Ali Hosseini's beautiful novel The Lemon Grove reminds of those things: the beauty and the humanity of Iran and her people, and I am so glad I wandered the New Titles section of the library a few weeks ago and came across this lovely book.
The Lemon Grove is about identical twin brothers (Ruzbeh and Behruz) in southern Iran and their struggles to survive in the years following the Iranian Revolution. Behruz has been educated in the U.S. and has only returned to Iran because his childhood friend (and Ruzbeh's wife) has called him back to help his brother recover from the shell-shock he experienced as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. The majority of the novel takes place at their family's nearly-destroyed summer home, the Naranjestan (lemon grove), as Behruz tries to make sense of the chaos and destruction in his country and his family.
It is a short novel, and I won't say more about the plot because I want you to read it. I believe it is books like these that help us understand our global counterparts, and I believe this understanding is a crucial step to participating in a global community. To that end, I am honored to share with you the interview I conducted with Ali Hosseini. He graciously answered my questions and contributed to my growing knowledge of and interest in his home, and the home of his novel, Iran.
SC: Am I right that you have lived continuously in the U.S. since coming here in the late 70s? If so, how does it feel to be apart from your home nation for so long? How does it feel to view Iranian life through an American lens?
AH: I have lived in the U.S. all this time, except for almost a year after I graduated from college (1980) when I returned to Iran. It was a year after the revolution and I was there when Iran/Iraq war broke out. I have been able to travel to Iran and at times I stayed there for a month or two. Feelings of unease and anguish regarding Iran are always alive. We follow events sometimes with hope, sometimes with despair. Most of us here, when we see the social/political achievements of the West—the rule of law, the idea of government accountability, the right to peaceful assembly and free speech, cannot understand why these things remain beyond reach in Iran.
SC: Too many Americans know Iran only as a place of conflict, of turmoil, even of terrorism. What would you want more Americans to know of your native country?
AH: Since the Islamic Revolution it seems that two Irans exist, the one that we see on the evening news embroiled in social/political problems and another Iran apart from all of that. Iran has a large population of dynamic and active young people, including many educated women. People are well informed and maintain close connections to the West through social media and the internet. The Iran that I know is a country rich in history and traditions, a multiethnic, religiously pluralistic society with Persians, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Baluchis and Moslems, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is (all represented among Iranian immigrants). People are going through a rough time right now, but like people anywhere want to live in peace and have a normal life and a good future for their children.
SC: In The Lemon Grove, Behruz leaves Iran for the U.S. more for his brother than because of some idealized vision of opportunity; yet, many times in the book, Iranians speak of America with rather high praise. Like Behruz, you came to the U.S. as a college student. What were your expectations, and those of your community, of American life and opportunity?
AH: During the 1970s with expansion of the middle class thousands of young Iranians came to the U.S. to pursue higher education. At this time the majority of us didn’t know much about America. Our exposure to the U.S. was through American movies (mostly westerns), and we knew something about Lincoln, Kennedy, the hippies and the Vietnam War--Lincoln because of the Civil War and freeing the slaves and Kennedy because of his close ties with the Shah and his assassination. Most of us didn’t know what to expect when we got here.
America was a big unknown, but lots of things fell in place very naturally. We found that there were international students from all over the world. In English school and in college, people were very friendly and the openness of the relationships between students and teachers seemed very natural. I was impressed by the many libraries and the way you could read whatever you wished, not like in Iran at the time. I learned a lot about America from the many jobs I had, which included working in restaurants, as a farm laborer alongside Mexicans in Nebraska, building a grain elevator, and even for a while selling encyclopedias and bible stories door to door.
[Ed: Here's a passage from The Lemon Grove where Behruz describes New York:
A city of all kinds of sounds, and at every corner tall buildings of steel and glass stretching upward like giant arms praying to God. And everywhere music - in the streets, in the stores, in the elevators, coming up out of basements. A city that throbs continuously, as if holding the heart of the world in her chest. That vibrates constantly from subways, like fast-flashing worms moving in her belly. (73)Love it.]
SC: Though Behruz is US-educated and the owner of the land, it is Kemal who is most interested in saving the lemon grove. I saw Kemal’s devotion to this place as a rebuttal to those who would value the U.S. overmuch. Was this balance of power intentional?
AH: Your comment is quite apt. Maybe it is part of the tragedy of Iran that Iranians (especially my generation) who had the opportunity to come to the West and educate themselves have not been able to do much for Iran. The promise of the West that was offered to a generation of Iranians has been largely unrealized within Iran. Behruz, with all his limitations, at least understands that people like Kemal who don’t get the opportunity to go to school, let alone to come to America, are still hard working and capable.
[Ed: I love the tug between Kemal and Behruz, especially the scene where they both "swim" in the well and where this passage occurs:
In the cool water I feel light and free. I stay under for as long as I can hold my breath. The water pushes against my eyelids and I hear a muffled sound that seems to be coming from the depths of the earth. I want to stay under forever and be a part of the imprisoned water. At the same time I wish the water would push up to the top of the well and run uncontrolled through the fields like a mad, prehistorical flood, uprooting whatever is in its way - the village, Musa and his herds, Kemal, the dead lemon grove, everything - washing away everything and quenching this old land. (56)]
SC: The landscape of the lemon grove, the Naranjestan, is rendered beautifully in the book; other places, like the city of Shiraz, are described more abstractly. Is that an intentional difference? If so, why?
AH: It is not intentional, but desert and the arid mountainous areas have a special beauty.
SC: Many dual-language writers speak of the transactions between one language and the other. You have been writing for years in both Persian and English. What is your experience writing between and through two languages? Do you feel one is your “true” voice more than the other?
AH: I started to write in both languages very early in my writing. My very first story was in English. At the beginning I used to go back and forth between the two languages. If a story was set in Iran, I would be more comfortable thinking and writing in Persian, but as time went on, especially in the last ten years, I have been mostly writing in English. I feel that my “true” voice as you put it, is more and more in English rather than Persian.
SC: Behruz and Ruzbeh are identical twins who love the same woman. Were you intentionally developing the Steinbeck connections of this plot line?
AH: I had not thought about those parallels. I assume you are referring to East of Eden? Steinbeck’s story is often interpreted in terms of good and evil, not themes that I see as relevant to The Lemon Grove.
SC: I just saw the movie Argo this weekend. Are you familiar with the film? How do you feel about the depiction of Iran in the film?
AH: I think Ben Affleck is a gifted director and actor. He seems to have learned a lot about Iran and the Iranian revolution and did a good job trying to show the chaotic situation at the time and still keep a balance. The depiction of the angry Iranians and the Komiteh--revolutionary guards I can’t say was exaggerated. There were Iranians who were sympathetic toward the Americans and I think the film could have pointed that out more. I have a short story that explores the hostage situation from the standpoint of an Iranian student studying in the Midwest (444 Days, Fiction International, no 43).
SC: Too often, in times of war or conflict, we allow ourselves to dehumanize the “enemy.” For many Americans, Iranians are nothing more than a screaming crowd, clambering to burn or kill. Perhaps the greatest strength of your book, in my opinion, is its humanity, its refusal of the violent portrayal of Iran’s people. Do you see yourself engaging in a socio-political conversation with this book, or would you prefer a different role?
AH: It is actually the social and cultural aspects that are of more interest to me. My hope is that readers will relate to the book on this level, and so far from readers’ comments this seems to be the case.
SC: Though the main characters are not violent, there are reminders of the violence and fear that plagues the country. Can you speak to what it is like to live inside such fear?
AH: I was in Iran a year after the revolution during the time the war with Iraq broke out. The revolution was young and the Islamists were trying to hold ground by whatever means they could. Suspicion and fear was in the air and no one trusted one another.--we see in the book that characters experience that. Families were afraid for their children and many people were trying to leave the country. After the war a period of calm and economic prosperity started during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, but it did not last. It seems that suspicion and mistrust never left the society. The uprising of 2009 over the voting scandal pushed the country more that way. With so much disappointment and disillusionment over so many years, it is hard to say what the future will be -- one hopes not like what we saw in Libya and are witnessing in Syria.
SC: This book takes place in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 80s. Clearly, Iran is again (or perhaps still) embroiled in conflict. Can you describe for your readers what Iran is like today? Is the fear still there? How have things changed?
AH: After all that people went through in the 80s and 90s, the situation now is in many ways even more difficult. Internal political conflict is at its height these days and the nuclear issue has isolated Iran even more. The embargo is making life extremely difficult. The fragile middle class and the poor are having a rough time getting by. I believe that people are very concerned about their future. But in spite of all these problems there is also hope.
SC: Though some of the personal tensions are resolved at the end of the book, it is not a happy ending. There is a great power and some hope in the “we have to go on” statement that closes the book, but it is not triumphant. Would you reflect on this statement and the feelings it evokes?
AH: The story evolves that way I think because there is so much uncertainty in the lives of the characters. They are not even sure what will happen in a span of a day. So it is a natural ending. The situation is so unpredictable that one does not even want to take the chance to dream about the next day, because the disappointment could be unbearable.
Thank you, Ali Hosseini, for your beautiful book and your thoughtful responses to these questions.