by Terry Hong
“Strange things happened when I returned to Tehran in 2010 after thirty-two years in exile,” writes Donia Bijan in her recent essay, “The Women’s Hour.” Traveling with her sister, she found her childhood home—the hospital their father built in the 1950s, on an avenue that was once named after him. On the top floor was where Bijan was born, and where the family lived. In the yard was the final resting place for the family dog. The pool, in which Bijan learned to swim, was still there.
And then the sisters were shooed away by the caretaker, the gates shut forever in their faces. Bijan knew she would never return.
Beyond the bittersweet memories she carried back to her California home—where she’s spent most of her life since leaving her birth country at age 15—Bijan also now had the images of a story that would become her debut novel, The Last Days of Cafe Leila, which was published last spring. Set in a quiet corner of Tehran, the eponymous Café Leila is a welcoming haven, where family and strangers alike have gathered for decades. Seeking solace and refuge after discovering her husband’s infidelity, Noor, a San Francisco nurse, with her teenage daughter Lily, packs up and returns home to her father Zod.
More than 30 years prior, gentle Zod lost his beloved wife to senseless violence. In desperation, he sent his two beloved children to safety in the U.S. While Noor and her brother Mehrdad built their American lives and families, Zod kept the doors of Café Leila open to all, despite the politics and revolution ravaging the country. Noor arrives as both prodigal child and distanced stranger. Beyond the Café’s walls, the cultural and political restrictions hold fast, but Noor finds the sanctuary she needs, even as her daughter Lily—desperately missing her father, her friends—feels like she’s become a virtual prisoner. Mother and daughter must find new ways to communicate, not only with each other, but in navigating an uncertain, unfamiliar world. Through three generations of displacement, Bijan deftly, gorgeously explores identity, belonging, families (by blood, by choice), and the ties of unconditional love.
Terry Hong: I believe you were 48—a bonafide BLOOMer—when your first book, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, was published in 2011. Given your Cordon Bleu-trained background as the owner of L’Amie Donia restaurant in Palo Alto, California, for 10 years, embarking on a memoir about food seems to have been something of a logical next choice. Was there a moment when you decided, ‘I’m going to write this’?
Donia Bijan: I always wanted to write, but as long as I was at the stove there were never enough hours in the day. I wanted to write because I’m an obsessive reader and books were my surrogate home. All of time was measured in how much longer I could read before another 18-hour day. So, there wasn’t a specific moment when I thought “I’m going to write this,” but after I closed the restaurant, I finally had time to write. I had just lost my mom and I found that writing was my way of buying more time with her. I wasn’t ready to let her go.
TH: And that book ensures your mother remains immortal. So then after, how did you decide to go from memoir to your first novel?
DB: In 2010, I went back to Iran for a short visit after 32 years in exile. It was an incredibly moving experience. I was a stranger. I didn’t even know how to tie a headscarf properly. I spoke like the awkward 15-year-old who had left three decades ago, and yet, I felt the very earth whisper to me, “Where have you been? What took you so long to come back?” When I returned home to California, I knew I would never see my childhood home again. But, I was haunted by that voice. I had to find a way to capture that intense feeling of belonging and not belonging, of being sister and stranger. Writing a novel was my way of making something out of the beautiful ruins of my birthplace, to show the courage and tolerance of those who stayed, and also those who had to leave. For me, there was no going back; but could I come up with a fictional character to take me there?
TH: Do you still feel like that “exile”? Did being able to return to your family home make you feel more grounded as either an American or Iranian?
DB: For too long I’ve been preoccupied with “belonging,” and I think after that visit I realized what really matters most is that which keeps us grounded. “Belonging,” the idea of it, now seems like a luxurious pastime. I shouldn’t be preoccupied with where to live but how to live, how to live the life my parents gave everything up for us to have, to live the future they imagined for me and their grandchild. In America. Having said that, I think I will always straddle two cultures, and that’s okay. You leave a place but that place never leaves you.
TH: Despite intentions to not be defined, somehow the outside world keeps putting labels on us, especially if our origins are considered “other.” To that end, now that you know you will never return, has Tehran stopped being “home”? If someone asks you—because strangers inevitably do (sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with animosity)—“where are you from?”, how do you respond?
DB: Ha! I spent years trying to dodge that question. I became an expert at pivoting [to], “Where did you buy that dress?”—anything to avoid going there! I grew up. Tehran stopped being home a long time ago. If home is people, I have no family left there. My parents are buried here. I’m from California.
TH: One of my closest friends is Persian. She was sent as a teenager to live with a family in Denver. She was plopped into middle America without any cultural support. She was bullied, accosted, etc., especially during the Iran hostage crisis. She’s told me that other Persian children have had similar difficult experiences. Did you face such hostility and abuse as a newly-arrived teenager?
DB: I came alone in 1978. I went to high school in Michigan. I stayed with a wonderful family who took me under their wing; their daughter is my best friend to this day. It was the eve of my 16th birthday, and I was lucky to be welcomed into their family. Her Mom treated me like a daughter, she made sure I went to the prom. That’s not to say that I wasn’t desperately homesick—just the thought of it still makes my stomach hurt—but I was safe. I wasn’t harassed. It may be because I grew up bilingual (my mom insisted that we learn English) and I could communicate, keep up with the curriculum. Of course, I was incredibly awkward socially but I kept my head down and my eyes and ears open so I could learn as much as I could about this new world.
TH: Let’s talk about your novel, in which Noor is similarly sent to the U.S. as a teenager. Even as an adult, Noor sometimes answers that she’s Italian—and sets that example for a confused, then disapproving, Lily. Did you ever feel the need to disguise your identity in that same/similar way?
DB: Yes, all of us (Iranian teenagers) were inventing obscure islands off the coast of Italy. More so in college than in high school. Between 1980-1984, we came up with half-a-dozen made-up countries and most people didn’t question it.
TH: I noticed in your acknowledgements at book’s end that the only ‘real’ person in the book is the good Dr. Mehran, based on your own father. But surely other aspects of your life somehow seeped into these pages? For example, how much of your own immigrant/exile experiences did you draw on to write Café? Food/cooking and swimming are integral parts of your life—and those are both prominent parts of your novel. Any other defining moments that inspired the novel?
DB: Yes, of course I can’t help but draw from my real-life experiences. That is what I love about writing—how authors live this double life, how their imaginary world and their day-to-day life collide. The kitchen is my harbor—that’s where I go when I need to figure something out or to lick my wounds. The pool is where I go to gather my wits because when I’m done with my swim, I feel invincible, truly like I can face anything. So when I sit down to write, I’m taking the autobiographical and trying to make it something bigger than me, to make it everyman’s story.
TH: When out in the world on book tour, or being a public figure on the ever-available Internet that seems to reach every corner of the globe, given the current state of (aggravated) world tension, have you had any negative encounters as an author of Iranian heritage?
DB: Thankfully never. It’s funny, because when I worked in kitchens and I was often the only woman, people often asked me if I was harassed. Given that kitchens remain the most medieval spaces in terms of hierarchy, I wasn’t singled out or yelled at unless I screwed up. I think it has to do with a willingness to work hard, to be open, to not go into a situation expecting anything other than that you’re there to roll up your sleeves and get to work. It sounds naive but that’s been my experience.
While on tour, my only negative experience was when a young Iranian woman asked, “How dare you write about a country you haven’t lived in since you were a girl?” I was proud of her for asking that … it takes guts to stand up and put the author on the spot. And it’s the young people’s job to challenge us. BUT, any question that starts with “How dare you…” is absurd and can’t be taken seriously. I’m not a reporter, I’m not writing a police report, so I can write anything I want. It’s fiction! On the other hand, I have submitted some op-ed pieces to newspapers that were published online, and there were some truly sad comments. My favorite was, “You are a net burden on this society.” But, of course, that is the nature of the Internet, where anonymity allows people to vent.
TH: As Zod protected Noor and Mehrdad for decades from the horrors of what happened to Pari, have you felt a need to protect your son from the most difficult parts of his Persian background/culture?
DB: What a great question. What my son knows about Iran is food, music, and affection. Of course, he knows the history, he knows what his grandmother did for women in Iran and what his grandfather did for his patients. He knows what was lost and will never be replaced. I have been forthright about the triumphs and the flaws of Iranian culture, and he feels a strong connection to this half of his heritage.
TH: Since we’re talking books—did you find inspiration from reading other Persian/Iranian American writers? I’ve noticed Persian women writers such as Dina Nayeri and Firoozeh Dumas with fabulous new books. Abde Nazemian has a new YA title, The Authentics, whose characters just might know some of the Beverly Hills Persians Noor and her brother Mehrdad met while living with Uncle Morad and Aunt Farah. Utah Mormons joke about a “Mormon Posse” (others even use “Mormon Mafia,” ahem) among the Mormon writing community (it’s vast). Might Persian women writers have something like that?
DB: Hmmm, not that I know of, unless they have a secret club they haven’t admitted me to. I’ll need to call Firoozeh right after this to inquire. You know, this is all fairly new to Iranian women. I think Firoozeh, Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) opened the floodgates. They gave us courage. In Persian culture, women writing memoirs, writing anything really, wasn’t common. That’s why we all latched on to Forough Farrokhzad, the poet, because she was the lonely voice for a long time. The revolution was a catalyst for all these memoirs, the shock of displacement, the sudden awareness of a freedom to write about overwhelming life experiences, and nostalgia to recapture a world we lost, all gave us the momentum to write.
TH: Now that you’ve become a lauded author, do you ever miss the hubbub of the restaurant life? You write so lovingly of that sort of welcoming shelter that a local café can provide. Are you ever tempted to open another such establishment?
DB: Not if you put a gun to my head. Running a restaurant is a little bit like war and the emergency room rolled into one. I do miss the camaraderie, the hours of doing something really hard with like-minded people, and those people will always be my war buddies. But the idea of creating a temple of safety, where people come for reliable comfort, is exactly what I was hoping for [in writing] Café Leila.
TH: And now that Café is out in the world, what might you be cooking up next? I sorta feel like you left enough loose ends for a sequel … or is that just wishful reading?
DB: I thought about a sequel for a little while and realized I need to let Noor and all my characters go. There was a period of actual mourning, when I cried because I missed them so much, but I feel that I’d be squeezing that lemon too hard. I’m working on another novel but keeping that magic trick to myself until I’ve figured it out.
Homepage photo credit: Michelle Le