One Author’s Perspective

nahaiGina Nahai is a best-selling author of four novels and professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her novels have been translated into 18 languages and have been selected as "One of the Best Books of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

You are credited with being the first to write a book in English about the 3,000 year-old story of the Jewish people of Iran.  How can that be?  The reason I wrote my first book, Cry of the Peacock, was because I realized that nothing had been written about the history of the Jews in Iran except for one book by Dr. Habib Levy.  I was told by many people that the Jews of Iran had survived the rule of the mullahs by staying under the radar: they did not want to draw any attention to themselves.  There were many well known Jewish poets, philosophers and writers in Iran, but they never wrote about themselves.  Now, during the time of the Shah - who was very friendly to the Jews - Dr. Habib Levy wrote a book, History of the Jews in Iran, in Farsi, and he was careful not to complain about or criticize the Muslim clergy. 

How did you do your research?
There was hardly any mention of Iranian Jews in the literature, and my research was conducted before the existence of Google.  Consequently, I had to rely on the Library of Congress, other libraries and databases.  I don’t know how many tomes and volumes of travel books I had to sift through looking for some mention of a Jewish community anywhere in Iran; and the rest was seven years of interviews for the book.  Cry of the Peacock pieces together the entire history of where the Iranian Jews came from and what happened to them, especially during the last century.

What was the reaction to this book?  Many people said, “I didn’t know that there were Jews in Iran.”  And at first, bookstores didn’t know in what section to put my book. Is it literature?  Does it belong in the travel section?  Is it Judaica?  Today my books can be found in the fiction literature section.

Have your books been printed in Iran?  I know at least two of them have been translated.  Iran does not recognize our copyright laws so they pirate the book and whoever translates it first has the rights to the book.  I have no approval rights over the translation.

Do they credit you as the writer?  Yes, they do.

Are there others writing in English about the Jews of Iran now? Yes.  The same time that Caspian Rain was published in 2007, Dalia Sofer wrote a book about a Jewish family in Iran called The Septembers of Shiraz.

Was her style similar to yours? What everyone calls magical realism? No, and I do not consider my books to be magical realism.  To me, magical realism has a sweetness to it…a sort of happy, fairy tale nature in which terrible things don’t happen.  My books have more realism than magic.  Things happen of a magical nature, but overall there is a heaviness to my stories, a harsh reality.  When Garcia Marquez, the pioneer of magical realism, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in his acceptance speech he said that what the West calls magical realism is in fact the reality of places like South America and Asia where they have a longer and more bitter history.  The point being that even the author credited with inventing magical realism doesn’t think of his work as magical realism.  So I’ve accepted this magical realism title, but I really just write about reality.

What is your process?  I begin with a question. The preoccupation with the answer is the seed for the book.  Then I create the characters.  Once I have characters, I try to come up with a story.  I go through several versions until I find it.  Once I get going, I hear the voices of the characters and transcribe their voices.  By the way, all of my characters are based on real people.  I was once at a book signing, reading from one of my books, when I looked up and saw a mother and daughter in the front row crying.  When I asked them why they were crying they told me that they were the characters in my book.  And, it turns out that they were.

How did you become a writer? While I was in law school at USC, I was considering taking a leave of absence.  One day on campus I passed a trailer, and I don’t know what made me go inside, but I did.  They were beginning a new creative writing class and I signed up.  The first thing I wrote about was my maternal grandmother.  My husband and others gave me so much encouragement that I kept on writing and never returned to law school.

What traits are required to be a writer?  You must be persistent and have faith that you will finish the book, that someone will be interested and that what you are doing is worthwhile.  You must believe there is a purpose to what you are writing.

What book do you hesitate to write?  I am actually writing the book now that I have hesitated to write for the past ten years.  It is about the Iranian Jews in America, mainly in Los Angeles.  I hesitated because I didn’t think that it would be compelling.  I knew that I would be very critical, but as I write it, I find that I have some criticisms, but also great admiration.

Have your children read your books?  I know my daughter has read two, but I don’t think my sons have.  In fact, my eighteen year old son says when people tell him that they like one of my books, he is embarrassed to tell them that he hasn’t read it.

I would be interested to know what are some of your favorite books?  A recent book would be White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.  I enjoyed Lolita, in spite of the subject matter, because of the writing.  I love the southern writers - Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.  There are so many books that I have loved.

What makes a book good?  Beautiful language, an unknown revealed, and when you can feel the passion of the author.