A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea: A Novel

by Dina Nayeri

(Riverhead, $27.95, 420 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Tehran during the revolution that erupted in 1979, Dina Nayeri and her family immigrated to Oklahoma when she was 10 years old. She earned a BA from Princeton and a Master of Education and MBA from Harvard. She is a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and also was named a 2012 New Voices author by Granta magazine.

In her novel’s acknowledgements, she says: “I am an Iranian exile. This story is my dream of Iran, created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister. Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared….”

Nayeri originally planned to follow a career in business, but  told Barnes & Noble interviewer:

“…one of the best things the MBA program at Harvard did for its  students was to force us to do a series of reflective exercises about career and leadership and legacy. During one of these, I realized that my dreams and visions of who I would become were completely different from those of my classmates, that I was an outlier, and that maybe I didn’t quite belong in that world. It should only have taken a look back at my childhood to tell me what my vocation should be: when I was little, I’d spend hours telling stories to anyone who would listen. I would squeeze into a circle of adults and say, “everyone, listen to me. I have a story!” When I finally realized that the business world wasn’t for me, I started writing every day.”

Nayeri will give a free talk on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at Renbrook School, Renbrook School, 2865 Albany Ave., West Hartford.. Information: 860-236-1661 or pa@renbrook.org or www.renbrook.org/nayeri.

What is this book about?

Saba is 11, a twin living with her relatively well-to-do family in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran. Fascinated by America, she and her sister Mahtab read whatever they can find, listen to Western music and furtively watch TV shows about this strange land where freedom reigns, so different from the increasingly repressive and dangerous state in which they live. Then her mother and sister leave under frightening circumstances, leaving Saba alone with her saddened father in a village that offers love but also restricts what girls can do and think. She has been taught that twins lead parallel lives and convinces herself that her mother and sister are thriving in America. Saba tells herself stories that allowher  to experience, if only in imagination, the freedom she longs for. But forced to give up higher education for a wealthy but bad marriage, and caught up in a friend’s involvement in dangerous politics, Saba will need more than imagination to survive.

Here is what Nayeri says she wishes Americans knew about her home country:  “That Iran is a much richer and more glorious place than what they see in the news. Pre-revolutionary Iran was a magical place, a perfect mix of Eastern and Western culture…Unfortunately, the Western world sees only two versions of Iran—the dangerous oppressive regime now in power, and the hybrid culture that has sprung up in California (the materialistic lifestyle represented by Shahs of Sunset infuriates me). Americans don’t often get to see the thousands of years of creativity in Persian literature, visual art, architecture, food, music. Iranians have such an old and intoxicating culture. They suck the marrow, and carve joy out of even the most terrible times. Their attitude toward romance is exquisite. There is no way I can describe it in one paragraph, or in one novel. I don’t even have the tools to fully understand it for myself, since I’m an exile since childhood.”

Why you’ll like it:

Nayeri creates a quite believable girl, whose dreams and desires were not much different from those of American teens at the time, and through Sa ba she  makes clear how political oppression quickly becomes devastatingly personal. Saba loses her mother and twin sister, not to mention her sense of a normal life and a promising future, when the oppressive fundamentalist regime seizes power in Iran. But that does not mean she doesn’t experience teen angst or look askance at annoying elders or wish for romance. Although it is set in a faraway place, whose customs are unfamiliar, there is a strong universal quality to this story, to which it is pleasurable and rewarding for American readers to relate.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Saba Hafezi is certain that she remembers her beloved twin sister, Mahtab, and her mother fleeing Iran for America in 1981, leaving Saba, age 11, behind to live with her emotionally distant father. A determined Saba clings to this memory while growing up in her small rural village under the eyes of her surrogate family—three female neighbors who warily entertain Saba’s insistence that Mahtab is alive and well—and alongside her best friends Reza and Ponneh. Saba is fascinated with American pop culture and vividly imagines Mahtab’s much happier parallel life in America as her own often brutal life unfolds. Saba reluctantly chooses marriage over college, a decision that provides her with financial security at a horrific cost. Meanwhile, Ponneh’s activism plunges the lifelong friends into an increasingly complex relationship while inching Saba closer to the truth behind her mother and sister’s disappearance. In this substantial novel, Nayeri weaves a variety of narratives throughout Saba’s inner and outer journeys, creating a dense exploration of memory and hope within the harsh realities of postrevolutionary Iran. “

Says Library Journal: “Saba Hafezi, 11, who lives in postrevolution Iran, has long held onto the belief that her twin sister, Mahtab, and her mother have immigrated to the United States, even though everyone around her tells her that Mahtab is dead and her mother imprisoned or worse. Fueled by illegally obtained Western literature and tapes of American movies, television, and music, Saba weaves stories about Mahtab’s imagined life in America, which parallel Saba’s life events despite the radically different choices and freedoms available to each girl. As she matures with her two best friends, Reza and Ponneh, an uneasy triangle emerges. VERDICT Nayeri’s highly accomplished debut is a rich, multilayered reading experience. Structurally complex, the overriding theme is storytelling in all its forms, and the fine line between truth and lies. Each one of the large cast of characters is fully realized and sympathetic. Saba is a captivating heroine whose tragedies and triumphs will carry readers on a long but engrossing ride. Highly recommended.”

Publishers Weekly says: “This ambitious novel set in northern Iran in the decade after the 1979 revolution contains not a teaspoon but a ton of history, imagination, and longing. Beginning with the 1981 disappearance of 11-year-old Saba Hafezi’s twin sister, Mahtab, and their mother, Khanom, Nayeri interweaves Saba’s family trauma as seen through the eyes of the women of her seaside village, along with fantasies about Mahtab’s teenage fascination with everything American, shared by her friends Reza and Ponneh. Saba loves Reza, but allows herself to be married off to old Abbas Hossein Abbas, expecting to eventually gain freedom by becoming a rich widow. The characters’ dreams are shattered, however, amid rising violence, as beautiful Ponneh is beaten for wearing red high-heels, Saba is violently attacked by two chador-clad women working for her husband and the new regime, and another woman is hanged for defying the new Islamic norms. Saba’s first tentative protests give way to more drastic decisions as the realities of postrevolution Iran and the truth about her mother and sister sink in. …”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Elegant aspirational novel of life in post-revolutionary Iran. “The whole town knows the story–the real one–though no one talks about it, because that’s our way. We prefer pretty lies to ugly truths.” Twin sisters Saba and Mahtab Hafezi live at the end of the universe–or, more specifically, in a tiny rice-farming village deep in the Iranian interior, having moved from Tehran to escape the eyes and hands of the mullahs and revolutionary guards. …There’s precious little magic to it and a lot of dust and grime. Still, in Nayeri’s richly imaginative chronicle, everyone dreams there, not least Saba, whose expectations crumble in the face of a reality for which she’s not prepared, having instead devoted herself to moving to America and studying endless English word lists in anticipation (“What is abalone?” she wonders). Her mother, a small force of nature, is a fierce champion, though she’s not happy that Saba is out in the sticks: “I won’t have her raised in this place…wasting her days with village kids, stuck under a scarf memorizing Arabic and waiting to be arrested.” Alas, a mother’s protectiveness is not a big enough shield, and Saba finds herself caught up in events much larger than she can imagine. It takes a village full of sometimes odd, sometimes ordinary people to afford Saba the wherewithal to realize her dreams, which take her far, far from there. Lyrical, humane and hopeful; a welcome view of the complexities of small-town life, in this case in a place that inspires fear instead of sympathy.

When is it available?

This book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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