Two wonderful writers and colleagues, Persis Karim and Chris Clarke, recently reviewed Bone Worship, in the Women's Review of Books and the acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing respectively.
Here are a couple excerpts:
Making Sense of an Iranian Past
By Elizabeth Eslami
New York: Pegasus Books, 2010,
368 pp., $15.95, paperback
Reviewed by Persis Karim
The late 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century saw the publication of a large number of memoirs by Iranian-American women (among the most notable: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi ; Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni ; and Funny in Farsi, by Firoozeh Dumas ). Many of these memoirists were narrating the traumas and losses associated with the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and their relocation to the West.
More than once I have been asked why there are so many Iranian-American women writing-and so few men. The question is partly answered by the history of literature and writing in Iran: for millennia, well into the twentieth century, Iranian letters were the jurisdiction of men. Women were undereducated and in large part limited to the private realm; public disclosure was discouraged, when it was not forbidden altogether. Although there were some female writers, their work was not taken as seriously as men’s and was often judged more harshly. Today, however, women’s long-suppressed voices and stories have been released by the floodgates of history. They can write and publish in ways that were difficult or off-limits to them before. And, just as women have emerged at the forefront of literature in Iran today, so too have they dominated the literary stage in the diaspora. Their personal stories recount the challenges of migration, their struggles to reinvent themselves in new contexts, and their hybridized experiences as hyphenated Americans.
Currently, the urgency of the first-person memoir is giving way to an emerging Iranian-American novel that does more than simply evoke the typical American immigrant story. Two novels by recent MFA graduates exemplify this trend: Laleh Khadivi’s The Age of Orphans and Elizabeth Eslami’s Bone Worship. Both, necessarily, draw from what they know, and don’t know, of their immigrant parents’ journeys to the United States and what they lost in the process. However, each provides her own complex, nuanced perspective as a writer navigating the aspects of “old world” culture in an America dominated by predictable and tired narratives of Iran and the Middle East, post-9/11. Both of these books complicate our notions and invite our curiosity.
Khadivi and Eslami share a longing to connect with and make sense of the past, in order to unravel their characters’ futures.
Bone Worship, Elizabeth Eslami’s debut novel, is also suggestive of her own experience as a first-generation Iranian-American. Eslami spins the story of her protagonist from threads of the old and the new. When the American-born Jasmine flunks out of college, she faces the prospect of an arranged marriage.
Instead of simply playing with the classic stereotypes about arranged marriages as antithetical to Western values, however, Eslami helps us to appreciate the old-world rituals, which are not devoid of meaning, even in the modern world. Jasmine’s rather shaky relationship with her enigmatic doctor-father has real resonance. He decides to involve himself in her life at the critical point when she’s defining herself as an adult, and she becomes curious about what he left behind in his native Iran. She takes the endeavor of finding a suitor as a challenge that resonates with her interest in zoology and biology, and her “research” eventually helps her to understand her father’s motivations. When he left his country, he also left parts of himself, and beneath his gruff, cool personality is a tender concern for his daughter. In the end, Jasmine finds a husband, but what she really discovers is that the culture that shadows her life has something to teach her about the different ways that people “arrange” their lives and loves.
Both these novels communicate important information about the Iranian and Iranian-American experiences (and yes, Kurdish too), in language that opens up western readers’ vision of that part of the world, rather than closing it off in a classical trope of “us” versus “them.” Fiction really is the best ambassador of us all.
From the blog Coyote Crossing, by Chris Clarke:
This review has been a while in coming, partly because life and the accompanying events have overtaken me, but partly because after finishing Bone Worship: A Novel, I wanted to let it sit for a while before I reacted.
Full disclosure: the author Elizabeth Eslami is a friend, and has blessed a book of mine with a glowing review. Situations like this can be awkward, and so over the years I’ve developed a de facto policy when I find myself faced with reviewing a work by a friend. Generally speaking, that policy is that if I find a friend’s book lacking in more respects than is acceptable, I tend not to review it.
Fortunately that’s not the case here. Eslami’s debut novel is wonderful.
The basics: Jasmine Fahroodhi is a young woman with possibly the worst case of sophomore slump on record, which endures until her parents pick her up at graduation — only a few days after she lets them know she’d flunked out of school. Her father, a Persian-born doctor, seems less rattled by his daughter’s failure in school than by her choice of a major other than pre-med. Jasmine goes home to Georgia with her parents, where her father embarks on his “Plan B” for Jasmine’s future: hastegar, an arranged marriage. Jasmine, as unenthusiastic about home life as she had been at the University of Chicago, musters only the mildest American Feminist opposition to this plan.
Dr. Fahroodhi is a classic fish out of water. Opaque even to his family, he is frequently hostile to Jasmine — “you’re stupid” being among his most frequent utterances. Her reluctantly co-dependent mother, born in the Old South, oddly supports her husband’s plans for an arranged marriage, helping him take out “Bride Available” ads in newspapers catering to Iranian-Americans. From Chapter 8:
“Listen to me. I know you think arranged marriages are a thing of the past, and maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong.” She had stopped blinking completely, something she did when she was worked up. “You’re the one who looks at everything in black and white. If you’ll just give this a chance, you’ll see —”
“Jesus, how would you even know? You were born here! You married Dad for love. Your own choice. Or am I missing something?”
The calendar on the coffee table was still open, showing a boy bending over for a shot from a malevolently cartoonish doctor.
“I know, Jasmine. I know. And look what happened.”
Jasmine reluctantly goes along with the plan, which — true to the book’s dust-cover teaser — results in humorous and awkward meetings with potential suitors, and then the unexpected happens, though not in the saccharine way this telegraphic summary might lead you to expect. In the meantime, Jasmine stumbles through a series of suburban job-hunting moments, culminating in one of those menial jobs a lucky person finds every now and then that utterly transforms them.
That’s the plot, but this novel isn’t really as much about plot as it is character, primarily that of Jasmine’s father. Jasmine’s relationship with her difficult father is the central point of the novel. Early on, she remarks that despite having known him all her life, “if I had to stand up at his funeral one day and tell the world about his desires and hopes and who he was as a person, I’d stand there mute.” In the novel’s first few pages Jasmine lists the seven big things she knows about her father — his lifelong aversion to broccoli; his habit of calling his parents in Iran every other Sunday; the fact that he used to beat their dogs with a shovel; his having pushed a young cousin off a wall in Iran, badly injuring her, and a few others as well distributed along the spectrum from banal to vile. As the chapters unfold, Jasmine examines each of those seven known things in some detail. Eslami deftly structures the narrative around each of these channel markers.
Eslami’s portrayal of Dr. Fahroodhi is frank, and there is much to dislike in the man. His vulnerabilities, explored as the book unfolds, may make the reader cringe on his behalf, but they do little to soften our impression of him; they mainly help reveal what broke him. Jasmine’s relationship with her father is one of those that might seem inexplicable to an outsider, a bond that apparently persists out of duty alone, with neither party gaining much. At that, it’s like a lot of father-daughter relationships. There is tenderness there, but it’s deeply masked: the unrequited love of a daughter for a man who observed his children “from a safe distance like a potentially flammable lab experiment,” the arguable love of a man for his incomprehensibly un-Persian daughter that mainly manifests as frustration and anger. That anger and frustration, felt on both sides, never comes to a head. Conflict builds, tension mounts, and then just as a blowout seems inevitable something turns the narrative and submerges the tension: Mom, or the telephone, or circumstance, or even just Yusef Fahroodhi’s unwillingness to engage with his daughter as an adult worthy of respect. Maybe it’s American of me, but I did find myself wishing for a more open confrontation between the two.
All that notwithstanding, Eslami has not created a loveless father. Jasmine sees his love for her mother plainly and from a bit of a remove, as though it’s a specimen described in one of the natural history volumes she checks out of the small local library:
My parents, when they were first in love, swam out into the ocean and kissed until a lifeguard blew his whistle and yelled at them and made them come in, up to the sand. He was afraid of them drowning, their bodies tangled together in a way that made staying afloat impossible. He was afraid of what he saw from his white wood post high in the sky, the inability to tell if they were one person or two. He was afraid that if you looked up at them from deep under the green water, you would first see the light on the surface slicing down into the water, and then you would see them, and you would get their arms and legs confused with an octopus, a starfish.
One of the things I liked best in Bone Worship is exemplified in that paragraph: Eslami uses images, memories, passing conversations and other bits of detail to represent Jasmine’s exploration of her relationship with her family and herself. The lifeguard is Jasmine, afraid of what her parents’ love for each other might resemble. So is the boy in the magazine illustration, submitting to pain inflicted by a doctor who knows what’s good for him. The remembered Doberman pinscher punished with the shovel, growling at the boundaries of the family as it peered through myopic eyes, stands in for the father who beat it. The whole hastegar plot itself is a fair symbol for the involuntary relationship Jasmine has with her family — as we each have with our families. Eslami weaves these images into her prose quite deftly, and in ways that made me frankly envious of her sight. This is a hell of a fine novel, especially for a debut, and I highly recommend it.