When most of us think of Iran, what comes to mind is the image of women covered in black chadors who move like shadows through a strict, puritanical society. All of this is true, of course, but it’s also true that Iran is a modern, developed country, and in Ava Homa’s first collection of stories, Echoes From The Other Land, we’re faced with a jarring combination of realities that co-exist side by side in her homeland. In these seven stories, veiled women use cell phones, buy CDs, are good with computers, and, along with their husbands and boyfriends, party on into the night in stylish western dress, reminding me of the hidden world of our Nineteen-Twenties speakeasies during Prohibition. The friction between strict laws and customs and the realities of modern life makes the sparks fly in these stories. In “Fountain,” the dissonance is surreal as a young woman, Anis, gets bullied and bossed around by Ali, her unemployed husband, who’s asserting his traditional authority over her while she’s trying to write a computer program. Just as potent in these stories is a kind of resonance that’s set up between parallel situations — different types of oppression, for example — in which one form of imprisonment amplifies the other, allowing the entire story to hum along on a single clear note of perception. For example, in “A River of Milk and Honey,” the narrator, Sharmin, a girl set apart by a facial deformity, observes the equally restricted world of her mother, her aunt, and a beautiful young woman who’s chased by men and whose parents find her the wrong husband. This same resonant effect is equally powerful in the story “I am One of Them.” Two voices pound away at young Sana who’s locked herself in her room: her mother, angry that she’s broken up with her fiancé Zanyar, and her friend Susan on the phone who’s also upset with her. The back-and-forth of these voices is intense and claustrophobic. In “Glass Slippers,” the story is told in the second person, as the narrator addresses herself. She and a friend, Sara, are hiding in a basement, trying to get a glimpse of her husband’s lover. What the wife discovers about her husband may be far more devastating than adultery, and the effect is amplified by the intimacy of the woman conversing with her turbulent inner self. And in the final story, “Just Like Googoosh,” we learn that headscarves — not usually worn around the house — may serve to hide something painful — in this case the loss of Fermisk’s hair, quite possibly because of chemotherapy.
What makes these stories work is the simplicity and directness of their telling. Homa suggests much and states little outright. Maybe this approach is, in fact, the true “echo from the other land” — Iran — in which much is unspoken and cannot be said, in which there’s no doubt a vocabulary of signs and signals and coded words with layers of meanings and suggestiveness. This elusive approach to storytelling is subtle and powerful, haunting the reader with the silence between the words. I’d only add that these characters are all quite youthful, and in future stories, it would be interesting to see what Ava Homa might do with a greater variety of characters at different stages of life. That said, take your imagination to Iran with this story collection, and you’ll be rewarded with much insight and fine storytelling.
Ava Homa’s Echoes From The Other Land is published by Tsar Books in Toronto.