Spanning 40 years, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.” tells the story of an Iranian-Jewish family and their lives in Iran and then the United States. Identity, a mystery and a family fortune hang in the balance of a book that combines magical realism with the real world of the close-knit Iranian-Jewish community.
Author Gina Nahai, who lives in Los Angeles, is an award-winning writer and lecturer at USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program. Nahai reads from her novel Tuesday at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood and on Thursday will be interviewed by Robert Scheer at Writers Bloc at an event at the Goethe Institute.
Jasmine Elist chatted with Nahai over a cup of coffee to discuss assimilation, a hybrid generation and her experience writing “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”
This is your first novel in seven years. What have you been busy doing?
Writing this book! When I started I thought, “this is going to be fun and easy. I don’t have to do any research. It’s all right in front of my face.”
But it got to a point where the only thing I wanted to do was finish this book so I wouldn’t have it in front of me anymore. It became a noose.
I was really conscious of the fact that I was trying to capture a large picture of everything that has happened in the last 40 years. I wanted to be really fair. Going through the stages of the evolution of the society was something that took forever.
The other thing was, I was really aware that even though it’s a novel and even though it’s just one person’s idea, these characters will be seen as representing Iranians. I didn’t want to make them look unnecessarily good but I was also aware that I didn’t want to make them look bad.
Why did you decide not to give the character known as “Raphael’s Son” his own, independent name?
His story — his origins — is based on a person who I kept hearing about growing up. To this day, people still refer to that real-life person as somebody’s son.
People referred to him with that name because there was a woman who claimed that he is the legitimate son of a certain man, but nobody else thought it was possible. His legitimacy was always called into question because everybody said it couldn’t have happened.
My sentiments toward Raphael’s Son changed widely over the course of the book. What were your personal sentiments toward him?
Same thing. Pitying him a lot as a child, but also being aware that many of the things he did were unforgivable. I had no issue hating his enablers, but with him, it was different.
When Raphael’s Son buys a suit, turns up at the party and is totally out of place, that breaks my heart. No matter how bad or awful the character may be, that moment must be so awful.
There have been individuals who have swindled other Iranian Jews, and I don’t know what their excuse is — I don’t think they have an excuse. But Raphael’s Son gets a bigger free pass.
Jonah S., does not enter the story until around the last 50 pages. Why title the book after him?
Every time I write a book, I’m trying to figure out the answer to a question. By the time I’ve written the book and gone through different drafts, I’ve figured out the answer.
With this book, the question was: Is there going to be a distinct Iranian-Jewish culture and community in the United States in the long run? And do we want to assimilate so much that we become part of the larger American Jewish community? And why have we only managed to integrate ourselves to the extent that we have?
Jonah is the answer. The answer finally became that in the long run, whatever we come up with is going to be a hybrid of two sides. Our only choice is to accept that and to nurture that. Jonah represents that hybrid generation and that was why I put his name in the title. He is the bridge between both the family’s past and its present, as well as between the American community and the Iranian community.
It’s challenging to place this novel under the umbrella of a singular genre — what is it like for you to tell a story that crosses over multiple genres?
Difficult. That’s another reason why it took so long to write this book. I didn’t want to write a straight mystery and I didn’t want to write a straight narrative. I had a lot of trouble deciding how big a part the investigation would have in the story. Should they be pursuing any possibilities or any leads? Should I give the answer away right in the first chapter so that it’s not at all a mystery?
I didn’t want to give up either — I wanted there to be some mystery but I also wanted it to fall under a literary genre too.
You reveal a lot about the experience of the Iranian Jewish community in the United States -- which, based on your novel, seems to be a complicated experience.
Every time I do an event, invariably people in there will start asking questions and within minutes, it evolves into people expressing various forms of outrage: at their Iranian neighbor, at their Iranian ex-partner, at their Iranian client.
A lot of the things they say about Iranians are true -- some of us are ostentatious, some of us are too clever in business -- but what people don’t realize is that some people in every community are like that. What’s happened with us is we’ve become identified only by our negative traits. We’re all getting blamed for the sins of the few in the community. I think the reason for that is that we are just very visible. We came to America as a big group and from the very start we made our presence known. I think people are reacting to that.
You raise this issue in the book: Why is it so hard for Iranians to let go of their past?
I’ve always known that it happens, but why does it happen? Why aren’t we willing or able to look at the individual rather than judge them based on the context of their past?
I know I certainly do that. When I was first dating my husband, he finally said to me, “Why is it that every time you talk about a person, you tell their whole story?” Because I kept saying, “Oh well, her mother did that! And her father did that!”
In Judaism, the seventh commandment states that if you do something wrong, god will punish seven generations of your descendants. Talk about holding a grudge! So there is a historical basis for judging people based on their ancestry.