Bestselling novelist Gina B. Nahai was talking to a woman she'd known from her childhood in Iran, when the friend shocked her with a story Nahai had never heard before.
"She's telling me someone else's story, and she says, 'All this happened when I got out of the hospital.' And I say, 'What?' And she says, 'Well, you know, after my mother threw me off the roof.' "
Her friend was considered "a bad luck child," a common Iranian belief stemming from something as intangible as the way a child looks you in the eye, says Nahai, a 38-year-old Iranian Jewish refugee who has lived in Los Angeles for 22 years.
"I asked her, 'How come you didn't die?' And her older sister, who was in the room, said, 'I always thought she was an angel, and that was how she survived childhood.' "
That story became the alluring focus of Nahai's bestselling second novel, "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" (Harcourt Brace, 1999), in which Roxanna the Angel, a beautiful, ethereal girl from the Jewish ghetto in Tehran, is thrown off a roof by her mother for being a bad-luck child but survives by growing wings and flying off on a long and difficult journey to freedom. She ends up in Los Angeles, which in real life is now home to more than 30,000 mostly upper-class Iranian Jews who fled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist regime just over 20 years ago. (Nahai's family left shortly before the revolution.)
In her novel, Nahai incorporates not only the horror of her friend's story and the contrasting beauty of the sister's metaphorical interpretation, but also her friend's classic Iranian instinct to keep the story secret--in contrast to the confess-all culture of the United States.
"There's such a sense of keeping face in Iran, of keeping the family name intact--a sense that if the truth is allowed out, it can be devastating," says Nahai, in her spacious Los Angeles home in the hills of Beverly Glen that she shares with her lawyer husband, Hamid Nahai, and their three children, Alexander Shahin, 12, Ashley Leila, 10, and Kevin Cyrus, 6.
"And the reality is, telling the truth can be devastating in Iran, because you're not forgiven for your mistakes," Nahai says. "Being a divorced woman is like being a leper. Having a handicapped child means that the entire family is doomed because if there is one bad gene, then none of the girls in the family can get married."
Cultural Attitudes on Truth Telling
Although "Moonlight" sends a strong message on the warping nature of secrecy stemming from oppression, Nahai tries to avoid preachiness by drenching the reader in myth, allusion, history, zesty good humor and the sensibility of the Iranian language, Farsi, which she says is "very poetic and has a lot of what you might call melodrama" built into it. For example, Roxanna is said to be "dying of sorrow," and there's a word in Farsi for that. Thus, "Moonlight" is not simply a protest novel but a philosophical meditation on different cultural attitudes to truth and speaking the truth, as well as on the problems of accommodating these disparate truths in the fragmentary world of exile.
"The hardest thing for me growing up was understanding that no one is entirely good or bad," Nahai says. Years ago, she discovered that one of her favorite great-uncles, "the nicest, most wonderful, great guy and loving father," had tried to murder his wife. "How do you reconcile these two things?"
In the novel, Nahai explores the fractured nature of truth by filtering Roxanna's story through various viewpoints. Her tough-minded sister, Miriam, tells Roxanna's 18-year-old daughter, Lili, of her mother's difficult marriage in Iran, her affair with her husband's father, imprisonment in a Turkish whorehouse, and years of mind-numbing menial work until Roxanna arrives, old, broken and obese (symbolically bloated with sorrow) in Los Angeles. But it is Lili who relays Miriam's story of Roxanna to the reader.
Nahai's point is that sometimes it takes several generations for exiles to make sense of all the different cultural fragments of their lives. "In the beginning," says Roxanna, as she lay dying, "there were many choices, and I, believing I was doomed, let them go to waste." And Roxanna sees from the gleam in her daughter's eyes that Lili will take her mother's hard-earned insight to heart and perhaps make something of her life.
"There are times when it's not just OK to tell the truth, but it will serve you," Nahai says.
Speaking out has been a persistent theme in her own family, she says.
"I think that's a big part of the reason my family left before the revolution. Not only didn't we fit into Shiite society, we didn't fit within Jewish society so well either. There was always the sense that there's got to be something else out there."