The Last Days of Café Leila: A Conversation with Donia Bijan

05/01/2017 08:47 pm ET

Donia Bijan explores layers of identity and belonging in her debut novel, The Last Days of Café Leila. We find ourselves immersed in the life of Noor as she navigates a return to her childhood home of Iran, with her own teen daughter in tow. With its lush descriptions and multiple points of view, The Last Days of Café Leila is a sensory delight for readers.

Reading your biography, I found myself piqued as to what you share with Noor. I know I write to explore the what-ifs in life, the roads I haven’t taken. What are you using the page to explore and capture?

You are right that fiction is all about wishful thinking—living the lives we didn’t choose, doing the things we’ve never done, imagining all that can’t be had. The only thing I share with Noor is that she is a mother, born in Iran, and sent away in her youth. The exciting challenge is to make the autobiographical something more, much bigger, to make it everyman’s story, to explore all the what-ifs without worrying about offending or defending anyone. That’s what novels are for, to fill in the holes.

Every writer knows that eventually he will run up against a barrier behind which is all that cannot or must not be written. It’s the wall between her and everything she can’t bear to feel. I had not planned to cross that wall. I was afraid of all the raw emotion behind it, but once Noor took me there, there was no turning back. The advantage of fiction is that it can scale that wall in a world of make believe. For me there is no going back to Iran but my characters allowed me to claw my way back, word by word, to look behind the barrier into people’s lives, to let them build a small, safe, frail, but not weak community, out of the rubble of a revolution.

As a trained chef, food is obviously important to you. What did it take to capture cuisine on the page so sumptuously in this novel? What is your favorite dish that you brought to life for readers?

A dear friend said to me “I’m so skeptical of these fifty-year-olds trying new careers and even more skeptical if that person chooses to write fiction like it’s a hobby. I’d be okay if they wrote textbooks, but fiction? Don’t set your expectations too high.” She is the friend I seek when I want the truth. I confess I hold the same prejudice against dentists who decide to become chefs. You have to pay your dues. You have to have scars. You have to get humiliated and rejected!

I took the path to writing fiction on my knees through a thick forest. The passages where I write about food are the moments when I’d come to a clearing—Ah, this I know! It was a brief respite before falling to my knees again. It wasn’t so much that food is important to me but that it became a vessel that I knew how to steer. I knew my way around the make-believe kitchen of Café Leila. I’ve been writing menus for thirty years so I summoned some of those dishes but mostly made up new ones I had never made before. Café Leila is renowned for its piroshkies. My mother would occasionally treat us to these dumplings after school. Fresh from the oven, they were filled with jam or custard or cinnamon scented ground beef and even now I can smell the greasy wax paper I licked when my mother wasn’t looking.

Zach Heffner

What would you most like people to know about Iran? What do you think it would take to change the dominant narrative of the place that the Western world clings to?

Iran is a country, not a Hollywood villain as much as propaganda paints it as such. That a handful of people in power portray an image of 77 million people as evil is absurd and we are too smart to believe such a caricature. People, all people, want to live their unremarkable lives in peace with dignity. We all know that the goal of fanatics who wage war in the name of God is to get more power and influence. It’s never about faith or improving people’s lives or opening schools.

In My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout writes, “We find ways to feel superior to another group of people. It happens everywhere and all the time. I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to put someone down if they are different from us.” I’ve read that paragraph a thousand times for its simple truth. More and more, we resemble one another in our despair and in our hope for a world we would like to live in. Maybe hope is overused and we have to settle for hope’s little brother, dream. I dream that the connections we make through art, through literature, film, music, sport, is an opportunity to change the narrative, to restore faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness.

What is next for you as a writer?

I’m working on another novel. If I say more it will be like performing that magic trick your uncle taught you before practicing it a thousand times.

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