New York, London, and Paris, cosmopolitan containers of nationalities and personalities, are perhaps the cities in the world that most resemble the collective idea of the 'melting pot'. They are so because of all the people that arrived and continue to arrive there from other spots, and also because these people mix within them, marry and reproduce, feed each other through their respective traditions, maintaining some of their original character but at the same time becoming, for all purposes, North American, British or French.
Author Marsha Mehran, born in Tehran from Iranian parents, is proud and happy to live in Brooklyn, N.Y., where, after a relatively fast, yet adventurous pilgrimage around the world (literally), she decided to finally settle down. In 1979, on the eve of the Iranian Revolution, her parents decided to flee the country and ended up in Argentina. To go and live in a country governed by a military junta at the height of the so-called 'Dirty War' during which an estimated thirty thousand dissidents 'disappeared' may seem to many an extreme way to avoid Islamic fundamentalism, yet this appears to have been a good choice for the Mehrans, who opened a successful middle-eastern café in Buenos Aires. As soon as the 'Generals' were removed, the Mehrans left again, this time for the United States and settled in Miami for a while. Marsha, still a kid at this stage, readjusts to yet one more change of habits without any major trauma, until her teenager years, when her parents split up and she ends up in Australia with her mother.
Here she is never really happy (“All I knew was that I did not belong in that pale, homogenized culture with its sausage sizzles and flat beer”, she wrote in The New York Times Magazine) and as soon as she can, she makes her way back to the US, New York this time around, where she finds work and love, but not yet a home. Married to an Irishman, she moves again, at the end of the '90s, and lives for a while in the Emerald Island. “I am back in Brooklyn now, actually. If any place embodies the worlds I have known, it's this borough. Although the little village of Ballinacroagh [setting of her first novel, Pomegranate Soup] is seemingly tucked away from the wider world, it happens to be quite multicultural. There is a German puppeteer and a sex-toy manufacturer from Holland. A Bulgarian philosopher and a Portuguese showgirl… It wasn't my intention – just reflection of who I am. Where I've been. (Or what illicit substances I've consumed, … eh, eh…),” she confides to Three Monkeys Online, at the end of this interview, which touches places and characters from her debut novel, as well as the broader and very current themes of multiculturalism, Middle-eastern writers and Celtic Tiger.
Marsha was barely a toddler when her parents emigrated and has never been back to Iran, therefore all she learnt of her country of origin was filtered by her family and/or the media. What was never missing though in every house she has lived in were the smells and the flavours of the fragrant Iranian dishes her parents firstly cooked and then taught to her how to prepare. Inevitably, her first novel is a book filled with travels, cultures and recipes, written with an engaging style and with a good sense of humour. Pomegranate Soup is the story of how three young sisters leave Iran and set up a small restaurant in County Mayo, on the rugged and handsome western coast of Ireland. The book was published earlier this year, is already a bestseller in many European Countries (“County Mayo bookshops windows are wallpapered with its cover”, reported a friend who lives in Westport) and was launched in the US at the beginning of this month.
But stop the cackle! Three Monkeys Online publishes a full review in the Book Reviews section and invites you to enjoy the exchange of emails below with this promising young writer who hates labels and misconceptions.
One of the strengths of the novel is how you capture Irish dialect. How long have you been living in Ireland and how did you manage to capture Irish speech so well?
The first time I lived in Ireland was in 1999-2000. This second time (2004-05), I was in the west, where the story is set, for nearly eighteen months. Irish inflections are very pervasive; each time I lived in Ireland I picked up a strange brogue of my own! And trust me, it was a bizarre combo. As for the authenticity of the Irish dialects in Pomegranate Soup, all I can say is that I was never conscious of it while writing. I just jotted down the rhythms I had heard on the main streets of Mayo. You must remember as well that I have been living with an Irishman for eight years. There's no getting away from his funny speech patterns!
Ireland has changed massively in the last 15 years. Do you think you could have written such a book in 1986 [year in which the novel is set]? How do you think it would have been received then (maybe as 'science fiction' for the pre-Celtic Tiger)?
There are slight intimations of the Celtic Tiger throughout the novel – perhaps embodied in such characters as Tom Junior and Padraig Carey – but overall I think that this novel is firmly set in the '80s. I would imagine that certain elements, such as the concept of immigration to Ireland, would have struck the Irish back then as purely fanciful – or as they say in Mayo, “bollocks”.