Parnaz Foroutan’s Debut Novel Examines the Line Between Memory and History

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“In the outskirts of Los Angeles, in the sprawl of suburban homes that sit in the lap of dry, gold hills, there is a garden. In the warmth of late summer evenings, the perfumes of honeysuckles and jasmines in this garden are maddening. Earthen pots of cosmos and geraniums surround the yard. Near the back wall grows a pomegranate tree. A fig tree fruits in the late summer, the grape arbor hides her clusters in among the leaves, the boughs of the apple tree nearly touch the soil in autumn, and the orange tree, soaking beneath the Southern California sun, provides year-round. Mint vines creep to cover the grounds, and nasturtiums explode in blossom.”

gardenSo begins L.A. author Parnaz Foroutan’s debut novel, The Girl From the Garden (out August 18). The garden in question is described above; the girl who belongs to it is Mahboubeh Malacouti, an elderly Iranian woman with dementia. Garden’s story—about a wealthy Persian Jew, Asher Malacouti, and his wife, Rakhel, who cannot produce a male heir—unfolds through the eyes of Mahboubeh, the couple’s only surviving daughter. For Foroutan, writing a book about early 20th century Iran was an exercise in both fact and fiction; Rakhel was a real person, one who Foroutan heard about as a child growing up in Iran. “The families would gather for parties or events and the elders would sit and keep coming back to this particular story—they would call the main character Dada, and she was this monster of a human being,” she says. “They described her as being incredibly powerful and devious and manipulative. Somehow I knew that if I wanted to be initiated into the world of storytelling, I had to tell this story.” We spoke to Foroutan ahead of her appearance at Book Soup on August 21 to hear more about her debut offering.

Why tell the story of 20th century Iran now?
Iran is in the news quite often. As an Iranian, I feel that there’s a lack information about the people, and the information that exists right now is skewed. I wanted to tell the story to offer another perspective, and the woman who tells the story is fashioned after my grandmother. The narrator is unreliable—she is going through dementia—which brings to light that narratives are told from someone’s perspective. Much of the United States lacks information about the Middle East, but then books like The Kite Runner come out and become the voice of Afghanistan. That’s dangerous. You have to dig through stories on your own and come to your own truth. We don’t trust the memory of a person whose memory is compromised. We look at history as through the eyes of those who win, and voices of others are lost because they don’t get to speak. And that’s dementia in its own way.

How much research went into the book?
This took 10 years of researching Iranian agriculture, the Qajar Dynasty, and public health. As research goes, you become obsessed with learning more and more—the more I learned, the more contradictory stories I found about Jews in Iran. No one’s stories matched up and there are a lot of holes in the narrative; not just with oral storytelling, but the stories from the women were different than the men’s. There’s a glitch in the storytelling that speaks to the patriarchy and the perspective of men as well as to their particular responsibility of what happens to the women within their family.

Considering pieces of this story are true, why did you write the book as fiction instead of memoir?
Philosophically and stylistically, that was a choice I had to make. Originally this was going to be a memoir, but I realized that if I presented it as a memoir, I would be representing mistruths as a writer. There were stylistic choices that I needed to make to have the story be a beautiful story. And because of those decisions, I could morally say that this book makes factual sense. The bones are all true, but I had to add flesh and breath into it, and that is from my imagination.

How do you think The Girl From the Garden will be received by L.A.’s Jewish-Iranian community?
I come from an interesting background of being Jewish and Muslim. I exist in both worlds. But I’ve tried not to think too much about what people will think.

You wrote the story while living in Los Angeles. Where does the culture of L.A. intersect with 1917 Iran?
I grew up in Los Angeles, and it’s a part of me. The narrator is telling the story in current day Los Angeles. Her dementia is symbolic of the immigrant experience: being taken out of one particular mode of living and being popped into another way of existing. My grandmother was an immigrant who came here at age 60. Los Angeles is a Babylon of beautiful chaos—folks from all over the world come together, but it’s a very isolating place. As a kid you can shift and adjust, but as an old immigrant, you’re fossilized. We’re encapsulated in our vehicles, and Los Angeles demolishes its history to keep the city young.

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