I have to admit that I was first drawn to the book Caspian Rain, by Gina B. Nahai, because of the gorgeous cover. I did not choose to read it based only on the cover – I had also read a review of it in Ms. Magazine – but it definitely influenced me. The book turned out to be very different from what I expected. The review and the cover led me to expect the typical narrative story that I am accustomed to in most fiction I read. On the surface, the book does tell a linear story, through first-person narrative, but it is about much more than the story.
I think that Caspian Rain is different from my expectations because it is grounded in a culture that is foreign to me. The author is Iranian, and grew up there until age 13. The story, the narrative, and the meaning she is trying to convey are all embodied by the Jewish-Iranian culture. When I finished the book, I felt that I didn’t understand it. Through beautiful, poetic writing, Nahai tells a story of loss – of multiple losses – and of the characters’ reactions to these losses within the context of their culture. There was very little for me to relate to here, living a life of privilege in a country of opportunities. The following quote, that comes near the end of the book, captures both what the book is about and why I had a hard time with it: “What do you do with a loss you can neither cure, nor accept, nor overcome?” Reading the author’s own words, on her website, about the book and the theme of loss helped me understand it better. She writes:
I grew up in the Iran in the “glory years” of the Shah’s reign. We had a thriving economy and a seemingly stable social order, but we also had a history that dated back twenty-five hundred years — much of it marked by war and natural disasters, by foreign occupation and internal strife, personal tragedy and collective grief. We were — are — a nation of survivors, but one that has been marked, in ways that are too fundamental to alter easily, by our experience of loss. We were defined as much by our achievements, as by our longings, as much by our desires, as by our failure to fulfill them. We did not, as the saying goes in the United States, “make lemonade from lemons.” We did not believe, as Westerners seem to do, that we could transcend our natural disadvantages, or overcome man-made obstacles, or escape our past.
Thus, the book is very much directly addressing these cultural tensions and differences. A part of me wants to protest that I could understand the other culture better if these things were made more explicit, if the book was written in a Western style that I could better relate to. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. It is naive and privileged of me to say something like that. In reading a book that it harder for me to relate to, that does not try to cater to my Western expectations, I am forced to directly confront the experiences of individuals in another culture. I experience discomfort and therefore learn more.
I had a realization after reading Caspian Rain. One of the core tenants of my belief in peace is that we must all recognize our shared humanity – I believe that people from different cultures can understand each other if they relate on the level of common emotions. We all experience pain and joy and can understand each others’ experiences on that level. However, I realized in reading Caspian Rain that it is not quite so simple as that. I still think it is true, if we can reach the level of raw emotions, but reaching that place requires digging through layers of culture. In particular, the way in which we react to our emotions is strongly influenced by our culture. Caspian Rain illustrates vividly that the way Jewish-Iranian individuals experience and react to loss is very different from the way Americans would react.
Although Caspian Rain was a difficult and at times painful book to read, I am glad I read it. I would like to read more fiction that is firmly grounded in another culture, because I have discovered that it widens my horizons and perspective in a way that Western-grounded fiction does not.