Owl Madness Day 2: Negeen Papehn

Family. Community. Rules. Expectations.

It’s like a mantra on repeat in my mind from the day I was born. I’m Iranian.

I say that like no other explanation is needed, and it’s not, but I guess you wouldn’t know that unless you were an Iranian girl like me. Bullet points in my Persian girl handbook, if I actually had one. Sadly, no one has ever thought to create one. Hmmm… maybe my next book? I digress.

Growing up, I wished I were more like my friends. Blonde, blue-eyed porcelain dolls, a vivid contrast to my dark frizzy hair, and olive-toned skin. Mom was blessed with stick straight hair, so my unruly poof ball, only proved to be an obstacle for us both. I stood out like a sore thumb, until her cousin introduced me to Paul Mitchell Mousse (which I still use to this day). Ahhh…one of the many hoops to jump through when you don’t quite fit in.

It was tough navigating in a world I didn’t look like, in a culture that felt half embedded in the past but struggling to push into the present. I think most of us felt lost at sea, the first born in this country. We tried desperately to find a balance between pleasing our parents but still finding ourselves in the process. Suddenly, all the sharp black borders our parents were raised with blurred into various shades of gray, leaving both generations, old and new, confused on how to proceed. So instead, we were forced to modify.

That sounds much easier than it should, because it’s not.

I’m forty years old (almost) and I still have a tough time trying to keep the scales from tipping in one direction or the other. Why are you still worried about what your parents think, you ask? Because that’s just the way that it goes. Needing their approval is twisted into the helix of my DNA. I have no idea how to be any other way. I’m not sure if many of us do, to be honest.

Family. It’s the fiber of our being, the core our souls are wrapped around. We are intertwined in ways others find odd, way too into each other’s business than we should be. And I love it! My family is amazing. We are one solid unit, five soldiers ready to go into battle at any given moment if need be. There is no feat too big or problem too terrifying to deal with, as long as we have each other. This is how it’s always been. Now that my brothers and I are older and have started our own families, the circle has just gotten bigger. Nothing else has changed.

The Iranian community is much of the same. Most people I know come from families like mine. Maybe we don’t have boundaries, but oh well, who needs them when you never worry about someone having your back? And when happiness or tragedy hits, everyone comes to attention, lifting each other up. If you ask me, that’s amazing.

There are rules, like in any other culture. But I think, as time passes and we thrive in this melting pot, the rules are changing. They aren’t as stringent and strict as they once were. I’m no longer the only little girl with frizzy dark hair and olive-toned skin. And my parents are no longer forced to live in someone else’s vision. So we evolve.

The expectations are still there. Every Iranian parent still wants their children to be doctors, lawyers, pharmacist or dentists. The four suitable careers. Somehow it means they’ve succeeded as parents among the community. My parents pushed me past my limits, forcing me to accomplish things I didn’t think I could. It was stressful, emotional, and very complicated, but in the end, I ended up stronger and more independent than I would have otherwise. I became a dentist. That made them happy. Now, I’m also a writer. That’s made me happy. So I guess all the gray hair I dye now, was worth it! LOL.

When I wrote Forbidden by Faith, I wanted to give readers a glimpse into the chaotic, foreign, rich,
dramatic, heart-warming world of my culture. I wanted to show both the similarities as well as the differences. The reality is, we are all pretty similar. Human, raw, flawed and ever changing.

Sara and Maziar deal with much of the same issues that most of us do when we’re somewhere in the gray area of becoming adults and finding our way. They’re faced with difficult choices as they embark on their love affair, pushing them to make decisions that are scary and unaccepted. What they stand to lose is monumental. Stuck between their families and their love for each other, they’re forced to look at themselves and decide who it is they really want to be.

Family plays a huge role in their lives too. Both characters are faced with opposition. Maziar is forced to look at his parents in a different light, to understand that some traditions and ways of living are so intricately imbedded in the fabric of their beings, that they’ve lost sight of it all together. He must realize their humanity, accepting their limitation at his own cost. Sara doesn’t believe her parents are the same, until reality kicks her in the gut, when they show the same prejudices in regards to Ben. Shocked, she finds the strength to push against their boundaries, forcing them to question their beliefs and make choices they didn’t think they’d ever have to. In the end, both families are forced to evolve, growing in ways that only make them better.

Is this book about you?

I get this question ALL THE TIME. The answer is two-fold.

I am Muslim. Mike is Jewish. It makes sense that people would think this story was the story of us, but it’s not. We’re lucky to have the families that we do. We didn’t have to go to war over a love that was ours, but a fight that spanned centuries behind us. It could have been our story though. So instead, I wrote the story for Maziar and Sara. This is their love story, not mine.

However, do I exist among the pages of Forbidden by Faith? Of course I do. I don’t know how anyone can write anything without pulling from deep within themselves. The characters aren’t real, but you’ll find parts of my personality in Sara and Bita. There are versions of the mother I am in Shireen and Naghmeh. There are segments of my family’s loyalties and fierce love throughout the book. And there are situations that unfold that come from bits and pieces of my past. How else would I be able to develop a story I’d hope you could get lost in, if the emotions weren’t real?

Now don’t be deceived, this isn’t an autobiography. My imagination was my partner in crime. She was probably the leader in all of this, to be exact, but as a writer, and I’m sure most of my writer friends would agree, we write about things we understand. You must have had your heart broken before to be able to splash that pain across your pages and have your readers believe it. Otherwise, they’d just be words. And words don’t matter if they don’t make you feel anything.