When Isaac Amin sees two men with rifles walk into his office at half past noon on a warm autumn day in Tehran, his first thought is that he won’t be able to join his wife and daughter for lunch, as promised.
“Brother Amin?” the shorter of the men says.
Isaac nods. A few months ago they took his friend Kourosh Nassiri, and just weeks later news got around that Ali the baker had disappeared.
“We’re here by orders of the Revolutionary Guards.” The smaller man points his rifle directly at Isaac and walks toward him, his steps too long for his legs. “You are under arrest, Brother.”
Isaac shuts the inventory notebook before him. He looks down at his desk, at the indifferent items witnessing this event—the scattered files, a metal paperweight, a box of Dunhill cigarettes, a crystal ashtray, and a cup of tea, freshly brewed, two mint leaves floating inside. His calendar is spread open and he stares at it, at today’s date, September 20, 1981, at the notes scribbled on the page—call Mr. Nakamura regarding pearls, lunch at home, receive shipment of black opals from Australia around 3:00 PM, pick up shoes from cobbler—appointments he won’t be keeping. On the opposite page is a glossy photo of the H?fez mausoleum in Shiraz. Under it are the words, “City of Poets and Roses.”
“May I see your papers?” Isaac asks.
“Papers?” the man chuckles, “Brother, don’t concern yourself with papers.”
The other man, silent until now, takes a few steps. “You are Brother Amin, correct?” he asks.
“Then please follow us.”
He examines the rifles again, the short man’s stubby finger already on the trigger, so he gets up, and with the two men makes his way down his five-story office building, which seems strangely deserted. In the morning he had noticed that only nine of his sixteen employees had come to work, but he had thought nothing of it; people had been unpredictable lately. Now he wonders where they are. Had they known?
Isaac rests his head against the wall. How odd that he should get arrested today of all days, when he was going to make up his long absences to his wife and daughter by joining them for lunch. For months he had been leaving the house at dawn, when the snow-covered Elburz Mountains slowly unveiled themselves in the red-orange light, and the city shook itself out of sleep, lights in bedrooms and kitchens coming on one after the other, languidly at first, then gaining momentum. And he had been returning from the office long after the supper dishes had been washed and stored away and Shirin had gone to bed. At night, walking up the stairs of his two-story villa, he could already hear the television buzzing, and in the living room he would find Farnaz, in her silk nightgown, cognac in hand, soaking up the chaos of the evening news.
The cognac, she said—its stinging vapors, its roundness and warmth – made the news more palatable, and Isaac did not object to this new habit of hers, which, he suspected, made up for his absences. In the living room he would stand next to her, his briefcase an extension of his hand, neither sitting beside her nor ignoring her; standing was all he could manage. They would say little to each other, a few words about the day or Shirin or some explosion somewhere, and he would retire to the bedroom, exhausted, trying to sleep but unable, the television’s drone seeping into the darkness. Lying awake in bed he would often think that if she would only shut off the news and come to him, he would remember how to talk to her. But the television, with its images of rioting crowds and burning movie theaters—with its wretched footage of his country coming undone, street by street—had taken his place long before he had learned to find refuge in his work, long even before the cognac had become necessary.
Sofer: I think in a way it was, though I didn’t set out to do that. We all know that Proust coined the term of involuntary memory that’s triggered by the senses—by touch, smell, etc. In this book, I think the opposite happens, where deprivation actually leads to memory, so that when all is gone—as it is for Isaac when he’s in prison, but also for the family members—they turn inward. So all the sensory effects are actually taking place in the past, but they are recovered in the absence that’s surrounding them.
And the book in itself, to me, in a way, is a kind of memorial. There is a quote by Sébillet that I like a lot that says—and this is not verbatim—that the writer pledges himself to building a memorial, and that really rings true for me. Though the memorial may not always be accurate, because memory is tricky.
Ahmad: Yeah. There’s a passage which I’m hoping you’ll have time to read today where the young girl, Isaac’s daughter, Shirin, is forced to destroy a photograph of herself, and I guess I was reading the novel as a reconstruction—a literal putting back together of those memories that were broken, that were destroyed.
Sofer: Yeah, that really was what prompted the book, you know. I had such scattered memories. This is partly autobiographical, but it’s mostly fictional. But from the events that actually did happen, I had very scattered memories, and so this was an attempt to put things together. And once I had done that as best I could, to then fictionalize and create this universe.
Ahmad: It seems that literature has a compensatory function, then, in the face of violence and loss.
Sofer: I think so. It helps to bring things together, maybe; some sense of understanding.
Ahmad: Shirin at one point asks her father why he keeps a copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Portrait of an Old Jew Seated. She says, “I don’t understand why you have this, even though it’s so sad,” and he replies, “One day you’ll understand it, and then you will find it beautiful.” That made me wonder whether you feel there’s a necessary coexistence of sadness and beauty, or is that something that’s particular to this book?
Sofer: It’s been my experience that it’s often mixed, so that’s how I see things, usually. And she, Shirin, finally understands it when he returns from prison so changed; she does understand what the painting meant.
Ahmad: I also found it a very interesting meditation on whether material objects matter, and how much material objects matter, which is a philosophical question, and it’s a political question at the same time.
Ahmad: There’s a reevaluation of the period of wealth and comfort under the Shah, so that’s where the politics of materialism comes in.
Ahmad: There’s a quote that recurs twice that we’ll hear later today. “If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?” So on the one hand, the novel itself is structured around these memorial artifacts—objects that were lost or threatened that serve as the container of memories. On the other hand, it seems like there’s a running critique throughout the novel of this kind of decadent or compromised lifestyle that many of the objects represent; whether they’re gems or the silver tea pot or the glass of cognac. Are they things that make us human? Are they commodity fetishes? It’s something that you seem to portray from both sides throughout the novel.
Ahmad: But she says it in a way that really makes sense. I think you don’t minimize her and you don’t condescend to her.
Sofer: No, because it is a valid point. People attain a certain status, and then they move, and they lose their name—which is also very important in that kind of society, the family name—and they lose their material—I mean their social status. So it is a radical shift; not an easy one.
Ahmad: So the whole novel is sort of haunted by this future position of exile; it’s a very placed novel, I felt. It’s very rooted in Tehran, but there’s always, throughout the novel, the hint that that emplacement is gonna be taken away from the characters. That those kinds of connections that you talked about—social position—are gonna be taken away. Edward Said has written in After the Last Sky and elsewhere about the ways in which memorial objects, and memory more generally, become fraught in the context of exile.
I’m wondering what it was like to write a novel about Tehran in 1981 in New York City in the early 21st century—whether the distance of time was harder to overcome, or the distance of space, or whether perhaps you found either of those distances to be productive?
Sofer: Being in exile is a very tricky thing, because you’re almost living in two spaces, literally, and two times, so you’re having parallel lives consistently. So I don’t know whether it helped me or not, but I found it was something that I needed to do; to revisit that part of my life, which, because it ended so abruptly, felt like a dream or something surreal that never happened. And because I didn’t have a chance to go back and visit, it made it even less attainable. So this was in a way a concrete way for me to tell myself it existed.
And I think part of the reason why it came out in present tense, actually, is because for narrative purposes it made it more immediate. But for me I think it’s because it’s still going on, so that’s how it came out.
Ahmad: Because you didn’t have a chance to see it in the interim.
Sofer: Yeah, and also everything was so scattered and ended so abruptly, that in some ways it’s still going on in my mind.
Ahmad: I think you made a really fascinating choice not to begin and end only with the girl’s point of view, which was the more autobiographical angle. In some ways, it seems that Shirin, the 9-year-old, is your passport in. There’s a fascinating moment towards the end where Isaac says to smugglers who were gonna get him out of the country, “Our passports were confiscated when the Revolutionary Guard searched the house, but our daughter’s passport still exists, and I can make a family passport out of that.”
And it seems to me that you took the opposite direction coming back into Iran through the daughter as a conduit out to the rest of the family’s experience. And for anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s a beautiful form in which the story is conveyed in a woven or braided structure that alternates among the points of view of Isaac, who’s in prison, his privileged and dependent wife, Farnaz, their 9-year-old daughter, and their older son, who’s living in Brooklyn with a Hasidic family and attending graduate school. You had said in an interview that Shirin was the hardest character to write, even though it was she who approximated your own experience. I’m wondering was there ever a point where the novel was going to be hers entirely? Did you always know that you wanted this kind of collective structure? Did you ever think about dropping Shirin’s voice out entirely when you were struggling with her? Can you just talk about form?
Sofer: Well, actually, the novel was going to be Isaac only, and still, to this day, Isaac is the main character for me. Shirin was the hardest to write—mostly also because she’s a child, and writing from the point of view of a child is difficult. But I think also because just chronologically she was closest to me. But I chose the four points of view because I felt it was important to show how the same event can be experienced differently by four different people of the same family. And also I realized after I wrote it that the four hardly ever interact with each other, except in memory, once again. In the present story, they don’t; there’s hardly any dialogue. And this wasn’t intentional, but I think it was because the novel is so much about imprisonment that the structure dictated itself. The structure and the subject matter sort of reflected each other. So they’re all in their different kind of imprisonment; Isaac literally, but each of them emotionally, and in the son Parviz’s case geographically.
Ahmad: That’s really interesting, actually. When I was taking notes on the novel, I wrote each character and their own constellation of characters, and I guess I hadn’t consciously been noticing that that was happening. But right, each one has a group of people with whom she does or does not communicate.
Ahmad: And primarily interacts. And then you’re right—there’s not that much overlap, is there?
Sofer: Yeah. And that really wasn’t intentional. Someone pointed it out to me later and I thought, “Oh!”
Ahmad: I think this would be a good time for you to read the passage about Farnaz’s imprisonment in her social structure.
Sofer: This is a passage where Farnaz goes to see Isaac’s sister and her husband, whose father was a minister of the Shah, and she has just told them that Isaac has been imprisoned.
“How awful,” Shahla gasps. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
“I didn’t want to get you involved. Once they get someone, friends and family become targets too. I haven’t told anyone, not even your parents. How could I tell Baba Hakim and Afshin-khanoum that their son is in jail? But I knew I needed to warn you. You could already be in great danger, Keyvan-jan, given your father’s connections to the shah.”
“Yes, I know,” Keyvan says. “But we can’t leave now. My father has asked me to liquidate his houses and belongings before we join him and my mother in Switzerland.”
The housekeeper arrives with a silver tray that she places on the coffee table. On it is the familiar tea set, of yellow porcelain with a garden motif—passed down to Keyvan by his great-grandfather, a court painter during the reign of the Qajar king Nasir al-Din Shah. The set was a present from the king to the artist, upon the king’s return from Europe. Farnaz looks at the set, and at the plate of sweets accompanying it—browned madeleines, buttered and plump, made more golden by the soft light of the table lamp—and she thinks, here, on this tray, like the country’s aspirations as well as its demise, its desire for cosmopolitanism and its refusal to see itself for what it has become—an empire that has grown smaller with each passing century, its own magnificence displaced by that of other nations. For what is a housekeeper named Massoumeh, born in Orumiyeh, in the province of Azerbaijan, doing preparing madeleines, that most popular of French pastries?
“Maybe we should forget about the houses and belongings and just get out now,” Keyvan says. He looks pale and thin, his collarbone visible through his cotton sweater—the kind of man, Farnaz thinks, who would not survive prison.
Shahla picks up the teapot and fills the cups. “We can’t just leave,” she says as she pours. “How will we sustain ourselves—with love?”
She extends a cup to Farnaz but looks at her husband, who glances back at her for an instant before turning his gaze to a painting on the wall, of the Qajar king Nasir al-Din Shah, made by his great-grandfather in 1892.
“This painting alone is reason enough to stay,” Shahla says. “How can you leave all this family history behind?”
He rubs his forehead, resting his fingers on the large, visible veins on his temples. “But what if they arrest me? How will this painting—and all the pages I’ve written about it in all those useless art magazines—help me in jail? Or this tea set, or that chandelier, or this stupid eighteenth-century chair—what will they do for me?” His voice rises—dusty and trembling—a voice untrained for such a pitch, and strained because of it.
“Shhh!” Shahla says. “You want the whole neighborhood to hear you?” She sips her tea, then helps herself to a madeleine, which she brings to her mouth slowly and with deliberate calm. “Can you even imagine your father’s face when he sees us at his doorstep in Geneva, empty-handed?” She takes a bite out of her cake, cupping her hand under it to catch any crumbs. “These mullahs have no reason to come after us,” she says, bringing the matter to her desired conclusion, as she so often did.
“What reason did they have to come after Isaac?” Farnaz asks.
Keyvan stirs his tea absentmindedly. “My only crime is being my father’s son,” he says, looking down.
Shahla wipes her hands, then reaches for a cigarette and lights it. “Why all the drama, Professor?” She exhales in her husband’s direction, freeing her chest of not just smoke but also acrimony. “Who would you be without your father? And your grandfather and your great-grandfather? Stripped of your lineage, what would you have achieved? You think people would care about your opinions on art if it weren’t for your last name? If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?”
Ahmad: Thank you. I feel like that passage does what you described earlier, which is to level a class-based critique of the Shah’s regime, and perhaps indirectly suggest that those years set the stage for the Islamic revolution of 1979. I felt that the characters had so much ambivalence regarding that period, so so much of what the novel was doing was reevaluating the period of the Shah. It was comfortable; it was also decadent and ruthless. Did you feel any responsibility to depict it in a certain way?
Sofer: I didn’t, no. I didn’t feel I have a responsibility.
I just felt like I’m going to portray it as I saw it, because it had positive elements about it. It did bring progress to the country. It Westernized. It brought education—economically it did a lot. But at the same time, the gap was really growing between the poor and the rich, and there were many, many people who were not served by what the Shah was doing. And ultimately, it was bound to fall, because it was an autocratic regime. So I tried to depict it as I thought it was. It was neither good nor evil, but it was bound to fail.
Ahmad: Did you start off in the same place before you were writing as perhaps where you got? Each character seems to go through this process of reevaluation; even the child. Even Shirin notices at some point. She says, “Until recently, housekeepers sat on the floor. People like Shirin and her family sat on sofas. The king sat on a throne. This was once the order of things, and it had seemed right.” And I found that such a fascinating phrase, because we’re seeing this 9-year-old able to read the physical cues of class inequality right around her; ones that had previously been invisible or naturalized. We see Isaac go through the same kind of awakening, political awakening, in prison, when other prisoners who were Communist say accusations like, “To live well under the Shah means you had to shut your eyes and ears. You had to pretend the secret police didn’t exist.”
Ahmad: I think you represent that perfectly. I was also interested—the author notes at the end recommend a book on the 1953 CIA overthrow of Mosaddegh, but that episode doesn’t come in any direct way into the novel itself. And I was wondering, do you feel that 1953 set the stage for 1979? If so, did you feel that it was important to keep that episode invisible and undiscussed in the novel, even if it informed your writing of it?
Sofer: Yeah. At first I was actually working on leaving it in, but then it was becoming too weighted in that time. But I do think it is important, because there was one man who really had democratic ideals, and he wanted to nationalize the oil companies; and ultimately he was overthrown by the CIA. Had that not occurred, Iran’s history may have been very different, because it would’ve worked itself toward a democracy—a real democracy as opposed to just putting the Shah in there. And the Shah was very much recognized as the—you know, they call him the puppet of the West. And that may be extreme, but in a way it was true, because he was giving kickbacks to the British and the Americans—the oil.
Ahmad: So in the version where you were incorporating that, were you feeling that it was becoming too didactic?
Sofer: Yeah, and one of the challenges of writing this was weaving in all the history and political aspects without giving history lessons. So it either had to come through dialogue or through memory or through somebody remembering an explosion or something, you know. But it does weigh the book down if you don’t weave it in.
Ahmad: Well, it’d have to be true to the characters’ experience.
Sofer: Yeah, it was becoming too much.
Ahmad: Also we didn’t know as many details about it until all the documents were declassified, which was only about ten years ago. So this really was true to the characters’ knowledge of the period.
Sofer: True, yeah.
Ahmad: Were there ways in which you felt that you had to educate your audience, or counter any stereotypes that they might’ve run into before? Was that something that you were conscious of as you were writing?
Sofer: Well, as I said before, it was to present a bit of the history, but more open—because you know people read the news and they read headlines. So it’s sort of opening up those current events—or not so current any more—and presenting how the historical seeps into the personal, so that you have ordinary lives in an extraordinary setting. That was my intent.
Ahmad: I think one of the things that was really successful—the ways in which these ordinary lives are so believable—was the complexity of the characters and the fact that you refused to romanticize anything, whether it was life before the revolution, or Parviz’s experience with a Hasidic family in New York, or even—as we saw in the first reading—the state of Isaac and Farnaz’s marriage before Isaac’s arrest. So there’s a way in which it had already been falling apart; they had already been a couple who was occupied by stuff and status. They have a fight where Isaac says that Farnaz can’t live without her stuff, and she replies that he can’t live without his status.
And yet they’re sympathetic characters—very sympathetic. I wonder if that’s a challenge you deliberately set for yourself, or was that just how the story told itself?
Sofer: It was how the story told itself, but I think I was also conscious of not making them too perfect—you know they’re the victims, and here are the bad guys. And they’re imperfect and they have problems. And the other thing is, often when these kinds of historical things happen people blame everything on what’s happening, so it’s like, “oh, well, our marriage is falling apart because of the revolution.” But that’s not the case—it’s just adding its own weight, but these two people had problems beforehand. And the fact that the family doesn’t communicate very well—you know all of these existed before. It’s just being exacerbated. So I was aware of trying to balance all of that; yeah.
Ahmad: I think one of the most telling quotes about Farnaz was her realization after Isaac comes back from prison that her husband would have the monopoly on grief, which is such a de-romanticized, believably repugnant thing to think. Were you ever worried that people wouldn’t like her?
Sofer: No, I never worried about that, because that doesn’t matter to me—as long as they can understand her or find her a complex character, I don’t really care if they like her or don’t like her. So that wasn’t a concern, but the idea of grief, you know there is this idea of space within a relationship, and how much one person can claim of it. And in this case, Isaac is claiming that area of the relationship, and she either has to accept or have a tug-of-war with him, emotionally. So she decides to let him have that space.
Ahmad: We talked a little bit about form already, and the decisions that you made in the structure of the story, but I’m also interested in the choice of fiction in particular. It’s a novel. It has to be a novel. It’s a novel about memory and about specific events. But there are so many references throughout to poetry as well—the ghazals of Hafez; you have Yeats, you have William Carlos Williams. Isaac is someone who had wanted to be a poet. And yet you felt that fiction was the right medium for conveying the story. Are there things that you felt a novel would do that other genres wouldn’t do? Have you been drawn to poetry in particular, or drama?
Sofer: Well, I think it’s just the form that I’m most comfortable with, though I really enjoy reading poetry. And poetry is such a part of Iranian culture. You have people reciting poems just out of the blue, and these are not necessarily very educated people—it’s just part of the culture. And so there is that scene in the prison where the poetry brings all the cellmates together after they’ve been arguing. So I think that kind of sets the background, because it is the background of that culture also.
Ahmad: Okay. So it’s not as much about what you wanted to do as a writer as much as the content of the life you’re conveying.
Sofer: Well, again, it’s that whole thing of form and subject matter sort of reflecting each other. I think, because I’m drawn to it as well, and it does reflect the culture, I chose to put it in.
Ahmad: How do you feel the medium of language impacts on them? Did you ever feel that English was an impediment to the process of reconstruction that we’ve been talking about?
Sofer: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that it would be an impediment, but it is tricky to write a book in one language when it’s taking place in another language, or in another place, and most of the memories are in another language.
Sofer: So I think the language also imposed itself. Even though it is in English, it’s formal, somewhat—at least the dialogue is, and that’s because a lot of the dialogue, I would hear it in Farsi, so Americanizing it wouldn’t work at all. So it may come off formal, but that’s again a reflection of that culture. So I think everything kind of imposes itself whether you want it or not, you know.
Ahmad: Right—they’ve gotta be structures that you can work with. I noticed even you have to make a choice of course about what to translate and what not to translate. I had seen that words for relationships—whether it’s agha or khanoum—those are words that you felt couldn’t be translated, that you had to include in Farsi.
Sofer: Yeah. This initially just—
Ahmad: And baba.
Sofer: It’s because they recur, and you know it may be irritating for some readers to keep thinking, “What is that?” But they are very common parts of speech there.
Ahmad: I noticed the translations of Hafez are all from Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a 19th century translator.
Sofer: Well, that also had to do—it was very hard to pick a translation because it is so tricky to translate Hafez because of the form, which is the ghazal, and also the meaning. So either you lose the form or you lose the meaning; it’s very hard to get both. So finally I settled on those, also because of copyright reasons, so it was also logistical.
Ahmad: Public domain, right.
Sofer: Yeah, it made it easier for me and my publisher.
Ahmad: But it’s a funny thing to have this kind of colonial legacy. She was a contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, and she helped set out some of the borders that we’re still stuck with.
Ahmad: And if you don’t wanna pay copyright, that’s what you’re stuck with, right?
Ahmad: As you know, the rubric of the series, which has also featured Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Safran Foer, is literature and terror. Obviously you can’t speak for your profession as a whole, but would you say there are ways in which a novelist might approach the topic of terror and terrorism as opposed to a historian or a political scientist?
Sofer: Well, I think what the novel can do, as I was saying before, is to open up the topic. So you hear of a fact or an event, but then the novel would help to portray how those facts are affecting real people, so you pick two or three or however many characters you want, and it humanizes it. And it becomes something that the reader hopefully can relate to no matter where they are, so even if they’re not personally exposed to the event, they can relate to the character on some level.
Ahmad: I’d love to have you read the section with Shirin and the photographs.
Sofer: Okay. This is a chapter where Isaac has been in jail for some time, and Farnaz is trying to destroy anything that she thinks might be viewed as evidence against him, because revolutionary guards would—once someone had been imprisoned, they would come and just search the house and collect evidence. So evidence can be anything from Western literature to a photograph of the Shah to anything that mundane. And so here Shirin hears her mother ripping her father’s documents:
She sits next to her mother and rips. They tear up account balances, names and telephone numbers of her father’s friends, holiday greeting cards, and photograph—mostly of people she doesn’t recognize or recognizes only after looking at them for a long time. Baba-Hakim was young once, she thinks, even handsome. And Uncle Javad was a skinny boy with messy hair. One photograph, of a young woman—not her mother—in a see-through white dress, taken from the back, makes her stop. The woman is climbing a dune by a beach, a fierce wind whisking her dress and clinging it to her legs. Her hair is wrapped in a sheer scarf tied behind her neck, and she’s holding it in place with her left hand, while her right hand swings in midair like a dancer’s. She likes that the photograph was taken from the back, that at the moment the shutter snapped, the woman had no idea that she was being captured by a curious eye, probably male, probably her father’s. And she is stunned suddenly, to think that this man whom she knows as her father, who wears suits and goes to work and reads the paper, has lived for such a long time before her, has seen so many things she will never see, has known—maybe even loved—so many people she will never know.
There are other photographs, of her parents in the South of France; Keyvan and Shahla sunning by their pool; and her parent’s friends Kourosh and Homa, on a ski slope, somewhere. Kourosh, she knows, was killed in prison. What she remember of him is the nickname “Aghaye Siyasat—Mr. Politics.” He would begin any conversation with “did you hear of so and so’s election?” or “What did you think of such and such assassination?”—things she did not understand but which prompted discussions that continued well into the night, long after she had gone to bed, when she would like in her dark bedroom and listen to the adults’ voices, punctuated by the clink of ice cubes in whiskey glasses. The night she heard of Kourosh’s death was the first time she heard her father cry. Lying in her bed behind the closed door she heard the sobbing, which at first she could not believe could come from her father, and then his voice, “They killed Kourosh, they killed Kourosh. I can’t believe it.” Of Kourosh’s wife, Homa, she remembers a white mink coat, and that round, perfect mole above her lip. Homa, she knows, had died in a fire. Everyone knows about the fire.
A photograph of herself on the ice-skating rink makes her stop. Where would she begin ripping, in the middle—first tearing it in half and then into pieces, a lock of hair here, a squinting eye there? She leans back and examines the room: the open drawers, the overflowing desk, heaps of paper on the floor. Has her mother gone mad? What will her father think if he returns home and finds his life torn up?
“Are you sure we should do this?” she says.
Her mother drops a paper on the desk. She reaches for a cigarette and brings it to her mouth. “No, I’m not sure,” she says.
“I’m not sure what’s right anymore, Shirin-jan,” Farzan says as she exhales, looking out the window and quietly crying. Shirin notices that her mother is still in her pajamas. The polish on her toenails has chipped. Why had she questioned her mother’s judgment, like that? She takes that photograph of herself and rips.
Sofer: No, I have to say that while I was writing I really didn’t think of such things. I tried to portray it as I saw it and as I felt it, and hopefully that’s why there’s a human aspect to it on all sides. So no, I never saw it as a document for one side or the other – although some people interpret it that way, or people can read it any way they like. But that was never my intention.
Ahmad: I had the same question, and I wonder—I think that’s something that has to go through a lot of people’s minds if they’re in a public or representative function. But I think what gets the book off the hook is the fact that it’s so historically grounded, and it’s not setting up this kind of eternal Iran—“it’s always this way.” You know, this place in need of rescue from the West. Whereas this is really a novel about the years just after the revolution, right? It seems to me so much about 1980-1981.
Sofer: Yes. It really takes place over that one year, and I think what weaving in the historical aspects was to show, you know, Iran has had a long history, and it’s gone through many ups and downs. So it’s not necessarily crying for rescue at this point.
Question 2: You said at the beginning that the novel was semi-autobiographical. Could you just elaborate a little bit more on maybe your family or what aspects?
Sofer: Sure, just briefly. I was born in Iran. I did live through the revolution, and my father was imprisoned, but his experiences were very different from my character’s experiences. But the genesis was there, and we did ultimately run away through Turkey, so those events were autobiographical. And from there, I took those and created new characters and fictionalized it, but that part is true.
Question 3: Earlier you were talking about the problems that you had with translation, translating from what you understood it in Farsi to English. I’m wondering why you didn’t write the novel in Farsi because I figure that language is relevant to the Iranian diaspora, and there’s so many people now that have escaped the country and are living that experience. Why not write it in Farsi so that it can be accessible to that audience instead of working to translate it to a Western audience?
Sofer: Simply my Farsi is very bad, I think. I can’t write in Farsi. I think in different languages, and it’s all very mixed for me. But I wasn’t in a position to write it in Farsi at all just in terms of skill.
Question 4: Who was your intended audience? Did you have a particular idea of who would benefit from the novel?
Sofer: No, I really didn’t have a target—no. When I was writing this I was writing very much in a vacuum, and it was—chronologically you can’t say that it felt urgent, because it took me seven years to write it. But the feeling was very urgent, and I wasn’t thinking of the aftermath. It was just something I really felt I needed to do, so I wasn’t thinking. I was hoping that—you always have an anonymous reader somewhere, and I was writing to that reader, whoever that may be. It wasn’t a specific person.
Ahmad: Were you worried at all about your father’s reaction to it?
Sofer: A little bit, yeah. I didn’t show it to him or anyone else in the family just because I wanted to keep it apart, but yeah, I did worry how it would feel for him to read—again, even though it’s different. Some of it did stem from his experiences, but I didn’t let that alter—
Ahmad: But he wasn’t the reader that you were picturing.
Sofer: No. Maybe in some parts. Or at least he was the voice in my head, or I was sort of carrying him.
Ahmad: Amy Tan has a beautiful essay about negotiating with different Englishes that she uses—it’s called “Mother Tongue”—where she talks about how in order to come to the language that she wanted, she pictured her mother reading it, and I guess I was wondering—it almost feels like a gift to him.
Sofer: In some ways, I think it was. I was never sure exactly what it was; it was always very complicated. But I think in some ways, it was, yeah.
Question 5: I’ve come across descriptions of your book where the autobiographical aspects are emphasized. I’m wondering if you prefer that emphasis on biography or whether the question might possibly take away from the creative value of the book?
Sofer: Yeah, I think definitely the latter is true for me, but somehow there is a fascination with truth, and people really wanna know what part is true. What really happened—what didn’t happen? And I was even at one event where the person that was introducing me really wanted to know, and finally I said, “I’m sorry, it’s all mixed. I can’t point out what’s true, but it’s mostly fictional.” And finally she got really annoyed, and she said, “Well, that’s very disappointing.” She really wanted it to be true. “I’m sorry I’m here now,” you know. So yeah, I don’t know what that’s about, but.
Ahmad: I think that’s something that happens with writers of color in particular. You’re asked, you’re demanded to take on this representative function. You guys are asking such good questions.
Question 6: It’s a comment, not a question.
Ahmad: Okay, that’s cool.
Question 6: I wanted to applaud you more than anything for being the voice of a population that is so rarely represented. Just recently in The New York Times there were a couple of op-ed pieces about Iranian Jews, and we are truly a population that is not spoken of or represented. Not positively or negatively—just not represented. So I applaud you for becoming such a prominent figure in the literary world. It’s so important, I’m so grateful.
Ahmad: I think that’s very nice comment.
Sofer: That is nice, thank you. But again, that comes with a kind of weight attached, because I don’t want to be the representative of any group, though I’m grateful that the result has been this. Yeah, again, it’s complicated.
Question 6: My issue is that because we are living in diaspora, it’s becoming more and more removed from the life that we had as Jews in Iran. Now we’re just Jews like anyone in LA or New York or Great Neck, wherever we are. There’s a few writers who represent us. Maybe your story is different from mine, but at least it’s a story that is being told. Whereas I’d rather have at least you tell it than frankly somebody who doesn’t know anything about it.
Sofer: Well, thank you.
Ahmad: As I’m sure you know, there are several books that fall into the category of Iran escape novels. I’m thinking about Not Without My Daughter, Reading Lolita in Tehran. I wouldn’t put your book in that category by any means, for many, many reasons, one of which is the love that Isaac and Farnaz have for Iran and the complicated flavor of their departure, which is in utter contrast to the pure and total relief in something like Not Without My Daughter, which was this horrible Sally Field movie from the 1980s. Have you read or seen any of those? Did you have them bouncing around in your head at all, or were you able to just write free and clear without those kinds of negative models?
Sofer: Well, I’ve seen Not Without My Daughter, unfortunately, and I tried to veer away from that as much as possible. Reading Lolita in Tehran, I actually hadn’t read it until I finished writing, and afterward I did, and that’s a memoir, and it’s quite a different thing from what this is. But she makes a lot of insightful points, the major one being the idea of one person confiscating the life of another. She says this regarding the novel Lolita, but also in reference to the government of Iran sort of confiscating the lives of its population—especially the women. So that’s a good book, but a very different book, I think.
Question 7: Do you have any opinion as to why there are so few male Iranian authors who are published in the United States as opposed to female?
Sofer: Yeah. I don’t know. I’ve been asked that before, and I’m really not sure. It may be because women now feel more freedom to speak, or because they were silenced for so long; now there’s a new generation of women that are writing. I don’t know exactly why. I know there may be more in Europe than there are here, and I need to investigate further. I don’t know why.
Question 10: When is your next book coming out?
Sofer: Many years from now. I’m working on it, yeah.
Question 10: Similar style?
Sofer: No—very different. Yeah—I’m trying something else.
Ahmad: Thank you all so much for coming.
Sofer: Thank you.