A couple of weeks ago, while I was deep in the process of (yet again) adjusting the book's structure, I had to think about chapter titles. This is one of those things writers do, knowing full well that everything about the book could change multiple times more before publication.
We do it anyway. In part because agents and editors expect to see a chapter outline that gives a sense of the story. In part because chapter titles sometimes help us organize our writing into coherent chunks. And in part because it gives us a sense of accomplishing something, when research and writing turn into a bit of a slog. (For the non-writers: Really, it all seems very glamorous and creative until you're reworking the same material for the fifth time.)
In my case, the slog was due to the issue of tension. That is, a story needs both outer tension, which is what moves the action and interest along, and inner tension, which is what gets a reader invested. The source of external tension in Mr. Khánjání’s Roses: My Love Lessons from an Iranian Prisoner has always been clear: the specific conditions faced by Mr. Khánjání and the Bahá'ís in Iran. The internal tension was hazy, since it needed to stem from me and what I learned or wanted to learn. And I really couldn't have told you what that was.
The more I contemplated that question, the more stuck I became and the more isolated I felt. And the more alone I felt, the more I realized that five stories always rescued me in those moments:
- The Valley of Search in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, when Bahá'u'lláh explains, "One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnún of Love," a character taunted for seeking his love, Layli, in the dust, when she is of pure spirit. He responds that he will seek her everywhere.
- The Valley of Knowledge in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, in which a different lover is chased through the streets by a watchman, only to hop a wall, find his lost love on the other side, and see that he should have blessed the watchman from the start instead of complaining.
- The Alchemist, in which Santiago not only finds his love (in the sweetest scenes ever), but finds that the power of universal love inspires: "When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too."
- A Little Princess, especially the scene when Sara finds a fourpence in the muddy street, buys warm buns from the baker, and then gives all but one of them to a child even hungrier than herself, which inspires the baker to start doing good turns of her own.
- The historical accounts of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, when he was still incarcerated in the former prison city of Akka (Acre), distributing sweets to the children in the streets. He had little of his own, but somehow, he kept giving more to others. When I visited Akka on market day a few years ago, a candy seller was pushing his massive cart through the narrow streets. Hot pink and yellow Turkish delight, slabs of nut candies, and logs of chocolate-covered halvah formed a pool of color against the rough tan walls and grey stone alleyways. I could almost picture an aging man in a serviceable aba being swarmed by children.
Eventually, I realized that the internal tension in the book really goes back to the qualities that I'm seeing in the people I'm meeting and hearing about. They're qualities that are themes in my "rescue stories," as I've come to think of them, too. Sacrifice. Sincerity. Humility. Courage. Service. Hope. Just to name a few.
All of those qualities are aspects of love, whether for family, for a partner, or for humanity. They are also all qualities that I need to work on. Each one stands out now and again, but only when they're wrapped into one person or one story do they shine for what they really are: lessons in how to love unreservedly.
And that is why my subtitle is what it is: Love Lessons From an Iranian Prisoner