Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into writing, both journalistic and fictional?
I have been a reader and a writer my entire life. It wasn’t something that I started doing later in life. I was an early reader, and I grew up in a family where there were a ton of books all the time in every single room. My parents are highly educated, and they are also readers. We had Farsi, Kurdish, and English books in the house. I got my Masters Degree in English Language and Literature from Tehran [University] in 2005, and then I taught at Azad University for two years. And then in 2007 I got admission and a scholarship to go to the University of Windsor in Canada, and I got another degree in creative writing. I went alone — my parents are still in Kurdistan, and so I just left on my own on a student visa. I got my Masters Degree in Canada in 2009. I wrote my first book, which was a collection of short stories, during that time in Canada.
I was just really passionate about literature in general, because I feel like when I was in Kurdistan, majoring in English literature really changed my life. At the time we did not have Internet. I looked around me and I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing in Kurdistan, with the ethnic and gender oppression going on there. I couldn’t see my future staying in [Kurdistan]. There were so many things that I thought that I did not belong to. But we did not have Internet, and my world was what I could see and perceive with my five senses, and what I could understand through books. I could imagine a different life and a different future through books. When I started reading Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, they opened a new window for me and I felt the human connection that exists beyond borders. That was a vague understanding at the time, because I had barely stepped outside of Iran. But I kept on writing. Writing was always my way of reflecting on life, my way of understanding myself, understanding what it is that I want to do in life, why I have issues and do not feel at home where I should technically belong. I just have a very deep passion for justice, and so I was very sensitive to the injustice that I could see around me.
My first book, Echoes from the Other Land, was a collection of short stories that were published in Toronto in 2010 by a multicultural house called Mawenzi House. It was nominated for an international award, and it got some critical acclaim. And then I started writing this novel, which took a good decade to write because there were so many things that I had to learn before I could give a book to the world. I had to learn the Kurdish history that I had been denied growing up in Iran. You get disconnected from your language and your history because [Iran] is a country that advertises assimilation or annihilation.
Writing in English gave me some aesthetic and psychological distance from the subject. I noticed that Kurdish culture has a lot of beauty in it that I took for granted when I was immersed in the culture. I was able to understand Kurdish life in its context — not just for what it is today, but for what happened over the past hundred years that shaped Kurdish society to be what it is today.
At the same time, I wanted to understand what kind of novels are critically acclaimed in the Western world. I had to read constantly — not just read as a reader, but read as a writer. I had to say, “What did the author of a critically-acclaimed novel do to achieve that acclaim? And how can I achieve the same thing?” Plus, I had decided to write in my third language, which was not an easy thing. It is one thing to be able to live in a country that you have immigrated to at the age of 24, and it is another thing to want to have a literary creation in that language.
I have been working since I was 17, so I have always supported myself, I have always had jobs, and it has always been a challenge to find time to read and write. But I told myself that part of being a writer is being creative enough to find the time. With all of that behind me, I am glad that I was finally able to give a book to the world that, hopefully, from what I have read in the reviews from The Independent, Globe and Mail, and The Toronto Star, it has been able to touch a lot of people.
For me, that is a really big service to the Kurdish community whose voices are silenced and unheard. Our stories are mocked and denied, and our pain is denied, as well. [It is a service] to be able to create this human connection through literature. And I hope that next time my readers hear about an attack on Kurds, they will know who the Kurds are and they will have the motivation inside them to write to their representatives and say that this is unacceptable. I feel that through literature, we can actually bring about a lot of change in how we are perceived internationally, and how we Kurds get to perceive ourselves. I hope that Daughters of Smoke and Fire will be successful enough that we will hear a lot of other Kurdish voices as well, and no one will ever tell another Kurdish writer, “I’m sorry, your writing is powerful, but it won’t sell, so we won’t publish you.”
What was it like to approach publishers with this idea? How did you finally find your home with this book?
Everyday, in the English speaking world, tons of books are being published. The question is which books get reviewed. And much of the publishing industry kept telling me “I’m sorry, no one will read a book that is set in the Middle East.” But is it really people that do not read books that are set in the Middle East, or is it the publication house not allowing or encouraging people to read about life outside of their home country? Because the publication house decides which books get attention. And if we are moving toward a world in which individual voices matter, then if people want to hear about the rest of the world, they won’t necessarily hear about it from an American writer’s perspective. Instead, give the space and platform to a person who will write an authentic regional story about their lived experiences.
You mentioned that it took you many years to write the book and eventually get it published. What was your research project like? Was it more academic, was it through news, was it through family stories and interviewing people?
It was a combination of all of those things. When you want to learn and understand more about Kurdish women’s lives — and my book is dedicated to Kurdish women — the only source you really find are academic articles. I read a lot of history books, and that was such a difficult process. A history book about Kurds is not a book you can read cover to cover. You choke while you are reading it, and you have to give yourself a break in order to be able to go back and digest all of the atrocities. There are moments when you are thinking, “In a world where a human is capable of doing these things to another human, is life even worth living?”
I also interviewed a lot of people in Kurdish, Farsi, and English. I had to understand how torture affects people, I had to learn about PTSD. It was a combination of psychology, history, sociology, and literature. I had to do all of that. But I shouldn’t say I “had” to, because there is so much joy and growth in it, that even if I didn’t have a book come out today, I would just be happy that I understood all of those things that shaped people’s lives and shaped Kurdish society.
As you started writing, did you always know that your first novel would be a text about Kurdistan, justice, and human rights? Do you think it is an activist text? Or did that just come to you when you started writing?
That is a beautiful question, and it goes back to the question of “do writers choose their story, or does the story go choose a writer?” I didn’t want it to be an activist text, I just wanted to write a beautiful story. But because I am an activist as well as a storyteller, perhaps it is inevitable that at least one of my characters would be an activist. For me, whatever topic I choose, whether I set my story in Kurdistan or anywhere else in the world, the idea of justice is important to me. It is just a personal philosophy. “Why do I live, what am I doing on this earth, which side do I want to be on, and what am I pushing on?” There was a time in my life when I realized that I had three choices. There is a small group whose profit and position depends on the injustices going on in the world. There is a large group of people who can see that this is wrong, that what is going on is not fair, that the status quo is absurd. But they get so busy with their daily concerns that they forget that we have a bigger role to play. And then there is a smaller group that challenges the status quo, and I wanted to belong to that force. I wanted to be a part of that group of people that say “This is absurd, we can live differently, so let us do whatever we can.” And the next question was, “What is my tool? What is my medium?” The novel is my medium, and the novel makes me a better person and helps me improve my surroundings.
The type of topic I would choose for a novel really varies. It depends on what my intuitive heart tells me. I decided to write about Kurdistan at one point, and I thought it was important. I knew that I probably would not have an easy time selling the book, I knew that not a lot of people would be crazy excited to read about Kurds. I made that choice, and I stand by it, despite all the pushback that I have received. But the topic doesn’t matter — I could write a story that is set in Bolivia. I would still go back to humanity and justice. I wouldn’t call it activism, but I would try to imagine a better world through writing, and to create a connection and understanding through humans.
What has it been like for you to receive so much praise and so many glowing reviews amidst the circumstances of this pandemic?
It was important to me that the book would be released on the tenth anniversary of Farzad [Kamangar]’s execution. And then the pandemic happened, and I was like, “Oh my God, is bad luck Kurdish inheritance? (Laughs) Why is this happening to me?” It was really sad in the beginning, because all of my events got cancelled, and now I had to do Facebook Live and Zoom, which was so hard for me to do. I was like “What is this? What do I press? How can I talk to a screen and pretend that I am talking to a human being?”
And then I said, “Ok, I lost the book, but I should not lose my sanity. I accept whatever comes.” Then suddenly, [I saw] that The Independent in the UK had included Daughters of Smoke and Fire as one of their “Five Biggest Books of May.” I was like “Yes! Finally!” (Laughs). “Finally somebody is seeing and noticing how hard I worked for this.” Because I could have had a book in 2013 or 2014. But I kept saying, “No, I’m going to keep working, I’m going to write the best book that I can.” And I finally wrote the best book that I could, and now the world is shut down. Honestly, in one word, it is humbling.
Is there anything else that you would like to say to other writers and artists — whether they are Kurdish, or from other marginalized communities — who would like to tell their stories through creative expression but feel that there is no medium to do so or opportunity to do so?
I want to tell them to brace themselves for a lot of discrimination and rejection, but to never get discouraged, because you should know why you are taking on a creative expression, and you should have your own strong reasons behind it. I hope that all of us can support writers and artists from marginalized backgrounds, because they really need our support more than anyone else.
I hope that we can have our own community and back each other up — go to each other’s movies, buy each other’s books, write reviews. People might not know, but just leaving reviews for books on Amazon makes a big difference in how much that book is introduced to other writers and readers. Ordering a book or a movie through your local library wouldn’t cost you anything, and it would be a good way to support it, too. There are things that we can do as individuals to help each other so that next time, no one tells a minority author, “Sorry, this won’t sell.” That has to end.
Congratulations on your novel, and on the wonderful reception. Thank you so much for your thoughtful words, and for taking the time to speak with us!