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Jewish Journal

As she remembers it

by Gina Nahai

January 3, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Do you write from memory? Someone always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncertain, scrambling for the words, the ways to make believable what I know will sound bizarre -- a too-complicated response where all that is required is a simple "Yes" or "No" or "Sometimes; the rest is research."

I lived in Iran for only 13 years. I remember very little -- a handful of places, a couple of dozen friends and relatives. Yet, I've spent my entire career writing about the country and its people, and I've written it all -- this is the part that's difficult to explain -- from memory.

"There were always two of us," I want to say when someone asks me where my novels come from -- "Back then, in Iran, in that place where all the stories began, where all the men and women, the ghosts and legends and bitter, half-invented truths that made up our daily reality lived and died in grand, spectacular, forever tragic ways."

There I was, the child who engaged and enjoyed, who accepted, as the innocent would, without questioning, without doubt or judgment, the stranger-than-fictional world she was born into, who passed through those years unscathed and unscarred, bearing few memories and even fewer attachments, crossing easily, effortlessly, over to a life in the West. And then there was that other me, that silent, invisible, forever-present part of me that watched and remembered. That other one, the one who's silent except when I write, saw the things I could not bear to see, felt the emotions with a force that I, as a child, could not withstand. It is she who remembers and who tells, who tries to bring together the scattered pieces of time, the shattered bits of lives, glue them into a canvas and, in the retelling, make them whole.

I remember our house, its grand, almost theatrical beauty -- high brick walls and hand-painted, gold-leafed ceilings, freshwater pools with statues of mermaids and dolphins rising in the shade of hundred-year-old trees -- in the midst of a city that had grown too fast, become too unwieldy too soon. I remember my grandparents -- the men angry and disappointed, the women quietly resigned. My parents -- young, beautiful, determined to break out of the life of tradition and obedience they had been born into. My two sisters -- green-eyed, golden-haired, quiet as angels and equally helpless.

She remembers the rest -- the friends and strangers, neighbors and long-lost cousins, desperate salesmen on one last call for the day, wiry old tax collectors bearing suitcases that were empty when they arrived, filled with cash and other valuables before they left -- the tales they told or that were told about them, the grudges they bore, the triumphs they boasted of.

I remember what was -- our little elementary school with the green painted gates and the play areas that were reserved for boys, the principal who walked around the yard wearing stilettos and carrying a horse whip, two feet of snow in the winter, sweltering sidewalks in summer.

She remembers what wasn't -- the kindness we didn't see from our teachers, tolerance from our elders, gentleness from a landscape, a climate that, although breathtakingly beautiful, showed no mercy to the weak.

I remember what I wished for -- good grades; my parents' approval; the white pleated skirts and gleaming sharp colored pencils and scented erasers that my friends brought back from America every summer.

She remembers what I feared -- to fail in school and therefore be barred from going to university; to fail my parents and therefore become, like all those other girls whose stories I heard as a child and that I would write about in my novels, a source of shame and infamy to my own children and theirs; to fail among my peers and therefore become, like the runaway aunts my mother told me about who, try as they might, could not conform to the mores of the day and had to leave or be driven out of their hometown, never to be allowed to return.

I do write from memory -- yes -- I want to say to those who ask, but my memories are few and uncomplicated. It's the shadow in the back of the room where I sit to write, the voice I hear only when I see the letters appear on the blank screen, the child who refuses to grow up lest she forget to bear witness -- it is she whose memories I write from.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage, 2007). This month's column previously appeared in Jewish Book World.

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