One Worthwhile Moment

It's no secret that the last couple of months have been more of a struggle than I anticipated (or desired) in any number of ways. In this world of war and pestilence, as my parents used to say, I know my troubles are trivial. But still ... the latter half of this adventure has not looked the way I thought it would.

So it was that, last week, while I was shuffling my search for temporary accommodations, and the need to eliminate possessions before seeking permanent accommodations, and work with my clients, and inquiries from potential new clients, and ideas for research and writing on the book, and the timing of pitching agents, and the time it takes for a required review to be completed, and the Thanksgiving pie baking and travel plan, and ... what was I saying? Right. So amidst all that, I learned that Mr. Khanjani's brother would be nearby for a few days.

It's funny how, in the midst of all the craziness, such fortuitous timing brought distinct clarity. That issue of proximity to important characters and resources is, after all, one of only two-point-five reasons why I am sticking around the increasingly dark and cold northeastern U.S. for the next little while, despite my desire to flee. (The other reasons are the need to divest "stuff" and the location of the parental folk.)

And so, days later, I found myself sitting down for dinner in a warm kitchen, at a broad and worn farmhouse table. Beside me sat a woman from the U.K. Across from me sat a man and woman from Iran. And at the end of the table sat my dear little sister from China, who had greeted me at the door with a gleeful grin and brushes of her small hand against mine, her strong voice announcing, "Aunty JoAnn," on repeat, to her mother and the assembled guests.

Together, we served ourselves tender baked chicken and veggies, lemon-dressed greens, and heaps of fragrant Persian rice with crunchy potato tahdig. Berry-infused water added festive color to our glasses.  

Through a mixture of questions and translation gaffs, colliding accents and amused grins, Mr. Khanjani's brother told us about the man he remembers as his eldest sibling, surrogate father, business partner, and beloved friend. 

"He is brave. He is wise. He is kind. So kind." His voice softened by age and affliction, his English gently accented, he offered one of the evening's stories.

"I was in the car with him once in Isfahan. There was a man on the corner who was very poor. He had a length of that thin Turkish toweling that he was ripping into smaller squares and selling for maybe two or three pennies each. But as he did it, he was dancing and laughing." He gestured, twirling an imaginary cloth around him, a bit like a lasso.

"My brother pulled over and bought a few squares. I asked him why. After all, he didn't need them. He said to me, 'I like him! He is happy! So I'll buy a few pieces of cloth because he makes me happy.'"

It struck me, that image of Mr. Khanjani, whom I now know to be a wealthy man given to flawless tailoring and immaculate suits, stopping at the curb to buy rags from a man who made him smile. And I smiled, too. 

Do You Know Mr. Khanjani?

The time has come! I'm now scheduling interviews across the U.S. and Canada for late July through late September with people who knew Jamaloddin Khanjani. If that describes you, and you're willing to talk with me, please watch the video below and contact me.

If I can't meet you in person during my summer road trip, we can chat by Skype or Facetime. Please also share this post with your friends and family members who may have known Mr. Khanjani, and who are now living in countries where they are able to speak freely.

Curious about how I started writing about this particular man at this particular time? Watch Why Tell This Story? at the bottom of the book description.

(And if you don't know Mr. Khanjani personally and you don't speak Persian, you can still be involved! Watch How to Help for details.)

Why 'Love Lessons'?

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

Mr. Khánjání's Roses

What better day than Valentine's Day to share the new title of the book? And, of course, the fact that the story is coming back to where it started: the inspiration an 8-year-old girl took from a bouquet of roses she spied across a crowded room and what she learned years later when she went searching for their source.

Mr. Khánjání's Roses: My Love Lessons From an Iranian Prisoner is still a narrative nonfiction book, with all of the history and analysis of events that requires. But it's closer to the heart. A little more adventurous. A little more colorful. A lot more me, in other words. 

I'm feeling good about this evolution of things. The chapter outline feels better and the path the rest of my research needs to take seems more clear. And I'm even more confident about which teaser pieces I'll send out next and to whom I'll send them.

In fact, today I complemented my everyday jeans with a bright red sweater, bright red socks with white hearts, and carved-bone heart earrings to make this announcement. This despite my Valentine's Day consisting of revisions to client projects, writing a legal/contract paper, and not driving 10 miles in search of extravagantly frosted baked goods and Starbucks' finest chocolate-espresso-sugar concoction.

This is my treat for myself today. And for you.

Speaking English

I don't have any great words of wisdom today. No grand reflections on the state of affairs. I could share Bahá’í writings and prayers about the oneness of humanity or the realization of unity that's required in order to solve the world's problems. But I won't.

Instead, I will say that when I interviewed one of Mr. Khánjání's former cellmates a year or so ago, we talked about the way the men kept themselves busy in their cellblock at Evin prison in Tehran. The group was varied, he said, from the few Bahá’ís, to ethnic minorities, to health workers like himself, to people who had fallen out of favor with the government, and beyond.

Among themselves, they determined that their time need not go to waste. Keeping their minds active was key to their well-being. So after lunch each day, they gathered in a circle on the concrete floor of the cellblock for classes they arranged and taught themselves. First three or four people, then eight and 10, then nearly all of the 12 or 15 who shared that common area. 

Mr. Khánjání offered lessons in Persian history and culture. Someone else stepped up to teach Arabic (the language of the Iranian people is Persian, so Arabic is a foreign language there as it is here). This cellmate volunteered to teach English, since he had completed much of his higher education in the U.S. and spoke the language fluently. 

Each of the teachers supported the others' informal sessions. When the English classes began, there sat Mr. Khánjání, nearing 80 at that point and intent on taking part.

Knowing Mr. Khánjání's advanced age and the length of his sentence, a few of the young men in the group asked why he wanted to learn English. After all, the question was left unspoken, when would you have the chance to use it? 

"My grandchildren know English," Mr. Khánjání answered. "I want to learn!"

As I took in the story, it made me think. When do we focus on our own present circumstances? When do we look beyond them? What choices do our perspectives color? What would I do?

I have no answers. I just know that reflections like those have once again tweaked the direction the book is taking. So today, I'll share with you the new working title, which won't appear on my website or my social media channels formally for a couple more weeks. For you, my gift this snowy Tuesday is ... Mr. Khánjání's Roses: My Love Lessons From an Iranian Bahá’í  

Kicking Off the Winter Writing

It happened twice, mingling with writers and academics in a conference room at the Canadian Consulate in New York City last week. I described my book project to someone (or in one case, one of my MFA advisors did) and her hand flew up to meet the gasp leaving her lips. Her eyes flashed wide and rims went red, tears burning in the corners. 

Both of these women clearly had more than a passing familiarity with the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. And both said the same thing: “I’ve never understood how people so kind could be treated so cruelly.”

That, of course, is the point. From here in North America, we look at this as a simple logic problem. Good people, we expect, deserve good lives. 

Good Lives Deserve Good Books
That's my mantra these days. Especially after Friday's pitch exercise, when each aspiring MFA met with two of New York’s finest publishing professionals to rehearse our sales spiels and gather information about our books' relative merits.

I was lucky enough to be paired first with Brenda Copeland, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan. Beneath her bright blond bob, her eyes squinted in concentration as she listened to me reel through the story, the possibilities, the platform. Every now and again she'd ask a question or clarify a point. Her feedback was encouraging. In her opinion, the book may be considered too risky by large publishing houses, which make acquisition decisions driven largely by estimates of commercial viability. After all, both the issue and the individual are relatively unknown in the grand scheme of things. But, she said, keep going, because there is definitely a story here. And a smaller publisher or an academic house with a trade imprint should be able to appreciate the topic, writing, and potential impact of the book on their own merits. 

Later, I sat with Stephanie Sinclair, an agent with the Transatlantic Literary Agency. Her advice, too, was valuable. Start submitting excerpts, she told me; get that memorable introduction out into the world where someone can pick up on it and run with it. Her suggestions focused on her instinct that readers are going to be looking for books about hope and connections with people unlike themselves. 

You Gotta Have Heart
Over the course of the day, I tried out a minor title shift that Brenda recommended on my classmates. Universally, the response ranged from good to "I love that!" Which is promising, because I love it, too. It fits perfectly with the (yet again) revised overview and approach to the book that I'll be rolling out in the next two or three months. 

Little by little, the story is moving away from austere, “here’s all the background you need to know” writing. Slowly but surely, it’s getting to what it always was, the story of one memorable moment and the subsequent path to a serendipitous realization.

I’ve been good about separating the story from my heart on the page. But that’s not a possibility anymore. Each essay on the side, each chapter in the manuscript, has to pulse with a little more blood. 

Writing the Love Story

My ongoing quest to write enough book by an actual deadline continues. Right now, I'm in the midst of trying to revise all the words (okay, many of the words) into good enough shape to share with publisher-type folks in the foreseeable future.

Although I don't think of myself as having a writing "process," exactly, I'm learning that on this book, at least, revision is where fact gives way to feelings. In my first draft of much of the work, I was cramming in information and trying to identify great, gaping holes. I still have those to deal with. But as I revise, I'm looking at how to take what was a half-page sketch of a situation and turn it into a vibrant scene full of emotion. 

That's not always easy, especially since I'd pretty much become a professional at crushing down my own emotions, at least until recently. While a writer shouldn't let all her feelings out onto the page, at the risk of leaving no room for the reader to feel anything, she also shouldn't hold back the flow entirely. That generates some very dull reading, indeed!

Let me give you an example of something that's challenging me. When Mr. Khánjání had been in prison for nearly three years, his wife of more than half a century died at home after a short illness. He wasn't allowed to visit her. And he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral ... an event that saw hundreds, even reportedly thousands, of people from all strata of society arriving by bus and car from all over Iran. 

By themselves, accounts of the funeral are extraordinary. There are even photos and videos to call upon for a sense of the place and time. But what makes the whole situation so poignant is the renowned closeness between husband and wife over all the preceding years. 

So far, everyone I've interviewed about the couple has described their relationship while gazing into the distance, their lips gently sweeping up at the corners and their eyes going hazy. One of Mr. Khánjání's former fellow prisoners, for example, never met Mrs. Khánjání. He knew her only from his friend's mention of her, his excitement when she was coming to visit, and his sense of strength when she'd gone. "She was his love," this man told me, his face radiant with the memory.

What an inspiration it is for a marriage to make such an impression! And what a challenge it is to craft a story that lets readers experience that love. 

Write what you know, every author hears at one time or another. Like most people, I know what a tight marriage looks like from the outside. Perhaps not one quite like the Khánjánís', but relatable. Getting at the heart of it, though, is hard to do without experiencing the feeling of something in some way similar.

Every time I sit down at my desk and begin again, I realize that I don't have the faintest notion what it's like to be a part of something so grand, any more than I know what it's like to be trapped in a cell.

Apples and Attorneys

I was reminded again this week of the benefits we have as Americans. That's because Monday, the New York Times reported that journalist Jason Rezaian is suing the Iranian government for "hostage-taking, torture and terrorism." If you recall, he is the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief who was imprisoned in Iran for about 18 months and released around the time of the nuclear treaty talks between Iran and the international community, including the U.S.

I am very interested in the details laid out in the 68-page filing. Not because I enjoy reading about torture. I don't. In fact, it tends to leave me nauseated or sleeping with the lights on. However, I've found it hard to find detailed, English descriptions of the insides of Iran's prisons and the actions that take place there. That's particularly true of the sections reserved for individuals most often brought up on "security charges," like journalists and Bahá’ís. So reading Mr. Rezaian's case documents may allow me to write more effectively about the conditions facing other prisoners, including Mr. Khánjání.

It's also fascinating to me that the act of filing a lawsuit (against a nation with a history of disregarding similar suits) is reported pretty prominently here in my homeland. What gets reported and what doesn't?

Nearly every other day, I learn about Iranian Bahá’ís being arrested, expelled from university, or closed out of their shops. But those stories do not make the news here or nearly anywhere. Is Iran's lack of free press to blame? In part. But the government's ability to intimidate is more so. Because it's not just domestic press that is quashed. It's foreign press, too. No journalist wants to endure what Mr. Rezaian did. No media outlet wants to be banned from covering stories in Iran.  

So the human right stories, particularly about Bahá’ís, seem to make it out of Iran in a convoluted game of telephone. All that's missing is a couple of tin cans and a really long string. Someone's family member or a human rights activist passes the news along in Farsi via social media, website, phone, or smoke signals, another person or group picks it up, does a rough translation into English, posts it on another human rights or special-interest site, and there it sits. No formal reporting. No identified sources, lest they become the next chapter in the story. No details about anything at all.

Just in the last few days, a minor amount of digging showed that 14 Bahá’ís were arrested in Shiraz last week, four more Bahá’í-owned shops have been closed in Karaj, and in Semnan over the last month or so, 80 families have been evicted and the province's largest apple orchard destroyed. That last bit? It was a cooperative venture among both Bahá’ís and their neighbors in which Mr. Khánjání is a stakeholder. I have a feeling that he may be sitting in his prison cell, more concerned about the well-being of his evicted neighbors than about his own likely losses.

The whole means of gathering information makes for a nonfiction author's nightmare. I'm finding it nearly impossible to gather any details or to verify anything according to journalistic standards. Even though the U.N.Secretary-General just this week said he was "deeply troubled" by the state of human rights in Iran and pointed to the Bahá’ís as the country's "most severely persecuted religious minority." Even though it's all clearly true, in other words.

So think for a minute about wasted apples in a broken orchard halfway around the world. Let yourself feel the warm sun pouring down on your back. The same back that ached every day when you planted those trees. Look across the crushed trunks and limbs. Remember how you walked the rows during last year's harvest, pulling down the fruit one by one. Feel the ultra-sweet stench of acres of rotting fruit saturate the air you take in your next breath.

In the U.S., someone would be filing a lawsuit.