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).
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.