A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea: A Novel

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A magical novel about a young Iranian woman lifted from grief by her powerful imagination and love of Western culture.

Growing up in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister, Mahtab, are captivated by America. They keep lists of English words and collect illegal Life magazines, television shows, and rock music. So when her mother and sister disappear, leaving Saba and her father alone in Iran, Saba is certain that they have ...

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea: A Novel

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A magical novel about a young Iranian woman lifted from grief by her powerful imagination and love of Western culture.

Growing up in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister, Mahtab, are captivated by America. They keep lists of English words and collect illegal Life magazines, television shows, and rock music. So when her mother and sister disappear, leaving Saba and her father alone in Iran, Saba is certain that they have moved to America without her. But her parents have taught her that “all fate is written in the blood,” and that twins will live the same life, even if separated by land and sea. As she grows up in the warmth and community of her local village, falls in and out of love, and struggles with the limited possibilities in post-revolutionary Iran, Saba envisions that there is another way for her story to unfold. Somewhere, it must be that her sister is living the Western version of this life. And where Saba’s world has all the grit and brutality of real life under the new Islamic regime, her sister’s experience gives her a freedom and control that Saba can only dream of.

Filled with a colorful cast of characters and presented in a bewitching voice that mingles the rhythms of Eastern storytelling with modern Western prose, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a tale about memory and the importance of controlling one’s own fate.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This ambitious novel set in northern Iran in the decade after the 1979 revolution contains not a teaspoon but a ton of history, imagination, and longing. Beginning with the 1981 disappearance of 11-year-old Saba Hafezi’s twin sister, Mahtab, and their mother, Khanom, Nayeri interweaves Saba’s family trauma as seen through the eyes of the women of her seaside village, along with fantasies about Mahtab’s teenage fascination with everything American, shared by her friends Reza and Ponneh. Saba loves Reza, but allows herself to be married off to old Abbas Hossein Abbas, expecting to eventually gain freedom by becoming a rich widow. The characters’ dreams are shattered, however, amid rising violence, as beautiful Ponneh is beaten for wearing red high-heels, Saba is violently attacked by two chador-clad women working for her husband and the new regime, and another woman is hanged for defying the new Islamic norms. Saba’s first tentative protests give way to more drastic decisions as the realities of postrevolution Iran and the truth about her mother and sister sink in. Nayeri crams so much into her story, especially Saba’s distracting fiction of her sister’s life in the United States, that her lyrical evocation of a vanishing Iran gets lost in an irritating narrative tangle. Agent: Kathleen Anderson, Anderson Literary. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Tehran-born Nayeri sets her first novel in a village in 1980s Iran where 11-year-old Saba lives with her parents and twin sister, Mahtab. When Mahtab and their father disappear, Saba assumes that they have gone to America, as the sisters always dreamed. The sort of embracing and embraceable culturally far-reaching fiction Riverhead does best.
Kirkus Reviews
Elegant aspirational novel of life in post-revolutionary Iran. "The whole town knows the story--the real one--though no one talks about it, because that's our way. We prefer pretty lies to ugly truths." Twin sisters Saba and Mahtab Hafezi live at the end of the universe--or, more specifically, in a tiny rice-farming village deep in the Iranian interior, having moved from Tehran to escape the eyes and hands of the mullahs and revolutionary guards. The place is no Macondo: There's precious little magic to it and a lot of dust and grime. Still, in Nayeri's (Another Jekyll, Another Hyde, 2012, etc.) richly imaginative chronicle, everyone dreams there, not least Saba, whose expectations crumble in the face of a reality for which she's not prepared, having instead devoted herself to moving to America and studying endless English word lists in anticipation ("What is abalone?" she wonders). Her mother, a small force of nature, is a fierce champion, though she's not happy that Saba is out in the sticks: "I won't have her raised in this place...wasting her days with village kids, stuck under a scarf memorizing Arabic and waiting to be arrested." Alas, a mother's protectiveness is not a big enough shield, and Saba finds herself caught up in events much larger than she can imagine. It takes a village full of sometimes odd, sometimes ordinary people to afford Saba the wherewithal to realize her dreams, which take her far, far from there. Lyrical, humane and hopeful; a welcome view of the complexities of small-town life, in this case in a place that inspires fear instead of sympathy.
Library Journal
Saba Hafezi, 11, who lives in postrevolution Iran, has long held onto the belief that her twin sister, Mahtab, and her mother have immigrated to the United States, even though everyone around her tells her that Mahtab is dead and her mother imprisoned or worse. Fueled by illegally obtained Western literature and tapes of American movies, television, and music, Saba weaves stories about Mahtab's imagined life in America, which parallel Saba's life events despite the radically different choices and freedoms available to each girl. As she matures with her two best friends, Reza and Ponneh, an uneasy triangle emerges. VERDICT Nayeri's highly accomplished debut is a rich, multilayered reading experience. Structurally complex, the overriding theme is storytelling in all its forms, and the fine line between truth and lies. Each one of the large cast of characters is fully realized and sympathetic. Saba is a captivating heroine whose tragedies and triumphs will carry readers on a long but engrossing ride. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 8/9/12.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487040
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/31/2013
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,425,491
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Dina Nayeri was born in Tehran during the revolution and immigrated to Oklahoma at ten years old. She has a BA from Princeton and a Master of Education and MBA from Harvard. She is a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Dina Nayeri, author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

A This is a story about twin sisters who are separated just after the Iranian Revolution, and how one sister uses her powerful imagination to stay connected to her long lost twin. What compelled you to write this story? Why twins?
I had just moved to Paris and was thinking a lot about my past and future. I started spending more time in Iranian communities and longing for my roots and the life that I traded when I moved from Iran to the U.S. as a child. I began to think about writing a story that would parallel some version of my Western life with the life I would have lived had I stayed in Iran. The idea consumed me—that, if my mother hadn't taken me out of that country, my life would have been very different. So the novel began as two parallel narratives patched together, and the protagonists were twins because I thought of the sisters as two versions of me.

You write vividly about Iran, but you left the country when you were very young. What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
I did an amazing amount of research for this book. It started with a vague interest in the region, a fuzzy memory of having visited the north of Iran with my family, staying in a villa and swimming in the Caspian. I began to read piles of books about Gilan and its various cities and villages, often ordering volumes from specialty bookstores in California and Iran. The packages from Iran were wonderful. They always carried a far-away musty smell and were covered in masking tape. Over the years the research grew deeper and more specific. I did interviews with natives of Gilan and Mazandaran. I asked for their personal photo albums and books. I read and listened and even watched movies until I was immersed in every detail of the north. Still I made mistakes, and so I finished a draft and began to put it through a gauntlet of Western-educated Gilaki readers. I found this part of the process especially fascinating. My final reader was the world's foremost Gilaki scholar, Christian Bromberger, who has spent a lifetime researching the region. Professor Bromberger was delightfully insistent that I never leave turmeric out of any recipes mentioned in the book. "And also turmeric!" he would say, with exclamation marks.

I have such a longing to visit Gilan someday soon. It is something I think about daily. But that longing is also what made this research a joy and not a burden. As I spoke with my interviewees and readers, I began to imagine myself there, and to feel the depth of their memories as my own.

You earned your MBA from Harvard University before attending the Iowa Writers Workshop. What inspired you to become a writer?
I went from a Princeton Econ degree to working in consulting for McKinsey, to Harvard Business School. It was a dream path and, as an immigrant, I felt I had no right to question it. If I was unhappy, I thought, then it was because I wasn't working hard enough, or because I was ungrateful. But one of the best things the MBA program at Harvard did for its students was to force us to do a series of reflective exercises about career and leadership and legacy. During one of these, I realized that my dreams and visions of who I would become were completely different from those of my classmates, that I was an outlier, and that maybe I didn't quite belong in that world. It should only have taken a look back at my childhood to tell me what my vocation should be: when I was little, I'd spend hours telling stories to anyone who would listen. I would squeeze into a circle of adults and say, "everyone, listen to me. I have a story!" When I finally realized that the business world wasn't for me, I started writing every day. Shortly thereafter my now-former husband's work took him to Europe and I had the luxury of a year or two to experiment. He was so supportive and good in encouraging my desire to write and so I began to gain courage. Then the idea for this novel hit and I've been consumed by it ever since.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your novel?
That Iran is a much richer and more glorious place than what they see in the news. Pre-revolutionary Iran was a magical place, a perfect mix of Eastern and Western culture. I recently found an album of Persian funk (Yes, Persian funk!), a compilation representing the musical strides Iranians were making in the 70's. Unfortunately, the Western world sees only two versions of Iran—the dangerous oppressive regime now in power, and the hybrid culture that has sprung up in California (the materialistic lifestyle represented by Shahs of Sunset infuriates me). Americans don't often get to see the thousands of years of creativity in Persian literature, visual art, architecture, food, music. Iranians have such an old and intoxicating culture. They suck the marrow, and carve joy out of even the most terrible times. Their attitude toward romance is exquisite. There is no way I can describe it in one paragraph, or in one novel. I don't even have the tools to fully understand it for myself, since I'm an exile since childhood.

Who have you discovered lately?
This year I had the immense pleasure of working with Charles Baxter, whose brilliant works I only just discovered when I found out he was coming to Iowa. This holiday season, his novel, The Feast of Love and his story collection Gryphon, were the most heart-felt gifts I gave to my friends. He taught me so much about craft and storytelling, concepts I never realized could be made so concrete. He also introduced me (and my class at the Iowa Writers Workshop) to a number of amazing authors that I probably should have read years ago, given their influence on literature. My favorite was Paula Fox. Charlie used her name as a verb. "You need to really Paula Fox that chapter!" he said, when a piece of my novel was lacking in sensory triggers, gestures, and physical details. He also introduced me to William Maxwell. (I am so ashamed that I've just admitted to three phenomenal authors I hadn't read until recently?). This year as I wrote my second novel, I studied So Long, See You Tomorrow in order to better understand how to depict long-term memory, creating a narrative voice that is far removed in time and space from the subject. Writing far away memories is incredibly tricky. Maxwell says, "in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw." I think about this often, in my writing, in my life. Truth is so elusive. Oh, and finally I can't help but add one more recommendation from Charlie? (the man's reading list should be bronzed): Edward P. Jones, his amazing collection, Lost in the City kept me awake for many nights.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2014

    Ugh, overrated

    I disliked this book so much I couldn't finish it. Tedius, repetitive, and boring with mostly unlikeable characters. Not as much about Iranian life as about one girl/woman's obsession and delusion about her lost/missing mother & sister. Author did not explore psychological depth of the characters so ultimately missed the chance for a really interesting book.

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  • Posted April 16, 2013

    In many books, what is written on the book jacket or the online

    In many books, what is written on the book jacket or the online description gives away what happens in the first few chapters. In a Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, that description makes up the entirety of its plot. Not an action driven novel, this is primarily a story of what it feels like to be a woman in Iran after the Revolution. Though the writing is beautiful and evocative, the story itself seems to drag. I found the tone of the book and its main characters to be largely self-pitying. I might be whiney too in their circumstances, but I like to have a worthy protagonist to root for when I read, like I did in The Taliban Cricket Club or All Woman and Springtime. I will recommend this novel to friends for its beautiful writing and sense of atmosphere, but it won’t be at the top of my list.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2013

    Lovely and poetic. This tale of Iran and its treatment of women

    Lovely and poetic. This tale of Iran and its treatment of women, reminds each of us just how fragile life and human rights are. Great discussion book for a book club.

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  • Posted March 25, 2013

    A Good Read

    This book held my intrest. I like most books by Indian authors,they usually weave a good tale and this book does just that. I think this book would make a good book club discussion group as there many different aspects to discuss.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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