Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith

( 6 )

Overview

When she is five years old, Lili, the narrator of this epic and magical tale, watches her mother, Roxanna the Angel, throw herself off the balcony of their house on the Avenue of Faith. Roxanna has left no farewell, no explanation. Her family's subsequent search for her reveals no body. no sign of a fall, no trace of an escape. The only witness to Roxanna's disappearance, Lili will spend the next thirteen years looking for her mother, wondering if she is alive, wondering why she...

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Overview

When she is five years old, Lili, the narrator of this epic and magical tale, watches her mother, Roxanna the Angel, throw herself off the balcony of their house on the Avenue of Faith. Roxanna has left no farewell, no explanation. Her family's subsequent search for her reveals no body. no sign of a fall, no trace of an escape. The only witness to Roxanna's disappearance, Lili will spend the next thirteen years looking for her mother, wondering if she is alive, wondering why she left.
This is the remarkable tale that follows Roxanna, born as a "bad-luck child" in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran, through the opulent world of Iran's aristocracy, into the whorehouses of Turkey and at last, to Los Angeles — the city of exiles — where she and Lili arc reunited. Gina B. Nahai tells the story of a courageous circle of women standing on the edge of the past, reshaping their lives in America, the land of chances and choices.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Boston Globe Beautiful, exotic, and rich....We jump on the magic carpet, soar above the Avenue of Faith, satisfied to let this gifted storyteller weave her spell.

Los Angeles Times Entrancing...A voice that never loses its poise, that balances cynicism with hope, warmth Willi satire, hte heavy ballast of life Willi the exhilaration of being borne aloft.

The New York Times Book Review A skilled and inventive writer, Nahai demonstrates that even the darkest magic cannot defeat the extraordinary powers of love.

The New York Times Book Review A considerable talent. Nahai has achieved some wonderful effects, infusing everyday events with miraculous radiance.

The Boston Globe A testament to the power and beauty of Gina Nahai's writing and the world she so brilliantly illuminates.

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) A novel of stunning beauty and power....A supreme accomplishment. The magical realism so perfectly wrought by García Márquez has rarely been equaled, perhaps only by Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon and here in Nahai's novel.

The Orlando Sentinel A multigenerational story as intricate and richly hued as a Persian carpet. As she revealed in Cry of the Peacock, Nahai possesses an array of talents, all of which glitter in Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith. Nahai's writing recalls that of Gabriel García Márquez and Amy Tan, yet her prose bears its own stamp of inventiveness and vivacity...A modern-day Scheherazade.

Portland Oregonian A sprawling tapestry of a novel....Clear testimony to her skill as a storyteller, Gina B. Nahai works in elegant contrasts, the spellbinding extremes of the best of the magical realist tradition, conjuring a story that glows as if lit by a subtle, internal fire.

The Dallas Morning News A nice addition to the canon of magic realism....Ms. Nahai's lyrical command of her words carries through consistently. The book's effectiveness deepens into a powerful and surprising final chapter.

The Toronto Star Lyrical, beautiful....A languid, steamy read.

Edward Hower
In the tradition of magic realist fiction, winds from the spirit world often blow into the lives of ordinary people, touching them with unexpected joy or grief....A skilled and inventive writer, Nahai demonstrates...that even the darkest magic cannot defeat the extraordinary powers of love.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Iranian author Nahai's (Cry of the Peacock) richly embroidered, mythopoeic new novel is a tale worthy of Scheherazade. Miriam the Moon weaves for her niece Lili the spellbinding story of how Lili's mother, Roxanna the Angel, in the grip of a destiny she could not control, abandoned her five-year-old daughter without explanation and vanished into the Iranian night; she remained missing for the next 13 years. ("Free will and conscious decisions are mere inventions of minds too feeble to accept the reality of our absurd existence,'' Miriam tells Lily.) Beginning with Roxanna's birth in 1938 in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran, the narrative moves assuredly through her family's history and into her legend. At the time of her disappearance, in 1971, the point of view shifts from third to first person, the voice of Lili, the abandoned child. Six-year-old Lili is put on an airplane and sent off to a dreary Catholic boarding school in Pasadena, where she meets her guardian angel, a childhood friend of Roxanna's named Mercedez the Movie Star. Meanwhile, in Iran, the Shah's corrupt regime is overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and in the wave of Jewish persecution that follows, Miriam the Moon and her family flee to L.A. Eventually, Roxanna is spied in Turkey, and an affecting reunion with Lili ensues, although the ending, meant to be symbolic, does not quite ring true. The story moves along briskly, yet with a surreal edge, filled with characters who have such names as Alexandra the Cat and Jacob the Jello. The larger-than-life personalities of Roxanna and her family shine convincingly in the sections devoted to Iran, markedly less so when transplanted to L.A. Lili's struggle to know who she is, while fluidly rendered, lacks the resonance of Roxanna's, whose tale is marvelously compelling. 35,000 first printing; author tour; foreign rights sold to Germany, Sweden, Italy, the U.K., Greece and Holland. (Mar.)
Library Journal
A heady, sprawling tale of women, family, and country by the Iranian-born author of Cry of the Peacock (1991. o.p.), this novel is both mesmerizing and difficult in its portrayal of what to most Western readers will seem a hard, exotic society. Weaving together an impressive cast of characters and stories, it centers on Roxanna the Angel, the bad-luck daughter of a troubled family in Tehran's Jewish ghetto, and on her daughter, Lili, whom Roxanna abandons to an unsympathetic paternal household. The reader learns of Roxanna's history and of the mysterious power of flight that accompanies her need to escape the sorrow of this history, of Lili's nearly lethal anxiety for her mother, which maintains her through a lonely childhood and adolescence, and of the powerful attraction of freedom in spite of the hardships freedom can bring. Against the backdrop of the fall of the Shah and the flight of Iranian Jews to America, this unique mother-daughter story unfolds powerfully and unforgettably. Highly recommended.--Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington P.L., OH
Edward Hower
In the tradition of magic realist fiction, winds from the spirit world often blow into the lives of ordinary people, touching them with unexpected joy or grief....A skilled and inventive writer, Nahai demonstrates...that even the darkest magic cannot defeat the extraordinary powers of love.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Nahai (Cry of the Peacock, 1991) revisits Iran's Jewish community as she tells the moving if not always engrossing tale of one woman's struggle in a time of political turmoil. The saga of Roxanna begins in 1938 with her birth in Tehran's ghetto, and ends in 1980s Los Angeles. It is as much the story of a family increasingly affected by outside events as it is a low-key exploration of the conflict between destiny and choice. Nahai cuts early to the past, as the now-adult Lili recalls how, as a five-year-old, she saw her mother, Roxanna, grow wings and fly away. (Other clumsy flirtations with magical realism include sunflowers that give off light, sorrow that turns into body fat, and white feathers found after dreams of flight.) Warned that she is the "bad-luck one," the eight-year-old Roxanna is given away to Alexandra, an eccentric Russian refugee. After Alexandra's death, Roxanna flees the ghetto, but finds herself trapped by love in a house on the "Avenue of Faith." The house belongs to wealthy Teymur and his scheming wife, Fräulein Claude; Roxanna marries their son Sohrab in order to be close to Teymur, whom she really loves. When their affair is discovered, she's kept a prisoner in the house, and in desperation runs away, leaving Lili behind. Working first as a prostitute and then as kitchen help in Turkey, Sohrab sends Lili to school in Los Angeles. Then, as the Islamic revolution begins, Roxanna's sisters flee to L.A.-where Lili, still mourning her mother, is unwillingly united with them, and eventually even with Roxanna, now bloated with sorrow and regret. Lots of action, local color, and adventure, but not enough to give Roxanna's story the impact it demands. (Firstprinting of 35,000; author tour) .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671042837
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 371,753
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Gina B. Nahai, born in Iran and educated in Switzerland and the United States, is the author of the award-winning novel Cry of the Peacock. A frequent lecturer on Iranian Jewish history and the topic of exile, she has studied the politics of Iran for the U.S. Department of Defense. Currently teaching fiction writing at the University of Southern California's Master of Professional Writing program, Ms. Nahai lives with her family in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

From: The Ghetto

She was born in 1938, the daughter of Shusha the Beautiful and her tailor husband, Rahman the Ruler. Her family lived in two rooms they rented from Shusha's mother — the terrible and terrifying BeeBee, who owned three houses in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran and who rented them room by room to anyone desperate enough to put up with her unreasonable demands and Draconian rules. BeeBee made no exception for her own daughter, and many were those in the ghetto who quietly whispered that she had never forgiven Shusha even a week's rent.

The rooms were unpaved and windowless, constructed of mud and clay and connected to the courtyard by a narrow wooden door made of loose planks nailed together into a lopsided, squeaky shape. The first room was where Shusha slept with her husband, and where he worked as a tailor during the day. The second room served as the family's dining and living room, and as the children's bedroom.

The children slept next to each other on the floor — five small bodies stretched out under a single comforter, limbs intertwined and skin so accustomed to the warmth of others, not one of them could have fallen asleep in a bed by themselves.

Once, when she was three years old, Roxanna awoke to a strange scent. She sat up on the sheet spread over the thin canvas rug that covered the dirt floor and that served as the only barrier between her and the insects that crawled in the dust. She was a tiny child, so thin and light her movement never disturbed anyone else. She reached over and awakened Miriam.

"I dreamt I was a bird," she said.

Miriam sighed and turned over. She was nine years old and had been caring for her younger siblings all her life.

"Does something hurt?" she asked without opening her eyes.

"No. But I can't feel my legs."

Miriam felt Roxanna's forehead.

"You're not warm," she concluded. "Go back to sleep."

An hour later, Miriam woke up scared. She saw that Roxanna was in her own place. The other children were also sleeping. But the room, she realized, smelled strange: instead of the usual scent of skin and hair, of leftover food and old clothes and dry, unforgiving earth, Miriam the Moon smelled the sea.

She lit a candle and looked around. Nothing appeared out of place. Then she saw Roxanna: her hair was wet, her arms stretched to her sides, and she was afloat in a bed of white feathers.

Roxanna looked so calm and beautiful then, so immersed in her dreams of faraway mountains and emerald seas, that Miriam thought she would die if anyone awakened her. So she lay next to her, on that bed of feathers so white they looked almost blue in the moonlight, and hoped to dream her dreams.

Miriam saw the feathers many more times, smelled the Caspian so often in their city thousands of miles away from the sea, she thought some nights Roxanna was going to drown. Afraid of what would happen if anyone discovered the feathers, Miriam hid them inside the comforter. She split the seam open with her fingers and stuffed the feathers on top of the existing fill of cotton that was yellowed with age and thinned from use. But after a while the weight of Roxanna's secret became too heavy for Miriam to bear alone. Once, when the air in their room had become so humid it had turned into beads of moisture and was dripping off the roof onto the children's faces and hair, Miriam went to call her mother.

Shusha came barefoot and sleepy, her chador wrapped loosely around her waist, and for a moment stood above Roxanna without noticing the feathers.

"Look!" Miriam grabbed a fistful and held them close to Shusha's face. "Many nights I wake up and find these in her bed."

Shusha gasped as if she had been struck by lightning. Her body shook, only once, but with enough force that Miriam had to pull away from the impact. She saw the color run out of Shusha till her skin was transparent.

"Who else knows about this?" Shusha asked.

"No one." Miriam wished she had not called her. "I've been hiding them. I'm sure no one has a clue."

Just then Tala'at, Shusha's second daughter, stirred in her sleep. She ran her hand over her neck and chest, rubbing the sweat off her skin as she whispered hoarsely to an imaginary lover. She was only eight years old and had never had any contact with men outside her immediate family. But even then she was driven by lust, by the raw, uncompromised passion that would rule her adult life.

Shusha looked away from Tala'at and went outside. She sat on the steps that led from the bedroom down into the courtyard, then signaled for Miriam to sit next to her. She was a stunning woman — dark skinned and dark eyed and so hauntingly beautiful she created a sense of confusion and sadness in anyone who saw her unveiled. But she had always seemed unaware, or perhaps ashamed, of her own beauty.

"Do you understand you can't tell anyone about the feathers?" she asked Miriam.

Miriam nodded.

"Do you know where they come from?"

Miriam began to answer, then stopped. They lived under a veil of silence then, a web of secrets spread over a thousand years, nurtured by a reverence for the power of the spoken word and a fear of its consequences. So Miriam did not speak, and Shusha did not tell Miriam what she knew so well: that the feathers in Roxanna's bed came from her dreams, that in them Roxanna was flying like a bird, or an angel, over a sea that was vast and limitless and that led her away from the tight borders of their ghetto, that the wings and the sea air spilled over the edge of the night sometimes, skipping the line between desire and truth, and poured into Roxanna's bed to speak of her longings.

Copyright © 1999 by Gina Barkhorder Nahai

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First Chapter

From: The Ghetto She was born in 1938, the daughter of Shusha the Beautiful and her tailor husband, Rahman the Ruler. Her family lived in two rooms they rented from Shusha's mother -- the terrible and terrifying BeeBee, who owned three houses in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran and who rented them room by room to anyone desperate enough to put up with her unreasonable demands and Draconian rules. BeeBee made no exception for her own daughter, and many were those in the ghetto who quietly whispered that she had never forgiven Shusha even a week's rent.

The rooms were unpaved and windowless, constructed of mud and clay and connected to the courtyard by a narrow wooden door made of loose planks nailed together into a lopsided, squeaky shape. The first room was where Shusha slept with her husband, and where he worked as a tailor during the day. The second room served as the family's dining and living room, and as the children's bedroom.

The children slept next to each other on the floor -- five small bodies stretched out under a single comforter, limbs intertwined and skin so accustomed to the warmth of others, not one of them could have fallen asleep in a bed by themselves.

Once, when she was three years old, Roxanna awoke to a strange scent. She sat up on the sheet spread over the thin canvas rug that covered the dirt floor and that served as the only barrier between her and the insects that crawled in the dust. She was a tiny child, so thin and light her movement never disturbed anyone else. She reached over and awakened Miriam.

"I dreamt I was a bird," she said.

Miriam sighed and turned over. She was nine years old and had been caringfor her younger siblings all her life.

"Does something hurt?" she asked without opening her eyes.

"No. But I can't feel my legs."

Miriam felt Roxanna's forehead.

"You're not warm," she concluded. "Go back to sleep."

An hour later, Miriam woke up scared. She saw that Roxanna was in her own place. The other children were also sleeping. But the room, she realized, smelled strange: instead of the usual scent of skin and hair, of leftover food and old clothes and dry, unforgiving earth, Miriam the Moon smelled the sea.

She lit a candle and looked around. Nothing appeared out of place. Then she saw Roxanna: her hair was wet, her arms stretched to her sides, and she was afloat in a bed of white feathers.

Roxanna looked so calm and beautiful then, so immersed in her dreams of faraway mountains and emerald seas, that Miriam thought she would die if anyone awakened her. So she lay next to her, on that bed of feathers so white they looked almost blue in the moonlight, and hoped to dream her dreams.


Miriam saw the feathers many more times, smelled the Caspian so often in their city thousands of miles away from the sea, she thought some nights Roxanna was going to drown. Afraid of what would happen if anyone discovered the feathers, Miriam hid them inside the comforter. She split the seam open with her fingers and stuffed the feathers on top of the existing fill of cotton that was yellowed with age and thinned from use. But after a while the weight of Roxanna's secret became too heavy for Miriam to bear alone. Once, when the air in their room had become so humid it had turned into beads of moisture and was dripping off the roof onto the children's faces and hair, Miriam went to call her mother.

Shusha came barefoot and sleepy, her chador wrapped loosely around her waist, and for a moment stood above Roxanna without noticing the feathers.

"Look!" Miriam grabbed a fistful and held them close to Shusha's face. "Many nights I wake up and find these in her bed."

Shusha gasped as if she had been struck by lightning. Her body shook, only once, but with enough force that Miriam had to pull away from the impact. She saw the color run out of Shusha till her skin was transparent.

"Who else knows about this?" Shusha asked.

"No one." Miriam wished she had not called her. "I've been hiding them. I'm sure no one has a clue."

Just then Tala'at, Shusha's second daughter, stirred in her sleep. She ran her hand over her neck and chest, rubbing the sweat off her skin as she whispered hoarsely to an imaginary lover. She was only eight years old and had never had any contact with men outside her immediate family. But even then she was driven by lust, by the raw, uncompromised passion that would rule her adult life.

Shusha looked away from Tala'at and went outside. She sat on the steps that led from the bedroom down into the courtyard, then signaled for Miriam to sit next to her. She was a stunning woman -- dark skinned and dark eyed and so hauntingly beautiful she created a sense of confusion and sadness in anyone who saw her unveiled. But she had always seemed unaware, or perhaps ashamed, of her own beauty.

"Do you understand you can't tell anyone about the feathers?" she asked Miriam.

Miriam nodded.

"Do you know where they come from?"

Miriam began to answer, then stopped. They lived under a veil of silence then, a web of secrets spread over a thousand years, nurtured by a reverence for the power of the spoken word and a fear of its consequences. So Miriam did not speak, and Shusha did not tell Miriam what she knew so well: that the feathers in Roxanna's bed came from her dreams, that in them Roxanna was flying like a bird, or an angel, over a sea that was vast and limitless and that led her away from the tight borders of their ghetto, that the wings and the sea air spilled over the edge of the night sometimes, skipping the line between desire and truth, and poured into Roxanna's bed to speak of her longings.

Copyright © 1999 by Gina Barkhorder Nahai

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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. In the particular emotional realm of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, one¹s ability to live and love depends entirely upon one¹s capacity for forgiveness. Without forgiveness comes tragedy and death, as in the case of Miriam¹s daughter, Sara. With it comes the potential for redemption and even physical healing, as in the cases of Lili and Roxanna. What effect does the act of forgiveness have on the lives of the rest of the novels' characters?
  2. "That is how the world really functions," Miriam the Moon tells Lili at the beginning of the novel. ³Human beings are nothing more than the instruments of a callous Fate. Free will and conscious decisions are mere inventions of minds too feeble to accept the reality of our absurd existence.² How does Roxanna the Angel's first-person narrative at the close of the novel -- in which she recognizes all of the choices she "let go to waste" in her life -- complicate and even challenge Miriam's early pronouncement about the futility of faith in free will?
  3. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith has been called a novel of magical realism. While magical realism has been traditionally regarded as a regional literary genre?restricted to the Latin-American writers who initially popularized it as a literary form -- it is really an international phenomenon with a wide-ranging history. Beyond Gabriel García Márquez, writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, and Jorge Luis Borges have contributed to its far-reaching influence among the literatures of the world. Where does Nahai's brandof magical realism fit into the genre as a whole? What qualities does her work share with other works of magical realism? How is it unique?
  4. Beginning in the eighteenth century with the Crow (the Lubovicher rabbi's wife), chart the course of the "bad luck" which Lili is assumed to have inherited from a long line of female ancestors. What was each woman attempting to take flight from? What do each of these women have in common?
  5. In the process of describing Roxanna's life toward the end of the novel, Mercedez the Movie Star also offers an insight into her own life's modus operandi: "Your mother was two people forever fighting each other," Mercedez says. "One was the runaway exile she was supposedly destined to become -- the bad-luck woman everyone expected her to be. The other was going to be so good....I used to tell her even then that Destiny is horseshit." To what degree is Mercedez the novel's most strong-willed, self-assured, and genuinely contented woman? On the other hand, what hints does Nahai provide to suggest otherwise?
  6. Both Mercedez and Miriam are possessed as young women with bewitching physical beauty. But while Mercedez goes on to trade exclusively on her erotic power as a woman to succeed throughout life, Miriam plainly takes no stock in her beauty -- nor in the conventional role of Iranian women -- even to the point of wearing men's clothing. In spite of these differences -- and in spite of the fact that they despise each other -- what are the essential similarities that exist between Miriam and Mercedez?
  7. How do both Mercedez and Miriam use the force of their characters to redress any cultural disadvantages they might have as women? How might one describe Nahai's vision of the balance between the sexes? Compare and contrast Mercedez's remarkable determination to transcend her ghetto childhood with Miriam the Moon's equally strong will to overcome a relentless string of tragedies.
  8. One of the primary themes of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith has to do with the nature of escape. Tala'at escapes by running away with Habib's nephew. Effat leaves for Kent with an Englishman. The steel-willed Mercedez, of course, achieves several escapes in succession before finally arriving on Sunset Boulevard and setting up house as Mercedez the Movie Star. By stark contrast, Shusha escapes her misery by drinking a glass of poison. How do the rest of Nahai's characters escape? Which attempts result in failure? Why?
  9. Roxanna the Angel's role as a mother is clearly central, but what about her role as wife and lover? What is the legacy of her relationships with Sohrab the Sinner and Teymur the Heretic?
  10. In the sense that a work of art is an expression of and an explanation for a particular identity, how might Lili's practice of taking a pen and writing upon the surface of her own body comment upon the nature and function of the artist?
  11. In the years after Roxanna's flight, Lili tells us, "I had become invisible to myself and to everyone else." How does Lili react at different points in the novel to this constant feeling of transparency, of being "weightless and unfettered"?
  12. Considering the fate of each of her characters, what distinctions, if any, does Nahai seem to be making between the meanings of ?escape' and 'exile'? Between the meanings of 'escape' and 'redemption'? Explain.
  13. When Roxanna grows wings and deserts her family in the house on the Avenue of Faith in hopes of thwarting her unacceptable destiny, Lili notes that her mother is "upsetting the balance between dreams and reality." What does she mean? In what ways does the novel as a whole upset the balance between dreams and reality?
  14. What is the significance of Shusha's tear jar? By giving the bottle to Roxanna -- "It's the only thing Mother left us" -- what legacy is Miriam symbolically passing on to her sister? Why do you suppose Roxanna's first instinct is to destroy the jar?
  15. What other symbols and images emerge and tellingly recur throughout the novel? Consider, for instance, the Caspian Sea, feathers, sapphires, Pari-with-the-Boots, and sunflowers?
  16. What are your own memories of 1979, the year of Iran's Islamic Revolution? Looking back after reading Nahai's book, what is your sense of the Western media's perspective on the riots, the movie-theatre fires, the Ayatollah's over-throw of the shah, and the seven-month hostage crisis?
  17. If Los Angeles is truly the "land of choices and chances," then what would you say Tehran is the land of?
  18. Explaining why she subscribes to National Geographic and Scientific American, Miriam says, "I like to balance experience against science....Experience wins every time." How does this arch statement comment on the entirety of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, and how does it inform and foreshadow the resolution of the novel's considerations of free will and fate?
  19. Although Jacob the Jello sees things through a perpetual cloud of opium, how accurate is it to say that he actually sees more clearly than anyone else in the novel? And how does it happen that, even after his death, his visions continue to haunt the inhabitants of the house on the Avenue of Faith?
  20. In the course of her novel, Nahai intimately acquaints us with the condition and status of women?particularly Iranian Jewish women?in Eastern society. What did you learn from Nahai's novel about Iran's gender politics? What details surprised you in particular?
  21. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith features a range of women who, dissatisfied with the limitations with which their lives have presented them, proceed to reinvent themselves. For instance, Fr¨aulein Claude conceals her past by transforming herself into a worldly, platinum-blonde German who, through the entire course of her marriage, never once lets her husband see her out of makeup or high heels. What is the nature of Alexandra the Cat's transformation? Miriam the Moon's? Mercedez the Movie Star's? How do these various acts of reinvention serve to empower, imprison, or liberate them?

A Conversation with Gina B. Nahai

Q: How much of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith -- a novel about the history of Iran, Jewish persecution, and the ambivalent intersection of Eastern and Western cultures? is based upon your own life?

A: "Moonlight" is not autobiographical, but it stems largely from my own memories of Iran and the people I knew as I grew up. Lili's story is not my own, nor is Roxanna my mother. As with all my books, I did a lot of oral history interviews in order to gather these stories, then transcribed them while trying my best to stay true to the voices and the tales I had heard.

Q: One of the things that strikes me most about Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith is your complex, highly ambivalent treatment of Iranian-Jewish exiles in America, a condition rarely dramatized in fiction. Tell us about what you hoped to highlight and emphasize about the nature of exile, and how you feel about the result.

A: More than anything else, the history of the 20th century has been one of exile: the two world wars, and since then the countless regional civil and border wars have created massive movements of people across national lines. As a student of oral history, I have always been fascinated by the idea of exile. My own life experience has also been one of perpetual living "on the outside." In "Moonlight" I pose the question: "What do we lose, and gain, when we go into exile?" My own conclusion has been that exile can be as freeing as it can be devastating.

Q: Do you ever go back to Iran? Do you still have family there?

A: I do still have relatives in Iran, and for a long time after the revolution, I wanted very much to go back and visit. So much time has gone by now, and so much has changed in Iran, that I fear the country I knew is no longer there. I still would very much like to go back and see the changes some day.

Q: What is the significance of the "Moonlight" in your novel's title?

A: Lili loses her mother in moonlight, and she finds her again, at the end when they fly together over Tehran and the house on the Avenue of Faith, in moonlight. It is a metaphor for hope, and for the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of personal choice: it is light that is possible to see only in darkness.

Q: In your novel, you manage to seamlessly combine elements of both reality and fantasy. Your depictions of Iranian political oppression and the rich heritage of familial obligation are imbued with and offset by the constant presence of magic, mythology, and the supernatural. What was behind your decision to tell your story in this manner?

A: Magic and mythology are very much a part of the Iranian sensibility. Many of the stories I tell in "Moonlight" were related to me in exactly the same way, and I thought it was important to stay true to the original version. Beyond that, I feel there is an enduring quality to fairy tales that the other forms of fiction lack. People of all ages and convictions can connect with fairy tales if only they are willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world the writer creates. So I wrote "Moonlight" as a fairy tale, hoping women and men of all nationalities would relate to its universal themes.

Q: Reviewers have repeatedly compared Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende. Were you particularly influenced by any of these authors? What other writers inspire you?

A: I admire García Márquez tremendously, but magical realism originates before him in the works of Yiddish writers, and even before that in the works of Iranian writers I read as a child. I think my work differs from Borges or Allende's in that I write about history and specific events and facts, that I do a tremendous amount of research for each book and try to portray the repercussions of political events on the lives of ordinary people. In this sense my main inspiration as a writer is Oriana Fallaci -- a reporter who observed the world through objective eyes and then wrote about it as a story. I have also been influenced by Marguerite Duras and the early works of Toni Morrison.

Q: At one point, the characters in the novel tacitly blame the acceleration of Morad the Mercury's death on the shortcomings of Western medicine. Was this perspective of "traditional" medicine a common one at the time?

A: In the early decades of westernization in Iran, there was a sense among some people that everything western and new was superior to what the East had known thus far. Medicine especially was upheld as the great new answer to worldly ills, and American doctors were viewed as nothing short of miracle workers. With these unrealistic expectations, those who embraced western medicine at the expense of everything old and unscientific, were bound for inevitable disappointment when the doctors failed?as they did in Morad's case?to deliver miracles.

Q: Fr¨aulein Claude is, perhaps, the most likely to elicit blame from readers. As you were writing, what were your feelings about Fräulein Claude? Did you struggle with her emotions and choices?

A: I was surprised by the reaction readers have had to Fräulein Claude. I saw her as a survivor, a woman who saw necessity to change her destiny and did so by reinventing herself. She was a devoted wife and loving mother, and I say of her, "she was not cruel, Fräulein Claude. She became that way only after she had lost everything that mattered." I can not blame her for her cruelty; it was her way of defending what was hers.

Q: Roxanna is, among other things, a woman struggling to cast off the weight of her past. How successful is she, and indeed any of us, in doing so?

A: I don't thing anyone can cast off their past, but I do think it's possible to reshape our future, and therefore our destiny. This is what Mercedez has done, and what, I hope, Lili will be able to do: scarred as they are by their past, they recognize there is a choice, and therefore avoid falling into the seemingly inevitable "fate" they have been assigned. In Roxanna's case, she makes the mistake of believing there is no choice -- that to avoid bringing bad luck upon her family she must leave them all together. It's only at the end, when Miriam forces her to face her own past, that Roxanna realizes she had other choices.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. In the particular emotional realm of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, one's ability to live and love depends entirely upon one's capacity for forgiveness. Without forgiveness comes tragedy and death, as in the case of Miriam's daughter, Sara. With it comes the potential for redemption and even physical healing, as in the cases of Lili and Roxanna. What effect does the act of forgiveness have on the lives of the rest of the novels' characters?
  2. "That is how the world really functions," Miriam the Moon tells Lili at the beginning of the novel. "Human beings are nothing more than the instruments of a callous Fate. Free will and conscious decisions are mere inventions of minds too feeble to accept the reality of our absurd existence." How does Roxanna the Angel's first-person narrative at the close of the novel — in which she recognizes all of the choices she "let go to waste" in her life — complicate and even challenge Miriam's early pronouncement about the futility of faith in free will?
  3. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith has been called a novel of magical realism. While magical realism has been traditionally regarded as a regional literary genre‹restricted to the Latin-American writers who initially popularized it as a literary form — it is really an international phenomenon with a wide-ranging history. Beyond Gabriel García Márquez, writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, and Jorge Luis Borges have contributed to its far-reaching influence among the literatures of the world. Where does Nahai's brand of magical realism fit into the genre as a whole? What qualities does her work share with other works of magical realism? How is it unique?
  4. Beginning in the eighteenth century with the Crow (the Lubovicher rabbi's wife), chart the course of the "bad luck" which Lili is assumed to have inherited from a long line of female ancestors. What was each woman attempting to take flight from? What do each of these women have in common?
  5. In the process of describing Roxanna's life toward the end of the novel, Mercedez the Movie Star also offers an insight into her own life's modus operandi: "Your mother was two people forever fighting each other," Mercedez says. "One was the runaway exile she was supposedly destined to become — the bad-luck woman everyone expected her to be. The other was going to be so good....I used to tell her even then that Destiny is horseshit." To what degree is Mercedez the novel's most strong-willed, self-assured, and genuinely contented woman? On the other hand, what hints does Nahai provide to suggest otherwise?
  6. Both Mercedez and Miriam are possessed as young women with bewitching physical beauty. But while Mercedez goes on to trade exclusively on her erotic power as a woman to succeed throughout life, Miriam plainly takes no stock in her beauty — nor in the conventional role of Iranian women — even to the point of wearing men's clothing. In spite of these differences — and in spite of the fact that they despise each other — what are the essential similarities that exist between Miriam and Mercedez?
  7. How do both Mercedez and Miriam use the force of their characters to redress any cultural disadvantages they might have as women? How might one describe Nahai's vision of the balance between the sexes? Compare and contrast Mercedez's remarkable determination to transcend her ghetto childhood with Miriam the Moon's equally strong will to overcome a relentless string of tragedies.
  8. One of the primary themes of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith has to do with the nature of escape. Tala'at escapes by running away with Habib's nephew. Effat leaves for Kent with an Englishman. The steel-willed Mercedez, of course, achieves several escapes in succession before finally arriving on Sunset Boulevard and setting up house as Mercedez the Movie Star. By stark contrast, Shusha escapes her misery by drinking a glass of poison. How do the rest of Nahai's characters escape? Which attempts result in failure? Why?
  9. Roxanna the Angel's role as a mother is clearly central, but what about her role as wife and lover? What is the legacy of her relationships with Sohrab the Sinner and Teymur the Heretic?
  10. In the sense that a work of art is an expression of and an explanation for a particular identity, how might Lili's practice of taking a pen and writing upon the surface of her own body comment upon the nature and function of the artist?
  11. In the years after Roxanna's flight, Lili tells us, "I had become invisible to myself and to everyone else." How does Lili react at different points in the novel to this constant feeling of transparency, of being "weightless and unfettered"?
  12. Considering the fate of each of her characters, what distinctions, if any, does Nahai seem to be making between the meanings of 'escape' and 'exile'? Between the meanings of 'escape' and 'redemption'? Explain.
  13. When Roxanna grows wings and deserts her family in the house on the Avenue of Faith in hopes of thwarting her unacceptable destiny, Lili notes that her mother is "upsetting the balance between dreams and reality." What does she mean? In what ways does the novel as a whole upset the balance between dreams and reality?
  14. What is the significance of Shusha's tear jar? By giving the bottle to Roxanna — "It's the only thing Mother left us" — what legacy is Miriam symbolically passing on to her sister? Why do you suppose Roxanna's first instinct is to destroy the jar?
  15. What other symbols and images emerge and tellingly recur throughout the novel? Consider, for instance, the Caspian Sea, feathers, sapphires, Pari-with-the-Boots, and sunflowers?
  16. What are your own memories of 1979, the year of Iran's Islamic Revolution? Looking back after reading Nahai's book, what is your sense of the Western media's perspective on the riots, the movie-theatre fires, the Ayatollah's over-throw of the shah, and the seven-month hostage crisis?
  17. If Los Angeles is truly the "land of choices and chances," then what would you say Tehran is the land of?
  18. Explaining why she subscribes to National Geographic and Scientific American, Miriam says, "I like to balance experience against science....Experience wins every time." How does this arch statement comment on the entirety of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, and how does it inform and foreshadow the resolution of the novel's considerations of free will and fate?
  19. Although Jacob the Jello sees things through a perpetual cloud of opium, how accurate is it to say that he actually sees more clearly than anyone else in the novel? And how does it happen that, even after his death, his visions continue to haunt the inhabitants of the house on the Avenue of Faith?
  20. In the course of her novel, Nahai intimately acquaints us with the condition and status of women‹particularly Iranian Jewish women‹in Eastern society. What did you learn from Nahai's novel about Iran's gender politics? What details surprised you in particular?
  21. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith features a range of women who, dissatisfied with the limitations with which their lives have presented them, proceed to reinvent themselves. For instance, Fr¨aulein Claude conceals her past by transforming herself into a worldly, platinum-blonde German who, through the entire course of her marriage, never once lets her husband see her out of makeup or high heels. What is the nature of Alexandra the Cat's transformation? Miriam the Moon's? Mercedez the Movie Star's? How do these various acts of reinvention serve to empower, imprison, or liberate them?

A Conversation with Gina B. Nahai

Q: How much of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith — a novel about the history of Iran, Jewish persecution, and the ambivalent intersection of Eastern and Western cultures‹ is based upon your own life?

A: "Moonlight" is not autobiographical, but it stems largely from my own memories of Iran and the people I knew as I grew up. Lili's story is not my own, nor is Roxanna my mother. As with all my books, I did a lot of oral history interviews in order to gather these stories, then transcribed them while trying my best to stay true to the voices and the tales I had heard.

Q: One of the things that strikes me most about Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith is your complex, highly ambivalent treatment of Iranian-Jewish exiles in America, a condition rarely dramatized in fiction. Tell us about what you hoped to highlight and emphasize about the nature of exile, and how you feel about the result.

A: More than anything else, the history of the 20th century has been one of exile: the two world wars, and since then the countless regional civil and border wars have created massive movements of people across national lines. As a student of oral history, I have always been fascinated by the idea of exile. My own life experience has also been one of perpetual living "on the outside." In "Moonlight" I pose the question: "What do we lose, and gain, when we go into exile?" My own conclusion has been that exile can be as freeing as it can be devastating.

Q: Do you ever go back to Iran? Do you still have family there?

A: I do still have relatives in Iran, and for a long time after the revolution, I wanted very much to go back and visit. So much time has gone by now, and so much has changed in Iran, that I fear the country I knew is no longer there. I still would very much like to go back and see the changes some day.

Q: What is the significance of the "Moonlight" in your novel's title?

A: Lili loses her mother in moonlight, and she finds her again, at the end when they fly together over Tehran and the house on the Avenue of Faith, in moonlight. It is a metaphor for hope, and for the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of personal choice: it is light that is possible to see only in darkness.

Q: In your novel, you manage to seamlessly combine elements of both reality and fantasy. Your depictions of Iranian political oppression and the rich heritage of familial obligation are imbued with and offset by the constant presence of magic, mythology, and the supernatural. What was behind your decision to tell your story in this manner?

A: Magic and mythology are very much a part of the Iranian sensibility. Many of the stories I tell in "Moonlight" were related to me in exactly the same way, and I thought it was important to stay true to the original version. Beyond that, I feel there is an enduring quality to fairy tales that the other forms of fiction lack. People of all ages and convictions can connect with fairy tales if only they are willing to suspend disbelief and enter the world the writer creates. So I wrote "Moonlight" as a fairy tale, hoping women and men of all nationalities would relate to its universal themes.

Q: Reviewers have repeatedly compared Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende. Were you particularly influenced by any of these authors? What other writers inspire you?

A: I admire García Márquez tremendously, but magical realism originates before him in the works of Yiddish writers, and even before that in the works of Iranian writers I read as a child. I think my work differs from Borges or Allende's in that I write about history and specific events and facts, that I do a tremendous amount of research for each book and try to portray the repercussions of political events on the lives of ordinary people. In this sense my main inspiration as a writer is Oriana Fallaci — a reporter who observed the world through objective eyes and then wrote about it as a story. I have also been influenced by Marguerite Duras and the early works of Toni Morrison.

Q: At one point, the characters in the novel tacitly blame the acceleration of Morad the Mercury's death on the shortcomings of Western medicine. Was this perspective of "traditional" medicine a common one at the time?

A: In the early decades of westernization in Iran, there was a sense among some people that everything western and new was superior to what the East had known thus far. Medicine especially was upheld as the great new answer to worldly ills, and American doctors were viewed as nothing short of miracle workers. With these unrealistic expectations, those who embraced western medicine at the expense of everything old and unscientific, were bound for inevitable disappointment when the doctors failed‹as they did in Morad's case‹to deliver miracles.

Q: Fr¨aulein Claude is, perhaps, the most likely to elicit blame from readers. As you were writing, what were your feelings about Fräulein Claude? Did you struggle with her emotions and choices?

A: I was surprised by the reaction readers have had to Fräulein Claude. I saw her as a survivor, a woman who saw necessity to change her destiny and did so by reinventing herself. She was a devoted wife and loving mother, and I say of her, "she was not cruel, Fräulein Claude. She became that way only after she had lost everything that mattered." I can not blame her for her cruelty; it was her way of defending what was hers.

Q: Roxanna is, among other things, a woman struggling to cast off the weight of her past. How successful is she, and indeed any of us, in doing so?

A: I don't thing anyone can cast off their past, but I do think it's possible to reshape our future, and therefore our destiny. This is what Mercedez has done, and what, I hope, Lili will be able to do: scarred as they are by their past, they recognize there is a choice, and therefore avoid falling into the seemingly inevitable "fate" they have been assigned. In Roxanna's case, she makes the mistake of believing there is no choice — that to avoid bringing bad luck upon her family she must leave them all together. It's only at the end, when Miriam forces her to face her own past, that Roxanna realizes she had other choices.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2005

    female teenager

    Although I had reservations when I started reading this for English class, I soon found myself swept away by the vivid story pieced together by Gina Nahai. The perfect balance and blend of fantasy and history made the book an fast, smooth read. Through the perspectives of a child and a woman, the reader is able to see Iran and LA in very different ways but with a connecting theme of magic, faith, and one's destiny. This is an absolutly wonderful read and I highly recommend it to anyone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2004

    One of the best books I have ever read.

    From the opening line, to the last word you will be mesmerized. The author has greated a seamless blend of magical tales and folklore to the realities of a woman's, well, family's struggles with life in Iran. You will never want this book to end and you will be telling everyone you know how terrific it is. Truly a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2000

    don't miss this one

    the most beautiful, mystical, inspirational book I have read in ages. Read it, enjoy it, lend it to a friend and then read it again!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2001

    Enthralling: Magical

    Once I started, I couldn't put it down. Nahai takes you on a surreal journey through the pre-WWII Jewish ghettos of Iran clear up to modern day Los Angelas. What she portrays as maybe some not so realistic images hits home when understood from a childs point of view. The telling of this story is painful yet forgiving, sorrowful yet full of joy, magical, but at the same time full of reality when looked at from the Jewish prospective. What a lesson on how far reaching our choices are. Not only do they affect us, but they affect those we love as well. A wonderful work! I cried all the way through.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2008

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    Posted July 9, 2010

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