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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Book Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $26.95).

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            In 1981, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi shows her best friend, Ponneh, an issue of Life Magazine dated January 22, 1971.  The young Iranian girls look at the pages, featuring a newly-engaged Tricia Nixon, in awe.  “Ta-ree-sha Nik-soon,” Saba says, is “the daughter of the American Shah.”

As far as the two girls are concerned, Ms. Nixon’s world is straight out of a fairy tale.  “She is a princess.  Shahzadeh Nixon.”  Saba soaks up the four-page magazine spread of the smiling young woman and her beau, Ed Cox.  For Saba, the main character in Dina Nayeri’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, the daughter of the American president is vibrant and mysterious, and she is, above all, American.  Saba is enamored of everything American. And it’s very easy to understand why—post-revolutionary Iran is no place for a girl to grow up in.

Overnight, or at least it seemed so to Saba, the “pro-scarf people” overthrew the “pro-hair government.”  Just like that, the things Saba loves—nail polish, shorts, bare arms in summer, new music—are forbidden. Every part of Saba’s body must be covered.  Nayeri writes, “They [the new government] shut up beautiful things in dark places, so no one can see…What do you do when you want to douse a fire?  You throw a big, heavy cloth over it, deprive it of oxygen.”  That is exactly what the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters do to Iranian women.

But, in the summer of 1981, Saba does not yet care about all that.  Her concern is Mahtab.  Without her twin sister, Saba feels like an important piece of her body and her soul is missing.  What really happened to Mahtab, and to their mother, who disappeared the same day, is a mystery to Saba.

Saba cannot remember much about that day; everything is “muddled memories within memories.”  She recalls feeling dizzy, and her head ached.  It had hurt ever since “that night on the beach,” but she is oblivious as to what occurred or how she injured herself.  Saba is clear about one thing: she thought they were all going to take a plane to America, her mother, her sister, and herself.  Her father was to stay behind for the time being.

That was not to be.  As Nayeri wisely maintains“memory plays such cruel tricks on the mind.”  Saba can only recall seeing a woman dressed similarly to her mother, holding the hand of a little girl who looked just like Mahtab, getting onto an airplane to America.

Just like that, they vanish out of Saba’s life forever.  Nothing can fill the void of her twin, not Ponneh, not her father, and not even Reza, a boy she has a crush on.

Because Iranians believe that “all of life is written in the blood” and that twins must share the same fate, Saba believes that everything she experiences and endures her twin must also face and live through.  Thus, Saba imagines her sister’s life in America.

America, or at least the America that exists in her mind, captivates Saba.  She comes up with elaborate tales in which Mahtab confronts a problem or learns a lesson that Saba has recently tackled.  Since Saba is so obsessed with American television (Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and The Cosby Show—all family dramas), each episode of Mahtab’s life lasts no longer than 22.5 minutes, the average length of a 30-minute TV show, minus the commercials.  These chapters help Saba feel closer to her sister, who is surely “conquering the world so many scoops of a teaspoon away.”

Since Saba herself cannot attend a prestigious university (she will marry instead), Mahtab gets accepted into the very best American institution of higher learning—Harvard.  Nayeri expertly personifies Harvard University—“Baba” Harvard.  The university becomes Mahtab’s father since Mahtab’s true father is absent.  Baba Harvard is kind, comforting, stern when necessary, and paternalistic.

Saba holds onto the hope that her sister is living the American dream, an Iranian Tricia Nixon, even though those around her insist her sister’s fate lies elsewhere.  Saba knows this, too.  Yet Iranians place a high value on the art of storytelling.  “At the end of every tale, Nayeri explains in her story, “the storyteller is required to do the truth-and-lies poem, the one that rhymes ‘yogurt’ and ‘yogurt soda’ (maast and doogh) with ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ (raast and doroogh).”  Lying “well is crucial” in Iran, but Saba must stop lying to herself if she is to have a life of her own.

This story is very personal for Nayeri.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s own dream of Iran, “created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.”  Saba “longs to visit the America on television” just as strongly as Nayeri longs “to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.”  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s very “own Mahtab dream.”

What a dream Nayeri has invented for us.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea effectively transports the reader to post-revolutionary Iran and into this small village.  Nayeri’s passion and elegance are visible throughout her tale as she explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, family, identity, and memory.  Most of all, she illustrates how stories have the power to transform our lives.

Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri

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Spotlight on A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

I’ve never been to Iran, but author Dina Nayeri took me there in her breathtakingly beautiful debut A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.

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About the Book:

A magical novel about a young Iranian woman lifted from grief by her powerful imagination and love of Western culture.

Growing up in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister, Mahtab, are captivated by America. They keep lists of English words and collect illegal Life magazines, television shows, and rock music. So when her mother and sister disappear, leaving Saba and her father alone in Iran, Saba is certain that they have moved to America without her. But her parents have taught her that “all fate is written in the blood,” and that twins will live the same life, even if separated by land and sea. As she grows up in the warmth and community of her local village, falls in and out of love, and struggles with the limited possibilities in post-revolutionary Iran, Saba envisions that there is another way for her story to unfold. Somewhere, it must be that her sister is living the Western version of this life. And where Saba’s world has all the grit and brutality of real life under the new Islamic regime, her sister’s experience gives her a freedom and control that Saba can only dream of.

Filled with a colorful cast of characters and presented in a bewitching voice that mingles the rhythms of Eastern storytelling with modern Western prose, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a tale about memory and the importance of controlling one’s own fate.

About the Author:

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Dina Nayeri was born in Tehran during the revolution and immigrated to Oklahoma at age ten.  She has a B.A. from Princeton and two master’s degrees from Harvard.  She is a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Congratulations to Nayeri.  Her book was recently named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Check back soon for my review and an interview with Nayeri!  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is available now.  Don’t miss this story.

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It Just Runs In The Family

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos (Simon & Schuster; 368 pages; $25).

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Good writing must run in the Bakopoulos family.  Brother and sister, Dean and Natalie Bakopoulos have written three books between them.  Dean is the author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2004) and My American Unhappiness (2011).  This year, Natalie joins her brother with the release of her lush and picturesque debut The Green Shore.  They are the children of immigrants; their mother is Ukrainian and their father is Greek.  In a nod to her father’s birthplace, Natalie sets her story mostly in Greece and focuses on a dark period of the country’s history, one that is virtually unknown to most: the 1967 to 1974 military dictatorship.

This period in Greek history, quite honestly, was Greek to this reviewer.  Natalie Bakopoulos, though, takes this event and personalizes it.  In her novel, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political.

Bakopoulos does this by introducing readers to one Greek family and telling the story from multiple perspectives: Eleni, the matriarch and doctor with a passion for healing; her brother Mihalis, a poet who was once in exile; her daughter Sophie, a rebel at heart who flees Greece for Paris; and younger daughter Anna, a reluctant revolutionary but perhaps the fiercest of them all.  Revolution and resistance seem to be part of this family’s DNA sequence.  They all resist the military junta, yet each finds unique ways to oppose the colonels.  This family truly drives Bakopoulos’s story as we see what revolution will do to a country, a city, a community, and a family.

Since Bakopoulos is part Greek, she is intimately aware of Greek history and tradition.  Her knowledge and familiarity with Greece make this story all the more authentic.  Early on in the novel, Eleni and the rest of the family celebrate Easter.  Each takes a dyed-red egg.  Bakopoulos writes, “As was tradition, they would each take a hard-boiled, bright red egg and hit it together with the adjacent person’s, first the pointed end and then the round.  The last one with an intact egg was destined to have good fortune for the rest of the year.”  Reading this description, I could not help but wonder if the family itself would be cracked and broken by novel’s end.  Bakopoulos’s use of this Greek tradition is clever foreshadowing.

Although the family is intact by the end of the book, the dictatorship has altered each of them.  Eleni decides to help those people who have been tortured and abused by the government.  She, along with an intriguing man she meets, opens up a free clinic in secret.  This is Eleni’s way of resisting the junta.  Mihalis, meanwhile, continues to write and speak out against the colonels.  He, more than the others, is on the military’s radar since he is an artist and former exile.  His vitriol, not surprisingly, gets him into trouble once again.  It is Mihalis’s spirit that Sophie has inherited.  She and her boyfriend, Nick, get caught up in the early days of the revolution.  The colonels take Nick prisoner and Sophie flees to Paris.

The Paris setting allows Bakopoulos to explore another locale, but the heart of this novel lies in Greece, not in France.  And it shows in the writing.  As far as this novel goes, Paris cannot hold a candle to Athens.

Sophie may be away from the dictatorship, but the revolution is still a part of her quotidian existence.  It is through Sophie’s absence from Greece that Bakopoulos is able to focus on how a person can be homesick not only for a family but for a country, even for a nation in political turmoil.  Bakopoulos shows Sophie’s deep longing for home, a sentiment that only grows as the years go by.

Perhaps Sophie is less of a revolutionary in Paris, but only because she is not directly involved in the resistance.  Sophie, though, soon becomes a revolutionary in other, more personal and unexpected ways when she is pregnant and happily unwed.  The traditional Eleni must come to terms with her daughter’s newfound independence.

With Sophie’s departure from home, the younger Anna feels lonely.  She turns to her older married lover for comfort, but their relationship is doomed to fail, as all such associations are.  Anna is brooding and moody much of the time.  The decision to rebel comes too abruptly in her case.  It is almost as if she thinks protesting the junta is the ultimate way to stick it to everyone in her life.  I felt Bakoupoulos should have provided more allusions to Anna’s ultimate path.  However, in some cases, it is only one event or even one split second that prompts a person to resist.  But it feels wrong for Anna.  Her resistance almost gets her killed.

When The Green Shore ends, the military is still in power, although the last days of the junta are near.  Bakopoulos shows us that, regardless of revolution, life still goes on.  Lovers marry.  Women give birth.  Children grow.  The elderly die.  These are a fact of life and do not change based on political leanings or whims.

Natalie is the new Bakopoulos to watch.  Good writing or a rebellious spirit—sometimes it just runs in the family.

The Green Shore comes out June 5.  Bakopoulos will sign copies of her novel and do a reading from the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 27, 2012.

The version I read was an Advance Reader’s Edition.

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