying to convince my mom — an American — to go to Kurdistan to meet his family in 1979. My brother and I were young, so I have a scattering of memories, but I remember that when calls came through from Kurdistan it was a very big deal, and they were connected through the operator. But there were also tapping sounds, and we knew the Iraqi government was listening in, just as our letters would arrive censored. On calls, to get around this, they often spoke in code. So, when my dad was trying to determine if it was safe to visit, he took the saying your uncle is well to mean that it was safe. When we got there, my grandparents very sternly and right off the bat told my dad not to talk politics, even with family, because things were bad. I don’t know when he admitted to my mom that he might have gotten the code wrong — maybe after there was a bomb threat on our plane, or after he was taken by the secret police, or around the time my family was held at gunpoint at a picnic. You get the picture — the trip did not go as planned. For all I know they’d really been trying to say don’t come, it’s not safe. Or who knows, maybe they were actually trying to tell my dad that his uncle was well.

But going back — I think that if I sympathized with anyone more than the other in terms of this phone call, it would be with Delan, because he was truly caught in the middle. Imagine not being able to speak plainly with your parents. Knowing that whatever they’re saying is very possibly not the truth, or even close to the truth. That frustration, that constant worry over the unknown. I can’t imagine. And for his parents, of course, what they endured wasn’t just a problematic phone call. They had it much worse, but in my mind they’re like most parents who want to spare their kids pain and worry, so holding back and painting a rosier picture might have helped with that. But for Delan, who’d want to know the truth of how things were back home, it would be horrible. And on top of this, he was struggling to mesh his own want, his craving to see his family, with reality. Ultimately, when he made the decision to go, nothing was going to stop him, and he heard what he wanted to hear.

Why was it important to you that Olivia be ambitious?

Time period played into this, as feminist activism and the phenomenon of women in the workplace had all been evolving leading up to this moment, and I knew those elements would be a part of her story. In 1979, certain walls had been broken down, but of course there was considerable resistance. The men Olivia worked with, for the most part, didn’t believe her to be capable of greatness — and she knew that, and it wore on her. So perhaps a bit of her determination was a reaction to being passed over, and to knowing that, if she wanted to be seen, she couldn’t just raise her hand, she had to be extraordinary. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to take the trip to Kurdistan — to do something unexpected, to get the photo editor’s attention, and to prove herself.

It’s interesting because at times I felt like I had to justify Olivia’s ambition — but would I have felt that way if she were a man? I didn’t want her to be callous, clearly, but I wanted her to pursue her dream and not hold herself back by thinking it wasn’t okay to take a risk for her career, as she would for love. Taking a risk for love is often painted as brave and positive, but taking a risk for career can be construed as negative or selfish — especially for women — yet, for many people, their true love is their calling or career, whatever that may be. And why shouldn’t that be okay? But when risk for love and risk for career collide, that’s when you have the makings of a good conflict, and that interested me.

You mentioned that an essay you wrote for Salon about your father’s gardens prompted Take What You Can Carry. The essay, by the way, is gorgeous — you have a way of bringing a setting to life with intense vibrancy. The colors, the scents, the people. You make us see it with full saturation, which I love. Of all your memories — some of which have been woven into the novel — why was it the gardens that inspired the book?

My memories of my first trip to Kurdistan are, well, childlike. I remember things like being in a house with birds that were flying free, or climbing a hill with what looked like an old, ruined castle, and red ants the size of cats. And my grandparent’s garden, which, to me, was magical. Jam-packed with blooms. It was where we’d spend most of our time, even where my little brother and I would bathe, in this aluminum tub in the midst of the flowers. And when, later, I asked my dad about his parents’ garden, he told me that it was the men, for the most part, who gardened. When they got together, they talked about their gardens, with politics mentioned in between, because it was simply too much to talk only about what was difficult. They needed conversations about their gardens. Just as they needed the gardens themselves. In a garden, you see the results of your hard work, the correlation between effort and love, with an end result. In life, that’s not always the case, a fact that my father’s family was well aware of. But, ultimately, I love the message and the meaning of a garden. Especially a garden in a war zone, because it’s not just opportunity to escape, it’s hope. So much of gardening is working toward a tomorrow that you want to look different.

And just for fun. Roses are often named for people, and are meant to convey something of that person’s essence or legacy. So: A Gian Sardar rose. What would it look like, smell like? (Or, if you’d prefer a Delan rose? An Olivia rose?)

I love this question. Delan, he’s full of passion — for sure he’d be a dark red rose. A lot of pride, a lot of bold confidence. Olivia, I think she’d be a dusty rose color. Feminine but with a slight undoing, a hint of mystery. Me? I feel like I’d be a sunset color, but maybe I just want to be a sunset color. I could be red. Or orange. Something fiery. But let’s mix it and go with sunset.

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Yoojin Grace Wuertz is the author of the novel Everything Belongs to Us (2017), which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’s Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.