From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.
Novelist and 2022 NEA Literature Fellow Marjan Kamali is an Iranian-American writer. The daughter of a diplomat, her family moved to the United States after the Islamic revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War. Her fiction, not surprisingly, often examines transitions, family, memory, and the tap dance around navigating complicated and often contradictory cultural identities. Her first novel Together Tea is a funny and compassionate mother-daughter story that underscores the juggling act that life requires for the women who emigrated to the US and those that stayed in Iran. Marjan’s most recent book is The Stationery Shop –a book about memory, loss, love and social upheaval that spans sixty years. The story moves between Iran and the United States as well as shifting back and forth through time. It’s a surprising and moving novel that’s currently being adapted into an HBO series. As with Together Tea, The Stationery Shop is steeped in Persian culture, poetry, and food and informed by Iranian history. The story begins with young protagonists Roya and Bahman who meet in a stationery shop. I’ll let Marjan Kamali tell you the rest.
Marjan Kamali: It's a love story. It's about two teenagers who meet when they're 17 in 1953 in Iran. They meet in a stationary shop and they continue to have once-a-week rendezvous in the stationery shop and their love blossoms into this sort of whirlwind romance. And they get engaged to be married, but on the day that they're set to get their marriage certificate the country erupts in a violent coup d’état and they're separated until they reunite 60 years later in the United States.
Jo Reed: This book opens with two epigrams. The first is by F. Scott Fitzgerald from “This Side of Paradise”: And the second is Harry Truman. Perhaps we can begin with the epigram from Fitzgerald.
Marjan Kamali: The Fitzgerald quote was something I came across before I even started the book: “They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.” and when I read that line I knew I wanted to write a book with that theme. The Harry Truman quote, “There's nothing new in the world except the history we do not know,” I feel has several layers of meaning for this story, because while it's true that “There's nothing new in the world except the history we do not know,” and in this case, particularly, when it comes to Iran I also feel that, aside from geopolitics, that's very true with people. When we meet someone it's very easy to make a snap judgment about them, to come to certain conclusions, but once we know their history we might think of them entirely differently. And that's another theme I wanted to explore with this novel.
Jo Reed: Well, I read, and I hope it's true, that the kernel that this story grew around actually was an event that took place in an assisted care facility. Is this true?
Marjan Kamali: That is true. You know, for my first book, for “Together Tea” I visited lots of book clubs. And at the end of one of those book club visits one of the members came up to me and asked if I would read at the assisted living facility where she worked. And, so, I went down to Duxbury, Massachusetts, a few weeks later and I did a reading. And there was an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who kept saying things and I wasn't sure if he was heckling me or cheering me on, but he was very vocal. And then, later, they had organized this lovely Persian lunch, because there's a lot of food in both my books.
Jo Reed: Oh, yes, there is.
Marjan Kamali: There sure is. And they had done a fantastic job at making some of the dishes. And he wheeled himself up to me and he kept saying things, like, “I met the Prince of Spain. Did you know I traveled with Charles de Gaulle?” And he went on and on, but people were, you know, trying to have him sort of leave me alone and quieting him down. But I did ask him his name. And later when I was sharing with my father how this event had gone and I mentioned this man's name, because he had an Iranian name, my father said, “Oh, that was one of our most decorated dignitaries. He met the Prince of Spain, he traveled with Charles de Gaulle, he met all these world leaders.” And I realized then that I was guilty of dismissing him, not believing him, and I kept thinking, “What must it be like to be in an assisted living center with this past that nobody believes or maybe they believe it, but they don't really care?” And that did become the colonel for “The Stationary Shop.”
Jo Reed: Well, in a way, it frames the book, because we know from the beginning that these two young lovers will meet again 60 years after their lives diverge. Why frame the story this way?
Marjan Kamali: It was so important to me to frame it that way, because while we discussed the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote-- and my whole thrust with the theme of this novel was to explore lost love, not necessarily just first love. And, so, I framed the story so that right off the bat, from page one or two, you know that these two people did not end up together. And you know that they haven't seen one another for 60 years. I felt that by framing the story when our two lovers are 77, not 17, I give the reader the expectation that's something happened to drift them apart, something pretty monumental, but clearly they haven't forgotten one another. And now they get to see each other again for the first time in 60 years. And I think if you enter the story knowing that, it just sets up an entirely different viewpoint for you, the reader, than if you start and they're 17 and they first meet in the stationary shop.
Jo Reed: Well, I think it gives so much more depth to their characters. I mean, I promise I'm not going to give anything away, but, certainly, one thing that it enabled me, as a reader, to see was that within 77-year-old Roya, and we mostly see the story through her eyes, there's still that 17-year-old.
Marjan Kamali: Yes, absolutely.
Jo Reed: And I love the way it collapses time because of that. Obviously, she's still 77, but she's all of those ages.
Marjan Kamali: She is all of them. And aren't we all?
Jo Reed: Yes!
Marjan Kamali: All the ages we've ever been. Yeah. I just don't believe that in our experience of it, deep in our hearts, deep in our souls, time is linear. It's circular and at any given moment we can access all the ages we've ever been. And it's really like Russian nesting dolls were encased within us. We carry all our past selves and all it takes is a particular voice or a specific scent or even a piece of melody and you're back. You're back to that younger self. And that's what happens for Roya. So, when she does see him again, she may be 77, but she is also 17.
Jo Reed: Well, I'd like to have you describe Iran in 1953 when the book opens, because it was a country that was on the cusp of great, great change.
Marjan Kamali: Great, great change. And, I must say I wasn't around in 1953.. But I did a lot of research and I spoke to many people in my own family who had lived through that time in Iran. It became clear to me that it was a very different country than what we think of as Iran today. They had a democratically elected prime minister, Prime Minister Mosaddegh, of whom most people were incredibly proud. He wanted to nationalize the oil. He was very nationalistic and independent-minded and not kowtowing to foreign powers, which did create his downfall. But, also, the country had a sense of a blossoming in art and culture, theater, film. Even the food culture, all these Italian cafes, and I think the people who were young before August 19th happened had an incredible sense of hope, hope that their country was going to be a great big democracy.
Jo Reed: And Roya's parents and, most particularly, her father, who's just this wonderful character, he is set on making sure his daughters are educated and they are ready to take their place in this new Iran.
Marjan Kamali: Yes. And, you know, I do get asked about Roya's father, because he is progressive. He is very enlightened and forward-thinking. And, sometimes, readers ask me, “Well, was he an anomaly?” And perhaps, he did belong to a certain class in the big city, but I based him, to be truthful, on my mother's father, who very much believed that his daughter should be educated and was not at all partaking of the chauvinistic sort of old-fashioned macho view that people associate, sadly, with Iranian men. So, we have to remember that that generation of young women in the 50s, they started to go abroad to study and they were encouraged by families who wanted them to progress.
Jo Reed: And I think the question I asked you actually could have been more precise and less about Iran in 1953, but Tehran in 1953. Because I would imagine there would be very big differences between rural areas and cities and, as you mentioned, of course, class.
Marjan Kamali: Very true. So, most of this novel, when we are in Iran, we are in Tehran. We're not in the villages and we're not in the outskirts. And it is important to remember that, back then, more than now, there was a huge difference between what was happening in the big cities and in the villages, which, over the decades, created resentment and then a revolution in 1979. So, everything I did say about Iran in 1953 should be qualified by saying, particularly, in Tehran and with the middle and the upper middle classes.
Jo Reed: Well, you mentioned August 19th, 1953. And you certainly write about it in the book. What happened on that day?
Marjan Kamali: That day is engraved in the memory of the generation of Iranians who lived through it. And, as I researched this book, I learned so much more about what happened that day. It reads like a spy thriller. What happened that day, basically, was a mob erupted in the middle of the city and went toward the prime minister's house and, literally, attacked it-- such that he had to sort of climb out the window, down a ladder, to escape. He was overthrown. The mob succeeded. It was a coup d’état. Now, as to what exactly happened that day, to this day people are in disagreement. It’s now finally declassified that the coup d’état was abetted by the UK and US. And, of course, by Iranians, too. So, it remains a wound in the Iranian psyche, because, overnight, their leader was overthrown. The Shah solidified his power as a result of that coup and became much more of a strongman than he had been before the coup and became way more beholden to the West than he had been before the coup. So, it feels like the origin of so much trauma for the generation who saw their country change overnight by the actions of a mob. They couldn't believe it had happened, but it did.
Jo Reed: As you were writing the book and plotting and thinking about it, how did you balance the politics, which is pivotal, with the stories of Roya and Bahman, who are clearly affected by the politics, but also have their own story that really is paramount?
Marjan Kamali: Yes, that's a great question. You know, I'm only interested in the politics as it relates to the novel, in how the politics affect my characters. So, I'm well aware I'm not a historian, I'm not a scholar, I'm certainly not a political junkie. I want the politics to inform my story, because the politics changed the trajectory of my characters’ lives. And that's my interest in it. The circumstances, the geopolitical circumstances, affected their ability to be married. Other things did, too. No spoilers. But it's a constant balance, because, as a novelist, you don't want the politics to overwhelm the story. At least, I don't. I don't want to be didactic, I don't want to be preaching. If people are interested in this history, I know they can follow up and, you know, research on their own later and see what they discover. So, I like to think of the politics as a backdrop to the main, main concern of the novel, which is the characters.
Jo Reed: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would think as you're writing, you're creating characters from a country that Americans still don't know that much about. And I would imagine that's something that you have to be thinking about, too.
Marjan Kamali: Yes. And you know what? When I was younger I was so aware of that that, sometimes, I felt it was an obligation of mine to explain the history or to inform my reader. But that does not do any good for the story. So, I think one thing I've learned is I can tell the story and trust that even if not every reader is well versed with the history, they will figure it out. I give enough context for them to figure it out, but I'm not going to overexplain or worry too much that they may have a gap in their knowledge of the history. Because that takes you out of the dream of the story.
Jo Reed: And I think you succeed really, really well in doing that. That's why I was curious about it, because it's such a fine line to walk.
Marjan Kamali: It is a fine line, yes. Oh, my goodness.
Jo Reed: You know, so much of this book is about love in many manifestations, not just romantic love, though certainly that. But then the kind of steadfast love that Roya has with her husband, Walter, And then the family love, the love between her and her sister, the love with her parents and their daughters. So, we see that. But we also see loss, the loss of, writ large, a country; the loss of first love, the loss of a child. And, I think it all connects with unfinished business that we all have and it's not like this book is trying to finish all that business for Roya, but it's taking one strand of it and trying to, you know, put a period at the end of it.
Marjan Kamali: You said it. You said it. Don't we all have unfinished business.
Jo Reed: Oh, yes, yes.
Marjan Kamali: And I really wanted to give my character Roya the gift of having some closure on her unfinished business, like you say, this one strand of it. And you are right about the very different manifestations of love, the sisterly love, romantic, parent-child, husband, fiancé, all of that, and the love of country and the loss. Roya has so much love in her life, but sometimes when you do you set yourself up for the potential of a lot of loss as well. And, in her case, tragedies do ensue. I wanted to show that, at the end of the day, for this one woman, despite all that she has lost, what she's gained outweighs it. And I wanted her at the end of the book to recognize that the losses, though they shaped her and were incredibly difficult, and, in many instances, you know, held her back for some time, at the end of the day, what she does have, what she has gained, what she holds dear, is still far more, in some ways, powerful and healing. And I wanted her to have that sense of healing. And it's not a big, fat kind of emotional catharsis, but it's a very quiet healing. And sometimes that quiet acceptance, I think, can be in many ways restorative for the character and, hopefully, then for the reader.
Jo Reed: It's peace.
Marjan Kamali: It's peace. Exactly. That's such a good word. Yeah. It's peace.
Jo Reed: And I have to give a shoutout to Walter--
Marjan Kamali: Yes.
Jo Reed: --who was Roya’s wonderful, wonderful husband who really supports her as she makes a decision to meet this man again 60 years after she was engaged to marry him.
Marjan Kamali: Yeah, we do need to give Walter credit. You know, I've been in book clubs where some people have been Team Bahman, Roya's fiancé from Iran, or Team Walter. And they really, to my shock, like, argue and get at each other's throats. But I don't think one outweighs the other. Walter is incredible in his own right and, in my mind, I don't see Roya's relationship with Walter as a compromise. It's just different. It's easy to idealize the teenager she never did end up with and to romanticize what he was. But she did live a life with Walter. And sometimes I'm asked why Walter is so giving in his support of Roya and, literally, drives her to the Duxton Senior Center so she can see again her first love from 60 years ago. You know, I think Walter may not have done that when he was 37, per se, but, at 77, he and Roya have enough of a shared history, enough of a life lived together, that he's secure! And maybe he would have been even when he was younger. He is Walter, after all. But he loves her so much that he wants to give her this gift of healing. And that, to me, is true love.
Jo Reed: Again, I promise I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the book takes several twists. And it takes us to unexpected places. And I'm curious how much you plotted out ahead of time.
Marjan Kamali: Oh, yes. Well, the truth is the twists were super unexpected for me, too, in that first draft. For this book, I wasn't that much of a plotter. I sort of wrote that first draft by the seat of my pants. And I discovered the story as I went along. I did know I wanted twists, because I wanted to write the kind of a book where the reader will occasionally gasp and need to catch their breath. And that's a challenge I set out for myself. So, then it became a huge puzzle where I had to figure out the pieces, but I figured them out as I went along. And I have a whiteboard in my home office where I would write things-- and this isn't giving anything away-- like, “Why did Bahman disappear?” For the longest time, I didn't know why he disappeared, but I knew he needed to. Even before their separation, he disappears for a while when they're still in Tehran. But, yeah, a lot of the twists took me by surprise and that first draft experience was incredibly emotionally intense for me as a writer. But then, when I went to revise, I became almost a different person. And everything I did it was deliberate and intentional, and I reordered everything so that it would create the maximum amount of suspense that I could have in a book like this and give the reader the maximum emotional impact.
Jo Reed: Books and writing are so important in both your books and there's a lot of poetry in these books. So, what is the role of reading in your life? You had to have come from a family where literature is valued.
Marjan Kamali: Yes, definitely. You know, my grandfather, he was a writer, he published several books in Iran, mostly travel logs, travel memoirs. But I grew up with poetry being part of our daily life and this is not uncommon for a lot of Iranians in Iran, certainly, and in the diaspora. So, you know, if I skinned my knee, if I spilled some orange juice, my dad would recite a verse from an ancient Persian poem. They were always at his fingertips, those verses. And I grew up hearing them, if not necessarily memorizing them myself. So, poetry was a huge part of my life. Poets are venerated in Iran and they're sort of the heroes of the culture. But I read a lot. It gave me the greatest pleasure. And I feel like the cake was baked back then, because I read so much as a child and it sort of gave me not just a desire to do what those authors did, but it almost, like, gave me access to all these different worlds and voices that stayed with me.
Jo Reed: Now, you lived around the world when you were growing up, didn't you?
Marjan Kamali: I did. Yes.
Jo Reed: Where did you live?
Marjan Kamali: Well, I was born in Turkey, but I'm Iranian. My parents are Iranian. And I only lived there as a baby. Then I lived in Iran for a few years. Then we moved Hamburg, Germany. I started school there, and then we went to Kenya, and then we went back to Iran, and then came to the United States. And all this moving around I do think it helped me as a writer, because we always talk about the universality of the human condition and how, when you write novels, that's sort of what is the common theme all across. And, for me, I had first-hand experience that what happens in the playgrounds of Nairobi, Kenya, is the same as what happens in the playgrounds of Tehran, Iran, and Queens, New York. The language, the customs, the politics, outfits may be different, but the people and the human sort of connections and desires are exactly the same.
Jo Reed: When did you come to the US?
Marjan Kamali: January 1982. I came to the US a few months shy of my 11th birthday. We came to New York, had the quintessential looking out the plane window, seeing all the jeweled lights, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, landing in New York City, and we lived in Queens. I went to high school in Manhattan and those lights were specifically remarkable to me, because we had come from a country in the middle of a war and--
Jo Reed: Is this the Iraq War?
Marjan Kamali: Yes, yes. The Iran-Iraq War. I was there when it started and I was there for the first year and a half of that eight-year war. And, so, I remember looking at the lights and thinking, “Oh, my God, they're allowed to keep their lights on at night!” Because we had not been allowed to do that for over a year.
Jo Reed: In your first book, “Together Tea,” you write about the main character Mina, and I'm quoting now: “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.” Was that your experience, too?
Marjan Kamali: Yes, that is my experience. And I used to resent the hyphen, because it felt like you didn't belong in either culture or any culture. But I've learned to see it's a privilege to be on the hyphen, because it gives you a perspective you wouldn't otherwise have. And, so, even though I may not feel fully Iranian or, I suppose, fully American, I feel it's empowering to know the best and the worst of both those cultures.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of the best things a culture has to offer…we have to talk about food.
Marjan Kamali: Yes.
Jo Reed: The food in both your books—it’s so rich. It's so tempting. Was it fun to write about?
Marjan Kamali: It was so much fun to write about. I think in another life I would have been a professional chef. I do love to cook and it grounds me, it makes me happy, I love to eat, I guess. So, there's, like, a huge benefit to doing it. In “Together Tea,” when I wrote the book, after it came out, people kept saying, “How come you included so much food?” And I said, “Did I?” Because I didn't do it on purpose. It just is impossible to write about these Persian parties and these family get-togethers without including a ton of food. Because there is truly always a feast. Regardless of class, the feast exists for the guests, you know? People do their best to create those feasts. And then, with “The Stationary Shop,” I included a lot of food and it was way more intentional. This time I wanted the food to sort of play a particular role, especially because when Roya comes to America she can't even speak English. And, so, the food is one way she's able to communicate through the food, through the preparation of it, and sharing it with somebody like a young Walter. But, yeah, I love to cook and I cook a lot of Persian food.
Jo Reed: It’s not unusual for writers to have an MFA—a Master of Fine Arts—which you have. But you also have an MBA, a Master of Business Administration. I’m really curious: has your MBA proved helpful at all with your writing?
Marjan Kamali: I want to think it has, because it would make me feel better about--
Jo Reed: --having done it.
Marjan Kamali: --having done it and the time and money I spent. You know what? It helped me the most with having a thick skin, because I did-- as you know, I have an MFA in creative writing. I did it in tandem with the MBA. Long story there, but one thing the MBA taught me, which has served me so well as a writer, is how to have a thick skin. Because the people I was with at Columbia Business School, ready to jump into finance at the turn of the century, they were not wimpy. They could take anything. They were so tough and, from them, I learned how to have a thick skin. And that has served me well as a writer who is constantly out there for everyone to adore and everyone to sort of, you know, share their opinion about-- not adore, if they wish.
Jo Reed: You-- congratulations-- have gotten a 2022 Lit Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What do you hope it will allow you to do.
Marjan Kamali: Emotionally, it allows me to finally breathe and to stop thinking I have to somehow legitimize myself or prove that I can do this. So, emotionally, it's been incredibly gratifying. Talk about being at peace. But, practically, it allows me to focus on my writing, to have more time to dig deep, delve into it without other pressures and worries all the time, and, quite frankly, to give back. I do think that the community of the arts-- people like to complain about it or, you know, think about how hard it is to be an artist, but it's a privilege and it's empowering and I've been inspired by so, so many. So, I hope to give back and I feel this allows me to focus more on giving back as well.
Jo Reed: “The Stationary Shop” is being adapted into an HBO series, another big congratulations!
Marjan Kamali: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I can't imagine how exciting that must be. And are you a part of the collaboration process? How does it work?
Marjan Kamali: Well, I'm officially a consulting producer. So, it means that I have some say. I'm definitely not in charge, nor should I be. And I think of it as-- you know, people sometimes ask, “Are you worried they're going to change the book?” Well, they can't change the book, because the book is the book. The book is the book. It's in the book shelves, it's online. No one can change the book. But every time a reader reads this book, they have their own interpretation of it, as they should. And I feel this TV adaptation will just be one more interpretation. I'm curious to see how it all plays out. And I will do my utmost to make sure that the story is true to the culture and, as much as possible, to the characters. But I also know that things will change.
Jo Reed: And, Marjan, like you, I really love cooking.
Marjan Kamali: Yay!
Jo Reed: And it's something I do a lot.
Marjan Kamali: Yes.
Jo Reed: When we hang up, I am about to put some bread on to rise.
Marjan Kamali: Yay!
Jo Reed: So, if I'm attempting Persian food for the first time, what do you think a good dish would be to cut my teeth on?
Marjan Kamali: Okay. A lot of people are enamored by the rice dishes, especially because in the Persian way of making it, we like the bottom to be very golden and crusty and crispy. The bottom of the pot part of the rice, that tahdig. So, you could look at that. And there are all these food blogs now. You could just go look at TurmericAndSaffron, MyPersianKitchen. But, yes, that rice dish, just to get yourself into the mood, the tahdig is great. Another dish I personally love that I also hope you make is fesenjan, it's, like, three ingredients. It's walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and chicken. But it's fantastic. And I believe the New York Times has a very good fesenjan recipe if you want to just Google that. But you, basically, grind the walnuts in a food processor, you cook them on a stove top in a big Dutch oven, big pot, and you eventually add the pomegranate molasses. Add a little cinnamon, little saffron. I'm getting hungry as we--
Jo Reed: I am, too. I'm making notes.
Marjan Kamali: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: I am as well. And then, finally, tell me what you're working on now.
Marjan Kamali: Yes. The third novel. It's currently called “Novel 3,” which is a great title. Truly, I started writing a book about four mothers in the suburbs of New England worried about where their kids were going to go off to college and a nice, you know, 75 pages into that manuscript I was like, “I do not care. I don't care about this.” It wasn't compelling to me. So, lo and behold, it's changed. And, now, I'm actually writing about a friendship that spans several decades back in Iran and the US. And I think of it as the third in my trilogy of books set in Iran and America. And we see these girls form their bond in childhood and follow them as they go through adolescence, you know, women's right movement in Iran, which people don't realize is quite robust and-- well, there's betrayal and forgiveness and all that good stuff.
Jo Reed: I love books about friendship. So, I am very much looking forward to it. Thank you. Thank you for giving me your time and for writing these wonderful books and for all your tips about cooking.
Marjan Kamali: Thank you so much. Highly recommend that dish. I hope you make it after we go off the air.
Jo Reed: I'll let you know how it comes out.
Marjan Kamali: Yes. Thank you so much for this interview. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Jo Reed: It was a real pleasure for me as well. Thank you.
That was novelist and 2022 NEA Literature Fellow Marjan Kamali. We were talking about her novel The Stationery Shop. You can keep up with her at marjankamali.com. We will have links to the food blogs in the show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works. Follow Art Works on Apple podcast or Google Play—leave us a rating—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening!
Novelist and 2022 NEA Literature Fellow Marjan Kamali talks about her recent novel The Stationery Shop a story that begins in 1953 in Iran and spans 60 years. It’s a book that is steeped in Persian culture, poetry and food even as its protagonist spends the majority of her life in the United States. Marjan discusses her decision to write about a lost love but a life fully lived, the balancing act of telling a story shaped by a political moment that isn’t subsumed by politics, the centrality of poetry in the lives of Iranians and Iranian-Americans, living on the hyphen between Iranian and American, her plans for her 2022 NEA Literature Fellowship, and the absolute joy of writing about the food at the heart of Persian culture.
And from Marjan, below are links to food blogs she mentions in the podcast: “There are many great food blogs out there that explain everything in Persian cooking so well. I highly recommend:
Nooshe jân! (May it nourish your soul!)”