• Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Marjan Kamali was born in 1971 in Turkey to Iranian parents. Her father being a diplomat, the family moved around the world a great deal and left Iran three years after the 1979 Iranian revolution and moved to Queens in New York.

Kamali studied English Literature at Berkeley University of California and received a Master of Business Administration from Columbia University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University. She now lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.

Kamali had had a chance meeting with one of her old professors from Berkeley, the late Leonard Michaels, who had read the short story she had written about the spreadsheet-loving matchmaker and remarked: “You know what this is, don’t you? It’s the first chapter to your first novel”.

Kamali took her professor’s advice and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts for Creative Writing Program at New York University. Moreover, in her partly autobiographical first award-winning novel, Together Tea, published in 2013, which has been translated into several languages and adapted for the stage, she did not forget to include the spreadsheet-loving matchmaker, the method the mother used to find a suitable husband for her daughter.

The story of Together Tea starts in 1996 after the Iranian Rezayi family emigrates to New York. The novel focuses mainly on the mother, Darya, and her twenty-five-year-old daughter, Mina, their relationship, determination and self-confidence.

Mina, who: “knew how to swing her legs on that hyphen that defined and denied who she was: Iranian-American. Neither the first word nor the second really belonged to her. Her place was on the hyphen, and on the hyphen, she would stay … like a seasoned acrobat; she would balance there perfectly, never falling, never choosing either side over the other, content with walking that thin line”. So she carries the heritage of her family’s past, while her future, combined with her success, belongs to her adopted country.

Unlike Parviz, her husband, Darya, Mina’s mother, finds adapting to her new life and surroundings insurmountable. She is a strong-willed woman who knows what she wants and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is Iranian born and intends to remain one by maintaining her culture, practices and customs. Moreover, now that her daughter has reached twenty-five, she is very keen to find her a suitable Iranian husband, and Darya being a good mathematician, prepares a spreadsheet for eligible Iranian-American suitors.

Narratives from the viewpoint of mother and daughter alternate between chapters. They both have similar characters but opposite outlooks on life; Darya, being brought up in a conservative family in Iran and out of respect for her parents, had to marry the husband chosen for her, while Mina, who came to the West as a child, has a different attitude and wants to marry the man she approves of without disrespecting her parents.

In an interview, the author explains her choice of title for the novel. She says: “The title is actually a phrase that my Farsi-speaking mother-in-law uses when she speaks English. She says, “Would you like to have together, tea?”. I used this phrase as the title because tea is such a huge part of Persian life. Throughout the novel, many characters meet over tea and pivotal conversations between Darya and Mina, Darya and Sam, Mina and Ramin, Darya, Parviz and Sam etc. are conducted over tea”.

Together Tea is a book about an uprooted family fleeing the theocratic government in their country and how each family member overcomes the cultural shock in his or her way and tries to adjust to new surroundings in their adopted country. It is a challenge not uncommon to the majority of migrants all over the world.

The author says about her novel: “I was really inspired because I had been reading books about multicultural experiences and experiences of families immigrating (sic) to the U.S., but I felt I had never read a book that kind of reflected the experience of my own family’s journey … I wanted to write a story that explored the Iranian American experience”.

Together Tea is a touching, enjoyable, entertaining story with an insight into the Iranian lifestyle before and after the 1979 revolution. A colourful description of Persian traditions, culture as well as several appetising details of culinary dishes of which Kamali says: “I did not set out to include so much food – it’s just impossible for me to write about an Iranian family without including the preparation of food and the huge Persian feasts that occur at parties and family get-togethers!” (sic).

In Together Tea, the author illustrates the power of love bonds, peoples sufferings, hopes, resilience, and the search for new identity and belonging. The characters are well depicted and inspire readers’ empathy, and the dialogue does not lack spice.

• Friday, February 26th, 2021

Domenica Starnone was born in Saviano near Naples, Italy, in 1943. He has worked for newspapers and satirical magazines as well as being a screenwriter and a high-school teacher. Starnone, who won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize, is a prolific acclaimed writer.

He is married to the Italian literary translator and author, Anita Raja, who allegedly writes novels under Elena Ferrante’s pseudonym. Domenico Starnone and Anita Raja both live in Rome.

Akin to Aldo, his main character in Ties, Starnone is also a native of Naples, a high school teacher, and has successfully worked as a writer for Italian television. Ties, Starnone’s thirteenth novel, was first published in Italy in 2014 and the English publication followed in 2016.

Lacci, which means laces – as in shoelaces – is the Italian title for Ties. In the novel, Anna refers to shoelaces when she mentions her mother, saying to her: “have you noticed the ridiculous way your brother ties his shoes? Your father’s fault; he’s never done it right”.

This quotation indicates the lack of bonding or frazzled ties between the two siblings and their parents. It is omnipresent throughout the novel on several levels.

Ties is the story of a man called Aldo Minori who, in 1974, after twelve years of an ostensibly uneventful, happy marriage, feels strangled by the daily routine and commitments of this perpetual bondage. He seeks freedom away from his responsibilities as husband and father.

He abandons his wife, Vanda, and his two children, nine-year-old Sandro and five-year-old Anna, after being besotted by a younger woman named Lidia. The abandonment of his wife and children leaves incurable scars on Aldo’s family, which never heal.

Even after his re-conciliatory return four years later and after the family get together again and after fifty years of marital life, nothing will be the same as before.

In Ties, we have three different narratives as well as three points of view. The novel starts with a deserted, forlorn wife writing to her husband, who has left her in Naples with their two young children and without money to live with his young mistress.

This opening is compelling and remarkably succinct, providing the tone of the novel.

In the second and longest part, we are in 2014 present-day life, several years later. Vanda and Aldo are in their seventies and back together, living in an apartment in Rome. One day, upon their return from holiday, the couple discovers that burglars have ransacked their place.

While rummaging through the wreckage, Aldo comes across old letters and photos linking him to his burdensome past. Flashbacks occur, revealing his version of the story.

In the third and probably saddest part, we have Anna’s version of the tale and how her parents’ relationship deeply affected her and her brother for life, both as children and adults.

The two of them are severely disturbed to see their father after returning home, submitting to his wife’s sadistic punishments and going through them in a masochistic way.

Starnone is demonstrating how the real victims of the parent’s separation are always the children. The unmarried Anna becomes a bitter and resentful woman like her mother and her brother Sandro who is married with children, does not seem happy nor having a fulfilled life.

As Jhumpa Lahiri mentions in her Introduction of Ties, the novel is constructed like “a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next”. The book has few characters, which creates a tight focus, spotlight like, on the protagonists and their problems.

The story is short, concise, sardonic and intensely emotional about family relationships, commitment, love, attrition, and infidelity. It is clearly, a dauntless approach revealing the several fissures of wedlock as an existing structure. In the story, the message conveyed by the author is conspicuous.

He efficiently presents the whole framework of marriage commitments as a debate noticeably without a solution to be had. Having existed since the dawn of time, it will always remain a problem society will eternally be confronted with as an insurmountable challenge.

As Voltaire said in Candide: “You have to cultivate your garden”, implying that each one of us has his part to play in life to make it work. However, would that have saved Vanda and Aldo’s marriage partnership or was it doomed to fail regardless?