A lustful eunuch intent on revenge. A Persian princess seeking to bend an empire to her will. A bloodthirsty Shah with a jones for opium and a deadly streak of paranoia. Anita Amirrezvani’s second novel, Equal of the Sun (Scribner) is a beautifully crafted tale based upon the intrigues that followed the death of Tahmasb Shah, who ruled the Persian Empire from 1524-76. Amirrizvani reads from “Equal of the Sun” at Mrs. Dalloway’s in the Elmwood tonight at 7:30 p.m.
A long time Berkeley resident who settled here after earning a BA in English from Cal, Amirrizvani spent more than a decade cogently covering dance for the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News. Her first novel, 2007’s “The Blood of Flowers” (Little, Brown and Company) was set in 17th-century Iran, but it wasn’t based on historical figures. “Equal of the Sun” delves into the inner workings of the palace during a time of upheaval, and the critical role played by eunuchs.
Andrew Gilbert: Let’s talk a little about your family background. You were born in Tehran, and your father is Iranian and your mother American. How did they meet?
Anita Amirrezvani: My mom is Lithuanian-American, and she emigrated to the US when she was young. She and my dad met at the University of Miami when they were college students in the late 1950s. Thinking about it, I realized, how else did people of such diverse backgrounds end up meeting at that time? They got married in Iran, and I was born there. Things being what they were, they separated and I came back to US with my mom when I was two and a half.
AG: You were in Tehran in 1978 at the start of the revolution that overthrew the Shah. What’s your most vivid memory of that visit?
AA: It’s not one single incident, but it became increasingly clear the country was heading for major upheaval. I remember an early flash point when a lot of people burned to death in a cinema, Cinema Rex. There were increasingly more protests, and more and more people were killed. After 2,500 years of monarchy, it’s no surprise that things came to a head.
AG: “Equal of the Sun” feels like the work of someone who has experienced history’s vertiginous flow first hand. The novel captures that sense of upheaval and uncertainty as people and groups fall in and out of favor. Do you feel like your family’s flight from Iran informed the story?
AA: I never thought of that. When you’re working on a novel a lot of unconscious stuff comes into play and hopefully elements of one’s past surface in a useful way. You may have hit the nail on the head, but I can’t tell you it was done in a conscious fashion.
AG: The main character, the narrator and arguably the hero of the novel is the eunuch Javaher. What kind of research did you do into the world of eunuchs?
AA: It was a lot of patchwork research. To my knowledge there are no memoirs or detailed contemporaneous accounts of the lives of eunuchs from my period of Iranian history. I did find one story of a Chinese eunuch’s life that was published fairly recently, “The Last Eunuch of China.” Although it’s a different culture, it was useful testimony from an individual who experienced that life. I also drew on scholarship, such as a book about the Ottoman court called “The Imperial Harem,” and I researched medical texts.
No one thinks much about eunuchs these days, but I was fascinated to learn how extensively eunuchs participated in the Byzantine, Ottoman, Mogul, Chinese, and Persian empires. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of thousands of men served in this role. Trying to imagine the life of a man in this position was intriguing to me, as is the idea of giving voice to people who didn’t write their own stories.
AG: One of the fascinating things about Javaher is that he moves effortlessly between the tightly delineated world of women and men.
AA: Yes, he can move between men and women’s spheres easily. It took me a while to realize that I needed him as the narrator for that reason. We tend to emphasize that the women of the period were confined, especially women of high status. But unrelated men couldn’t go into the women’s spheres either. It was a double segregation, though obviously the men had a lot more freedom of movement.
AG: How does Pari, who was a princess and the daughter of the long-reigning Tahmasb Shah, come across in the court chronicles? Is she cast as a hero, a woman who reached beyond her station, a tragic figure?
AA: The histories cite her intelligence and the fact that she was her father’s favorite, but they also describe her as something of a schemer. What’s interesting is that more recent scholarship in the last 15 years has been mining sources and offering different readings of the role of women in the Middle East. The general assumption is that they were totally oppressed and never did anything. That’s a blanket view that doesn’t allow for any subtlety or variation. Many of these court women actually had a lot of power.. They could control their own money, and could influence events. Recent scholarship is much more layered and thoughtful than previous scholarship, and paints a much more credible picture of their lives.
AG: One of the things I love about “Equal of the Sun” is the way poetry is woven through the story. The characters are constantly referring to classical verse, reciting Ferdowsi, or their own verse, which really portrays how central poetry is to Persian culture.
AA: Pari herself was a poet. I came to realize if I wanted to write about the court with any veracity I would have to portray literate people who would have listened to poetry as a pastime, and who could recite vast passages from memory. At moments of highest emotion, they would think of someone else’s poetry or write their own. I tried to capture that by quoting Iranian poetry that was beautifully translated and meaningful in English. I couldn’t do that for the whole book, though, because I couldn’t always find the right poems to fit the narrative structure. That pushed me to compose new poems for the characters, which was a real challenge because it’s not something I do. But by writing these new poems, I tried to capture the very Iranian idea that ordinary prose can’t express what’s deepest in our heart.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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