JUNE 23, 2013
THIRTY YEARS AGO, when Iran and Iraq were embroiled in a bloody war, the idea of Iranian-American and Iraqi-American women writing novels for an international audience was as far-fetched as the idea of peace between the two countries. Iranian-American writer Nahid Rachlin paved the way in the 1980s, and the early 2000s saw an explosion of memoirs by Iranian-American women such as Firoozeh Dumas, Azar Nafisi, Roya Hakikian, and French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi, to name a few. Novels by Iranian Americans, as opposed to memoirs, increased through the 2000s, and now ever more American women with Iranian and Iraqi heritage are breaking into mainstream American fiction.
Dina Nayeri, whose debut A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea was published in January, was born in Iran and immigrated to the US when she was 10. And though she never lived in Iraq, Jessica Soffer, the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter, provides a rare glimpse of Iraqi Jewish immigrants in her debut Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. As different as these two books are in setting, period, scope, and style, they share two central themes: loss of the old world and fear of losing the new; and an insatiable hunger for parental attention. The fear of losing their new world is particularly acute for the characters of these two novels as they come from religious minorities in mainly Muslim home countries (Soffer’s immigrant couple are Iraqi Jews and Nayeri’s immigrant character is an Iranian Christian). For these immigrants, there is no going back. Due to politics, war and oppression, life in the US must be made to work out.
In Soffer’s Tomorrow There Will be Apricots, Lorca, a miserable teenager in New York City, pines for her mother’s love and cuts herself in order to feel. Blocks away, Victoria, an elderly Iraqi Jewish immigrant who has just lost her husband, grapples with grief. The story alternates between the voices of these two women, with Joseph, Victoria’s husband, adding an occasional third voice. Lorca decides that the best way to her chef mother’s heart is to master the one dish that her mother loved best: an Iraqi fish dish called masgouf. The quest for its recipe brings her to Victoria, former owner of an Iraqi restaurant who, in addition to suffering from her husband’s death, is harboring regret over giving up a daughter for adoption decades ago. Lorca and Victoria form a bond which helps them escape loneliness and find hope. Their friendship is tender and believable even if their initial conviction of possible family connections seems a little far-fetched. Soffer gives us plenty of cooking scenes and descriptions of food, but the past that Victoria and Joseph shared in Baghdad is only briefly drawn out: “We walked along al-Mutanabbi Street, pretending we had important business. We stood together on the summer riverbed when the Tigris and the Euphrates had fully receded.” Perhaps Soffer doesn’t see the need or have the first-hand experience to imagine that world. Or maybe we only get glimpses of Baghdad because we mostly see that world through Victoria’s eyes and Victoria is a realist.
Unlike Victoria, Saba, the main character in Nayeri’s A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, is a dreamer and her story mostly takes place in the old country. Set in the 1980s and early 1990s in a northern Iranian village, the novel draws out a rich and sensual old-world life. It opens with Saba’s blurry airport memory of her mother and twin sister, Mahtab, leaving Iran. We do not know if this event actually happened or if Saba imagined it. Why, Saba wonders, was she left behind? Other memories flood in and we realize that Mahtab was at one point fighting for her life in the ocean. Told through memory, fantasy, and conjecture, the rest of the novel is as much about storytelling –– its art, lies, comforts, truths, pitfalls, and saving grace –– as it is about anything else. We see a complex — albeit sad — “new Iran”: a country that is post-revolution, in the throes of war, and constantly falling short of its characters’ expectations and dreams. Strict new rules about behavior, marriage, and lifestyle are enacted when the Islamic clerics take over after the 1979 revolution. “Convenient, Saba thinks, how opium and hashish — which sedate the masses — are so easy to find in this new pious Iran, and alcohol — mutinous and unpredictable — has to be consumed in shame and secret.”
To compensate for the new bleakness, Saba imagines a whole other life in America for her sister based on bootleg American sitcoms, magazines, and popular music that Saba buys from a black-market smuggler and consumes with an almost obsessive need. Saba’s pop culture diet makes her conclude that if you immigrate to America:
You start off as a taxi driver or a cleaning woman, like the people in Taxi. Then you get your citizenship, go to a good university like Harvard, and you become a doctor like in M*A*S*H. Then when you’re done saving the soldiers, you might go to Washington for your medal and, if you’re smart enough and get the best grades, even meet a shahzadeh and get your picture in Life magazine. It is all possible.
Saba is at her best when she imagines Mahtab’s American life. These episodes are poignant, funny and filled with the foibles of what Saba calls “Immigrant Worry”:
…the American life is so overwhelming, so grand, that outsiders are infected with a whole set of Immigrant Worries…You see, like any immigrant who has been offered the best of a new world, Mahtab is constantly afraid that it will be taken away…that fear of doing something wrong, of losing it all. She has always harbored the dread that at any moment the person holding the rope will give it a good yank and pull her away.
This same immigrant worry is echoed in Soffer’s novel: “We became who we became because of what wasn’t there. What wasn’t there became what was,” Victoria says early in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. Though she is referring to the baby she gave up, this feeling also encapsulates Joseph and Victoria’s immigrant experience. The pervasive double-edged loss that immigrants feel: loss of the country one has left and fear of losing the country in which one is trying to make a new home is triple-edged for these Iranian and Iraqi immigrants because they can never return:
“We never went back” Victoria says. “We never could, legally or safely. We had to give up everything to come to the United States. And the Jews have no place there now. We were once the majority, the intellectuals, the sophisticates. But that changed quickly because of the Nazis. And when Joseph and I came to America, we promised to make this our home… Leaving is the easy part…It’s moving on that one gets mired in. It takes years. Decades, actually. It takes tragedy and drama and the most painful part: the haunting feeling of what’s lost when it finally starts hurting less.”
It is this dread of losing the hard-earned footing in a new world that makes Victoria pour her soul into her restaurant in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. And it is this very fear that Saba explains in A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea: “nightmares of second-class invisibility, mediocrity, and anonymous death. Legacy-losing, taxi-driving, dry-cleaning worries.” Mahtab’s savior from this nightmare becomes “Baba Harvard.” Like Victoria’s restaurant, Mahtab’s university becomes the anchor that helps cement the footing in America and keep at bay that constant fear of losing it all.
While the characters of Victoria and Mahtab share Immigrant Worries, two other characters from each book share an insatiable, unmet need for a parent’s attention and approval. In Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, Lorca is starved for her mother’s affection. No wonder that she pours her energies into preparing and serving food. Her mother’s distant, on again, off again manner leads Lorca to engage in self-harm: “I wanted the pain. Wanted it. Wanted it. It was the only consistent thing. It helped me breathe and sometimes more than that. Sometimes it gave me breath.” Saba in A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea also yearns for the attention of a parent. For most of the novel, Saba doesn’t know whether her mother has actually gone to America, been imprisoned, or died. Her father is there, in her house and in her life and yet, he is absent too. Through the stories of the older village women who occasionally chime as narrators, we know that both Saba and Mahtab “were starving for his love,” “trying to see who could hold his attention longer.” Though Saba also loves food and later learns to cook traditional Iranian dishes well, she does not intentionally cut herself like Lorca does. But what Saba wants to hear from her father is just one thing: “You’ve done well.”
In the list of Immigrant Worries that Saba imagines for her sister, the biggest one of all is “the one about making a mark in a strange land,” about “repaying the universe for…good fortune.” As the novel progresses, Saba, now an adult, imagines that her sister Mahtab is “not frightened now –– of being an outsider, or a failure, or poor, or unimportant.” These are all fears that Victoria shares in Tomorrow There Will be Apricots. Once these fears are overcome, the next big desire on the part of the immigrant is to make a mark in the new world. To give back. To create, as Nayeri writes, “a significant life, a life noticed by the world.”