Interview with Dina Nayeri,
Author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Dina, for letting me interview you. I fell in love with post-revolutionary Iran in your novel, and your elegant, passionate prose blew me away. You are an Iranian exile, born in the midst of the revolution. In your author’s note, you write that A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is your “dream of Iran, created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.” Can you explain?
Dina Nayeri: I spent my adulthood away from Iran (having left at the age of eight). And so I had to learn about Iran through books and magazines and other media, the same way Saba learns about America. While I did spend eight years in my home country, my memories are fuzzy and I had to make sure no mistakes crept into the narrative. But all the while, as I was writing about Saba’s imagined America, I kept thinking, “I understand what she’s doing, because in a way I’m doing it too.”
JB: What was it like growing up in post-revolutionary Iran?
DN: It was scary. We were always worrying about the moral police and bombings (from the Iran-Iraq war). I had to wear hijab to school. There was a constant feeling of being stifled, being close to trouble, and having to get away with things. Talking to recent Iranian exiles, I know that I escaped the worst of it because I wasn’t a teenager there, and that makes me so sad for my friends who spent most of their lives there.
JB: As a child, did you dream of America, just as Saba did?
DN: Not really. I didn’t know much about it, and I lived a very happy, fulfilled life surrounded by family and books and whatever I needed. I was a lucky girl.
JB: At the tender age of ten, you and your family moved to Oklahoma. What was that like? Any culture shock?
DN: Terrible culture shock! No one in my school had ever met an Iranian before, and suddenly I went from being the popular girl (in Iran) to being an outcast. But the shock soon wore off and I came to see the good and bad in Oklahoma—though, to be honest, I was planning to get out pretty early on.
JB: Do you have a favorite character in the story?
DN: I have a soft spot in my heart for Mahtab and Reza. If I were to let my imagination go to a place where Mahtab is alive and grows up in Iran, I would say that they would end up together. She is feisty enough to handle his fickle ways, and he needs the kind of woman who could keep his attention. And they’re both secret romantics and idealists and dreamers.
JB: Are any of the strong female characters in the book based on women in your own family?
DN: No, they are all fictional. But women in Iran tend to be strong. They tend to make their voices heard and I like that.
JB: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea shows just how powerful storytelling really is. Storytelling can transform our lives. How has telling this story changed your life?
DN: It gave me an entirely new life. I used to be a businesswoman and very unhappy. Only after I discovered writing did I become the person I am now, and happy in my vocation. Storytelling is everything to me, and I live in a world where everyone around me agrees.
JB: How did you feel when you learned A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea had been selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers book? Congratulations!
DN: Wonderful!! What an honor it is!
JB: What are some of your favorite books? Who are your favorite authors?
DN: My favorites are Chang Rae Lee and Marilynne Robinson and Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve come to love Junot Diaz and Jumpa Lahiri for their beautiful depictions of life as an outsider. I’m starting to understand and love Iranian literature in a new way, and am making my way through Hedayat’s Blind Owl.
JB: What is the one book you wish you’d written?
DN: The God of Small Things (Arundhhati Roy)
JB: How would you describe yourself in one word?
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
DN: Read. Yoga. Cook.
JB: Do you think copies of your book will be smuggled into Iran by men like the Tehrani and purchased by women like Saba? How does that make you feel?
DN: I hope not! I wouldn’t want that kind of drama 🙂
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea?
DN: I hope they see a different side of Iran—all the thousands of years of history and culture, food, music, and poetry. I hope they don’t only see Iran in the political context we often see today.
JB: Thank you, Dina, for taking the time to answer my questions and for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!