Gina B. Nahai is the author of the new novel The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. She also has written the novels Caspian Rain, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Cry of the Peacock, and Sunday's Silence. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California, and she lives in Los Angeles.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of the Soleyman family?
A: Like so much else in my stories, the Soleymans have a real-life antecedent. I knew one such family in Iran, complete with the jilted widow with the “illegitimate” son.
A great deal about them has been changed, of course, to serve the story in the book, but all the time I was writing the book I could see, in my mind’s eye, the skeletal old woman dressed in mourning clothes with a plastic bag in one hand and her son’s in the other. I even saw the raw chicken’s feet I describe in a scene in the book.
Q: Did you know how the book would end, or did you make changes along the way?
A: This book took me seven years to write and I can tell you without exaggeration that I was still making changes, rewriting, and re-imagining the ending when the book was in galley form. My editor at Akashic, Ibrahim Ahmad, should get a medal for allowing me to do that.
Q: Much of your work deals with the Iranian Jewish community, both in Iran and the in United States. What makes this community fascinating to write about, and how does its experiences in exile resemble or differ from those of other immigrant groups?
A: We have a long history—3,000 years. Iranian Jews are the oldest population in diaspora. Neither Sephardic nor Ashkenazi, they’re correctly referred to as Mizrahi--Easterner.
Their history dates back to 587 BC when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple and brought the Jews as slaves into the area that was then Babylon and that, in time, became the Great Persian Empire.
When, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great issues the first declaration of human rights, giving the Jews freedom to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple, about half took his offer.
The Iranian Jews of today are descendants of the ones who stayed. This--that we lasted in Iran for that long, through war and famine, persecution and pogroms--is fascinating in itself.
But the Iranian Jews who today are in exile are unlike any previous group of immigrants: they didn’t come to the U.S. poor, uneducated, lost, and ashamed. If anything, they were too assertive, too proud of their cultural heritage, too determined to remain distinct and separate from the rest. This, too, has made for an interesting 30-year history.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: Faulkner, Oriana Fallaci, Marguerite Duras, Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene. More recently, Aravind Adiga, Katherine Boo, Adrienne Sharp.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another novel, again taking place in L.A., and again with Iranian Jews as main characters.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb