Nahal Suzanne Jamir’s debut collection of stories, In the Middle of Many Mountains, grapples with a question that is perhaps unanswerable: Where did I come from? What values and cultures combined to make me who I am? In praising this bold, new book, the writer Debra Monroe puts the question succinctly: How do “we lonely humans trapped in a single life seek the wisdom handed down to us and chafe against it, too”?
Nahal Suzanne Jamir earned her PhD from Florida State University. She’s won numerous story prizes, including First Prize in the 2012 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize, by Ruminate Magazine, for “Stories My Mother Told Me.”
In this interview, Jamir discusses family betrayal, story truth, and why the best fiction resists formal tidiness.
The story opens with uncertainty—the narrator isn’t sure how to begin. I can imagine a workshop leader claiming that the story should simply start after it’s figured out where to begin. But that seems like poor advice here. In this case, the story seems to be, in part, about the narrator trying to wrap her mind around something awful that has happened—and will happen. The story is about her search for narrative as a way to understand. As you worked on this story, how did you think about the question of where to begin?
Nahal Suzanne Jamir
Yes, and I did get some of that type of feedback when the story was workshopped. I think some readers, workshoppers, and authors expect characters and the stories they live in to be too neat–despite this overwhelming stamp of approval that postsecondary institutions give to postmodern and experimental literature. Yet, stories may be raw both in form and content. We can’t expect the main character to have an inner conflict and insist that the form or approach of every story be neat or rigid. I love stories and novels that de-evolve, like Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. So, I wanted to try to start at that point, to use its rawness and see how far I could push not just the characters but also the form. A neat beginning was out of the question.
The question of where to begin with this story was also strongly influenced by my nonfiction writing. As a younger writer, I only wrote two stories where I engaged with semi-autobiographical material, and I felt odd using material from my life. I felt like I was lying instead of telling the truth. So, in 2004, I started writing nonfiction, and that task required me to retell stories—family stories, religious stories, to even “retell” letters. Retelling epitomizes the struggle to find one’s place and to understand others, especially those who came before.
The narrator of “In the Middle of Many Mountains” isn’t sure how to begin because she hasn’t wrapped her mind around all of the different facets of her life, and toward the end, you see the struggle to begin a story linked with her retelling stories.
Though tertiary, with this story, I was also inspired by the Canongate myth series in which authors like Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood retell myths. Winterson’s Weight, a re-telling of the Atlas myth, in particular caught my attention. She merges the myth with her own autobiographical material and has this recurring line “I want to tell the story again.” I love this notion because she uses this line and this notion to link her myth and her (real-life) story. So, she is retelling her story when retelling Atlas’s, discovering both.
The story asks a fascinating question: “Who is the betrayer?” The suggestion is that the answer won’t be clear, otherwise the question wouldn’t be necessary. How do you tackle such a complex, multi-faceted idea in a story? Was this a story you had to sit with for a long time? Just as the narrator struggles to wrap her mind around the events, was it difficult to wrap yours around the nuances of the betrayal?
Nahal Suzanne Jamir
The notion of betrayal is one that has always been intrinsically linked to family because families are supposed to be a certain way. We have family “duties” and “roles.” But I didn’t want to let any of the family members off the hook in this story. When something goes wrong in a family, it usually affects all members. It’s a mess, and no one behaves well. The questions don’t stop. The guilt and anger don’t stop. I also made a conscious choice to have the family be a family that wasn’t new, so to speak. They’d been together as a family for a while. The parents are old. The daughters are not these young innocent children. The betrayals are small and large. The role of the betrayer belongs to each family member—even the mother because she cannot save her husband or her daughters. Marjan betrays by betraying herself (her body) and by leaving the family. The eldest daughter betrays her students and herself by quitting her job, which is her passion. The eldest daughter can also not save anyone and continues contact with the father. The father’s betrayal is obvious and rather cliché, but he also gets betrayed by his own idealism, what he believes a romantic relationship should be.
Most importantly, this line, this question, appears in the story right after the subject of language, the Persian language, which the eldest daughter doesn’t understand. Yet, on a broader level, language or communication betrays all of these family members. Sometimes, though, the misunderstandings that result from these problems with language are funny or even beautiful.
With all of this family trauma unraveling, with all the betrayal, I tried to control the drama (keep it from being melodrama) by using a fragmented form so that no one character and no one scene could go on and on. I also tried to control the drama by contrasting it with stories and information that were tangential yet still relevant. Finally, when I got to a certain point, I realized that the story was long enough. I didn’t want it to be too long.
The story begins with a place (Nayriz, Iran) where the narrator has never been. It also offers words and phrases from a language (Farsi) that she doesn’t understand well. How do you write about a place, language, and culture when the narrator has only a limited knowledge of them? In other words, the narrator and the reader cannot fully understand the mother without understanding her language and history, but that knowledge isn’t fully available to her or us. That’s an exceedingly tricky, yet often true to life, premise? How did you approach it?
Nahal Suzanne Jamir
At a certain point in my development as a writer, I started to enjoy the challenge of writing far outside of my realm of knowledge. On a literal level, one can obtain information and become some sort of expert on any number of subjects, but for me, acknowledging the lack of knowledge—for myself and for a character—is the most interesting approach because then the story becomes about the struggle. So, admission—or telling the truth or letting the truth just be—my first move with this story and the culture and language that neither the main character nor I knows. In “Good Form,” Tim O’Brien writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why the story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” So, I’m not going after authority but authenticity through story. I do have a lot of story-truth about Iran passed down to me that I can use or re-create.
The struggle is the story and vice versa. Moreover, the struggle shows both what is known and what is not. The main character in this story has some knowledge, and those pieces are present. I hope that her lack of knowledge also is present, just as white space is in poetry. I think this narrator does search and seek, despite a great deal of confusion on her part, and this is a concept very present in some novels that I greatly admire, like Percy’s The Moviegoer and Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Near the end of the excerpt, you write about the feeling the narrator gets while talking to her younger sister. She thinks, “I don’t want to see. Her, barely there, five-year-old limbs stretched out to form an adult. We are always playing with dolls.” As someone with younger siblings, I know this feeling exactly, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen it so perfectly and eloquently captured. How do you create a description like that? There are two common metaphors about the writer’s experience, and I wonder which applies to you. Are you the medium transmitting a voice from beyond or the sculptor chiseling away at a rock to reveal the statue hidden within?
Nahal Suzanne Jamir
It begins with this strange moment when you look at someone you knew as a child and you can see that child overlapped with this adult in front of you. Sometimes, my mother will turn to me and say that a look or a sound I’d just made was the same one I’d been making my whole life. And I think we’re always trying to make these connections with our changing bodies. Of course, there is that strange phase where adolescents really do look stretched out. In the story, though, Marjan is anorexic and has done this to herself. So, there is this physical manifestation of her emotional state and reaction to her family’s changes. I feel that there are so many horrible images of those who suffer from anorexia, and there is definitely a stigma attached to it. I wanted to present it in a slightly different way, where her loss of weight brought her back to childhood somehow. The notion of dolls refers to the sisters’ childhood. Yet, the notion of dolls points to, of course, the false representation of the female body (Barbie dolls, etc.). More importantly for me is the notion of playing with dolls, playing out stories and scenarios, that act of creation, which is an act of control—and how by manipulating her own body Marjan is playing in both child-like and adult ways.
I also have to admit that the description was influenced by a series titled The Kingdom, created and co-directed by Lars Von Trier. To say this series is weird would be a gross understatement. Toward the end of the series, a child is born to one of the doctors, and this child grows much too quickly. The child develops into a strange adult body (about 10-feet tall) in a very short time, and his voice and his desires remain those of a child. The hospital staff has to build a makeshift scaffold to hold the child up. It’s a haunting image that I’ve admired for a while.
Von Trier always struck me as a writer/director who transmits voices from beyond. I don’t really view my process that way, or as a sculptor either. If anything, I’m the kid who broke that vase that had been in the family for generations—and I’m putting it together piece by piece…and before anyone can figure out what I’ve done and punish me. Gloria Anzaldua writes of one of her books having a “mosaic pattern” that in the end is an “almost finished product. . . .an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has a mind of its own. . . .It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly, rough, unyielding, with pieces of feather sticking out here and there, fur, twigs, clay.” I think there is intense fear, anxiety, and even shame involved in the writing process. This process is very messy and very personal for me. The writing process is not just about hard work and understanding your craft. It’s about not having control. If you’re lucky, I think you have brief moments of sanity and balance.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.