Q&A with Sarah Delijani

Q: Why did you choose “Children of the Jacaranda Tree” as the book’s title? Who are the children to whom you’re referring?

A: They’re the children of the revolution. I imagine the jacaranda tree as a symbolic utopian image of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although it brought down the Shah it was, in some ways, a failure for many of the people who believed and participated in it because it became something other than what they had been hoping for. Many of these people ended up being imprisoned by the new regime. The children of the title are their children – kids who were born in the post revolutionary period and raised by their grandparents, aunts and uncles because their parents were in jail.

Q: How is this linked to your experiences and those of your family?

A: The book is very much inspired by my family’s story, especially the early chapters set in the 1980s in Tehran’s Evin Prison and elsewhere in the city. My parents and my uncles and aunts were dedicated political activists before and during the revolution. They were secular, not Islamists, and wanted Iran to become a modern Republic. When it became a theocracy they realized this was not what they wanted and their political activism got more serious. In a sense it became official that they were working against the regime, which carried out mass arrests in 1983 of political opponents in all political parties. One of the reasons I don’t specify what party my characters belonged to is that every party was targeted by the regime.

Q: What happened to your parents?

A: They were arrested. At the time my brother was two years old and my mom was pregnant with me. My aunt, also pregnant, was arrested as well so my cousin and I were both born in prison. (The book’s first chapter is inspired by what my mom went through giving birth to me behind bars.) A few years later my parents were released, which was fortunate for them because in 1988—the last year of the Iran/Iraq war—the regime carried out mass executions of political prisoners. It has been estimated the purge killed between three and twelve thousand people. We’ll never know the exact number because their bodies weren’t turned over to their families and funerals were not allowed. Instead many of the victims were buried in mass graves. My dad’s brother was among those executed that summer.

Q: Who raised you?

A: While my parents were in prison my grandparents raised my brother and me. The story in the book about the children who stayed with their grandparents until their parents got out of jail comes from that experience. When my folks were released we moved out and got a place of our own.

Q: You’ve been surrounded by these stories since you were a child. What made you decide to tell them now?

A: Whenever my parents would get together with friends who had shared those experiences the conversation, at some point, would inevitably turn to various “prison stories.” Some were quite funny – stories of the jokes and games they’d play on the guards. They didn’t really talk too much about the sad things that had happened but it was clear my uncle’s execution had left a huge scar in my family. It was always there and it came out every once in a while. I didn’t realize how important those stories had become for me until later on and I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to write this book. It’s almost surprising it wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I started writing.

Q: How did this book evolve?

A: I didn’t set out to write a novel. Instead I thought it might be easier to get published if I wrote short stories. The first one was about the bracelet of date stones my dad made for me when he was behind bars. After that one was done I wrote another. Pretty soon I realized any time I wanted to write a story I was returning to those events in prison, the executions and so on. Then I told my mom I wanted to write my birth story. I had heard it before on one of my birthdays but this time I wanted to sit down and take notes as it was told. And that’s what I did. I went to California one year to visit my family and asked my mom all kinds of questions. What did you eat? What did you wear? What was life like in prison day-to-day, hour-to-hour, moment-to-moment? What sort of interactions did you have with the guards, the other prisoners, and your cellmates? Once I got all the details down I set about expanding it into a novel.

Q: Where does biography end and the novel begin?

A: I didn’t want to write a biography but rather a version of what happened. So I’d pick individual scenes or events and then build upon them or add to them. For example, I imagined my mom seeing her dad after being imprisoned in the hospital for months. That never happened in real life. It’s just something that came to me as I was writing. Scenes like that just wrote themselves. I didn’t really have to think too much about them.

Q: Was writing this book a difficult process for you?

A: It was extremely difficult because it was so personal. I would get unbelievably sad. Writing the stories of what my parents and family went through made them much more real for me than just hearing about them. As a writer you’re constantly putting yourself in the position of the people you’re writing about. There were times I had to stop, take a walk, have some tea, or do something—anything—to distance myself from these stories that were already sad and emotional to begin with. Detaching myself was very difficult.

Q: Whom did you speak to in your family and did you do other research as well?

A: I didn’t want to talk to too many people so I decided to speak almost exclusively to my parents. After all, this was their story. It was fascinating how clear it was for them all these years later – what they ate in prison, what they wore, what time they had to wake up, their daily routine, and so on. I also did some research on my own about the Iran/Iraq War, the arrests of dissidents, the mass executions in ’88 and so on. I wanted to know if any more details had come to light in recent years. As to the parts of the book that take place after the post-election unrest in 2009, I did some reading and watched some videos of the ongoing protests but didn’t really need to do too much research because I had followed those events in the news and on-line day-by-day as they were unfolding.

Q: Were there any surprises for you as you wrote this book?

A: Because I had been around these stories for so long I was used to them, so I was surprised at my own reaction. I was surprised at how emotional I was getting as I was writing. Ultimately I realized I wanted to write about things I didn’t fully understand. I never fully understood these events that loomed so large in the life of family such as the death of my uncle and my parents’ imprisonment. In writing about them I was surprised at how much I was able to discover about myself. I was also surprised at my parents’ openness. They wanted to talk about their experiences. And they took it all very seriously. In the beginning it was hard for them, most particularly for my mom. But the more involved she became the more she opened up and things got easier.

Q: What exactly did you discover about yourself in writing this book?

A: I didn’t realize how obsessed I was with this period in time. I am still. I feel like I haven’t really said anything about it yet and could write on the subject forever. I also came to realize how different my life has been from that of my friends who didn’t have the same experiences. And I discovered that the experiences somehow made me, and my family, stronger. They united us in ways I hadn’t previously recognized.

Q: We’ve talked about what surprised you in writing this book. What do you think will surprise your readers?

A: If they’re interested in Iran I think one surprise will be that the revolution wasn’t an Islamic revolution from the outset. There were a lot of other forces involved. The Islamists ultimately took over but in the beginning it was a revolution that came from the people. And what the people wanted was simply to oust a once untouchable king. I think readers will also be surprised at the enormity of the violence and repression carried out by the regime after the revolution, the mass executions and so on. And I hope they’ll be surprised to see how people’s lives were in Iran then and how they are now. I didn’t want to write a tour guide. Instead I wanted to present a normal picture of life.

Like any other nation Iran is full of complications and contradictions. My parents, my family and friends, belonged to a particular segment of society—secular, cultivated, leftists—that isn’t necessarily the first thing you imagine when you think about Iran. (Most of the time Westerners imagine Iranians veiled up, chanting anti-everything slogans.) In fact many of my Iranian friends will also probably be surprised to read about this segment of their own society. Iran is a country with many divisions and with every section of society isolated from every other—secular from religious, rich from poor, literate from illiterate. So I think there will be many Iranians who might also find surprises in this book.

Q: Do you still have significant family in Iran? And are you worried about reprisals because of what you’ve written?

A: I still have a great deal of family there on my father’s side: my grandmother, an aunt, cousins and so on. And of course when it comes to dictatorships reprisals are the first thing you think of, especially if you live far away. I know nothing could possibly happen to me but I certainly worry about my family there. I’m like any Iranian writer or activist who lives outside the country. We constantly worry. But it shouldn’t stop us from saying things and speaking out. That’s the way dictatorships work. They make you afraid because you don’t know how they’ll react. However, you can’t think about that too much otherwise you just end up paralyzed. And it should be said my goal with this book is not to make political statements or chant slogans. Although it is about my family’s experiences, first and foremost I simply want it to be a good novel, a good story.

Q: Half the book is set in the 1980s. The rest is set in 2009, ‘10 and ‘11. What are your thoughts on the post-election protests that began in 2009? Do you see a difference between what happened in Iran in the 1980s and what happened there more recently?

A: The major difference, in my opinion, is that when the regime took repressive measures and carried out executions in the 1980s they were done out of the public eye. They weren’t necessarily done secretly—people knew about them; families were told—but they were done out of sight, often at night in prison courtyards with the bodies dumped in mass graves. There was an attempt to keep the killings at least somewhat hidden. During the more recent unrest it was all out in the street. The regime was beating people up, arresting them or shooting them in broad daylight. In a way they were much more ferocious, as if they didn’t care anymore. There was not even an attempt to hide it. I’m not a political analyst but I think it shows this new generation—these new guys, these new guards—to be much more ferocious and nonchalant about what they’re doing. It was kind of shocking.

What was particularly sad was that 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the revolution. Right before the election there was a sense of liberation in the air. For example, we were seeing televised debates between candidates for the first time. It felt like something was going to happen. Reform would finally take place. And then came this incredible crackdown making it seem as if nothing had changed in 30 years. In a way it had gotten much worse.

Q: How often have you gone back to Iran?

A: After leaving when I was twelve I went back almost every year with my mom or aunt to visit my dad. We stopped going back when he moved to America. Then, in 2009, right before the elections, my husband attended a conference in Tehran and I went with him. It was his first time, and the first time for me in eight years. I remember there was such calm in the country. Now I realize it was the calm before the storm. I went again in 2011 for a cousin’s wedding and haven’t been back since.

Q: What’s it like for you going back there?

A: It’s so much fun. I’ve never gone back thinking, “They did this to family.” I don’t hold any grudges. So it’s always wonderful for me to be there. The country is so dynamic. Two thirds of the population are young people my age, more or less. There’s so much energy, so much hope despite everything.

Q: What sort of attitude were you seeing “in the street” when you went back in 2011?

A: I got the sensation people were just waiting for the next opportunity to get out there again. Even though there were no more protests things weren’t over yet. It felt like everyone was taking a step back, trying to analyze and understand what had happened, and considering their next move. I’m not talking only on a political level—i.e. underground meetings in homes—but on a conscious level as well. I think people still believe the country needs reform and that it will happen at the right time. It should also be said that things were a little bit different in 2011 than they are now. The economic crisis in Iran today—in part because of sanctions and in part because of a lack of preparation by the government—is causing real difficulties and dissatisfaction in the streets. In 2011 it hadn’t yet hit too hard.

Q: What sort of attitudes were you seeing regarding America and the West?

A: What the Iranian government says about America is very different from what the people feel. It’s not that Iranians are necessarily in love with the U.S. People are certainly aware that any chance of Iranian democracy ended with the American-led coup in 1953 that put power fully in the Shah’s hands. But it’s not something everyone talks about every night at the dinner table. And Iranians love American culture. They love American movies and art and literature. The same goes for France or England or Italy. They want to know more about what’s happening culturally in all of those countries. There’s no sense of hostility.

Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

A: I want readers to see that history is the same all over the world. We all want the same things. Every nation has had its wars, its own fight for democracy, and its own battles for freedom. Whether these battles take place in Syria, Argentina, Burma, Iran or anywhere else they’re all similar and all carry the same message: that people want to live freely; that we are all much more alike than we could possibly imagine; that we all want the same things; and we all go through the same pain to get there. Anyone who has given birth in a prison and ends up having to give their child away goes through the same grief and the same pain, regardless of what country they’re from. That’s the overriding message: we’re all the same.