Bone Worshipby Elizabeth Eslami
Jasmine Fahroodhi has always been fascinated by her enigmatic Iranian father. With his strange habits and shrouded past, she can't fathom how he ended up marrying her prim American mother.
But lately love in general feels just as
A rich and soul-searching novel about an Iranian-American girl whose enigmatic father has decided to arrange her marriage.
Jasmine Fahroodhi has always been fascinated by her enigmatic Iranian father. With his strange habits and shrouded past, she can't fathom how he ended up marrying her prim American mother.
But lately love in general feels just as incomprehensible. After a disastrous romance sends her into a tailspin, causing her to fail out of college just shy of graduation, a conflicted Jasmine returns home without any idea where her life is headed.
Her father has at least one ideahe has big plans for a hastegar, an arranged marriage. Confused, furious, but intrigued, Jasmine searches for her match, meeting suitor after suitor with increasingly disastrous (and humorous) results. As she begins to open herself up to the mysteries of familial and romantic love, Jasmine discovers the truth about her father, and an even more evasive figureherselfin this highly original and striking debut novel.
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By Elizabeth Eslami
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Elizabeth Eslami
All rights reserved.
When I first spotted my parents, my tongue lay still at the bottom of my mouth like a fish. All the big words I'd learned in college were suddenly gone, dried up in the gills.
I found them in our exact meeting place, on the north side of Harper Memorial Library, and yet I could have walked right by them. They were facing the other way, as if to take in the dramatic architecture. Standing under the enormous stone archway, they both seemed so small, almost miniature, my mother searching frantically for something in her purse, and my father staring ahead, scanning the crowd of students for my face.
Brushing against the shoulders of people around me, I weaved my way through the crowd toward them. The whole time, I had the feeling that none of this was real, that I was in some sort of dated Movie of the Week, the kind where everyone has concerned looks on their faces and moves slowly, with great deliberation, while wearing muted colors and sensible dress shoes. If it hadn't been for the wet grass soaking through my scuffed sneakers, I might have closed my eyes, curled up on the ground, and waited to wake up.
I mumbled a greeting, hoping if I sounded casual they might forget I'd been gone for four years with nothing to show for it and somehow think that I was just back from the bathroom. When they didn't hear me, I cleared my throat and spoke a little louder, like a campus tour guide. "Mom? Dad?"
How strange those two words were. Just there in the grass, small as a pair of snails.
When they finally turned around to face me, I thought for a second that I was one of those people with brain injuries who can't recognize faces. People whose families have to come up to them each day and introduce themselves all over again. Hello, I am your father, your mother.
Since I'd last seen him, my father had gone almost completely bald, and a new pair of thick glasses obscured his brown eyes. His face, even the word "father," turned soft and blurry. Pedar, one of the few words of Farsi I know, popped into my head. Like some bird you excitedly look up in a book, only to find it had died a hundred years ago.
My mother took a step back and smoothed her light brown hair into place with the palm of her hand. She was wearing beige high heels and a matching beige suit, like a giant bar of soap. Even though they'd arrived at O'Hare just hours earlier, I noticed that her pants didn't have a single wrinkle. My mother prides herself on dressing for every occasion. Her suit was perfectly tailored, and she'd tucked her long hair into a neat French twist. Other than the few wrinkles around her eyes, she looked just as young as she had when I was in high school, although she seemed to be wearing a lot more makeup.
She smiled a bit too brightly and threw her arms around me. Over her shoulder, my father stared at me with a pained look.
"How you have been doing?" he practically shouted, struggling to arrange his face into a more paternal expression.
"Oh, fine. You know. Flunking out of college." I guess I didn't feel like beating around the bush. Still, this seemed harsh, so I added a peace offering: "I was going to double-major in biology and zoology ..."
"Double-major ..." my father echoed stonily. "Not medicine?"
Now it was my turn to flinch. I had let him believe that, hadn't I? Like a pleasant fairy tale children tell their parents to make them happy. Medicine, just like you!
"No. But it's still the same ballpark. You know, science ..."
There was disappointment in both our faces, as if we hoped that after four years we'd find we had changed, somehow morphed into a more compatible father and daughter. My heart dropped down out of my chest, cold and still as a rock.
Instead of meeting my father's eyes, I looked around at the other parents milling about with their sons and daughters. I imagined going up to one of the other fathers at random and throwing my arms around him. Perhaps he would play along. It would be just like a TV movie; he would present me with a car, something shiny with a bow on the hood, and then cry with pride into my hair.
But we weren't that glossy kind of family.
For the past four years of school, I'd spent my holidays away from my parents. I think it was mutual avoidance. In fairness, my mother did make a few token offers to visit: "Honey, what about Thanksgiving? I could drive up ..." To which I would politely hedge—"Well, now's not a good time, maybe Christmas?"—thus gaining eternal postponement. But my presence was inconvenient for them too. If, in a weak moment, I asked my mother if they could fly out one weekend, I could always count on an indirect refusal. "Well, you know your father. It's not good for him to travel. His neck, his pillow." Yes, yes, of course. He could sleep in no bed but his own.
In the end, neither of us was ever willing to say yes.
Don't get me wrong—it's not like I missed them. After all, my books were excellent company. Over winter break, I'd hole myself up in the University's libraries, huge stone buildings that smelled like dusty castles, with portraits of John D. Rockefeller and various Nobel laureates on the walls. There, I could pass entire days pacing from end to end, reading about extinct tigers. Birds. Baboons. The sexual antics of pythons. If you saw how often I was in the Harper Reading Room, sitting on a stool with wheels, my shoulders hunched over a book, you'd think me a part of the library. A moveable extension of the reference collection.
I was perched on one of those stools when my parents' plane finally landed, though I'd told them I wouldn't be able to pick them up at the airport and drive them to Hyde Park because I'd be in my dorm room, packing. When the thick wheels of their plane screeched against the asphalt, the tiny wheels of my library stool turned a quarter of an inch, and instead of answering my final exam questions, I stared at the photo of an enormous sea lion in a Jacques Cousteau book.
"Aren't you two going to hug?" my mother chirped. She was trying to put a brave, optimistic face on the situation.
We tried to embrace and ended up with a cursory body check in which I got confused and couldn't figure out how to position my hands. My mother waited until I finished pawing at my father and then enveloped me again in a cloud of arms and high-end body lotions. It was like being trapped in the detergent aisle of a grocery store.
My mother and her perfumes. When I had my first anxiety attack at the end of my freshman year, she sent me a giant jar of lavender bath beads, with a note that read: "Take a soak each night and relax! These are the best years of your life." Never mind that I was taking double the normal course load and hadn't had a date all year, let alone a boyfriend. Perhaps I could lure one with my relaxing scent.
"Finally," she exhaled, her accent twangy. Had she always sounded so Southern? "It's so good to have you back."
Somehow that comment, however innocuous, was like they'd just pressed a button and a net had fallen over me.
"Well, do you guys want to walk me back to my dorm to pick up my stuff? It's that building there."
My mother looked surprised. "Don't you want to stick around and at least watch the ceremony? I mean, your friends must be graduating, right?" Her voice quavered with desperation, betraying her perfect façade. My father shot her a disgusted look.
Ah, yes, my college chums. How could I explain the situation in language my parents would understand? What variable would best represent the friends I'd failed to make? Q is for the people who tried to be friends with you, whom you rebuffed, because you'd rather stare at a dead pig who doesn't ask questions. T is for Michael, the guy you went out with for a week sophomore year, the nice Chem major with soft blue eyes, your one foray into social life, who jokingly asked if your Iranian father was a terrorist. Did the combination of Q and T, the slow accumulation of disappointments, plus the weight of lingering virginity, equal ... a failing GPA?
"No, thanks. I'll pass." I stared down at my mother's University of Chicago graduation program, with its faceless graduate standing with a fist raised. Why had she even taken one? "So," I said, expertly changing the subject, "heard anything from Uri?"
My mother cringed slightly, as if preparing to tell me bad news. Her life is full of bad news. She is a 911 dispatcher, a woman with a practiced, calm voice. A woman who knows how to deal with men who have been mauled by dogs, with women whose children have swallowed ant poison.
"Oh, you know your crazy brother. He's AWOL again. I think he said he was in one of the Northwest Territories? Is that what his postcard said?" She stared at my father. "Yusef, where did Uri say he was?"
My father took off his glasses and used his tie to clean them, oblivious to my mother. Oblivious to the entire situation.
"Anyway," she sighed, "I'm sure he'll be coming home some time or another." Out of my peripheral vision, I saw a streak of yellow hair. Cameron Edison, an airhead whose sentences always seemed to end in question marks, yet who was, inexplicably, training to be a marine biologist. I used to watch her in class and imagine her giving presentations at an aquarium. "This is the octopus? His diet, like, consists of small fish?"
Crap, I thought. Don't look my way. Don't—
"Oh my God? Jasmine?" she squawked, the words floating up. "Can you believe we made it?"
I froze, refusing to turn around. Perhaps if I was still enough, she would mistake me for a beached squid. She didn't even know I wasn't graduating.
"Honey, someone's talking to you," my mother said, grinning over my shoulder at Cameron. She gave a little wave. "Is that one of your friends?"
"Oh, well, I don't really know her ..." I stammered, ignoring her.
Cameron must have taken the hint, because after a few interminable seconds in which she eyed my parents and glared at me, she walked off, her tassel bouncing. I saw her later on with some other girls, and she gave me the stink-eye.
My father, his arms straining against the same tight tweed blazer he's owned for twenty-five years, suddenly looked at me as if he'd recognized me for the first time, and smacked me hard on the back—a thing he does only on important days. His version of physical affection. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"Mom and I go get suitcases from the car. We meet you back at the dorm."
"I don't need any suitcases," I said.
"That's all right." My mother patted me on the arm like a victim of some small calamity. "Everybody needs suitcases."
Twenty minutes later, I watched them slowly climb the stairs of my residence hall. There wasn't much for them to do. I had already stuffed everything into five trash bags.
My father looked out the window at the students tossing their caps into the air and woke from his stupor. "Oh. It is the Graduation Day?" In the empty room, his voice had a slight echo.
I wished I knew what he was thinking when he tuned out like that, where he went in his head. Hopefully it was a better place, a tropical island free of daughters. Of failure.
He stood there holding the suitcases my mother had bought once, long ago, when she imagined me carrying my possessions inside their designer logo fabric, on my first day of college. My mother sighed and glanced at the bags of my stuff on the floor.
"Yep, everybody's graduating today," I said, neglecting to finish our shared thought: "Everyone except me."
I nearly graduated. I very nearly did. I was going to be a biologist. Even now, as I say that, it sounds strange. Past tense, was. As if I have died. Degrees in biology and zoology. An overachiever. That's what my mother would say at the funeral for my academic career. "I told her to relax," my mother would declare with a helpless shrug at the funeral podium. "I told her to bathe with lavender, but she wouldn't listen. She spent all her time cutting up dead animals, writing about the bones of dead things." Here lies her unfinished thesis on Bone Worship, growing moldy under the weight of so much dirt.
Maybe her parents pushed her too hard. Immigrant father, wants daughter to rise in the world.
The e-mails from my professors—"Jasmine, you were my top student. What's going on?"—were still in my inbox.
There was a long silence as the three of us stood watching a dust bunny float across the floor. "I guess we should probably go," I said, finally. "We don't want to miss our flight."
My father insisted on taking more bags than he could carry. As a result, he had to stop every few minutes and put one of them down. My mother and I tried to help him, but he made a sour face and we left him alone.
"It's okay," my mother said. "Let him do it himself if he wants. You and I will carry the suitcases."
I tried not to notice how light the suitcases felt as we followed him out of the dorm and across The Midway. We slowed down, and eventually he disappeared into the maze of cars in the parking lot.
"Jasmine," my mother said, stopping suddenly between two enormous trucks and placing the suitcases on the asphalt. "I want you to know it's okay not to have a degree. There are other options your father and I want to talk to you about."
I knew what she was going to say, but she didn't get a chance to say anything, because then we heard it—a strange jingling sound. Maybe he thought we were lost. Maybe it was some audible expression of his anger at what this day was supposed to be but wasn't. All I know is that there, several rows ahead, was my father, his arm extended upward, the tweed blazer about to rip, shaking his car keys as hard as he could.
My mother smiled and waved back at him.
My father shook the keys harder, signaling something—I had no idea what. Perhaps they were supposed to remind me of wedding bells.
Having failed out of school, I'm due back home. To find a job, and, my father says, to find a husband. "Is the way it happens," he says. "Your hastegar," your marriage. A husband he will find for me in a year's time. An arrangement, neat and clean as pressed silk.
Other people, people like Cameron Edison, are becoming marine biologists, and I'm supposed to become someone's wife. Crazy, right?
It was my father's foolproof plan, with my mother's perfume-scented blessing. He'd pay for me to go to college as long as I applied myself, avoided nefarious boys, and graduated with honors, thus ensuring a respectable future career. It worked for a while. All study, no dates, making for a very, very dull girl. But since I proved too irresponsible to seal the deal with a diploma, he's ready to enact his Plan B. Hastegar. "How romantic," my mother used to say with a distant smile, "the Old World ways." For my parents, it seems the guiding hand of a proper, pre-screened husband is in order. Yet this marriage arrangement has never been discussed formally between us—it's simply understood.
I first learned about hastegar long ago, the way one hears about taxes and jobs and jury duty when one is a child—things whispered of by adults but not quite real. Once, when I was about twelve, I sat with my mother as she folded sheets, and I tried on her wedding band.
"You dreaming of your Prince Charming?" she asked.
I ignored her, twisting the ring around and around on my finger and watching her struggle to bring together the corners of the sheet.
"Can I have this ring? You never wear it."
"Be careful with that," she warned. "It's not for dress-up." My mother looked tired, I remember—late nights, long hours taking calls. "You know, your father will probably choose the man you marry. Isn't that a special tradition? He'll know the man before you do." She looked out the window then, as if she were waiting for that man to walk up the graveled driveway.
"Why?" I watched her face, the strands of hair falling forward from her neat ponytail.
"Because that's how they do it in your father's country. It's called an arranged marriage." My mother lost control of the corners of the sheet, and the whole thing fell to the floor. Immediately she retrieved it and began shaking it out vigorously.
"Why do they do it like that?" I asked, still twisting the ring. I felt like she was telling me something I'd never have to think about, something the ancient Greeks did.
"It's part of the Iranian culture, the religion." She picked up another sheet and started folding it.
"But we aren't religious. Dad doesn't even pray," I said. "We're Americans. And besides, you and Dad weren't arranged, were you?" I took off the ring and put in back in her jewelry box.
"That's got nothing to do with it," my mother said in a huff. She grabbed a pile of pillowcases and quickly changed the subject.
At the time, I thought I'd ruined the conversation, if it ever really was a conversation. Now I think she was just explaining my fate.
The second time my mother and I discussed their plans for me was the day I called to tell them I wouldn't be graduating. I was sitting on my bed in the dormitory, looking out the window at the trees blown nearly horizontal by the wind.
Excerpted from Bone Worship by Elizabeth Eslami. Copyright © 2010 Elizabeth Eslami. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Iranian-American author Elizabeth Eslami was born in South Carolina in 1978. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. She has published numerous short stories. Bone Worship is her first novel. She lives in Eugene, OR.
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What I like most about this book is the twist on the classic theme of cultural and generational conflict. Stories of children torn between two cultures are (for me) always intrinsically captivating, but this book poses the question somewhat differently. Jasmine, the daughter of an Iranian immigrant and his American wife, sees little reason to commit to school or life in general when her parents have resolved to chart her life for her. But just as she begins to wonder why her father has kept his heritage secret from her, it is forced decisively upon her -- in the form of a traditional Iranian arranged marriage. So how can the child of an immigrant come to know and understand an alien heritage, if she simultaneously rejects its presence in her own life? Jasmine is not torn between cultures; she is torn between attitudes, between attraction and repulsion, acquiescence and defiance. Eslami's prose ranges skillfully from lyrical to explosive, from chiseled to tender. Clever plotting also makes the book so satisying: several surprises emerge as the novel tracks Jasmine's development, not the least of which is her ultimate resolution of her father's get-married-or-else ultimatum. The protagonist Jasmine is wry and sharp, and winningly misanthropic, like a bi-racial Juno but with profounder things on her mind. I think that her pleading, almost desperate drive to connect with a father she barely knows, actually resonates just as loudly as the more tangible issues of cultural conflict that provide the framework for their confrontation. Five stars, and I can't wait to read more by this exciting young writer.
I thought this was a wonderful book, very well written a thought out. THIS IS A MUST READ!!!
Eslami is a beautiful and captivating writer.