Local books: Author finds the courage to live it, to leave it, to let readers in on it

PACIFIC GROVE — This novel is a work of fiction. But it’s not made up. The story, of a young woman’s determined and often dangerous pursuit of liberty and justice for her brother, is really an allegory for more real-life circumstances than the author can count. Or cares to.

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire,” a debut novel by Ava Homa, unfolds mainly in Iran, where the author escorts her audience into the daily lives of her people, the Kurds, not from the security of the cheap seats, but up close, immersed in the struggle.

Raised in the Kurdish region of Iran, Homa took the opportunity to escape all that limited her opportunities for personal development and actualization in her homeland, and immigrated to Canada, where she achieved her master’s degree in English and creative writing. It was where she developed her voice.

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“‘Daughters of Smoke and Fire’ is an extremely personal and powerful look at a Kurdish family living under the oppression of a cruel, often brutal Iranian government,” said fellow author and playwright Steve Hauk. “It was written in English because Kurds are ‘discouraged’ from using their own language −− a large part of that psychological cruelty. So much of what Ava writes is incredibly relevant today.”

Growing up without the security of a peaceful environment, Homa might have normalized the suffering, the trauma, and the political strife she witnessed among her people, had she not discovered writing as a vehicle to help her make sense of her life and everything going on around her. Sometimes she would write stories and then act them out for her siblings to help them imagine the possibility of a better life.

“As a Kurdish woman in an oppressive environment,” she said, “there really were few places I could escape to. But I found I could explore another experience through books. Years later, I wanted to give the gift of perspective to the world, to give them a chance to travel into the lives of my people from the safety of their own home, where they could witness moments of cruelty and injustice as well as defiance and redemption.”

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group of some 40 million stateless people native to a mountainous region known as Kurdistan, spanning southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria. The Kurds also populate exclaves in other parts of the Middle East, and diaspora communities have sought refuge in Istanbul, and various cities throughout Europe.

In her desire to inspire transformation, Homa sought to help people who live so far and safely away from her experiences, to shift their sense of her people into something more compassionate −− to expand readers’ consciousness around something potentially quite foreign or removed from their experiences.

“My goal,” she said, “is to turn pain into poetry, and rejection into fuel. When I was first sending out my work, I kept hearing, ‘This is beautiful, but no one wants to read about the Middle East.’ I understand that, based on what people have heard about it, but I wanted to offer an evocative story of what life is actually like there.”

Part of her process, in developing her own perspective on her culture and all that she had witnessed and experienced in Iran, meant creating distance from it, emigrating from her home, which led her first to Canada and then to California.

The trauma of transition

When Ava Homa made the move to Canada, she left behind everyone and everything she knew to pursue her graduate degree. She saw it as a step toward becoming who she wanted to be, experiencing freedom from being a minority woman in an oppressive community, and beginning to shape her world. Landing in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, with a sizeable immigrant population, Homa appreciated its significant multicultural diversity, and the unexpected opportunity to meet her now-husband, Realtor Sam Attar. Yet, lacking a connection to community and lamenting her limited access to nature, she became restless in her inability to get out and explore the natural environment.

So, Homa and Attar came to California and settled in a small city that emerged out of a pine forest by the bay, known as Pacific Grove.

“I have the desire and the need to belong. When I paddle in the bay or hike in the mountains,” she said, “I’m not a foreigner with an accent; I fit right into nature. It inspires creativity in me and helps me find peace within.”

All the trauma Homa inherited from her ancestors and has gathered in her own life, has given her a lot of tools for writing, but also heavy burdens to carry.

“Nature is my parent. The Big Sur mountains are my father, and the ocean is my mother. The trees and flowers look at me the same way they look at any other person here −− not my gender or race or history, but me. There is such a healing,” she said, “in knowing that.”

Home is where you belong

Having lived half her life in the East and half in the West, Homa believes she has seen more similarities than differences among the populations. Perhaps it is because people tend to see what they want, or maybe it is an observation that goes below surface assumptions to reach the essence.

Pacific Grove author Ava Homa. (Courtesy photo)
Pacific Grove author Ava Homa. (Courtesy photo)

“Across the world,” she said, “we experience the same range of emotions, fear, disappointment, sorrow and grief. The east has a lot of colors and flavors and spirituality and deep human connection to offer. Instead of divorcing these two worlds, instead of separating them, each one of us within ourselves can nourish both sides of the world and, through this, grow as humans.”

Homa recognizes that most stories of migration emphasize the difficulties, as does hers. But the thesis woven throughout her text carries the key characteristic that makes migration possible. Hope.

“I acknowledge that it is often difficult to build a whole new life for yourself in a country you were not born into,” she said, “but it gives you the opportunity to cross boundaries, to expand perspective, and grow and change in ways you might not be able to in your parent country. Which is worth it.”

Published in 2020 by The Overlook Press, “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” won the  2020 Silver Nautilus Book Award for Fiction. In May, it was shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan Prize for Writing. The book is available at River House Books at The Crossroads Carmel, at Bookworks in Pacific Grove, and online.

Contributed by local news sources

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