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Citizen of the English Language: An Interview with Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is a teacher, a translator and also the author of three novels set in the 19th century. The first two of these share a fabulist, allegorical quality: The Saddlebag (2000) takes place along the pilgrimage road between Medina and Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, while Paper (2004) features a Persian scribe in search of the perfect writing surface. The Woman Who Read Too Much was published in 2015 and fictionalizes the revolutionary real-life figure of Táhirih, a Persian poet and scholar who rejected the veil and threatened society with her literacy.

Nakhjavani’s most recent novel is her first set in contemporary times, and was my introduction to her writing. Us&Them was published this spring by Stanford University Press (and as Eux&Nous by Actes Sud in France). At the book’s center is a trio of women, all displaced in one sense or another by Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Daughter Lili pursues an activist, academic life in Paris, while her sister Goli raises a family in “Tehrangeles,” California. Their mutual desire to extract their aging mother from her Iranian home conflicts with their equally fervent desire to keep her at a distance, leading to a kind of maternal time-sharing arrangement that has Bibijan shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic. This female triangle gets ample support, mockery, judgment, and gossip from the circle of fellow expats and immigrants that surrounds them, so Us&Them can cast its satirical gaze widely, on family relationships, modern Persian mores and manners, and the politics of international migration. Few novels are as adept as this one at balancing the issues of the day against the traditional pleasures of fiction.

Nakhjavani agreed to answer some questions from me about Us&Them. Once we began corresponding, though, the trail of crumbs I left her led her words down other paths ... continued