author of Together Tea
Interviewed by Joanne Carota
Carota: You have lived across the globe–Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Iran, U.S., Switzerland, and Australia. How have your global experiences influenced your characters? For instance, in Together Tea mother and daughter, Darya and Mina, shift into Persian-American familial roles. How do you think their relationship would differ if you had chosen to set the entire story in Iran?
Kamali: I think living in so many different cultures has shown me one thing: people are the same everywhere you go. Much as some politicians may want to promote a narrative of a “clash of civilizations,” my experience of living in five continents is that most people want the same things: love, a sense of belonging, safety, and the chance to fulfill one’s potential. The way society expects an individual to fulfill these wants may differ but those differences are more generational than cultural. In Together Tea, Darya grew up in Iran at a time when women fulfilled traditional roles of getting married, having children, and putting aside personal ambition. Darya was raised to believe that parents know best about everything including who is the best life partner for their child. Mina, her daughter, has been steeped in the American—and increasingly global—view of an individual’s will overcoming destiny.
If the novel had been set entirely in Iran, I’m not sure if the mother-daughter relationship would have differed all that much. To be sure, Mina has been exposed to particularly American values of independence and self-discovery that are mystifying to Darya, and the dating culture in Iran would have been much more restrictive for Mina than the dating culture in the U.S. But because Mina is still bound by the values of her parents even in America and because what she’s fighting is more a clash of generations than cultures, the fundamental tension between mother and daughter would still exist even if they’d never left Iran. The irony here is that Darya is arguing for acquiescence to tradition and destiny while at the same time making spreadsheets in Excel to find her daughter the perfect husband. She doesn’t realize (in the beginning of the novel) just how much she is micromanaging the process.
Carota: Initially, writers share symbiotic relationships with their stories, subsequently releasing custody to their readers. Since its publication in 2013, has your understanding of Together Tea shifted by seeing the story through the eyes of your readers?
Kamali: I’ve had direct contact with readers at talks, readings, through emails/letters, and especially at book club visits in person and via Skype. There is nothing like spending a few hours as the author guest of a book club for a writer to truly understand their readers. What I’ve learned from these visits is that there’s a lot in Together Tea that I didn’t even realize I was addressing – so much of it was subconscious. For example, readers often say they love how food is used in the novel to show both the culture and the bonds between family members. I did not set out to include so much food—it’s just impossible for me to write about an Iranian family without including the preparation of food and the huge Persian feasts that occur at parties and family get-togethers! Readers also tell me the book has revealed a lot to them about Iranians and Iranian-Americans. Most did not know about the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, most did not think they’d identify so strongly with characters fleeing a country. They didn’t think they’d see their own fears and desires in a family from Iran. I am deeply moved when readers see the characters as themselves. I did not know the immigration story could strike a chord for so many. These reactions are heartening.
Some reactions are less heartening and show just how far our culture has gone in demonizing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. I have received a few letters from readers in middle America thanking me because after reading my novel they no longer harbor hate for all Iranians and/or all Muslims; they now see them as humans just like their own families. While I am grateful for these letters, I am also greatly saddened that it took reading a novel to see that. I look forward to the day when that’s not a revelation.
Carota: Solstice Literary Magazine has published an excerpt from your new novel, At the Center of it All. The novel involves coming of age in pre-coup Iran of 1953.
. . . But politics had seeped from outside the school walls into every classroom. The students had become divided, much like the country, . . .
Do you see similar shades of division in the current U.S. political climate?
Kamali: Yes. It was one thing to write my first novel with much of the backdrop being the Iranian revolution of 1979. I knew in writing Together Tea that many of my readers would remember the time period. The events of 1979 were certainly fresh in my own mind. But in writing my second novel, partially set against the backdrop of the 1953 coup in Iran, I was wading into much less familiar territory. As I researched the political divisions in 1953 Iran, I was surprised that what may have seemed like far-away historical events in a far-away land were actually no different than the divisions we are experiencing right now in contemporary America. In Iran right before the coup, there was the same sense of one side being completely convinced they were right and dismissing and demonizing the other side. There was the same bleeding of politics into just about everything, of families becoming obsessed and divided by their political views.
Irreparable chasms get created when family members are so strongly entrenched in their beliefs. Relationships are broken and while they can be repaired, sometimes the damage is done and the cost is great both personally and for the community. Writing about 1953 Iran showed me how much of the past feeds the present and how political themes/regimes have an eternal recurrence.
Carota: How do you focus on writing and reading when so many urgent developments have taken hold across the globe in the last several months?
Kamali: It’s not easy to focus on writing and reading especially when the political developments threaten your sense of safety and hit so close to home. I see my friends wallow in despair after reading the news and I have been guilty of feeling immobilized and paralyzed by the bad news, too. Many of my author friends feel that being politically active is more important that writing stories right now. But I know that writing stories is being politically active. I come from a country where writers are considered to be agents of political change merely through the act of writing. And aside from writing being a political act, I am also keenly aware that we have to do what we can to save ourselves from despair. Reading the classics and the works of contemporary artists an participating in the great pool of literature brings not just solace but empathy. And we need empathy and understanding now more than ever. So for me, writing and reading are both an escape and a solution. I feel they make me a more balanced empathetic energized person.
Carota: You’ve chosen fiction or perhaps fiction has chosen you. Why is fiction your favorite way to convey story?
Kamali: In the beginning, I chose fiction because I loved to read novels. I was always reading as a child, so much so that I was being told to put a book down the way we tell kids today to put the phone down. When the war between Iran and Iraq began, reading saved me. During the bombing, my family would go down to the basement bomb shelter and my sister and I would get out our paperbacks. We read as the bombs fell.
When the bombing stopped and we went back upstairs, there was always a sense of relief and sometimes a sense of peace. Relief because we had lived to see another day. And peace only because of the grounding and balance and perspective and escape that reading fiction gave us. It was impossible not to emerge from immersion in a good book without that sense of grounding, despite all the upheaval around us. And that sense didn’t come because the stories we read were happy or light. Some were. But some also highlighted the worst of humanity. Reading good fiction showed me that even in the worst periods of history, even through the darkest days, there were these people called writers who captured and shaped the experience into something artistic and achingly beautiful. They strung sentences together and created works of art. It was the power of writers to do this that gave me hope.
Later, when my family moved to America, reading fiction gave me the perspective and depth that I craved in a new culture. The first time I read Toni Morrison, I was blown away by how she could transform the world and make any character’s motives understandable. I began to write fiction to express myself, to work things out, to tell stories that were outlandish and fun. I needed to tell stories. Even now, I cannot get enough of trying to understand the dynamics between people and the motives for their decisions. Reading helps both quench and increase that thirst. Writing does the same with the added benefit of allowing me to connect with complete strangers. The hope is that my work can give a reader the same sense of grounding and beauty that other writers give me.
MARJAN KAMALI is the author of Together Tea (Ecco/HarperCollins) which was a Massachusetts Book Award Finalist, an NPR WBUR Good Read Pick, and a Target Emerging Author Selection. She attended U.C. Berkeley and has an MBA from Columbia University and an MFA from NYU. Her fiction appear in the anthologies Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been and Tremors and her non-fiction has been published in The Wall Street Journal and The LA Review of Books. Together Tea is her debut novel and has been translated into Italian, German, Norwegian, Czech and Slovak. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children.