Finishing a story that was only half told
The Saffron Kitchen is a great reminder of how imperative it is to provide details when passing down stories to the next generation
February 9, 2007
The Saffron Kitchen
by Yasmin Crowther
Viking Adult (2006)
Yasmin Crowther’s début novel, The Saffron Kitchen, walks the fine line between fiction and memoir. In this compelling story of a woman caught between two worlds, foggy images of Iranian society are seen throughout, images that are peculiar to first generation Iranian immigrants.
Considering Iran’s drastic social changes during the last three decades, endearing stories are passed down to the young through memoirs of parents who have seen the best as well as the worst. When these stories are retold, some details are bound to be inaccurate while others may be missing altogether. However, the narrations possess a familiar resonance to those with similar experiences, and the stories succeed to touch on some fundamental aspects of the past. The Iranian reader may even identify with some of the characters and at times it reads more like one’s own memoir. Even when the story is colored to resemble a work of fiction, readers of all backgrounds can see the good, the bad, and an account of true chronicles that could otherwise be lost.
For simplicity of reference, I file this new genre under Farsi Lit. By that, I mean books written in English by a writer of Iranian descent, in particular bicultural stories based on memoirs of previous generation. It may be justified to consider such books a byproduct of the post-revolutionary immigration of Iranians to Western countries. Prior to this era, the language was known as Persian, and the word Farsi was exclusively used by people who spoke the language.
Born to an Iranian mother and a British father, Yasmin Crowther reflects on her maternal culture and is inspired by her mother’s stories. In this novel, the protagonist, Maryam -- a character modeled after Yasmin’s own mother -- is born to an army officer from Khorassan, aspires to study nursing, immigrates to England, marries an Englishman and has one daughter, Sara. Decades later, her compelling story takes the reader back to Mashhad, and depicts a vivid -- though slightly distorted -- image of Iranian life, past and present.
Crowther invites her readers into the depth of Iranian family and reveals the extent to which some parents go in order to protect their honor. As old wounds are opened, the loneliness that immigrants mask so artfully is clearly illustrated. Many Iranian immigrants would like to assume they have reached absolute freedom, but Crowther dares to question the issue by stating, “There are many types of freedom and each has its price: freedom to love, to travel, to belong. For each freedom we choose, we must give up another.”
Iranian parents are often praised for their generosity and unconditional love, but Crowther explores unspoken conditions set by strict fathers, vindictive rules that could never be bent, let alone broken. Maryam’s story exposes the Iranian family in a way that most people are reluctant to talk about, and few are honest enough to admit.
In fiction, it is not uncommon to use true characters while changing names, circumstances, and locations. However, this author’s attempt at new names is somewhat distracting. It may be easy to switch from Fatemeh to Fatima, but names such as Mairy (Could it be Mehry?) or Ehzat (Nehzat?) and Gossemarbart (Ghassemabad?) have a tendency to pull the informed reader out of the story. Once past that, I found the narrative vivid, eloquent and was swept away by the sensitive passages throughout the novel.
These lyrical words must come from the heart because -- as the Persian saying goes -- they settle into the heart. Crowther paints her scenes with the fine touch of an artist, thus giving her readers a chance to experience the events as the story unfolds. Here is an example of when Sara regains consciousness; “. . . echoes from the depths of the hospital: its trolleys, swinging doors, births and deaths. Nearer, I heard the squeak of shoes trying to tread quietly, and whispers. I could smell lilies.”
The Saffron Kitchen takes readers to the province of Khorassan, giving them the opportunity to roam through spectacular winter sceneries of Iran’s countryside. While to a native of Khorassan the images may seem somewhat altered, the average reader is sure to enjoy its fields of saffron, and cobalt blue doors.
The prose begins with a realistic description of an Iranian’s life in England. However, by the time the protagonist returns to the rural areas of Iran, there is a shift toward surrealism (i.e. a dance scene when characters are caught in a storm.) There are also a few changes in geographical names and, on more than one occasion, a detour from normal traditions is evident. For example, Torbat is a city and not a summer villa, women of Khorassan do not wear beaded or bright pink chadors, and they are almost never addressed by both names in daily conversations. However, considering that it is presented as a work of fiction, and with regard to the originality of the story, its fascinating characters, and vivid scenes, such flaws are indeed minor.
The Saffron Kitchen is a great reminder of how imperative it is to provide details when passing down stories to the next generation. Indeed, it will be through the young that the peculiar destiny of today’s Iranian immigrants will be retold. Yasmine Crowther has done a superb job of finishing a story that was only half told, but hers won’t be the last of its kind. One can only hope that the new generation of Iranian writers will continue to be the voice of those who have crossed far too many borders, climbed invisible mountains, and survived devastating storms. Comment
Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e
Gham" (see excerpt).
Visit her site ZoesWordGarden.com