Posts Tagged Marjan Kamali
1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud [Knopf]
–a brilliant novel about anything but that typical woman upstairs. It’s about aspirations present and past, realized and forsaken.
2. The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna [Tin House Books]
–an intense book about squatting, community and political activism in the 90s
3. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi [Penguin]
–a beautifully written book. haunting and lyrical. family, race, country, belonging.
4. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward [Bloomsbury]
–this memoir. raw. upsetting. the author mediates on the poverty in Louisiana and the black men she lost in its depths.
5. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat [Knopf]
–another novel in which I’m in awe of the writing style. gorgeous mystical tale about Haiti.
6. FEVER by Mary Beth Keane [Scribner]
-wondrous historical fiction about “Typhoid Mary.” fascinatingly imagined.
7. The Inbetween People by Emma McEvoy [The Permanent Press]
–stunning, powerful novel. Avi Goldberg writes from military prison because he refuses to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]. He writes about his friend Saleem, an Israeli Arab he met. Their lives intertwine despite cultural differences and past troubles.
8. In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler [Metropolitan]
–not only a memoir about Ensler’s personal journey with cancer but it’s a call to community, to get involved. so powerful I cried when I finished reading it.
9. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan [ECCO]
–sweeping story about mothers and daughters set in turn-of-the-century Shanghai
10. Harvard Square by Andre Aciman [W.W. Norton]
–melancholic, nostalgic autobiographical novel about belonging and assimilation that focuses on immigrants finding their place in America in the 70s.
11. Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron [Blue Rider]
–the this essay collection, Delia tackles the profound to the superficial with wit, perception and charm. She maintains a steady wisdom-filled tone. She’s a woman who’s experienced plenty and shares mistakes, some secrets and reflects upon life-lessons with those willing to listen.
12. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell [Knopf]
–This collection of stories transports you to places you never imagined going to. Russell writes stories about variations on monsters. Beautiful, peculiar, unusual and tragic monsters. She creates bizarre, macabre and funny settings. Complete with vivid imagery, creepiness and potent emotions without an excess of verbiage. She writes dark, funny and tender.
13. Freud’s Mistress by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack [Amy Einhorn]
–long rumored to have had an affair with his wife’s sister, Kaufman and Mack vividly imagine this sister’s character and life with the Freuds.
14. Montana by Gwen Florio [The Permanent Press]
–MONTANA drew me in immediately with its stellar page-turning plot, terrific characters and stunning descriptions of Montana scenery. Also Lola’s an independent feminist journalist determined to uncover the truth at any cost.
15. Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III [WW Norton]– author interview
–one of my all-time favorite authors writes vignettes about love, sex, relationships and the gritty, sticky, messy aftermath.
16. Lillian and Dash by Sam Toperoff [Other Press]
–What a charming novel that delves into the long affair between playwright Lillian Hellman [Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour] and noir author and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett [The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man].
17. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver [Harper Collins]
–Lionel Shriver expresses so many thoughts about obesity epidemic, how we indulge, how food is a treat, a central focus for holidays, outings, dates, meetings etc. Dazzling writing, vocabulary and character creation up until the ending.
18. Together Tea by Marjan Kamali [ECCO]– author interview
–insight into the immigrant experience. Humor, love, respect and mother-daughter bonding make this a book you’ll long remember after finishing the last page. It’s a love story to Persia as well as an acceptance for the United States.
19. The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen [Other Press]– author interview
–in this astute story collection, Elizabeth Cohen writes about dating in the digital age.
20. Nothing Serious by Daniel Klein [The Permanent Press]
–brilliant meditation on print media and its changing format and relevance.
Marjan Kamali, an Iranian-American author, moved to the United States after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 though she’s lived in Kenya, Turkey, Switzerland as her father worked as a diplomat. She’s since lived in Massachusetts, New York, California, Switzerland and Australia. She received an MBA from Columbia and an MFA from NYU. Together Tea, a delightful novel about an Iranian-American mother and daughter striving to find what makes them happy after leaving one home and attempting to fit in to another. Read my review here.
Recently I met Marjan for coffee/tea to speak about the novel and her background.
Amy Steele: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Marjan Kamali:I always wanted to write. I moved around a lot as a child. My dad was a diplomat so we moved around a lot. I never really had a sense of home. I learned to read in English from a Richard Scarry book. I loved to read. Books were my home. And then I wanted to write.
Amy Steele: When did you decide to write this book?
Marjan Kamali: I came to the U.S. as the child of immigrants. Writing wasn’t considered an option as a career because it wasn’t considered professional or stable or lucrative. The choice was a doctor, a lawyer or an MBA. So I pursued an MBA but the entire time I was there I wistfully looked at the MFA program. They wouldn’t let me do a double-major so that’s how NYU came about.
And because I had a liberal arts background when starting my MBA they put us in “Math Camp” and introduced us to Excel. I saw the spread sheets and thought what if a mother used this to find suitable matches for her daughter. I started writing the story. That was over 10 years ago.
I did put it aside because I was doing the double degrees and found I was having a baby and then went back to school and had another baby and we moved to Australia. So I put it aside for six years. After my youngest child was in kindergarten, I retrieved it and started revising it.
Amy Steele: How did the Islamic Revolution affect your family?
Marjan Kamali: I was living abroad because of my dad’s job. After the revolution in 1979 we went back because at that time it was considered a time of democracy but it soon became clear it wasn’t moving in the way many had hoped. It was becoming a theocracy and not a democracy. I was there between the ages of 9 and 10 ½. A lot of the scenes that occurred in the early 80s, I was there then so that’s how I got those scenes.
Amy Steele:: How autobiographical is the novel?
Marjan Kamali: I would say it’s semi-autobiographical. My mom never made spreadsheets to find me a husband but I was in Iran during the war so the schools changing and things like that.
Amy Steele: What do you think are the greatest misconceptions people have about Iran?
Marjan Kamali: I feel the biggest one is that people have a really short-term memory. 34 years in the history of Iran is very short. There are these Islamic fanatic and negative images on the media of people who hate America. I think the biggest misconception is that Iranians hate America because they don’t. They’re thrilled to see anyone from America. They want more of America and they can’t have it.
Amy Steele: You start out with Darya trying to set up Mina in a marriage. Is that common?
Marjan Kamali: Arranged marriages aren’t common. Even today it’s what you and I would call a blind date. There’s a word for it in Farsi and it means that if you’re a young person of a certain age and I know someone of a certain age who would be suitable, I set you guys up to meet. When it’s done by the parents, it’s more official. The man comes over to tea to meet the young woman. If they like each other, another meeting is set up. If not, nothing becomes of it. It’s matchmaking.
Amy Steele: Did you develop the story first or the characters?
Marjan Kamali: I developed the characters first. I wanted that mother figure and I wanted that daughter figure that was 25 and coming of age and trying to become independent. I came up with the spreadsheets because I thought it was a way to get to know the characters.
Amy Steele: What drew you to writing?
Marjan Kamali: I always read. Once I was in high school my English teachers encouraged me. I wrote a short story as a junior in high school that my mom sent to a contest. I kept getting feedback from really good teachers. It was never really a love of writing but a love of reading and others were encouraging.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write this story?
Marjan Kamali: I believe there are two Irans. There is the Iran that we see in the media and then there is the real Iran. Adjusting to American life, trying to find a sense of home, and culture shock are common challenges for most immigrants. But Iranian immigrants have the additional charge of explaining or correcting negative representations of their home country. When I was an undergraduate, books like Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” made me understand the Chinese-American and African-American experience better through fiction. I wanted to find similar novels about Iranian Americans. So I decided to write a novel that shows the beauty, frustrations and joy in a Persian family. Iranians are often drawn with such a broad brush – I wanted to try and provide more nuanced, colorful strokes.
Amy Steele: this quote from pg. 67– “Mina knew how to study and work very hard. She knew how to swing her legs on that hyphen that defined and denied who she was: Iranian-American. Neither the first word nor the second really belonged to her. Her place was on the hyphen, and on the hyphen she would stay, carrying memories of the one place from which she had come and the other place in which she must succeed. The hyphen was hers—a pace small, potentially precarious. On the hyphen she would sit and on the hyphen she would stand and soon, like a seasoned acrobat, she would balance there perfectly, never falling, never choosing either side over the other, content with walking that thin line.”, as an Iranian-American Mina feels she’s on the hyphen. Can you explain that?
Marjan Kamali: This passage seems to have struck a chord with readers. It gets quoted in reviews the most and was read on NPR WBUR’s Good Reads program. It happens to be one of the autobiographical passages in the novel. I was putting into words how I had felt for so long. “She knew how to swing her legs on that hyphen that defined and denied who she was: Iranian-American. Neither the first word nor the second really belonged to her”. Mina, like many hyphenated Americans who live between worlds, is a foreigner when she goes to her “home” country and isn’t always quite at home in the U.S. either. She tries to find a balance for years. “The hyphen was hers – a space small, potentially precarious. On the hyphen she would sit and on the hyphen she would stand and soon, like a seasoned acrobat, she would balance there perfectly, never falling, never choosing either side over the other, content with walking that thin line.” Ultimately, Mina realizes that her sense of belonging doesn’t need to come from a place or ethnicity. Rather than being a limiting small space, that hyphen is actually a bridge between cultures and Mina finds her home on that bridge and in her art and in her relationships.
Amy Steele: How difficult was it to get out of Iran during the revolution? Some people stayed. Why?
Marjan Kamali: It was difficult especially after the revolution had succeeded because for a while the borders were closed. The new government wanted to make sure that no one who was a political anti-revolutionary left. Others stayed because they didn’t have the means to leave or had no choice. But many stayed because they did not want to leave. It’s difficult to leave the country you have known all your life and in which you have a strong family network in order to become a refugee or to just start anew in an unknown land. Also, people stayed because they just loved Iran too much – Iranians are very nationalistic and they wanted to see how post-revolutionary Iran played out. Others stayed because they wanted to contribute to making post-revolutionary Iran work. And some stayed because they couldn’t believe that anything negative or violent would last, that it would all blow over and things would go “back to normal”.
Amy Steele: Can you explain the title?
Marjan Kamali: The title is actually a phrase that my Farsi-speaking mother-in-law uses when she speaks English. She says “Would you like to have together tea”? I used this phrase as the title because tea is such a huge part of Persian life – it’s usually brewed (with great care) on a samovar and people drink it all day long. Throughout the novel, many characters meet over tea and pivotal conversations between Darya and Mina, Darya and Sam, Mina and Ramin, Darya, Parviz and Sam etc. are had over tea. Also, I wanted to use the word “together” to indicate the bridge between Iran and America. We have so much in common, despite the political rhetoric.
Amy Steele: Both Darya and Mina are strong women. What do you like about them?
Marjan Kamali: I love that Darya speaks her mind. She is judgmental and she knows it but she’s old enough to not care what others think. Her generation is one that was steeped in tradition and she was raised to respect her parents’ choices, to marry someone of whom they approved, and to establish a stable, secure life where one kept one’s head low and did not rock the boat. But she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she is a very headstrong, determined, and talented woman. Because of Iran’s tumultuous politics, both Darya and Mina have experienced regime change (Darya’s generation were children during the ouster of Mossadegh and installment of the Shah in 1953 and Mina’s generation were kids during the 1979 Islamic revolution). Both know political upheaval first hand and see that stability and security are temporary. But whereas Darya’s response is to keep a low profile and hang on to safe and secure choices, Mina’s, due in large part to her exposure to Western culture, is to ultimately follow her bliss, despite the risks. This is where Darya and Mina differ the most. But I love and respect Darya’s decisions to keep her family safe and I think her choices in life show strength, even if they are choices of compromise. Mina, too, makes many compromises – but in the end she chooses her passion and I respect this greatly about her. I love that she manages to carve her own path without being a clichéd “rebel” who rejects her parents. Mina is trapped in a way, between her parents’ desires for her and her American opportunities. But she manages to balance both, hard as it is, and I love this about her.
Amy Steele: You mentioned potential unfulfilled and that this appealed to you as a writing topic. Why?
Marjan Kamali: I grew up aware that a lot of adults regretted not pursuing their passion. There was plenty of excellent talent that had not been put to use due to circumstance, revolution, war, laziness, what have you. It made me fascinated by the idea of not fulfilling your potential and living a life of regret. No person who has reached middle age is a stranger to unfulfilled dreams, failed ambitions, or missed opportunity. But the idea of having a true talent and not pursuing it, like Darya’s talent in mathematics or Mina’s talent in art– the idea of having to neglect your passion due to life’s circumstances or your own choices has always fascinated me. It’s what happens when lives are cut short and when lives are not lived to the fullest. It is what happens when people can’t muster up the courage to pursue their real desire or don’t have the circumstances that can make that happen. Potential unfulfilled is a great loss and if someone is able to actually live up to their potential, that is the greatest gift of all. That privilege, duty, and gift of living up to your potential is the theme I wanted to explore in Together Tea.
Many thanks to my new friend Marjan Kamali. Definitely add Together Tea to your summer reading list. You won’t be disappointed.
** ECCO/Harper has also agreed to give away one copy of the novel to U.S. residents, if interested please leave your email in the comments. Contest closes August 8.
Together Tea by Marjan Kamali. Publisher: ecco (2013). Fiction. 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-06-223680-7.
Marjan Kamali spent a decade to completing her debut novel, Together Tea, due to various life events. She first developed the concept as an MFA student at NYU [while simultaneously completing her MBA at Columbia]. She wanted to write about an Iranian-American immigrants in an amusing style without falling into stereotypes.
The novel focuses on Mina, a twenty-something MBA student with dreams of being an artist, and her mother Darya, who abandoned her goal to be a math teacher when she fled Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. At the start, Darya’s setting Mina up for another date after using her intricate spreadsheet calculations to determine compatibility. Darya’s always telling Mina about how wonderful life in Iran was and how much she misses it. Mina decides she needs to see Darya’s Iran for herself and decides to go during her winter vacation. Darya volunteers to join her. So the mother and daughter set off back to their homeland.
“What if the country and history her parents loved was still buried there? What if she could find it? Could Mina go back and see what Darya meant when she said she wanted Mina to have “everything she had”? Mina had always wished that she could have known the Iran Darya had grown up in, instead of the Iran she herself had escaped from. Could she find it and piece it together if she went back there as an adult?”
Mina studies hard but isn’t truly happy with pursuing an MBA. She aches to become an artist. Her conservative parents don’t think that’s a career, something lucrative or stable. As Mina contemplates her present, she realizes that her past in Iran shapes her as an individual today. She wants to experience Iran in order to make sense of her present self. Is she an immigrant or an American or a combination of both? Once in Iran, she and her mother re-discover the old beauty and traditions as well as young people secretly embracing Western culture.
“Mina knew how to study and work very hard. She knew how to swing her legs on that hyphen that defined and denied who she was: Iranian-American. Neither the first word nor the second really belonged to her. Her place was on the hyphen, and on the hyphen she would stay, carrying memories of the one place from which she had come and the other place in which she must succeed. The hyphen was hers—a pace small, potentially precarious. On the hyphen she would sit and on the hyphen she would stand and soon, like a seasoned acrobat, she would balance there perfectly, never falling, never choosing either side over the other, content with walking that thin line.”
Together Tea provides a novel insight into the immigrant experience. Humor, love, respect and mother-daughter bonding make this a book you’ll long remember after finishing the last page. It’s a love story to Persia as well as an acceptance for the United States.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
***I can giveaway one copy of Together Tea to U.S. residents only. If interested please provide email address in comments. Entries close July 20.