As part of our New Voices series, the Iranian novelist Dina Nayeri talks to Granta about favourite bookshops, musical fantasies and having storytelling in her blood.
Where do you think you learned to tell a story?
Storytelling is a major part of Iranian culture. I lived in Isfahan until I was eight years old, and so I spent a lot of time in my father’s village in the outskirts of town, my feet tucked under the korsi blanket, listening to my grandfather tell stories. He was an excellent dramatist. Sometimes he got so into it that his teeth slipped out, frightening all the children. Often, too, in my father’s circle, men would sit around a rug smoking and reciting from memory verse after I was the tiny toothless girl, cross-legged in blue shorts, watching their melodramatic gestures . . . verse of Hafez and Khayyam and Saadi and Rumi. I was the tiny toothless girl, cross-legged in blue shorts, watching their melodramatic gestures, nibbling at pastries with my good back teeth. Each time I tried to join in, they praised my memory and said I would surely end up a doctor or engineer – which was the wiser encouragement for a smart girl. But storytelling was in my blood. My mother says that I started telling stories before I was two years old, and that I could shape a story before my mouth could shape the words. She made a recording of me from that time, when I was almost two, telling stories that always began with, ‘there once was a rabbit’. At one point on the tape my mother said, ‘Dina joon! Why is it always “there once was a rabbit”?’ And I said, confidently, ‘There was always a rabbit.’
Have you ever stolen a book?
Um . . . well . . . I confess that there are books on my shelf that seem to have come from nowhere. And by ‘nowhere’ I mean Harvard’s various libraries. I don’t know how they got there. I might have rescued them from recycling bins. Or maybe I just stole them. I’m not admitting to anything. (Admitting stuff isn’t my strong suit. I’m Iranian; I prefer ‘rubbing yogurt over it’, as the old saying goes). But somehow, through a series of events entirely out of my control, I seem to have acquired library copies of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, and Goethe’s Faust. Particularly baffling is The Petty Demon by Fyodor Sologub. I’m not sure why I have it, but I’m certain there were margaritas involved . . . and, also, I wasn’t even there.
Where was the last place you went that changed your perspective on travel?
Though I’ve travelled all over the world, this summer, for the first time in my life, I did so alone. I had just survived several major life changes and embarked on the month-long trip to Thailand frightened and confused. Some days I thought, ‘What’s the point of this? Everything is so breathtaking and new, and there’s no one to be amazed with me.’ On other days I would wander through Bangkok eating street food, thinking of my novel, outlining chapters in my mind, and suddenly I would look up and it was dark and I had spent an entire day happy in my own company. By the end of the month I had learned to scuba-dive, hitchhiked across an island, struck up conversations with strangers and eaten many meals alone. I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ It was a beautiful surprise, and it made me appreciate my own strength and the healing power of the wider world.
If you were in a band what would it be called?
Pavlov’s Jooj. (Besides being a generally awesome phrase, it’s a riddle that encapsulates the best and worst of my personality as much as two words possibly can.)
What’s your favourite bookshop?
I love Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and the one in Santorini. And, of course, Prairie Lights in Iowa City. In New York, I often find myself at McNally Jackson, because of the scones and the gorgeous ceiling of hanging books. After the Writer’s Workshop, I plan to move to Brooklyn, and so BookCourt and Greenlight will be regular hangouts for me.
If you could cross over into another artistic genre, what would it be?
Music! Almost all of my fantasies involve intricate story lines in which I discover a hidden musical talent and become an indie rock star. My hair is always gloriously dirty. I write killer songs that make people question their way of life. But I still have problems, you know? Shit’s still real, I often say to my army of Bushwick hipster groupies as we burn the world’s supply of skinny jeans and usher in a new era of flattering denim. Wait . . . what were we talking about? Oh, right, interview.
Do you know why you do it?
Why do I write? Because it’s the first time in my life that I get out of bed desperate to work. It’s rare and wonderful to be so in love with the work that you do and to embrace it as a vital part of your personal history and culture. To believe that this way of life is in your blood . . . it makes it impossible to fail. Also, because I want to have a voice in the world and to create something that lasts. Literature lasts. Even if I only dabble in a small corner of it, I know I’m part of something important.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second novel (my first, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was released by Riverhead Books in Feb 2013). This second book is the story of an immigrant family who moves from Iran to Oklahoma just after the first Gulf War in the early 90’s.