Good Reading : October 2008
OCTOBER 2008 ı goodreading 17 If we imagine the smells of saffron, basmati rice, rosewater, cardamom and cinnamon wafting through the air and basil, tarragon, dill, mint and coriander in abundance, we are imagining the world of The Babylon Café. Mehran describes Persian cuisine as ‘very delicate ...To me, it’s like an arabesque. It’s a pot of pomegranate soup, it’s the dance of Salome,’ she says. ‘Herbs are served with everything in piles on the plate and you put them with your rice and add them as you go along.’ Perfect fare for reading groups (why not cook a dish each time your group meets?), both books feature possible discussion questions. Mehran agrees that, although Rosewater and Soda Bread can be read on its own, it’s a nicer experience reading the novels back to back so as not to lose the flow and continuity between them. She explains how the writing of the series started. ‘I was working on a book about mothers and daughters and it was very dark, and it was making me very unhappy. I was not looking forward to going to the keyboard every day and I had this little fairytale idea from my time in Ireland, and decided to leave the sad story and ended up writing the first draft of Pomegranate Soup in six weeks. She has described writing that book as similar to a pregnancy because she was eating so much. ‘I piled on 20 pounds in six weeks!’ she says.These days she prefers to drink lots of tea, listen to sad folk music and spend time sitting in a rocking chair thinking about what she has to write next. Right now she is three days away from finishing a book set in LA about Iranian mothers and their American-born daughters. Stories have always been central to Mehran’s life. ‘I was brought into the world with my mother’s voice and her stories. When I was a little girl, every night she would tell me stories and I often think of the storytelling tradition which is really a feminine one in Iran, an oral one. It goes back to the Tales of 1001 Nights and its heroine Scheherazade. [These stories] have really influenced me and ... a lot of Iranian women writers.The stories are fantastical and fairytale-like and magical.’ Mehran tells me the storytelling hasn’t stopped. ‘My mother will spin strange tales of our family history and was here just this afternoon and was entertaining me with more stories. She told me today how my great-grandfather supposedly escaped a whole herd of bears and trekked across the desert and went to Belgium,’ Mehran says, with war m and infectious laughter. ‘I mean, he did go to Belgium but I’m sure he didn’t fight bears!’ Describing herself as ‘the little girl with the glasses in the corner’, she says she started reading in English primarily and got into some ‘heavy books’ when she was very young. ‘At nine or ten I was reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,’ she says. The Russian writers are still in her top 10 and she loves the Sufi poets, the perfect rhythms of Truman Capote’s short stories and Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. She is currently reading a book about Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and a number of other books about mythology. The sad story of her own family’s past partly mirrors the fate of the three Aminpour sisters of her novels but her story features even more upheaval. Mehran’s family are Baha’i, a minority religion founded in the 19th century. Its main premise is that humanity is one single race which should be unified but Baha’i in Iran have always been persecuted. Many have been killed including Mehran’s great-uncle, a community leader who was assassinated. ‘There was a known licence to kill during the [Islamic] Revolution.There were people carrying guns everywhere on the streets and they were told by a lot of factions “if you see a Baha’i you can kill them. No-one’s going to arrest you for it”,’ she explains.The Baha’i community in Australia numbers around 17 000 and those living in Iran are still in mortal danger. Timing is everything in life. In 1979 Mehran was two years old and the Islamic Revolution (in which the Shah of Iran was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini) had begun. Her parents had decided to leave for America and her father chose 4 November to go to the American embassy to apply for a visa. It was the day the embassy was taken hostage by students. On his way there in the morning he saw a crowd running towards him, heard the news and that was the end of the dream of a visa. Instead, Mehran’s parents went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they put their savings into a small café. Mehran’s father happened to be a good cook and her mother ran the front- of-house operations and the tiny place filled with Iranian immigrants and Iranian food.They survived this way for a couple of years until her father got a job in a bank and they finally found their way to America. Mehran’s grandmother and aunt moved to Adelaide and after her parents’ separation, she, her mother and brother also moved to Adelaide where Mehran went to high school. Her father (now a successful artist in Adelaide) joined them later but her parents divorced when she was 14. At 19, after her final year of high school, Mehran went to New York to pursue an acting career, wrote screenplays and scripts, had a variety of jobs and met her Irish husband. Being a writer, Mehran can’t risk going back to Iran, so I ask what she misses most about it. ‘Because I left so young I don’t really know what I’m missing so I wouldn’t be able to tell you. My mother’s memories are my stories ... ’ she says. About to pack up and move back to Ireland per manently, Mehran will base herself in Dublin to write. ‘There are a lot of stories I want to tell about Dublin. I’ve lived there before and it’s had a big influence on me ... it’s home now and it’s a big thing to have finally discovered the place you feel happy in. It’s something I’ve been fighting for a long time and you discover ultimately that home is inside you but for me, geographically, it’s Ireland – but it’s a very potent, sensitive issue. It’s about bringing all your memories and traditions with you and making he best of it wherever you are.’ I’m sure the townsfolk of Ballinacroagh would raise their Guinnesses and say Sláinte to that! Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran is published by HarperCollins, rrp 27.99. omegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran published by HarperCollins, rrp $22.99.