An Interview with Nahal Suzanne Jamir

Nahal Suzanne Jamir recently published her first short story collection, In the Middle of Many Mountains (Press 53, 2013). She was awarded the 2012 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and won second prize in the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards in Flash Fiction. Prior to this collection, her work appeared in The South Carolina Review, Jabberwock Review, Ruminate Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and Passages North, among others. To read her story, “In Perfect English,” check out the Fall 2011 issue of CQ.

Jamir explores a range of themes in her work, from the distance between immigrant parents and their American-born children to the experience of single parents struggling to provide stability for their children. The importance of family and culture is highlighted in her work, as is the impact of stories and their telling. Whether in the bright burst of her flash fiction or the unfolding of a novella, her work is engrossing and thought-provoking. The Carolina Quarterly recently spoke with Jamir via email about her collection.     

–Laura Bennett, Fiction Staff

Carolina Quarterly (CQ): First, let me say that I truly enjoyed reading your collection. I was impressed with the wide-ranging scope of the work. As a reader, I was given a glimpse into many different worlds, from science fiction to a modern immigrant experience to the domestic narrative. One of the primary ties that seems to bind the collection together is a concern with the importance of stories and storytelling to individuals, families, and cultures. Is your interest in the role of stories in society what led you to become a writer? Or did the process of putting stories to paper spark that interest?

Nahal Suzanne Jamir (NSJ): As a child, I always had an interest in stories. I think this is natural for children. I had stories coming at me on all fronts, oral and written, family stories and science fiction stories, etc. Yet, at a certain age, I started to get curious about the lives of the people I was closest to. When I asked my parents about their lives, they dodged the questions. My mother would not speak of her own story but of the lives of her ancestors. My father wouldn’t speak of his own story but of the places he’d been to or lived in—and the stories of places. So, I would say that not getting answers (or not getting straight answers) transformed my view of stories. As a child and youth, I found my parents’ evasion annoying, but as an adult, I looked back at those non-answers and “side” stories as parts of some sort of whole. It became clear that nothing was clear. There was no one story that would answer my questions. As this realization grew, my stories became more fragmented and my interest in the role of stories in my cultures (both American and Persian) grew. Still, I don’t know if I know exactly how to describe the role of stories in society. At Texas State University, I was lucky to have Tim O’Brien as a teacher. At the end of our workshop in 2003, he said. “Stories aren’t about what we understand. They’re about what we don’t understand, what we can’t understand.” Some of this may make more sense in the context of writing nonfiction, but all fiction writers and poets are writing from a personal space. That personal space may be literal understanding or emotional understanding or imaginative understanding of each writer’s life experience. These different approaches lead to different types of stories, and just as a mosaic can mean something to the artist who constructed it, the recipient (reader, viewer, etc.) will make his/her own meaning. Storytelling is not a simple act of reflection—unless we imagine two mirrors facing each other.

CQ: You mention the importance of your parents in your burgeoning interest in storytelling. Another thread running through your collection is the presence (or absence) of single parents. What draws you to the single parent as a character and/or a theme in your writing?

NSJ: As with most recurring themes in a writer’s work, this one can be traced back to my real life, most directly to my father’s death in 2003. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it is like for my mother to have had a partner for so long and then to be alone both as a wife and as a mother. Indirectly, this theme can be traced back to striking differences between my parents. My father was born in the U.S., my mother in Iran. Despite how much they shared and agreed upon, the cultural differences were quite obvious, even to a young child. So, on that level, I have always viewed my parents as—I don’t what to say “separate”—distinct entities.

In addition to my life experience, I have to say that the parent-child relationship is, to me, the most interesting familial relationship, especially in fiction. It may be because despite our supposedly modern and liberal society, there are so many conservative (and rigorously so) views about what a parent should be to his/her child, how one should parent a child. Also, there is the assumed innocence and vulnerability of young children. These two factors allow for dynamic character interactions or even transformations. And the parent-child relationship just gets more intense if you only have one parent in the picture bearing the weight of the cultural mores, of the relationship, and of the practical necessities of raising a child.

CQ: Many of your characters are immigrants or children of immigrants who are unable to return to their home country. I read that you also have not been able to visit Iran. How does your relationship with a country to which you owe a part of your heritage but have never seen inform your writing?

NSJ: Yes, it would be dangerous, if not impossible, for my mother and me to go to Iran. Yet, the Iran that she knew before she left in the 60’s doesn’t entirely exist any more. Not having first-hand knowledge of my mother’s country contributes to a mystery that I want to solve. Because reality can’t solve that mystery for me, I turn to story—and without a lot of guilt because that (story) is really my only option. I do, however, sometimes feel that the storytelling—my mother’s or mine—does skew the reality of this place a bit. I find this fun and interesting, though my mother is often very forthright in telling me that I got it wrong about Iran.

As a writer, I have to imagine people, but I have to imagine places, too. So, my mother’s stories about Iran prepared me at an early age to explore this strategy of “imagining place,” and later, my training in writing programs taught me how to express it. I’ve never been afraid of writing about a place that I’ve never been to.

Because my view of place, any place, was strongly influenced by story, I often find myself depicting place through a central image or symbol—a house, a garden wall, a field, a run-down backyard, a warehouse, an ice field in Canada. For me, it’s a balancing act when representing place, trying to balance some sort of reality with some sort of magic (which, for me, is closely linked to mystery).

CQ: Your stories vary significantly in length from flash fiction to near-novella. Is your process different for these different story types? Do you enjoy the variety or plan to focus more on one style of writing in the future?

NSJ: My process varies a bit for each of these forms. For flash fiction and stories of average length, I have a good idea how the story is going to play out. I “bake” before sitting down to actually write. Flash fiction obviously takes less time to bake, and writing flash fiction, for me, also requires less revision because the language that came out in the first place was as intense and vivid as it needed to be. For longer pieces (near-novella or novella), I really don’t know how the story is going to play out. I don’t know more than the beginning. For me, this was very frustrating (writing “Doors of a Cold Season”) because I hadn’t written a lot of longer stories or novellas, so I worried that I was off-track and that the novella would be terrible. It’s much more of a psychological battle for me when writing longer materials.

In the future, I plan to first complete a collection of personal essays. Then, I hope to really launch into a larger novel-length project that I’ve outlined and set up for myself. I love to try different things. Frankly, this is easier when we’re talking about food. As a writer, though, I really plan to engage more with writing styles that challenge me. Ten years ago, I would have told you that I would never write nonfiction. Five years ago, I would have told you that I would never write a novel. I’ve found that defeating my own pre-sets and defaults, fears and anxieties is my most daunting task as a writer.