I was truly pleased when the Discover selection committee agreed to include Aria Minu-Sepehr’s gracefully-composed memoir We Heard the Heavens Then in Discover’s Summer 2012 season. As a reader, I love his imagery, his ability to keep the narrative moving forward, his characters, his insight and deft touch explaining Iran’s complicated society. But there’s a personal interest for me that goes beyond the gorgeous writing: I was in elementary school for much of the time that Minu-Sepehr recounts, and my only real exposure to the Iranian revolution came through the conversations of adults around me, who in turn knew what they did thanks to constant media coverage.
A short while ago Minu-Sepehr took some time to respond to some questions about his experience and the book he came to write.
What prompted you to write We Heard The Heavens Then?
As a people, Iranians are much more diverse than they appear in the media; they face great internal chasms; their aspirations range from ultra conservative to shockingly modern. I wanted to bring this complexity to the fore. Moreover, I felt it was important to return to the root of the East/West split, to the Iranian revolution in which modernity (and the U.S. by default) was rejected. I wanted to understand the falling out and how it continues to shade American affairs in the Middle East.
The action of your memoir occurs over thirty years ago, when you were just a boy. Why did you choose to tell your story from the perspective of a child?
The child perspective allowed me to tell my story without the burden of analysis. It gave the narrative a sense of immediacy. The terror of revolutionaries crashing through the front door to kill my father was much more poignant from the point of my ten-year-old self fearing the aftermath: hadn’t I been shown how to shoot Baba’s handgun because or this?
When the Ayatollah came to power in 1979, you were forced, in many ways, to grow up faster than any child should. What was it like coming of age during one of the most tumultuous moments in history?
Coming of age prematurely, when you are still tethered to a parent, requires abandonment. As the newspaper filled with the executed, as my father’s capture became more and more likely, survival became synonymous with betrayal. Growing up meant facing the fact that I was powerless, that a handgun couldn’t save him, that I had to let him be taken.
Your memoir is filled with moments of fear and terror. What was the experience of writing about and retelling the traumatic events that you experienced during your childhood in Iran?
Occupying the child perspective unleashed the terror I had once experienced—I typed with sweaty palms, heart pounding. Anger and resentment seeped into my life. Some scenes took weeks to put to rest. It took a year’s therapy to realize I had never processed my youth.
In any circumstances, the bond you share with your father would be considered a remarkable one, but against the backdrop of the perilous Iranian Revolution, it is even more wrenching and unforgettable.Why did you decide to focus your memoir around your relationship with your father?
My father had poured so much love and interest in me that lines demarcating our physical and emotional boundaries had blurred: I felt I was an extension of him, and I presume when a folding knife once closed on my finger and he began to wail, he felt the same merging. Focusing on the father-son relationship gave the narrativean emotional depth that is universally resonant: a boy’s hero confronting death; a father’s love threatened by history. But the dynamic also personalized the East/West conflict; after all, Baba was as modern as one could get.
As an adult, you dedicated your life to the study of Iran and to making sense of the history that your family tried to shelter you from as a child. How were you able to incorporate what you learned later in life into the narrative of We Heard the Heavens Then?
After decades of probing—questioning family members, ex-revolutionaries, regime loyalists, Iranian communists—one overwhelming fact emerged: rapid cultureshift. Though something had always felt out of kilter throughout my youth in Iran, the discovery allowed me to focus my narrative more sharply on moments when cultural tensions were pronounced. As I look back on it, it was precisely at these junctures when Iran’s fate was being determined: how much was too much? Had we already lost sight of our past?
Iran is often considered to be misunderstood by the West. Why do you think this is?
As it has for millennia, Iran operates through a codified culture. Unfortunately, the West has not paid as much attention to this as it should. Americans in Iran throughout the 1970s were a prime example: disengaged, aloof. In Isfahan, where I spent four years of my youth, thousands of Americans lived in what amounted to an imported American suburbia.The American grade school I attended gave me a birdseye view of the disconnect, of worlds separated by a mere alley. Business and politics were no different; the West met Iran on its own terms, imported its own rules, completely unaware of the mounting cultural affront perceived by its host state.
What can the historical context presented in your book help Americans understand about Iran and the Middle East?
In the Iranian revolution, the United States lost much more than an ally in the Middle East; it lost its voice. The subsequent rise of extremism, of three decades of steadfast “America the Great Satan” propaganda, has been immeasurably damaging. This book makes a case for the importance of a public relations campaign in the Middle East, a real exchange of cultures as underlayment for the pursuit of commercial or geopolitical interests.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading We Heard the Heavens Then?
I wish that my characters could be freed from their temporal and geographic prisons to exist in the mind of my reader. I believe that real people with real faces drive history, and it is my great hope that the few we meet in my book—Baba, MammanGhodsi, Uncle Dear, Bubbi, Aunt Z—could, in some small way, shape our decisions.
Recently, the news has been filled with stories about Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. What do you make of the Iranian nuclear program?
The question of a nuclear Iran has devolved into debates over Iran’s national rights, over the validity of threats against Israel, or the extent of the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. Lost in this din is the emergent role of the RGC (Revolutionary Guards Corps). Once an arm of the Islamic Republic, the RGC is now a pillar of the government, progressively intractable and independent—they own all telecommunications, for instance; they preside mafia-like over most road construction projects. There is no doubt that nuclear Iran would mean nuclear RGC; their move to weaponize would be a foregone conclusion. Questions regarding nuclear technology in Iran need to be refocused on its eventual ownership: it’s not the people of Iran who would end up with nuclear capabilities; it’s not its hand-picked parliament or president Ahmadinejad or even Ayatollah Khamenei. It’s the RGC, an organization with a proven record of terrorism.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.