Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Guess what’s cooking for dinner? An interview with Marsha Mehran, author of Pomegranate Soup

From TV programmes like Ready, Steady, Cook through to novels like Chocolat and indeed Pomegranate Soup, food and cooking are increasingly asserting themselves as part of our culture – even in Ireland, a place notoriously lacking in culinary adventure. Why do you think that is, and what do you think about the label 'Food Lit'?

I abhor the current trend in publishing to suffix and lump books with Lit. (chick-lit, gossip-lit, etc…). It belittles a story, in my opinion. Bite-sized, or sound-bites. Yikes!

Nevertheless, one can't deny the prominence of food in certain novels/memoirs. Cuisine, in its purest form – that is, the gathering at a table for nourishment – is so essential to the human condition. The Zoroastrians might have been the first to coin “You are what you eat”. Food is our connection to home, to the mother. When you give of yourself through cooking a meal for someone, you are giving him or her a sense of belonging; you are including them into your world. Who doesn't crave that sense of home?

Do you think that Irish society has become/is becoming cosmopolitan?

Yes and no. Materially speaking, the Irish are catching up big time. What is interesting is that all these changes are happening at an accelerated speed. SUVs driving side-by-side rickety bicycles and tractors on unmarked roads. High stakes fashion and DIY your stone cottage. Create your own sushi platter and would you like potatoes or rice with your stir-fry?
What is missing is the conscious connection to the emotional changes – how to juggle these riches? How to retain their Gaelic identity and not be threatened by Hamid and Pepe moving in next door. That's the next chapter.

Sarah Hall, in interview with Three Monkeys Online, talked about the influence of cinema on new writers. She suggests that, whether consciously or not, most writers have taken on board the vocabulary of film in the way they write. Did you ever imagine scenes from Pomegranate Soup as a film?

Absolutely. Segueing and panning, close-ups and long shots. I saw the story as though I was looking
at the village through a camera lens. I was born in the late '70s, and grew up in the [United] States in a time of Beta and VHS. The spectre of the dreaded home-video looms largely, I'm afraid…heh heh.

What do you yourself look for in a book? What kind of writers do you read and admire?

A truly distinct view on life. Humour galore. Rhythm and beauty that catches in your throat. I love the old Russian dudes (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin) as well as Beckett and Genet for their madness. I ADORE Patrick Dennis's novels, in all their campy, bewitching glory. I want to go for an unforgettable ride when I read. A world that I would not want to leave.

Regarding Irish people's attitude towards immigrants, would you consider them more similar to Tom McGuire or the Ballinacroagh priest?

Ah…is this a trick question? As in everything in this messy thing called life, you will find a bit of both.

Had the three sisters [Editor's Note:the main characters in Pomegranate Soup] opened an Islamic school, would have they been so welcomed? Is it too cynical to suggest that multiculturalism is fine when it comes to food and art, but when it comes to religion all societies tend to go on the defensive?

I don't think it's cynical. Multiculturalism is still in its early stages. And religion, no matter if it comes from a place in the East or from the eastern end of Shankill Road [Editor's Note: mainly Protestant working class area in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and symbol for the recent 'Troubles'] is still a matter of serious, deadly contention. Food, music, and art gently tap the heart, open us up. Over time, a stream causes more fissures than any massive earthquake.

What inspired you to choose the Delmonicos as the proprietors of the Café? Did you meet someone similar in Buenos Aires?

There have been a few Estelle Delmonicos in my life – older, wiser women who have helped me along the way. She is a bit of my mother and mother-in-law thrown in as well.

The characters are very 'Lombrosiano' [Editor's note: Cesare Lombroso was the Italian physician who invented Criminal Anthropology, a discipline based on his theory of the 'born criminal', i.e. the atavistic delinquent allegedly possesses certain physical characteristics that make him/her easily recognisable]: 'beautiful and good' or 'ugly and mean'. What about Bahar? She is not so pretty, and hence not so positive a character? Is this because of her involvement in the Iranian revolution?

There are definite archetypes throughout the story, but my archetypes, with their own twists and turns. To me, Bahar is positive. Her plain features or shady past are not what make her interesting – it's the purgatory of the middle child, the conduit that she is, which makes me love her so.

Nowadays liberal, young, smart women from 'fundamentalist' countries are very much in the limelight, particularly if they denounce 'their' own country's faults and tell us how 'good' our countries are in the West. Is this a way to smooth integration? Or can embracing Western ways demonstrate to Islamic countries a way to become more liberal? Do you ever worry that your nationality is being exploited as a marketing tool?

There has been a massive outpouring of memoirs written by Iranian and Middle-Eastern women in the last few years. Each one valid, whether it appears to, or indeed does, denounce the faults of the writer's homeland. Scheherazades in their own way, these writers save what is best about their culture, while accepting necessary changes.

By nature of my crazy upbringing, where a synthesis of East and West took place so early, and in such a bizarre manner (attending a Celtic school in Argentina at the height of the Falklands war, for example), I am not too worried about being branded as an Iranian woman for marketing reasons. My family is not Muslim, which makes it even harder to pinpoint or box me in with the memoirists mentioned above. Hyphenations just don't work with me…

Is the book going to be published in the Middle East or Islamic countries (like Iran)?

I'm not sure…it would be interesting to see how it is received in the Iran. A homecoming in a way, as I have not been back since I was two.

It's early, perhaps, to discuss it, but can you tell us a little bit about your next book?

As Bahar would say, “Let's not tempt the gods.” Eh?

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