The recent world events have introduced a new wave of books about Iranians and in fact, there has been more written about Iran during the past two decades than any other period in the history of literature. It is as if the political turmoil has finally awakened the world to not only the existence of the Middle East but also its people, their stories and ancient culture. The sudden interest has flooded the market with books, films and other artful means of information. A bookworm myself, I keep a keen eye out for such books and often read them as soon as they become available.
An avid fan of Anne Tyler’s, I looked forward to her upcoming book, Digging to America, and when I learned that the story also portrays Iranian characters, I asked my bookstore to notify me as soon as it came in. I must admit, there was also some apprehension on my part as I prayed that this would not be another political drive, talking about the ugly Iranian and his connection–or there lack of–to the September eleven disaster.
The novel begins with two families at the Baltimore airport, the American Donaldsons and the Yazdans, a first generation family from Iran. Their simultaneous adoption of Korean children brings them together and spins a story filled with cultural information about both. Once more, Anne Tyler emphasizes character versus storyline and as a result provides a much deeper meaning in a simple story. Tyler’s characters are so strong, so unusual that the reader does not need extraordinary events to maintain interest. In her poignant style, Anne Tyler seamlessly breaks some rules in order to help the reader identify with characters, thus turning fiction into a true-life experience. Digging to America opens a window to a place that both the Iranians and Americans know only too well.
Maryam is a well-adapted, middle-aged Iranian woman, who has been a US citizen for most of her adult life. Her son, Sami, a born and raised American, fails to fully grasp his cultural heritage. His wife, Zeeba, immigrated following the Islamic revolution and although very much an Iranian, she is soon swept away by her new modern habitat. So far, Tyler had chosen the size of her canvas and the colors to be used, but would she be able to paint a fair portrait? After all, we are such a complicated clan, no one but another Iranian could possibly know some of those deep sentiments we mask with politeness. Well, apparently Anne Tyler can; her years of life with an Iranian psychiatrist–the late Dr. Taghi Modarressi–must have taught her well because Digging to America could only be written based on profound understanding.
Writers write with a clear agenda in mind; be it political, religious, racial or simply a response to market demand, but Anne Tyler writes what she knows best. Fictional as the story may be, the author needs little research to depict her characters with utmost accuracy and fairness. Her descriptions resemble a mirror and as it replicates the Iranian-American image, the reflection has a fresh, soothing effect. Despite the diversity in the American and Iranian tastes, or the difference in our standards of parenthood, when it comes to the core of our being we don’t seem to be all that different.
With the political turmoil of the past three decades and the deepening of the gap between East and West (of which she only speaks in brief comments: “Ever since September eleven, every Middle Eastern–looking person is a suspect.”), it is hard to believe that an American would go to such length to present a likeable portrait of Iranians. Anne Tyler has graciously disregarded the market’s thirst for a confirmation of the evil within a betrayed nation of immigrants.
While the ethnic differences between Middle Easterners and the people of the West remain a constant, in this novel neither come across as superior. They all have their strong points and their shortcomings, but they are similar in more ways than they realize. Such a profound message of peace in this day an age is a true blessing.
Some hidden sentiments an Iranian would never discuss with Americans, but Anne Tyler already knows them. “. . . how long had she been in this country? And did she like it? Maryam hated being asked such questions, partly because she had answered them so many times before but also because she preferred to imagine that maybe she didn’t always, instantly, come across as a foreigner.”
The familiar descriptions of Fessenjan,haftseen, and Persian tea are a great touch, but it is the precision of emotions that make the novel unique. Tyler’s poignant style puts to words what many of us have failed to. “. . . she had resolved not to return after that last visit. It wasn’t the restrictions, so much–the funereal long black coat she’d had to wear and the unbecoming headscarf–but the absence of so many people she had loved.”
The author doesn’t succumb to stereotypes or engage in politics and she refuses to judge, but she notices some of the superficial ridicule in the American way. “So instantaneously chummy they are, so ‘Hello, I love you’, so ‘How do you do, let me tell you my marital problems,” and yet, have any of them ever, really, truly let you into their lives? Think about it! Think!”
Words come so easily to this phenomenal writer. When she describes the effortlessness of a friendship between two Iranians, one phrase brings it home without a need for lengthy discussions. “A cloak of shared background surrounded them invisibly.” And, in another part, she writes of a retired teacher, who reflects on the glamour of his farewell versus the student’s acceptance of his young successor. “It was like walking down a red carpet and turning to find the attendants rolling it up behind you.” Ah, the Tyler touch!
What had been the best aspect of the novel? Was it the pleasure of reading another Anne Tyler? Or did I like this one more because it gave me a better reflection of myself? The truth is, both. Iranian Americans will enjoy the book for its strong prose and literary value; they will also obtain a stronger grasp on the fiber of American life. One also hopes that other readers may walk away with a clearer understanding of a people uprooted through ruthless politics. The author does not dedicate her novel, but with such a serene merge of two cultures, she couldn’t have presented her husband’s memory with a more valuable tribute.
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