Author One On One:
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena interviews Sahar Delijani, author of Children of the Jacaranda Tree.
Last autumn I met Sahar at a book festival in Toronto, where we had several events scheduled together. I was lucky enough to hear, both on stage and off, the remarkable story of her life and her first novel. So naturally I jumped at the opportunity to chat with her again, via email, about Children of the Jacaranda Tree, which is newly out in paperback.
AM: How did you come to Children of the Jacaranda Tree, and how did the book change over the course of writing it?
SD: I came to Children of the Jacaranda Tree through objects more than anything, more than stories I had heard, and more than even memories that in one way or another shaped the novel. I was inspired by objects that were left behind, objects that each in its own way was a testimony to life in post-revolutionary Iran about which I wanted to tell stories. Everything started with a bracelet made of date stones. It was upon seeing me for the first time in Evin Prison in 1983 that my father, a political activist fighting against the Islamic Regime, thought of making it for me. I wanted to tell the story behind this bracelet. Then there was a photo of my brother, my cousin and me, taken while our parents were in jail and our grandparents were raising us. My cousin and I are one year old and my brother is three. Once again I wanted to tell the story behind this photo. I wanted to tell the story of how these three children ended up in this photo, of the tides of life that brought them there together in that moment of history. It is only then that the idea of writing about my own birth in prison occurred to me. I realized it was with this birth that everything begins. That birth alone testified to the violent aftermath of a revolution that had promised justice and freedom and instead its consequences were of repression, prison and death. The birth in Evin Prison coincided with the birth of a dictatorship in Iran.
I would say the only thing that changed through the course of writing this book was the discovery of my own obsession with these themes and with giving an interpretation to the childhood of an entire generation of post-revolutionary Iranians shaped by revolution, repression and resistance and the impact it has had on this generation’s sense of integrity, identity and fight for the future.
AM: Your own story is incredible in its own right. Like your character Neda, you too were born in Evin Prison in Tehran. Children of the Jacaranda Tree is, of course, fiction, but I was curious how your own experiences shaped Neda’s character?
SD: Neda incarnated the rage I felt toward all that had happened to my parents and family but had never truly considered, or maybe, I thought I was above this sort of almost raw, untamed anger. Writing Neda made me see deeper within me than I had ever dared to look.
AM: Despite its presence in the news, Iran is a country that most Americans don’t know much about. How did you navigate the need to provide historical context without bogging down the narrative?
SD: This was quite a challenging issue. I wanted to write a novel on post-revolutionary Iran without turning it into a handbook on post-revolutionary Iran, and at the same time keeping in mind that most of my readers are perhaps not very familiar with life in Iran. I toyed around with many different ideas of how to maneuver my way between the two. In the end, one way was to give very simple and direct date and place information as the title of each chapter. I wanted the readers to know immediately where they were and the period in which each chapter was taking place. I also included a few paragraphs in the form of a newspaper article about the main theme of the novel: the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners in Iran, in one of the chapters where I felt it was natural to include. But at the end of the day, I was interested in telling the stories behind the great History, and I hope I was able to do that with my novel.
AM: You left Iran when you were 12, grew up in California, and now live in Italy. Did geographical distance from the subject of the novel allow for a degree of freedom while writing, or did it create its own challenges?
SD: Both. The distance gave me the freedom to imagine, re-invent and write about the people who were so intimate and personal to me that otherwise they could have become caricaturized. The distance helped me see beyond who they are to me and develop them as fictional characters. It did have its challenges, especially when I had to give descriptions of places in Tehran, for instance, that I hadn’t seen for a long time. But I guess it is there that imagination helps!
AM: What are some contemporary Iranian writers you wish were more widely read in America?
SD: The Iranian modern poets, such as, Ahmad Shamlou and Forugh Farrokhzad.
AM:What are you working on now?
SD: I am working on my second novel. It is set in Iran in the 1980s. In a way, it is going to be a second part to Children of the Jacaranda Tree. Whereas Children of the Jacaranda Tree focused on the experience in prison and the impact it had on the families and children of these political prisoners, the second novel will be more concentrated on life immediately after prison, asking what is it like? How does one seek to bring a degree of normality into one’s life? Is it possible to live a normal life after prison? These are the themes that interest me and I would like to explore in my second novel.