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An Interview With Zohreh Ghahremani

"Sky of Red Poppies" is a story about a friendship that begins in 1960’s Iran under the rule of the Shah. Roya is the daughter of a prominent family, and Shireen is her religious classmate. As the two women take different paths in life, they never forget one another. In a recent interview, One Book's Linda Salem asked Zoe Ghahremani to talk about her characters and about her thoughts on poetry and writing.

What inspired you to tell this story?

There are many good books by Iranian-American writers available to us. However, most writers told their personal stories. "Sky of Red Poppies" isn’t about me. I wanted to tell the story of a nation and a life that will never be again. I had carried this story within me for decades. It needed to be told.

What is the role of poetry in the novel?

Poetry is an integral part of Persian culture. Regardless of the level of education, all Iranians know verses by heart, even the illiterate. With a wealth of poetry available to us, we often use it to enhance our meanings.

"Sky of Red Poppies" is a look back at a life lived over decades.

I think when we look back we are more likely to see things clearly.

The protagonist Roya thinks at one point that her basic character and her friend Shireen's basic character drive the kinds of lives they lead. Readers are led to consider these differences between the two women. What can you tell us about the development of the characters in the book?

I don’t think this is a matter of wealth and power. Roya’s friends ­- Nelly and Tahereh - were included precisely for that reason. However, family is the only society a child knows and it has a profound influence in character development.

Roya reads the story of "The Little Black Fish" but Roya herself is somewhat ambivalent about it and its message. How does the novel explore how a story may be read at face value, and read as allegory?

"The Little Black Fish" is a children’s story, not unlike "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint Exupéry in that the story has a different significance to different age groups. While a child may understand its simple tale, an adult reads the underlying philosophical message.

And, if you quote a poem, you can’t be accused of having made a statement, but your meaning does get across. This weapon is used by many activists.

Roya's father Pedar makes sacrifices for his children and he protects them from the knowledge of the sacrifices he makes. How is Roya's relationship with Pedar?

She adores him, fears him, and views him with awe. To her, he is – was – God!

The saying ‘sky of red poppies’ is a metaphor for infinite vastness ("a sky of"), for beauty that survives in spite of fragility and rough environment, and about opium addiction. Is one of these meanings triumphant in the novel?

They all are, but more than anything I used this metaphor to signify survival. Indeed, what that good nation needs is for the cold winter to pass and a good gentle rain to revive its beauty!

The opening scene depicts an abduction of the girl named Alieh. What problems does that incident create for Roya through the remainder of the novel? How is this scene an awakening for Roya?

This is Roya’s first glimpse at the world outside the glass bubble that her father has built around her. It also puts a small distance between Roya and her older sister Mitra, while it also encourages her to listen more closely to what others whisper.

The main character's inner voice is strong. She reviews for herself and for readers the words she hears and reads to sort out her feelings and judgments about the world. These repetitions are poetic and give a rhythm and cadence to her main concerns. Can you talk about the inner life and voice of Roya?

Thank you for saying that because her voice is definitely mine! While I gave Roya parts of my real life - and some of a life I wish I had lived - her voice and the way she views the past are entirely mine. Where sentiments are involved, readers relate to honesty. I have been very honest in that regard.

The protagonist is disturbed by her own inability to act throughout the novel to effect change. What do you want readers to understand about the main character's responses to the disturbing events she cannot seem to effect, and about her transformation and how she finds her own voice?

Roya’s father is a symbol of dictatorship. In a way, he is the “shah” of that family. While he does his best to provide, protect and maintain order, he remains the sole decision maker. He can be so cruel that disobeying his rules will have disastrous outcomes. I hope the reader sees why democracy needs to begin at home.

Pedar's efforts are to protect his children from a country that he sees as doomed. What can readers take away from this novel about the effect on people of disconnection from mother country and reconnection to the United States?

Although this issue was not on my mind while I wrote the story, I can see your point. The best way to respond may be paraphrasing, “You can take an Iranian out of Iran, but you can’t take Iran out of the Iranian!” I believe a part of mother country remains within all immigrants, be it to the US or anywhere else in the world. To recognize this fact will help us to understand our diverse communities.

Can you tell us about the change in Shireen and in Roya from the start of the novel to the end?

With age comes wisdom, patience, and understanding. Roya and Shireen are no exception. They show how different our views become as we mature. But more importantly, this is a universal story of friendship and shows that regardless of their diverse paths, true friendship survives.

What are you working on next?

My next novel, "The Moon Daughter," is about women in the Middle East, gender issues, even bigamy. It begins with a birth scene where, much to her disappointment, a young woman has just given birth to her third daughter, but this one also has a birth defect.

I was ready to publish it last November, but my readers have now set the bar too high! I am currently reviewing/rewriting parts of it to make sure they won’t be disappointed.

Do you have any message for the San Diego reading and writing community?

San Diego is home to one of the strongest writing communities in this country. I hope the new writers will join one of the many writers’ organizations available to them. Please write, write, and when you are tired, write some more!

The best teaching institution is your local library. Take your children there, read to them, and instill the love of reading at a young age. As for my own readers and supporters, I will never be able to thank them enough. They empower me and generate the hope I need. All I can do in return is to be there for them and to participate in their discussions whenever possible.

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