Monday, January 3, 2011

Am I in Your Book?

The title of this post is a question I get a lot from Iranian friends and relatives when I tell them I’m writing a novel set in Persian culture. It’s a reasonable question when you consider that writers frequently write what they know, and what I know about Persian culture I’ve learned mainly from these same Iranian friends and relatives.

I’m never sure how to answer this question because the only honest response is yes and no. In a way, every person I have ever known, every situation experienced, and every idea pondered has ended up in my stories. But by the time these elements have passed through the filters of my mind, story premise, and plot, they are utterly unrecognizable.

My stories themselves usually end up as something quite different from the idea I started out with. And that’s how I like it. For me, the whole point of writing a novel is to explore the world and discover something I had never realized before.

Take my Persian P.I. series. The idea came about in response to my annoyance at the negative way in which Iranians were portrayed in American popular culture. Always the villain—the terrorist, the assassin, or the abusive, overbearing husband. I recognized nothing of the friendly,  generous, and fun-loving Iranians I knew. Nothing of their rich and complex culture, art, and history. I wanted to write a story that showed them as they really are.

Fortunately, the idea didn’t stop there. If I’d written a book as an emotional reaction to negative press, the story would have been insufferable to read, shouting righteous indignation from every page. It would have been propaganda, not fiction.

When I created my protagonist, an Iranian-American P.I. named Leila Shirazi, I soon realized that what interested me the most about her was not her Iranian identity—or her American one. But her dual cultures. She was a person who appeared to move back and forth between two nationalities with ease, thoroughly familiar with the modes of behavior acceptable in each culture.

But how does she really feel? Is anyone equally at home in two worlds? I had a linguistics professor once who claimed that true bilingualism was a misconception. Even bilingual people are most at ease with the language they use the most, the one of the dominant culture in which they live. And that comfort can shift to the other language in a different environment.

Maybe biculturalism follows the same pattern, I thought. So with Leila, I created a woman who was born in Tehran and raised in Northern California from the age of twelve, yet feels somewhere in between these two places. She embraces the personal independence valued by Americans, while her Iranian culture demands that everyone, especially women, put family first. But her olive complexion, Middle Eastern features, and foreign name set her apart from the mainstream. When people ask the question “where are you from?” they don’t expect the name of a city, but that of a country.

When she visits Tehran, the city of her birth, as she does in Bad Hejab, the opposite happens. Everyone treats her like she belongs, based on her appearance, familiar name, and local accent. And on the surface she fits in; Leila can speak the language and haggle prices like a native. But when it comes to sorting out the complexities of Tehran society, where nothing is ever precisely what it seems, she feels as though she’s visiting her native city for the first time.

Moving the story lines back and forth between two countries and cultures gives me the chance to explore how Leila learns to bring her two identities closer together and become a more integrated person. Will she achieve this goal in the end? Beats me. I’ll have to continue writing the books to find out.


  1. Heidi, most interesting. I'm putting your books on my "must" list.

  2. Great post, Heidi, and you do a wonderful job presenting the conflict. I've learned so much about Iranian life from critiquing your books. Anything happening with Bad Hejab yet?

  3. Leila sounds like a fascinating character, Heidi! I love the idea of someone in between two worlds.

  4. Thanks, Judy, Nancy and Kathy!

    Kathy, writing about Iranian life is the most fun for me in creating this series. I'll be sure to let you know when there is good news to report on Bad Hejab. :)

  5. That sounds really interesting! I'll have to check out your writing in more detail. I think this blog post also resonates with me, in that a lot of my friends and associates end up as characters in my books and stories. They don't ask if they're there. I usually ask if I can include a fictionalized version of them!

  6. So interesting. Love the name, by the way, Leila Shirazi. Coincidently, Leila is the name of my character as well, only she dies in the first chapter and her three students set off to find out who killed her. What does it mean in the Persian culture? I know in Afghani it means the Night's Flower.

  7. Thanks, Margy! I hope you come back and visit often.

    Lina, I've always loved the name Leila. I've been told it is Arab in origin and means "night beauty". I'm sure there are variations in meaning all over. I love the way Middle Eastern names have specific meanings, sometimes mundane ones. Some of my favorite Iranian ones are Arezou (wish), Roya (dream) and Mozhgan (eyelashes).

  8. lol on the topic! It seems everybody finds something in your book that screams, "This is about me or this is you." But because our world influences what we write about, even I start to believe the book is real...

  9. Oh, Heidi, it's true! Often, when I'm asked where I'm from and I automatically respond "California," the person who asked will say "no, I mean where are you FROM?"

    I love your characterization that people have passed through the filters of your mind before they become characters -- I think that's exactly right!

  10. Kathy, that's what I'm afraid of if people think they are in my books. That they'll not see themselves the way I do and be disappointed or angry. And yet I couldn't write about real people if I tried.

    Gigi, that must be so annoying. I imagine it would be, which is how I have Leila react. How do relatives and friends treat you in India? Do they see you as more Indian or more American?