By Persis Karim
Some people are born with wanderlust in their hearts, but for Iranian-American novelist Marjan Kamali, you could say, it was “foisted” upon her. Although she did come to the US from Iran, her life has unfolded in seven countries and five continents; the US has been the nation in which her life has been the most rooted thus far. Those wanderings are a part of Kamali, and they inform her work and her ideas as a writer. “My father was a diplomat and I spent my childhood in Turkey, Iran, Germany, Kenya, and the U.S. As an adult, I continued my diasporic wanderings and lived in Australia and Switzerland as well. I’m fascinated by the idea of home, why it matters, where it ends up being (for my characters it’s rarely a place).”
Kamali’s second novel, The Stationery Shop (2019) as does her first novel, Together Tea (2012), reflects these complex notions of home and belonging. “The idea of home as a physical region has always been at once a highly desirable and impossible concept for me,” says Kamali. “I spent decades searching for the idea of ‘home’ in a geographical sense, but in the end, I found home in my family and in the act of reading and writing.” In her first novel, Together Tea, Kamali writes about a family who comes to the Unites States after the 1979 Iranian revolution, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War. “I lived in Iran right after the revolution and experienced the beginning years of that war. Like many first novels, mine is semi-autobiographical.” When writing certain scenes, Kamali says she drew on her own memory and experience. Her second novel, however, is set in 1953 Tehran, and reflects Kamali’s interest in the events and history of a time that influenced her later in life. The main character, Roya, like Kamali, experiences immigration and the pull of old loves and old bonds and, she says, “I definitely drew heavily on my own emotions when writing the book.”
Kamali always loved to read and write as a child. She says she carried around paperbacks and read whenever she had the chance. “My English lit teachers in high school encouraged me to consider pursuing writing as a career, but as a child of immigrants, it was expected that I land in a more stable profession such as: doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.” It wasn’t until college that Kamali began to see a professional writing career as a real option. “I remember sitting in a class taught by Maxine Hong Kingston at UC Berkeley and deciding that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to write novels,” she says.
Kamali’s novels are reflective of and grounded in so many experiences that inform many Iranian diaspora lives. Modern Iranian history, immigration, the Iran-Iraq War, and, of course, her ties to her culture and family. “Even though we lived in so many different countries when I was growing up, our house was an Iranian one,” she says. “When I came home at the end of a school day, I spoke Persian to my parents, ate Persian food, and was encouraged to learn Persian poetry and literature. I think perhaps because my parents lived in so many different cultures, it became especially important to them to pass on Iranian culture to their children. It gave us a grounding and a source of pride. It wasn’t until the 1979 revolution, when I was eight years old, that I felt I had to defend being Iranian to classmates and even teachers and to somehow speak up against the negative images of Iranians.”
Kamali says her notion of what it means to be Iranian American has shifted, both in her life and her writing, in part because of having her own children, and also in seeing the larger discourses in this country change. “I think when I was younger the idea of Iranian Americans as having to assimilate and constantly be grateful for being here was a common narrative. So many Iranian Americans prided themselves on being “white” or “white adjacent” and went out of their way to prove that they were a model minority. I now see a kind of greater ‘ownership’ of our own unique situation and a recognition that despite what the census tells us or what our skin tone may be, we do not, as Iranian Americans, have to constantly crave white privilege or chase it,” she says.
Because her novels straddle histories and culture that are beyond the US, Kamali’s work reflects the betweenness of Iranian-American literature; the idea that stories and experiences of Iran and Iranian immigration are not singular in their perspective or in their audiences. Kamali says she has been surprised by the kinds of readers her novels attract—aging from teenagers to the elderly. “Most of my readers are women, but I do have men who write to me and admit that they ended up in tears after reading The Stationery Shop. I like that my readers are both non-Iranian and Iranian. I think the responses that have heartened me the most are the ones where the reader shares with me how my book has helped them come to terms with a lost love of their own or be able to see their own experience in a cathartic way. Some of the most heartfelt messages I’ve received are from Iranians who tell me I was able to recreate an Iran they had thought they had lost forever and from non-Iranians who tell me they feel connected to these characters from Iran as if they were members of their own family.”
Kamali’s novel, The Stationery Shop, set in 1953 Tehran, tells the story of two teenagers who fall madly in love when they’re seventeen and then are separated on the eve of their marriage due to a variety of reasons. Sixty years later, they reunite in the United States. Covering a span of sixty years was a different experience for me.” Kamali says she had to dig deep to understand the politics and social mores of 1950s Iran and to inform herself of the US-British-backed military coup d’etat that “impacts Iran and the whole world to this day but which is seldom discussed.” She says her research deepened her understanding of Iran before the 1979 revolution, “when 1979 and all its ramifications were still far away (even if the seeds for that time were being planted).” To prepare her for this novel, Kamali says she read as many books about the 1953 coup as she could and immersed herself in autobiographical accounts. “I pored over newspaper articles with timelines of what happened down to the hour on August 19, 1953. “I also interviewed family members and friends of family. My father helped me by sharing period details such as what kinds of pastries were served in Tehran cafes in 1953 or what kind of movies were popular. I discovered so many fascinating details: many high school kids in Tehran at the time were learning how to dance the tango and the waltz; they were watching Italian films at Tehran cinemas and arguing about democracy, communism, and the parliamentary system. There was a true feeling of the country being on the cusp of a great new beginning.”
Unfortunately, that beginning and the promise of democracy was interrupted by the coup, an event that neither the British or Americans have ever fully accounted for. People believe 1979 was the start of the difficult relationship between the US and Iran, but Kamali believes this earlier history is important to share. As a result, Kamali wants her novels to show a more complex, nuanced, and richly-cultured view of Iran. “Few countries are as stigmatized and demonized as Iran is in the US media, and in its mainstream political narrative,” says Kamali. “Growing up, I always felt there were two Irans: the one portrayed in the US media and the one I knew to be true. The nightly news would inform us about Iranian fanaticism or right-wing idealogues or terrorism. But where were the tales about the funny, complicated, charming, sweet, generous people I knew? They were missing from the larger narrative. I became determined to tell stories that reflected a more nuanced picture of Iranians as opposed to the caricatures and stereotypes out there.”
But Kamali admits her novels are impossible to categorize in only one location or one culture. “My characters’ Iranian identities are inseparable from their American ones. Their lives are all the richer and more complicated and more empowering because they embody both cultures. Displacement can bring about intense estrangement but also an incredible (if hard-won) perspective.”
I had the good fortune of producing a stage production of Together Tea with my colleague at San Jose State University, Dr. Matthew Spangler, in 2014 when I hosted the conference, “Cultures of the Iranian Diaspora.” We shared an excerpt of this one-woman show at our 2019 conference “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” with Bay Area actress, Leyla Modirzadeh. You can view this excerpt on our YouTube channel. To learn more about Kamali’s writing and her own biography, go to www.marjankamali.com.