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Dalia Sofer
Did your own experience of exile compel you to write THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ?
For a long time I’ve lived with a sense of duality—living between two cultures, two places, two histories. I think that for someone in exile, the past—often idealized—tends to overshadow the more transient present, not to mention the possibility of a future. Andre Aciman once wrote something that truly resonated with me: “An exile isn’t just someone who has lost his home. It is someone who can’t find another.”

I do think that the emotional core of this book comes from that sense of displacement and loss. Leaving Iran so abruptly left a void inside me, as though my life there had not been quite real. My entire childhood seemed to me fragmented and untenable, like a dream. I had to return to that place in my mind in order to put the pieces together—whatever I could salvage. At the same time, I wanted to reinvent the past, which is why I chose to write a novel rather than a memoir.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for writing—it’s a need, a release, a device through which one can digest thoughts and emotions. The final product—the book—is a vessel that holds all this mishmash, in the guise of a structured narrative.

More recently I’ve come to believe that exile isn’t simply geographic; it’s a state of mind, one that every human being experiences in one form or another.
There is a melancholy core to the book which goes beyond the terrible central narrative of imprisonment. To what extent is this to do with a sense of cultural loss?
This book is very much about loss. Imprisonment is its most obvious and extreme manifestation—the man who had everything loses everything, literally overnight. But it’s true that the loss is far greater than that: it’s the disappearance of a whole nation as it once was, the annihilation of a way of life. I’ve often thought of this novel as a kind of elegy to what once was.
"You can't force spirituality on someone" says Parvis, living in New York. But Zalman Mendelson points out that if Parvis marries Rachel her Hassidic practices will gradually be given up and their Jewish religion will be watered down, whereas he, Zalman, will, within three generations, have bred a thousand decent, observant Jews into the world. Who do you think will most benefit the Jewish race?
I am interested in both arguments, which is why I raised the question through characters with opposing views. I don’t have a clear answer.

I think that through this book I was exploring the role of religion—the ways in which it can bring comfort, especially during trying times, and the ways in which it can be divisive. Isaac is imprisoned partly because of his religion, even though he has always lived a secular life. Regardless of how he lived his life and how he perceived himself, he is ultimately treated according to how others wish to perceive him. Likewise Parviz, who loves his Hassidic landlord's daughter, is rejected because he is not "Jewish enough." In this way religion becomes an obstacle to a genuine human connection. As for the Revolutionary Guards, they pretend (or even believe) they are devout, but in fact they are committing terrible crimes in the name of religion. So you have to ask yourself whether religion, in its strict didactic form, is ultimately helpful to humanity. Goodness, in my opinion, has to come from within. It isn't something that can be preached, or enforced.
In the nation that created the turquoise domes that tower over Shiraz, Isfahan and Qom, and the splendid designs for which Tamerlane spared the carpet makers of Isfahan, is there still a place for the elegant design and colour 'which can best restore man's tranquility, cleanse his heart of evil, and lead him to the path of truth'?
Yes, I do think there is still a place for that. Iran has had a very long history, much of which has been troubled and filled with turmoil. To think that the past thirty years could erase all that would be rather shortsighted.
Much of THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is about loss, grief and betrayal, but there is also loyalty, and hope and love; sometimes there are unexpected acts of kindness and even some very good luck. Are you really that optimistic or are the happy bits a feel-better pill for the reader?
I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to imagine that goodness can exist in the midst of terrible cruelty. Mohsen (the interrogator) is capable of shooting a man on the spot, but he is also a father, and he adores his son. Hossein, blinded by ideology, mistreats the prisoners, but he is also capable of feeling sorry for a fellow human being. By the same token, Isaac, a generally “good” man, half-manipulates his way out of prison and buys his freedom with his wealth though he knows that his money may be used to harm others. I find myself interested in the grey areas of the human psyche, not in the black and white, or the obvious.

Regarding luck, I am fascinated by the idea of the wheel of fortune—that life is favorable one instant and seemingly disastrous the next.
The graphic novel, PERSEPOLIS, covers a similar time and place. What did you think of Marjane Satrapi’s treatment of it?
I very much enjoyed Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” (The film was wonderful also.) The simple, elegant comic strips are at once funny and heartbreaking. They reminded me of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which is another book that I love.
Do you hope to return to Iran, or do you, like Isaac, think only of life in Ankara, Istanbul, Geneva or New York (or even Tel Aviv or London)?
Yes, of course I hope to return one day, but under a different regime. (Similarly, Isaac only thinks of other places because he has no other options: he knows he has lost his own home.)
Which other books would you like displayed next to yours in the bookshops?
I would be thrilled if my book were surrounded by the works of Franz Kafka, Imre Kertesz, Philip Roth, and Marilynne Robinson!
Who do you like to read?
Among my favorite writers and poets are Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Romain Gary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Forugh Farrokhzad, Andre Aciman, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro.
Dalia Sofer

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