Our August Canadian Living Book Club pick is Pomegranate Soup, the story of three Iranian sisters making a life for themselves in 1980s Ireland. (Click here to read an excerpt.) We spoke with the author, Marsha Mehran, about the story, her inspiration for writing and her love of Ireland.
Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for this novel?
Marsha Mehran: I drew inspiration from a few elements, actually. Although Pomegranate Soup is a work of fiction, magical realist at that, the story of three Iranian women who escape the Islamic Revolution and open a café -- well, that was definitely taken from my own life. Having fled the uprising, my parents settled in Buenos Aires, where they opened a café -- and where I first got the cooking bug.
Years later, I met and married an Irishman, who introduced me to his hometown of County Mayo, Ireland. During one of my stays there I met a Lebanese family who were struggling to assimilate in the then fairly homogenous culture of the West (of Ireland).
The loneliness of their experience, coupled with my family's own travels, resulted in Pomegranate Soup.
CL: Can you describe your writing process?
MM: A lot goes on in my head before I get to the computer. A lot of daydreaming and sifting through ideas, sparked by whatever has inspired me in the first place. When I do sit down to write, I do it in installments: three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening. I try and calm the doubts as I jot everything I can down, and that struggle to overcome fear is half of what writing is all about. Taking the leap, word after word.
CL: What is your favourite part of the book and why?
MM: I love the passages with Layla and Malachy, the first blushes of young love. But my favourite part is definitely where Tom Junior is transformed by The Cat's hospitality, changing into a truly conscious being.
CL: Are there any characters particularly close to your heart?
MM: They are all dear to me! So hard to choose... The Aminpour sisters, of course. Sweet. Mrs. Delmonico, Father Mahoney...ah. I better stop while I'm ahead.
CL: How would the story have been different had it taken place in a small town in any other Western country at the same time? Was it important to the story that it be set in Ireland?
MM: There is something absolutely mystical about the Irish countryside, and I knew that if there was one place on earth where my Aminpour sisters could find hope and a fresh start, it would be amongst the heather and clover fields of Eire. The landscape is integral to the renewal theme that runs throughout the book.
There is a particular permissiveness to the Irish culture as well, one that is not entirely apparent to the casual observer. Irish people have a tendency to initially back away from new people and encounters, but once they let their guard down, they will defend you to the end. Perfect challenge to the Babylon Cafe!
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CL: You tackle a number of serious issues: racism, immigration, spousal abuse. Do you think it's part of your role as a fiction writer to bring awareness to issues such as these that are important to you?
MM: My only concern as a fiction writer is to tell a compelling story. To believe wholeheartedly in my characters' journeys. Inevitably, my concerns and experiences will be reflected along the way, but it is not a conscious decision of mine to address them.
CL: Why include recipes in the book? Do you intend for readers to try them, or are they there for purely artistic reasons?
MM: The recipes, the dishes that inspire the Irish locals to open themselves to our sisters, act in many ways as characters as well. They propel the plot and initiate change. I thought it was important for readers to have a sensual experience of the food, of this very important ingredient to the story.
CL: How do you recommend someone new to Persian cuisine get acquainted with it? Are there any cookbooks you recommend?
MM: There is one very comprehensive book, New Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmangli. It is probably the best source for the curious cook. As far as trying out Persian cuisine, all it takes is a look through your local restaurant pages. I know Canada has a wonderfully healthy Persian community, one that is growing by the day, so I am sure readers will have no difficulty finding a fabulous restaurant to try out all the treats described in the novel. I've had quite a few book clubs tell me they met up for their discussion at a Persian restaurant, actually. Isn't that great?
CL: If you were organizing a book club discussion of your novel, what are some questions you would like to see discussed?
MM: The paperback edition of Pomegranate Soup has some incisive and fun questions that work really well in discussions. I would really love for readers to experience the story through all their senses, if possible. To take it in with a pinch of magic dust, for sure. Have fun.
CL: What are some authors and books you're inspired by?
MM: Tolstoy, Capote (divine short stories, not to mention that glorious Holly Golightly), poetry: Rumi, ee cummings, Forugh Farohkzad. A big book in my life has been an anthology of theatre: The Theater of the Absurd. It opened me up to the possibilities of storytelling.
CL: Can you give us a sneak peek into any future projects?
MM: Well, the sequel to Pomegranate Soup, in what I hope will be a continuing series (if readers are hungry for more!) will be out this time next year. The title: Rosewater and Soda Bread. It picks up a year and a half later, with all three of the Aminpour sisters experiencing milestones of their own. There will be more recipes and lots of romance of course!
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