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Children of the Jacaranda Tree: A Novel Paperback – June 17, 2014
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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.
Set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War, Delijanis story tells of an interrelated group of Iranians, all of whom are negatively affected by the country’s fundamentalist regime. Azar gives birth in prison only to have her daughter cruelly taken away months later. Leila sacrifices her life as an independent factory worker to raise the children of her two imprisoned sisters. Amir, an imprisoned father, constructs a bracelet for his young daughter out of discarded date pits. We revisit some of the same characters in the present day as they grapple with the excitement, hope, and turmoil following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. At the center of it all is the jacaranda tree, whose physical presence represents the beauty of the land and inner strength of its people, while its pungent and inescapable smell signifies the regime’s suffocating control of its citizens. Filled with compelling characters and poetic language, this beautiful and poignant novel highlights the unbreakable bond between parent and child, and a people’s passionate dedication to their homeland, despite its many flaws. --Kerri Price --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Top customer reviews
The book opened with a heart-gripping chapter. A pregnant woman prisoner, Azar, was being taking to a local hospital fanned by "sisters" and "brothers," or male and female prison guards from Evin. She was blindfolded and suffering from humility, harsh treatment and contraction pain. When she finally was allowed to sit down somewhere, she thought a doctor was going to see her. Yet an interrogator came in, with paper and pen, hoping to break her during her time of weakness and pain, with her baby about to slip out... This was the best chapter of the book.
Not much is known about the Evin Prison, since most prisoners were blindfolded while being transported within; it has the most efficient interrogative methods that could break any human, and it was crowded. It was built to fit 350 prisoners but holds up to 15,000 all the time. It's also called Evin University, due to the number of intellectuals who were imprisoned, tortured or killed there. It's the prison not only for actual criminals, but also intellectuals, students, activists, Christians, journalists... In other words, any one who's believed to oppose the Iranian government. The prison is right at the border of the city of Tehran, and its cold tall walls could be visible from many homes.
The stories in the book took place during 1980's in Tehran, where there was a mass arrest of political activists, to the present, around 2011 in Europe, American and Iran. The chapters went back and forth between the two periods. There were many characters, which were all somewhat related to one to one another and somehow looked, talked and act similar to each other due to the lack or development or similar descriptions: dark hair, dark eyes, and stocky for men. They were the prisoners of Evin and their children who grew up with the effect of war and their emotionally broken parents. Among these kids were Omid, Sara, Neda and Forough who were cousins. The kids carry their parents pain, so they are also broken, suffering and in no way happy or normal, although their love for the country remain strong, even after fleeing to the west with their parents.
I really wanted to give the book 5 stars. It has, as predicted, opened my eyes to the history of Iran, which I only had just a vague idea about. I loved the intended plot; I loved the concept; I loved the way the author narrates, with such lyrical prose and well-used metaphors and symbolism. However, the book is a bit disjointed, the characters were all very similar to each other (except for one or two), the plot did not flow smoothly enough so the book was read like a collection of vignettes. The descriptions were not only weak for characters, but also for the most important place, the prison. The cousins' home and relationship were just barely scanned over. There's so much potential to elaborate, to embellish... Unfortunately some sentiments and descriptions were used once too many, like the author was trying too hard to come up with more and new descriptive words or poetic terms. I ended up flipping through pages just to get the book going.
However, I still think this book is worth reading as a debut novel and as an introduction to the sad history and present situation of Iran, since I could feel the author's love for her country in every single page. A hardback might be better and easier to read than the ebook version due to the various characters that have similar names, descriptions and feelings.
This is a 3.5 star book, the 0.5 extra is for the poetic words and the great opening.
It tells the story of the Iranian Revolution from the perspective of characters whose lives were bound by blood, friendship or fall from grace.
In doing so, the author, Sahar Delijani, visits three generations of families as their stories become intertwined riding the tumultuous tides of the revolution and disrupted by imprisonment. Then Delijani creates a parallel reality from the lives of those left outside with the lives of those that continued behind the prison walls, bound only by visits too short for the longing in their hearts and by the hope of reuniting someday to pick their lives up from where they'd left it.
Along with the transforming tyranny taking over Iran, the author immerses the reader in the sometimes menial events that make up for a person's entire lifetime: the family upbringing, the routines, the gastronomy, the clothing which would change, re-adapt or persist depending on the time frame of the revolution the person was in - things that sometimes are overlooked, but that in the long run define a person's habits, character and decisions- , recreated by the author with such delicate yet powerful metaphors, that one is left with the impression that the Iranian universe in its entirety exists only through the window we are given to peek into the lives of these families. The role the women play in providing some form of normalcy to the children left like torn shreds of their families' tapestry, is filled with the dignity that comes from self-sacrifices and fierce resolve to protect them from an otherwise lost childhood.
Though this is written as a novel, the book is a testimony of historical accounts, since the author herself was born in a post-revolutionary Iranian prison. Her experiences and grieves are the soil where the stories of the characters take root and develop, much like the Jacaranda tree.
My only critique is that sometimes the storyline is choppy, perhaps aiming for dynamism, and without some refreshing of who's whose children or parents, it can get confusing. There's even a chapter from nowhere that never mentions the name of the characters, so you kind of assume which one they are talking about and read on, since an important piece of info is revealed in it, and you hope the author would bring it up again for clarity's sake, but she doesn't.
That aside, it is a strong debut novel, well written, characters well developed and even endearing. The imagery summoned in Delijani's skillful prose raptures the senses. To read is to feel. Go ahead and feel this book!