Ali Hosseini’s debut novel The Lemon Grove, tells the story of Iranian identical twins Ruzbeh and Behruz, who fall in love with the same childhood friend, and the geopolitical events that change their lives in devastating ways after Behruz moves to America and Ruzbeh stays and fights in the Iran-Iraq war. I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel with Ali at my very first author appearance, the day after my novel released. From listening to him describe his personal experience and how he came to write this novel, I could tell that Ali was a masterful storyteller. He was kind enough to answer my interview questions below, and it’s an honor to have him on story and chai. ~ Jennifer
Jennifer: When did you know you wanted to be a writer and how did you come to write your novel, The Lemon Grove?
Ali: I started to write seriously when I was in my early 30’s. Of course I used to take notes when I was at college and wrote a few things here and there, but anything that would be considered serious writing came later. I had graduated in Chemical Engineering and gone back home to Iran––it was a year after the revolution and at the time of the Iran-Iraq war. The petrochemical industry had pretty much collapsed and there were no jobs in my field. I managed to return to the US in 1982 with very little money and could only find part time jobs. I went from one city to the next, staying with old friends in Minneapolis until I went back to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I had gone to school and had Iranian and American friends. For a few months my college roommate let me stay with him until I found a job. During those days an interesting thing happened. I don’t remember how, but I found out that some professors, even though you hadn’t registered for classes, would let you sit in their lectures. I used this opportunity and attended history, philosophy, and literature classes and then a class in creative writing. I wrote a short story and received good encouragement from the teacher and the other students, and my interest in writing increased.
There was another fascinating thing that I discovered at about this time. Those years were tough times for Iranian students in the US. Most of us were constantly watching the news and were worried about our families back home and depressed the devastation the war (Iran-Iraq) was causing––I had witnessed this when I went back to Iran. There were days when I received a letter from home or a phone call and would tremble with panic at what could have happened––and I wasn’t alone, many of my friends were in the same situation. One of them, from a religious minority, had his brother arrested and executed by the Islamic regime. All my efforts were consumed by trying to stay sane and keep away the worry and anxiety. I would go running and play soccer and racquetball. And here was the fascinating thing. I realized that writing did an even better job of getting rid of the negative energy. That was when I started to give it serious attention. When I could see a world being created and characters taking shape, no matter if it was good writing, I was exuberant.
To return to your question of how I came to write The Lemon Grove. I was back home when war started. (My novel Sangriz (Avalanche) is about those days. It was published in Iran in 1998 after much struggle with the censorship department). After coming back to the US, I used to travel to Iran and each time I would think about a character who either goes there with a girlfriend or has a girlfriend there––in a country where if you walked with someone of the opposite sex you could be stopped by a patrol from the Ministry of Guidance and would have to prove that you were married or were relatives. That was the seed of The Lemon Grove.
Jennifer: What books or authors have had the most influence on you as a writer?
Ali: I have loved books from early age and growing up in Iran read the important Iranian writers––Hedayat, Chubak, Sa’adi, Danshvar, and writers like Chekhof, Balzac, and Hemingway in translation. After coming to the US, I started to read in English. One of the first novels I read was One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I also read plays, finding it easier to read and follow the action. I would say the writers who have must influenced me are the Iranian writers Chubak and Sa’adi and also Faulkner and Beckett.
Jennifer: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you write every day? What do your first drafts look like?
Ali: I try to write everyday, but I’m not successful in this regard. I spend lots of time revising. The first draft is usually very rough. If a story has been in the back of my mind for a while, say for months or even years, I may have an easier time dealing with it, but if it’s new, it can come quickly and I just put it down and go on working until it shapes up.
Jennifer: How do you know when something you’ve written is finished?
Ali: I don’t really know. It seems like I’m never finished. Sometimes even after a short story is published I have gone back and worked on it.
Jennifer: What was your path to publication in terms of finding an agent and getting your book deal?
Ali: I have dealt with totally two extremely different worlds in terms of publishing. In Iran the government’s censorship departments in the Ministry of Guidance oversee the publication of any literature and, like many Iranian writers, I’ve had my share of struggles with them. I had to change and cut scenes from my writing and even delete a story form a collection. Here in the US, it’s another story in terms of finding a publisher or an agent. It took me 5 years to write The Lemon Grove and 5 years to find a publisher. I sent the novel to tens of publishers and agents. A few times I came close, but just didn’t have any success. Then it was accepted by a small publisher, Curbstone Press, but they ran into financial problems and postponed the publication of the novel. It was around this time that I found an agent and we started to send the novel out again. When Northwestern University Press bought Curbstone Press, we were able to place the novel there.
Jennifer: Your novel is about Iranian characters. Can you talk about the extra pressures, if any, that come when we write about characters from backgrounds that are often misunderstood or misrepresented in American media and popular culture? Does that play any role in how you craft a character or a story? Or do you have to push that aside in order to tell a narrative that is true to itself?
Ali: I try to push that aside, as you say, and let the story be told, but what I need to be concerned about is that certain things a character does or says make sense to an American reader. A word or a scene can convey so much and this can vary by culture. So that’s where there can be a thin line––how to write so that you can get your meaning across in both cultures. In my work I try to let the characters be true to themselves and the world they are living in. And about the misunderstandings and misrepresentations that you mention, I agree with you but would like to add that Western culture is also often misunderstood and misrepresented in the media in the Middle East.
Jennifer: The Lemon Grove does not have a stereotypically happy ending, although there is hope there. Can you speak a little bit about writing such an ending? Did you know that would be the ending when you started the novel?
Ali: All the characters in the novel are faced with overwhelming events. Things have happened that has thrown them off balance. However, they all––even the narrator and his lover who have gone through the most horrible experiences––are making intense efforts to regain this balance even if it means leaving behind their homeland and everything they love. They (and we as readers) don’t know if they will succeed, but the efforts that people make in adverse situations is admirable and I’m attracted to that. There is hope because of that effort. I couldn’t have said how the novel would end when I started it. The circumstances of the world that the characters live in pushed the story to end the way it did. It may not be a conclusive ending for some readers, but I think it conveys the state of mind of the characters at that moment.
Some people have seen the ending of the novel as “open ended with questions remaining,” to quote one of my readers. If that’s the case, I see it for the better, since hopefully the story is written in a way that the reader has to participate in it and is forced to a degree to envision the ending.
Jennifer: What advice do you have for writers of multicultural narratives, both in terms of writing and seeking publication?
Ali: I believe it’s a fantastic thing to be multicultural or know different languages. You have a window into different worlds, and art is an excellent tool to bring them together. The cultural worlds are merging––we are facing this everywhere these days and it is a very good thing. It’s an excellent time in that sense, and opportunities to understand one another are much better than ever. Even with all the unfortunate things that exist and the terrible events that are happening all over the world, art is doing a great job in expanding our understanding. As multicultural writers we are in a good position to advance this process in our societies no matter where we are or what country we live in. The overlapping and interaction of cultures––the contact of cultures––is a great place for modern literature. I once heard Elizabeth Tallent, the American fiction writer, say that our cultures are like rings and when they touch there is a spark and that’s a story. I’ve always liked that idea.
Publishing as we all know is very challenging. I remember how much more difficult it was, say in the 80s and 90s for an Iranian writer, or for that matter a Middle Eastern writer, to publish because of limited readership and the risk that publishers had to take. But things have changed. Now there are readers for books by writers from India, the Middle East, and other cultures. Online magazines and publishing has also widened the arena. So I would tell a new writer not to be discouraged. It could be a long way ahead, but if you believe in yourself and have a story to tell, keep working at it, both at the writing and at trying to publish.
Jennifer: What’s next for Ali Hosseini?
Ali: I’ve finished another novel and I am revising it and hoping to find a place for it soon. I’m also always working on a new short story or revising one to send out.
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Ali Hosseini is author of the novel, The Lemon Grove (Northwestern University Press, 2012). His stories have appeared in Story Quarterly, Tweed’s, Epoch, Guernica, Fiction International, and American Letters & Commentary. A novel and two collections of short stories were published in Iran. His short fiction has also appeared in Persian-language publications in the US (Persian Book Review, Par Monthly, and Iranian.com). He lives in the Boston area. You can find out more about Ali by visiting his website www.alihosseini.com.