Marjan Kamali is the author of TOGETHER TEA, a gorgeous debut novel that takes us from the United States to Tehran and back again, as an Iranian-American mother and daughter navigate life and love–including spreadsheet-fueled matchmaking–and their complicated, rich cultural identities. Below, Marjan responds to Jennifer’s questions about her novel and offers some advice to new writers.
Jennifer: Together Tea begins with Iranian-American Mina Rezayi and her mother, Darya, in the U.S. in the 1990s. Later, the narrative returns at some length to Mina’s childhood in Iran in the years leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Can you tell us a little bit about the structure of the story? Why was it important for us to get to know Mina and Darya in the present, before sharing their years in Iran?
Marjan: The structure of Together Tea was key to the story. I wanted the reader to first see this family in New York City in their American lives, in a setting that is familiar to most readers and to the characters themselves. In Part One, we see Mina and Darya as Americans going about their days with a certain energy and pace in their interactions and dialogue. But even though they are busy and successful, it’s clear that there is a sense of displacement and estrangement in their lives.
In Part Two, we go back in time to 1970’s Iran and see Mina and Darya and the rest of the family as they once were. In Tehran, surrounded by an extended network of relatives and friends, they are secure and feel connected and rooted. When the revolution and war occur, we see how these characters become shaped by life events into new Americans. And in Part Three, the grown-up Mina and Darya leave America to go visit present-day Iran.
Jennifer: One of the most touching and evocative quotes in the book comes when Mina ponders her identiy:
“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… 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.”
In what ways does Mina’s perspective on that hyphen change by the end of the novel? Can you speak about the ways such a hyphen can be a launching point for both heartbreak as well as great beauty?
Marjan: hen I first wrote this passage, I was expressing how Mina feels as though she is caught between two worlds, not really belonging to either one. Like many hyphenated Americans, she is a foreigner when she goes to her “home” country and isn’t always at home in the U.S. either. In the beginning of the novel, the hyphen feels like a divide. Mina must stay on a small precarious space where neither one culture nor another is allowed to be hers. But by the end of the book, she makes the hyphen her bridge. Neither culture will give her a sense of belonging but she realizes that they don’t have to. Mina comes to accept that her sense of identity doesn’t need to come from a place or an ethnicity. She finds her home on that bridge and in her art and in her relationships.
I’ve been struck by how many readers have reached out to me to say that they, too, feel as though they are on the hyphen. The hyphen doesn’t necessarily have to be between ethnicities. It can be between “east coast” and “west coast” for example, or between “stay-at-home mom” and “working mom”. In a way, most of us are balancing a dual existence of some kind.
Jennifer: To what extent is this novel semi-autobiographical? In what ways are you similar to Mina? Have you felt like you live “on the hyphen” as well?
Marjan: I definitely live on the hyphen, in fact on several hyphens! At this point, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes I jump off the hyphen and visit one side or another, but in the end, I am even writing on the hyphen.
As to how autobiographical this novel is, I always answer “47 percent” (to borrow a line from Mitt Romney!) Like Mina, I lived in Iran right after the revolution and during the first years of the war with Iraq. Like Mina, I attended Columbia business school. However, most of the characters are fictional or just composites of people I’ve known. And, my mother never made Excel spreadsheets to find me a husband!
Jennifer: Together Tea introduces the reader to so many warm and lovely Iranian traditions like tarof, the practice of exchanging politeness and compliments—a way of outdoing kindness, if you will. Leaving aside the ways Iran is portrayed as a “regime,” do you think the media does a good job of portraying Iranian people, both those who live in Iran and those here in America? Have readers been surprised by how “normal” your characters are and the rich culture from which they come?
Marjan: I think the media portrays Iranians with a very broad brush and most of the images have been quite negative ones. That was part of my motivation in writing a story about an Iranian-American family who are going through the same dreams and disappointments as anyone else. I hope my characters help reveal the joy in Persian culture and the drama and the importance of traditions (like those centered around food!) Readers have been surprised to see that even after living through war and revolution, this family is resilient and funny and devoted to one another and able to adjust to new worlds. They’re surprised at how the parent-child relationship rings true to their own experience. I’m thrilled when readers tell me how much they can identify with the characters. Once, after a reading of a short scene, a woman in the audience said “that family you just read about was my family. I don’t even remember where the family in your book is from, but that’s my family.” That’s really the biggest compliment of all, because then you know that you’ve hit on something universal.
Jennifer: A lot of efforts to counter stereotypes of Muslims in this country focus on Muslim women. But the image of Muslim men is incredibly interconnected, and in some ways more intractable. The portrayal of Mina’s father, Parviz, is so refreshing in that regard. Even when it seems that Darya might be interested in another man, Parviz responds with sadness, but also with tenderness. Can you speak about how you created his character? He seems terribly fun to write.
Marjan: Parviz, or “Baba” as he is often called in the novel, was a joy to write. I wanted to create a husband and father modeled on the many Iranian men I know in my own life: one who is devoted to his wife and children, extremely compassionate and who throws his heart and soul into all that he does. One of the lowest points in shopping this novel around came a few years back when someone in publishing told me that the book would never be sold because “no one wants to read about a Muslim man who’s kind”. She suggested that I add a scene where Parviz “beats up his wife or something”. Together Tea calls for a kind, loving husband and father and if that doesn’t fit with some people’s perceptions of what a Muslim man is, then that’s all the more reason why I’m glad I wrote the book.
Marjan: When Mina and her family are leaving Iran for America, Mina drops her Barbie doll at the airport. The female official confiscates it, stating that she never had such a doll, that it was “the rich who owned the dolls…who owned everything. Now look at you scurrying away like cockroaches.” From the outside, it can be hard for many people to understand why Iranian citizens supported the Revolution. How does this brief interaction speak to that question?
Marjan: Well, the fact is that Iran was ruled by the Shah before the revolution and while a certain segment of society enjoyed many privileges under his rule, others felt ignored and forgotten. The Barbie doll in that scene acts a symbol of Western materialism for the airport official. The Iranian citizens who supported the revolution wanted to get rid of a leader they considered to be a dictator and wanted freedom and democracy. It’s the same yearning that spurs many revolutions. Only revolutions don’t always turn out the way people think they will. The family in Together Tea experiences euphoric hope followed by disillusion and finally settles on acceptance of a “new normal” post-revolution.
Jennifer: Do you know if Together Tea is being read in Iran? If so, what has the reaction been? Can you imagine a time when you would do a book tour in Iran?
Marjan: I know that copies of Together Tea have made their way to Iran just by travelers taking it as a gift for English-speaking relatives. As far as I know there is no Farsi translation yet but sometimes in Iran these translations happen without the author knowing. If the time came for me to do a book tour there, I’d go for it – I’d just have to brush up on my own Farsi first!
Jennifer: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of Muslim narratives?
Marjan: My biggest advice is to tell the story that you want to tell, not the story that you feel others want to hear. There are so many stereotypes out there and it’s hard to stick to your heart and not fall for a little compromise just so you can make your story “work” for the reader who is expecting a predictable narrative. Don’t think of yourself as writing a Muslim narrative or a narrative of any kind. Ask yourself what matters to your characters. How do they live? What are their hopes? What are their failed dreams? What gives them joy, no matter how brief or how great? Focus on your specific characters and what drives them. That is the only way you can tell an authentic story.
Jennifer: What is next for Marjan Kamali?
Marjan: Novel Number Two! After Together Tea came out, I had the opportunity to go on book tour and meet readers from all over the country and now, the book is being translated into five languages. It’s been a joyous, exhilarating and stimulating journey. But I’m looking forward to just going back behind my desk and having my fingers on the keyboard again. Writing is one of the most humbling but ultimately gratifying crafts.
Many thanks to Marjan Kamali for sharing her book with us!
Marjan Kamali was born in Turkey to Iranian parents. She spent her childhood in Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Iran, and the U.S. and has spent her adult life in Switzerland, Australia and America. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Marjan received her MBA from Columbia University and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Her short fiction has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Asian American Short Story contest. Her work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in two anthology collections: Tremors and Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been.
Together Tea is her debut novel and will be translated into several languages including German, Italian, Norwegian, Czech, and Slovak. Marjan lives with her husband and two children in the Boston area and teaches writing at Boston University. You can find out more about Marjan on her website.
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