In her fifth novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., Gina B. Nahai sheds light on why Los Angeles is home to more Persian Jews than any other city in the world. She writes as an insider and has spent her career demystifying the culture for the rest of us.
The story opens with the disappearance of Raphael’s Son, a Bernie Madoff–type who has entwined his relatives in a Ponzi scheme to keep up with the Kardashians. Nahai offsets the hideousness of the glitz and glam idealized by these characters in recounting their histories, including persecution and escape from pre-revolutionary Iran, where a person’s reputation—his aabehroo—had been worth more than diamonds.
I was her graduate student at the University of Southern California from 2005 to 2007. And boy, did she have a reputation—as one of the Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program’s most prolific and successful alumnus. Her novels, including Cry of the Peacock and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, have been translated into eighteen languages and selected as “Best Books of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has also been a finalist for the Orange Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and has won the Los Angeles Arts Council Award, the Persian Heritage Foundation’s Award, the Simon Rockower Award, and the Phi Kappa Phi Award. Her other writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles magazine, Publishers Weekly, and The Huffington Post, among others. She writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and is a three-time finalist for an LA Press Club Award. I remember driving downtown to attend her class while listening to her being interviewed on National Public Radio.
Somehow, I swindled her into becoming my thesis advisor. In one meeting, she mapped out my novel with arrows, boxes, and stick figures and sent me away with a model I recreated countless times for my own students. We recently met again at her home in Beverly Hills to discuss her role as a successful woman and author, the possibility of peace in the Middle East, and her latest work.
The Rumpus: How did you come to the story of The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.? I loved it by the way! I read it super fast.
Gina Nahai: Thank you. I wanted to write about the Iranian community. And I also wanted to write about LA, the LA I know, and how LA affects people. Our community that remained the same for 300 years has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I started thinking of all the stuff that has happened in this time, and I was inspired by real events. A businessman being found with his throat cut off. The Ponzi schemes. The forty million dollars that are missing from a union. A fund that the taxpayers paid into and no one knows where it is today. These were all real events in the news. Then, I wanted to highlight that in this community people know your pedigree and background and ancestry, so if you know one person you know many more because of that person. I might not have known your great aunt but I’ve heard of her because I know you. So stories converge in that way, and once I started writing there was just a wealth of stories. Everything that happened in the book really happened in one way or another.
Rumpus: You interweave the history of your characters lives with the history of Iran and America and the general immigrant experience. There is a lot there. What was your process? Did you begin with character bios? Did you outline?
Nahai: I spent a lot of time searching for the protagonist. I had Raphael’s Son, Neda, and Angela, and to me, each one of them was compelling. Even Neda, who is insipid, had more to her. I think of the protagonist as the entity whose actions drive the plot forward, as the engine, so it doesn’t have to be somebody who you like or dislike but this person’s actions set in motion a series of events. Angela was there from the beginning and I really like her. Some people think she’s annoying.
Rumpus: I think she’s great!
Nahai: I do too! I know women like Angela. I also know men like Raphael’s Son. So I just sort of just picked one. I didn’t have to do character bios. I knew exactly what they would do and where they came from. What was tougher was to create a structure in which all of these characters could interact with each other but also engage dramatically with the main plot. I had all these side stories and lives but there is a main plot—this guy has been killed and you have to figure out why and who did it. I had to make sure everything hung together as opposed to having parallel storylines.
Rumpus: Did you map it out like you mapped out my thesis?
Nahai: A million times! I did it over and over. At some point, I was sitting at a faculty meeting next to Syd Field and I was telling him that this book was taking me forever because there is so much going on with so many characters. Syd said, “Do you do flashcards?” He told me to do a storyboard like they do for screenplays. So I had this huge board in my office with every little event and every little character. I worked on that for about a year while I was writing. Like Carrie on the first season of Homeland, when she created a wall of suspects, well, I did that.
Rumpus: Did you know the ending?
Nahai: I didn’t know the ending. I only knew that Raphael’s Son was found or reported dead in front of this house in Holmby Hills. So who found him? The wife. She came out of nowhere. One thing led to another. I kept looking back and drawing on what I saw around me and what I remembered from the past thirty years. I wanted it to be a social novel. I was trying not to invent so much as to adapt the reality to the story.
Rumpus: A lot of these characters don’t talk. In writing classes we’re often told to balance action, exposition, and dialogue. The reader learns at the end who is talking—I won’t spoil it—but did you worry about this balance?
Nahai: I think you should use dialogue if there is stuff that you can’t say or convey better in exposition. I think they are talking to the extent that they need to talk.
Rumpus: So why did you choose close third for the POV? Why not first person?
Nahai: Because I wanted to have a voice that echoed the voice of an observer that wasn’t entirely objective or fair. The voice in the novel has a lot of overtones or judgment, because as a society this is the voice that is constantly defining all of us to each other. Opinions get repeated. I wanted the narrative to have that kind of community voice.
Rumpus: One thing that took me a really long time to learn and that I think you do really well is that sometimes it’s okay just to tell the reader information. Is that something you always did or has it taken until your fifth book to perfect it?
Nahai: I always did that. I come from this background where people were constantly talking and telling stories, so I was used to telling. But I see that in my students. I often have to call them to the floor to ask them what they mean. You have to explain things to the reader. Like motivation. Why does a character do something? Unless you spell it out, the reader is free to guess or is going to be frustrated because they don’t know. You also have to spell out the meaning as you see it. The classic example is in Lolita when Humbert Humbert spends the whole book justifying his actions. There is only one little paragraph, one line in which he actually translates everything and answers the question of what was wrong with what he had done. He’s on a hill and looking down on that playground and he says, “I realize now that the real tragedy was not in the absence of Lolita from the playground but the absence of her voice in this concord of voices,” or something like that. I think that is the writer’s way of conveying.
Rumpus: How old were you when you came over from Tehran?
Nahai: I left when I was 13. I went to boarding school in Switzerland. I finished high school when I was 16, went back for a month, and came to Los Angeles in August 1977. In September, I started college (at UCLA), so that was two years before the revolution.
Rumpus: What did Tehran look like when you were growing up?
Nahai: Tehran was not a pretty city. It had one of the biggest traffic problems in the world. It was polluted, congested, and there were no zoning laws. If you went out for a couple hours your shirt would be covered in soot.
Rumpus: It was like LA.
Nahai: No, no. [Laughs] LA is Heaven next to Tehran. It was like Athens is today. But there were good elements, too. The house in the book, Bagh-e Yaas, is pretty much the house I grew up in. By the time I was born it was old and in disrepair, but it was big and beautiful with ancient trees, fountains, and acres and acres of land. We had four satellite houses on the property that had been built for family members. One had been closed because no one lived there, but eventually, one of the servants moved into it. If you drove outside the city, the landscape was stunningly beautiful and varied, but this was a Third World country just coming out of centuries of stagnation. There was a lot of poverty, inequality, and great sense of unease. People from different social strata were living together and that caused a lot of tension. And there were many social restrictions on women. The families who had wealth were a tiny sliver of the population and did not have much ambition to challenge social norms. They traveled, partied a lot, and spent a lot of money. Now, I hear from people that they went to parties every night until five or six in the morning. They would go home, change and go right to work.
Rumpus: In the book you wrote that the girls were dancing to David Bowie.
Nahai: Yes! Like crazy! American culture, movies, music, and fashion were everything. Women were wearing what you would call “hot pants” up to here (short shorts). Women were in hot pants and high heels and half-naked on the street right next to women wearing the full chador. A certain class of men didn’t have much respect for women. It wasn’t unusual for them to make lurid remarks about any random female who happened to be out on the street or to even try to grab her butt or breast. Most women were upset by this but didn’t feel they had the power or influence to stop the men. Some women claimed that the male attention made them feel desired and feminine and that they missed it in Europe because there no one looked at you as a woman. Things were really just fluid. There was the puritanical Islamic side that said men weren’t even supposed to look at a woman and right next to them were these men reaching out and touching any woman they wanted at any time. Or maybe these were some of the same people.
Rumpus: And then the mullahs took over Iran?
Nahai: They always had all the power. I write about that in my other books. Islam took over Iran 1400 years ago but they were Sunnis. Shiite Islam came to Iran about 700 years ago, and they believe that the clergy are not only spiritual leaders but also have to be political leaders. So there is no distinction between spiritual life and faith and governance. They have a belief that the clergy are in direct communication with God, that God speaks to them in their sleep, and that it is their duty to govern. The royals were sort of puppets. The only time this changed was under the Shah and his father. The British insisted they wanted somebody in power who would stand up to the clergy because they had interests that the clergy were opposed to. The Shah had managed to keep the mullahs under control for a while but other forces were afoot like the Americans, French, and British that were then not pleased with oil prices rising and didn’t want him in power anymore. They flew Khomeini to Paris and gave him television access.
Rumpus: In the novel you mention that the Shah created laws to protect Jews. Why was he generous to everybody including the Jewish population?
Nahai: Every time the mullahs wanted to create some social movement they would call the flocks out into the streets to attack the Jewish ghettos. That would create incredible social unrest. The British literally put the Shah’s father in power and told the other king he was going, because they wanted the country to be Westernized and more pro-British. They realized that the way to limit the power of the mullahs was to strengthen the minorities. There were Jews, Christians, and Baha’is too. Then it all blew over.
Rumpus: Is it ever going to end? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?
Nahai: The only way there will be peace with the Muslim world is if there is an Islamic Reformation the way there was the Christian Reformation. The trouble with Islam is that it has never been adapted to the modern age. It has never had that transition or an adaptation. If we still believed in the Bible the way they did before the Reformation we would still be burning witches. If you did everything you were supposed to do in the Torah a disobedient son would be taken into the city square and stoned to death. People will say that jihad doesn’t really mean to go out and fight with guns and bombs to recreate the caliphate. Well, actually it does. It doesn’t matter how much you wish it didn’t. It’s literal. So what you need are spiritual Muslim leaders to come out and say that this applied a thousand years ago, it doesn’t apply anymore, now we are going to interpret jihad as something internal and peaceful. Unfortunately, there have been some Muslim religious leaders who have tried to create that and they quickly got assassinated, because there are forces with interest in keeping these old interpretations relevant.
Rumpus: What do you foresee happening in the Muslim World?
Nahai: I think that the same way this whole terror movement started with Iran, that if it were ever going to end it would end with Iran too. Iran is the one country that has adopted Shia law, that has been ruled by mullahs, where there is no separation between church and state, and it is a completely failed experiment. The economy is in tatters, people are awfully unhappy, the country has gone backward in most ways, and so this whole thing of the Islamic caliphate has proven itself a bad idea. People in Iran know it, so if the West manages to make that point to the rest of the Muslim world, then you will have a great deal of undermining of groups like ISIS that want to create an Islamic state. As in, Iran is an Islamic state and look what’s happened to the people. On the other hand, the Iranian government is basically now the only source of stability in the region, for better or for worse, so I don’t see the United States wanting to push things with them too far either.
Rumpus: Do you still have family there?
Nahai: I have an aunt there and some extended family.
Rumpus: Aren’t they afraid?
Nahai: Not particularly. You get used to things. On Israel’s Independence Day every year—it’s called something else there like “the worst day that happened to Arabs”—they have funeral marches in the streets all over the Muslim World and people walking like someone died. They mourn like people in Israel celebrate. Well, every year in Iran, the Jews march in the streets in mourning also because they have to prove to the government that they are not Zionists. Being Zionist is punishable by death but being Jewish under the mullahs is accepted. The Jews live in fear in many ways, but I think they are so used to it that the Jews who stayed compare those dangers with other dangers like being in the West and having your children become Westernized or assimilated or being here and not having a job or being unable to make a living.
Rumpus: Of all the cities in the world, why did Persians choose Los Angeles?
Nahai: People did not intend to move. They thought they were going to spend a summer abroad while the noises died down. There were lots of street demonstrations in Iran. But no one thought in his or her wildest dreams that the Shah would be gone in a matter of months. Most people basically went where their relatives were for the summer. When it became clearer that the Shah wasn’t going back, people went where there were others who could show them the ropes. My dad used to spend entire days showing people how to buy a car or how to shop. I had an aunt who had no idea how to buy a broom, because when she visited she would stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, order room service, and have maid service. It’s different when you live in an apartment and have to do housekeeping and need pots and pans to cook. In the book the character John Vain and the credit crisis is accurate. People thought they could take loans or credit cards out without considering that they would have to pay them back with interest. I had an uncle who was John Vain.
Nahai: Even while living in the midst of it, I’m constantly aware of how insane the whole thing is. If you stop to think about life here it really is like a movie set. Things are so segregated. You have the West Side and people living well, and twenty minutes down the street others are killing themselves with guns every night. LA is the gang capital of the world!
Rumpus: You wrote that awesome passage toward the end of the book about how immigrants thought that they were leaving the Third World and ended up right back in it in LA.
Nahai: Except we’re not aware of it when we’re walking around Beverly Hills and Century City Mall.
Rumpus: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in LA in the last 37 years?
Nahai: It was once just freeways and people in polyester pants. LA was not cosmopolitan. It was so unpopulated. Rodeo Drive had two stores on it that were fashion stores and a couple of restaurants. Elizabeth Taylor used to east at Chasin’s. They had this famous chili and when she wasn’t there Richard Burton would rent a whole plane and fly a bowl of chili to her in Europe. Everything you see now in the reality shows has happened in the last thirty years and largely because there was this infusion of people from elsewhere. Europeans, South Africans, Israelis, Russians, Iranians have brought in a wave of very much-needed color and flavor and worldliness.
Rumpus: Whom did you emulate when you were a student in the Master of Professional Writing program?
Nahai: John Rechy taught me everything. He taught me the importance of structure and the importance of clarity. I see that in my own students as well, you know, confusing mystery with vagueness. He taught me the difference. And that the meanings of words are so important. A word might have one meaning but if you use it in a slightly different context it can derail your whole narrative. What I didn’t learn from anybody and that I had to teach myself and that I now make a point to teach my own novel students is that it is one thing to write fabulous passages and it’s another to write a whole novel that hangs together.
Rumpus: What is the difference between writing your fifth book versus writing your first book?
Nahai: With your fifth book you have a lot more to not look forward to. [Laughs] With your first one you have no idea what’s out there and you think, This is going to make or break my career. If I sell this, it’s going to be really great, and if I don’t sell it, it will be a disaster. The same rules don’t necessarily apply today because people self-publish and get picked up. My former student Jay Antani self-published and then got picked up by Amazon. His book The Leaving of Things is being rereleased. Another student JJ Keith got a small publisher for her book Motherhood, Smotherhood. When I started writing there were like twenty houses and if they didn’t take your book you were screwed. What you don’t realize with a first book is that it’s about building a body of work and it’s about having stamina. Shelly Lowenkopf says that with every book you have to learn to write all over again because every book brings its own problems. Everything you expect will happen will not and so many things you had no idea would happen will. Like this interview—what a thrill it is for me to have one of my former students interview me! I just love it! I was expecting interviews by, like, NPR, but not this.
Rumpus: You used to be on NPR a lot.
Nahai: Yes, but they do fewer books now. Local stations like Larry Mantle’s show would have novelists on every day of the week but now they only do nonfiction. I think a lot of the interest has moved online. Have you heard of Reading Group Guide? I just learned about it from my publisher. There’s a whole website just for book clubs. The newsletter goes out to a million people who subscribe to it. The New York Times’ Book Review doesn’t have a million subscribers. So there are people who are interested in books. It’s just that they moved online.
Rumpus: What is it like being a woman in publishing today versus when you started?
Nahai: I wasn’t aware at the time that if you were in New York and you were a white male that your advance would be much higher. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Will you take a break from novels, and say, do a short story collection?
Nahai: I just wrote a short story for the same publisher that has a noir series. Like noir films. The series are by city. They have a Brooklyn Noir. Our friend Janet Fitch wrote for Los Angeles Noir. They just released simultaneously Tehran Noir and Jerusalem Noir. Except for mine, all the Tehran stories are by Iranian writers who live in Iran and they were translated here. They are all contemporary. It’s funny because the publisher asked for a short story and mine turned out to be fifty pages. The guy calls me and says, “You have to cut thirty pages.” Well, how the hell are you going to cut fifty pages by thirty pages and have a story? I said, “You didn’t tell me how many pages,” and he said, “Everybody knows a short story is supposed to be short!” [Laughs] I tried to edit it and it became longer. So the editor said it was good the way it was and he would prevail upon the publisher to include it. So it’s in Tehran Noir that came out in October.
Rumpus: What do you love about teaching at MPW?
Nahai: Dealing with the students. I thank God every day that teaching is not my main profession because you have to deal with the administrative duties, but the moment I walk into the classroom I just love the whole thing. Half the time I think I’m more committed to my students’ work than they are. I lose sleep over stuff. I wake up in the middle of the night to send an email and they don’t even answer it. I think a lot of people go to writing programs and don’t think of themselves as writers and don’t think of it as a career. Writing is not a hobby!
Rumpus: In the end, I think this novel creates a lot of empathy in the reader for people who immigrate here from other countries. It’s about the immigrant experience. Your character Elizabeth had a big house and lots of money. She had a great life in Iran and she has to leave it all behind to escape persecution. You wrote a scene where she had to torch her family photos and it literally made me cry. For that, I think this is a really important story to tell. No matter what American city you live in—New York, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City—you know people, you have neighbors, who came here from another country. It’s the melting pot. Yet, there is hate and racism. But if you can spark compassion for people who come here and who look different, you’ll have done a lot about ending that racism and helping people assimilate and become part of America as a whole. A book like this is important to our canon not just because it is about Persian Jews but because it is about America. I think it’s an important story.
Nahai: I think so. That’s very interesting. I’ve got to use that.
Rumpus: Are there a lot of more books in Gina Nahai?
Nahai: Yeah, unfortunately. [Laughs]
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
Nahai: I’m writing a new novel. It takes place in LA again. There is a lot more magical realism. I don’t have a name for it yet.
Rumpus: Will you ever write about something totally different? About aliens? Or dystopia?
Nahai: Definitely not aliens. And I think all the young adults books about dystopia have been exhausted for a hundred years. My hope is that the next book won’t take seven years to complete so I will still be awake and alert. I’ve literally been underground for seven years. I hope I manage to write something in two or three years and to still be awake when it’s finished.