A Conversation with Marjan Kamali on her novel, “The Stationery Shop”
A Conversation with
On her novel, “The Stationery Shop”
“We carry all the ages and stages of ourselves all the time. The timbre of a particular voice, a specific scent, a tiny piece of melody can trigger in us memories we thought we’d lost or buried forever.”
A Conversation with Marjan Kamali
On her novel, “The Stationery Shop”
A poignant, heartfelt new novel by the award-winning author of Together Tea—extolled by the Wall Street Journal as a “moving tale of lost love” and by Shelf Awareness as “a powerful, heartbreaking story”—explores loss, reconciliation, and the quirks of fate.
Roya, a dreamy, idealistic teenager living amid the political upheaval of 1953 Tehran, finds a literary oasis in kindly Mr. Fakhri’s neighborhood stationery shop, stocked with books and pens and bottles of jewel-colored ink.
Then Mr. Fakhri, with a keen instinct for a budding romance, introduces Roya to his other favorite customer—handsome Bahman, who has a burning passion for justice and a love for Rumi’s poetry—and she loses her heart at once. Their romance blossoms, and the little stationery shop remains their favorite place in all of Tehran.
A few short months later, on the eve of their marriage, Roya agrees to meet Bahman at the town square when violence erupts—a result of the coup d’etat that forever changes their country’s future. In the chaos, Bahman never shows. For weeks, Roya tries desperately to contact him, but her efforts are fruitless. With a sorrowful heart, she moves on—to college in California, to another man, to a life in New England—until, more than sixty years later, an accident of fate leads her back to Bahman and offers her a chance to ask him the questions that have haunted her for more than half a century: Why did you leave? Where did you go? How is it that you were able to forget me?
(via Simon & Schuster)
Marjan, I re-read The Stationery Shop prior to our conversation, and I’m taken again with how it’s both Persian, and universal. A compelling novel about love and loss that is both specific to certain cultures and eras, yet expansive to what makes humans similar. How did the mix of culture and geography in your own life inform this story, as well as your other creative pursuits?
MK I’ve lived in seven countries across five continents but no matter where we were when I was growing up, the home I entered at the end of a school day was an Iranian one. I spoke Persian to my parents, ate Persian food, and was encouraged to learn Persian poetry and literature. I think because we lived in so many different places, it became extra important for my parents to pass on their culture. This Persian immersion gave me a strong sense of grounding and pride. But after the 1979 revolution, I found I had to “defend” being Iranian to American classmates and even to teachers and to constantly speak up against negative images being shown about Iran. My experience of having lived in several other countries taught me that though outfits, language, and political systems may differ, human dynamics are the same the world over. People everywhere want love, security, and a chance to fulfill their potential. By writing books such as The Stationery Shop that center my Persian heritage, I hope to simultaneously explore the enrichment and estrangement of uprooted lives and the universality of our human condition.
Three years post-publication, what are some of the enduring experiences with the book, and the most surprising?
MK The messages I receive from readers are the most enduring and ever-surprising experience from writing this book. It’s strange to think that an exercise done alone in one’s room with no sense of light in sight could create such a deep connection to people across the world. I get messages from readers who tell me the book helped them come to terms with their own loss and to heal. I hear from people who have shed many a tear over Roya’s experiences and achieved a sense of catharsis and deeper understanding about their own unfinished business. An Instagram message will pop up from oceans away telling me how this book helped the reader reconnect with a past love or former friend or kept them up all night. And of course, due to the historical events in the book, I am told that this story helped readers see a side of Iran they never knew and a part of its history they were never told. It continues to stun me how something I wrote in deep solitude now connects me to so many others in a very personal way.
Memory, especially youthful memories—and distortions of such—play an enormous role in The Stationery Shop. What are some of your own memories from that time in your life, and how do they appear now to you? Did writing the book cause you to examine your own memories in a different light?
MK One of the themes I was hoping to explore in The Stationery Shop is that time is not linear but circular. At any given moment, we are all the ages we have ever been or might be. In the opening scene, Roya, the main character, enters the Duxton Senior Center at age seventy-seven. But when she hears again the voice of Bahman, her fiancé whom she has not seen for sixty years, she is also seventeen. Like Russian nesting dolls with different versions of ourselves encased within, we carry all the ages and stages of ourselves all the time. The timbre of a particular voice, a specific scent, a tiny piece of melody can trigger in us memories we thought we’d lost or buried forever. In writing this book about young lovers, I definitely accessed that heady, passionate, maddening version of my younger self. I got to sit her down and not just make her acquaintance again but be her. And then, thanks to the magic of the pen, I got to leave her shoes and travel far from her to create a character wholly unique and different – one whose experience was nothing like mine but the scope and breadth of which changed me forever. One thing a lot of people don’t take into account is how writing each book changes its author in ways that are impossible to predict.
When you were writing The Stationery Shop, were you thinking about all the lives it might have: translated in over 20 languages and now an adaptation of it through HBO?
MK In those closed-door days (years!) of writing this book, I forced myself to not think about the novel’s potential reach. Had I contemplated this story being translated into so many languages and adapted for the screen, I think I would have fled for the hills. To pretend no one would ever read the first-draft sentences in my notebook, see the document in my hard drive, or know these characters the way I did gave me freedom to write the story I wanted to write as opposed to one an agent, editor, publishing house, writing group etc. may have suggested. For that precious time when I was creating the story, these characters were entirely mine. And I dug deep and surprised myself with the intensity of emotion that came up during the days of creation. Later, during the revision stage, I did think of the reader and the experience I wanted them to have reading the whole. Now that the book is out, the characters (and their interpretation) belong to each reader.
It’s early yet, I know, and the wheels of film projects move slower that book publication, but how has the adaptation process been thus far?
MK To think that these Iranian characters could one day grace screens across the world as a TV series for HBO is something that still feels like a dream. I never imagined being on a phone call with Hollywood producers discussing the hopes and regrets of Roya and Bahman and Mrs. Aslan and Mr. Fakhri. But it’s happened. People ask if I’m worried that Hollywood will change my book. The book is the book and will always be the book – it is there on bookshelves and online and in bookstores. It can’t be changed. As authors, we know interpretations of our stories are unique for each reader. I think of the screen adaptation as yet another interpretation. I know every effort is being made to stay true to the culture and I will do as much as I possibly can to make sure it is told well. Even though I’m a consulting producer on the show, I only have limited control over the adaptation –I’m no longer in charge nor should I be. It is still early days but I’m excited for what lies ahead.
We’re nearly at the 70th anniversary of the ’53 coup. Would you talk about why you chose that as the central incident of this book, and also how those themes continue in modern Iranian life? Less about politics perhaps, as much as about the personal fractures and losses, especially with ongoing cultural turmoil.
MK The 1953 coup d’état in Iran continues to have ripple effects for the whole world and yet it is seldom discussed internationally. I chose the coup as the central incident of the book because for a whole generation of young Iranians that event spurred long-lasting loss: loss of innocence, loss of idealism, loss of trust in foreign powers, and in many ways loss of country. For my research, I read non-fiction books about the coup d’état, immersed myself in autobiographical accounts, and pored over newspaper articles with timelines of what happened down to the hour on August 19, 1953. But nothing was as helpful as interviewing family members and friends of family who had lived through that time. The common thread I recognized repeatedly was the intense heartbreak that came with the ramifications of the coup. For many members of the generation that was young during 1953, it forever cleaved their world into Before and After. I was surprised to see how deep the wounds from betrayal, disillusionment, and heartbreak ran. That particular trauma certainly helped pave the way for the 1979 revolution 25 years later.
Related to that point, there’s also a sense of joy in rituals and new customs; one of the most touching parts of the book for me was Roya’s experience of one particular Nowruz through the actions of her sister-in-law. What are the rituals of your many-countried life that you take with you wherever you go?
MK No matter where in the world I’ve lived (Germany, Kenya, Australia, Switzerland, etc.…), I can safely say my stomach has always been Persian! I grew up eating Persian food daily and I continue to prepare and cook and enjoy Persian dishes. The rituals of chopping greens for ghormeh sabzi, pulsing walnuts in a food processor for fesenjoon, or making (and praying for) the crispiest tahdig keep me grounded and content. I love sharing Persian food with friends in whichever country I’m in and I rarely go more than a day or two without cooking the dishes from my mom’s recipes. Another ritual I’ve practiced no matter where I’ve lived is the celebration of Nowruz and Chahar Shanbeh Suri. The Haft Seen has been set out annually for pretty much all the years of my life. And I remember jumping over huge bonfires before Nowruz on the streets of Tehran as a child, hopping over mid-sized fires in Sydney when I was a young mom, and skipping above the tiniest crepe paper flames (due to fire laws in Massachusetts) in Watertown when my children were little.
In addition to your successful writing career, you’re a teacher at Grub Street: how does teaching inform your own work and vice versa?
MK I love helping students achieve a sense of perspective and actualization for their own work. I believe talent is innate but craft can be taught and honed. And confidence, stamina, and community all help in becoming a successful writer. With good guidance, students can nurture their novel drafts to make them reflect the truest things they want to say. I get so excited when my students achieve a goal or delve deeper into their characters or experience the true magic and discovery of writing. Constantly going over craft elements helps remind me of the importance of structure, voice, and atmosphere in my own work.
It was a thrill to see your selection as a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow. How does this acknowledgement impact your work, and your future projects?
MK Thank you and it continues to be a thrill for me! When my phone rang, I saw a Washington, D.C. area code on my phone’s screen and assumed it was a call about voting or elections. I picked up the phone ready to give them a piece of my mind. Then the voice at the other end of the line said they were from the National Endowment for the Arts and that I’d been selected as a Creative Writing Fellow. I started to sob (I was told I was not alone – the caller had heard crying all morning as she informed the awardees). Like many children of immigrants, my choice of a path in the arts received resistance from many angles. For years I had to push through when I was told no one wanted to read about Iranians, cared about Iran, nor would be able to relate to Persian characters. The NEA award makes decades of struggling and scraping and working in this country feel legitimized. It allows me to continue to give back to the community of arts which has given me such unexpected empowerment and joy.
Related to that: what haven’t you done—in any medium—that you want to explore?
MK Based on the number of photographs I take when walking just one block, I clearly have an interest in photography or perhaps an obsession with capturing moments! Also, when I was younger, I loved to act and be on stage. I did a lot of theater growing up and in college. I’d love to explore playwrighting more.
And finally: do you still write longhand letters on stationery in this age of tapping and typing?
MK Absolutely! I love writing longhand and even write much of the first drafts of my novels that way. As for letters: I grew up writing letters to my grandparents in Iran, and to friends and other relatives. If you’ve ever sent me a handwritten letter, please know it is archived in its own secure manila folder. Sometimes when old friends visit, I show them every letter they’ve ever written to me and it’s like looking at a retrospective of their younger lives. To this day, I write letters to my 80-year-old friend in Utah who is my daughter’s godmother and occasionally to other friends and family. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – like the movement of a good pen across the page. It gives you a high that is unparalleled.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marjan Kamali is the award-winning author of The Stationery Shop (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), a national bestseller, and Together Tea (EccoBooks/HarperCollins), a Massachusetts Book Award finalist. She is a 2022 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Kamali’s novels are published in translation in more than 20 languages, and The Stationery Shop is being adapted into a TV series at HBO. Kamali holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA from Columbia University, and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from New York University. Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, Kamali spent her childhood in Turkey, Iran, Germany, Kenya, and the U.S.
AUTHOR PHOTO by David E. Lawrence • BOOK COVER, EXCERPT and INFORMATION courtesy of Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster