Saturday, November 25, 2023

Q&A with Nadine Bjursten




Nadine Bjursten is the author of the new novel Half a Cup of Sand and Sky. She is also a journalist, and she lives in Sweden.


Q: What inspired you to write Half a Cup of Sand and Sky, and how did you create your character Amineh?


A: I grew up with Persian poets Hafiz, Sa’di, and Rumi and then when I was working at Arms Control Today, I witnessed firsthand the power of three words "axis of evil" and how quickly it passed over the political leaders in question to the country's citizens, religion, culture, and history.


There is little nuance in the word evil, and it took barely two weeks for a single story about the country to form. This novel is a response to that.


Amineh as a character existed before the story was developed. I saw her in front of me as a child, young woman, wife, and mother. The writing process is adding flesh and bone and soul to the character, but it is fair to say that pieces of her come from women I know or met, even myself.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Both sand and sky represent Amineh’s journey of self-discovery, love. She is burdened by trauma, her grandmother’s blame, and her own blame.


In the beginning of the novel, Amineh relates not to the falcon above her, but to the sand, earth, rocks underneath her feet. Her life is weighted by her need for approval from the people closest to her, and of course, she doesn’t get that approval in the way she wants it as life doesn’t work that way.


But tender moments and love are also there. Cooking is one metaphor for connection. She expresses her love through delicious, beautiful meals. Cooking, that service to the other, helps her mature and awaken to the love inside herself.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Bjursten's prose is clear, polished, and touched with poetry and insight but never getting in the way of the heart of the story: a woman fighting for her family, love, and freedom from political injustice.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like that quote as it touches on the care I took with the language but not at the expense of the story, which is as described: a woman fighting for her family, love, herself, and freedom.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising in the course of your research?


A: This book is heavily researched. I read more than 60 books to prepare for this novel and spent time in the country. The nuclear backstory is from my work at the Global Security Institute and Arms Control Today.


What surprised me most was how important poetry is to the Iranian culture of today, and it is not just poems of Hafiz, Sa’di, Attar, and Rumi: it is expressed in cooking a meal, speaking to a stranger, welcoming friends into your home.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel about an idealistic, quirky pastor August Holck who lives in an old university town in Sweden and has never been able to find his footing among his strong women colleagues, particularly one of them who makes him lose his words.


The refugees arrive and the whole town is thrown into turmoil. August is determined to take Malek, Sami, and Hassan into his charge, and soon they begin a journey that will end up changing all their lives forever. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In addition to many other concerns that we have in the world, we are seeing two developments: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the demonization of whole groups of people for the actions of a few. I hope this novel in its small way is able to speak to this.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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