Penguin Teen Celebrates Persian New Year: A Conversation Between Arvin Ahmadi and Adib Khorram
Today is the first day of spring and also the start of the Persian New Year, or Nowruz (or Norooz, or Nawruz, more on that in a bit). Celebrated at the moment of the vernal equinox, Nowruz is a secular holiday that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. In Iran, it’s the start of a thirteen day holiday period of visiting family and friends. Young children receive eidee, crisp new bills, from older relatives, and there are tons of other traditions that celebrate the coming of spring and a fresh new year.
To celebrate Persian culture and the new year, Penguin Teen has asked two of our debut Iranian-American authors, Arvin Ahmadi and Adib Khorram, to discuss growing up Persian, how the celebrated Nowruz growing up, and the frustrations of learning family recipes. Happy New Year, Eide Shomah Mobarak!
Arvin Ahmadi: We’re starting right on time! How very un-Iranian of us.
Adib Khorram: I know, right? I suppose we have to taarof for at least five minutes about who is going to start.
AA: No no, please, you start. I insist.
AK: I am a pile of moldering dirt beneath your feet, you should go ahead.
AA: Moldering? Mouldering? It’s not like we’re writers or anything.
AK: I’m going to guess it’s a British/American thing.
AA: Yeah. Those Brits like to do funny things to their words.
So books. We like them, right? Slash WRITE them.
AK: Books are amazing!
AA: I’m LOVING yours, by the way. Just started it yesterday and now I’m wishing I’d brought it with me on my post-launch travels.
AK: Thank you! Again, it’s obviously mo(u)ldering dirt beneath your feet, you should probably use it as a coaster for tea, etc. etc.
AA: I actually did use your book as a coaster this morning for my breakfast. It was an excellent coaster and an even more excellent post-breakfast read.
AK: I feel like the last two years have been a bumper year for books with Iranian-American protagonists.
AA: It doesn’t help that the entire country was banned from coming to the US, does it? Or that our president ran his campaign on Islamophobia
AK: This is very true. I feel like the 2016 Election is up there with 9/11 and the hostage crisis as far as dark points for Iranian-Americans.
AA: Definitely. And I wonder sometimes if, in the buildup and aftermath, writers like us feel even more of a “duty” to write about our Iranian heritage. What do you think?
AK: I think so, yes. We have to do something to shape our own narratives in the face of all the dehumanization coming our way.
AA: Because if we don’t, other people shape it for us. And we’ve seen how that works out.
AK: Yup. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been fighting that narrative for most of my life.
AA: I think that’s why writing is such a beautiful and effective tactic, though. Because our whole lives we’ve been on the defense. Like “no! I don’t look like that!” Or “I don’t fit that stereotype!” But with books, we’re able to celebrate how we *do* look and fit in. Stories aren’t supposed to be didactic or explicitly political. They’re supposed to celebrate authentic human experiences.
AK: Absolutely. And I also found reward in reconciling those parts of myself that I had been trained to push away growing up. Maybe trained isn’t the right word, because it wasn’t a conscious act so much as a natural self-preservation tactic.
AA: Of course. In the moment, you kind of have to shove the trauma away just to get by. But writing lets you explore that trauma. Trauma might be a strong word, but you know what I mean. Or maybe it isn’t! I think more people are starting to see the challenges of growing up brown in America.
AK: Growing up Iranian in America was pretty shitty at times!
AK: [I wonder if we can say that haha.]
AA: [We can definitely say “shitty.” Penguin’s not a regular publisher; they’re a cool publisher.]
AK: [This is very true.]
AA: Now let’s talk about those celebrations of culture! Like that one Iranian holiday coming up…
AK: Yes! In true Persian fashion we started out our conversation quite maudlin.
AA: Iranians [/Persians] are nothing if not painstakingly real.
AK: So the biggest question I have is which spelling you use for Nawruz. (Which is how my dad spelled it growing up.)
AA: NOWRUZ. I’ve literally never seen it spelled Nawruz. Like. Wut.
AK: Really? I’ve seen it like twelve different ways IN MY FAMILY ALONE. Every aunt and uncle spells it differently.
AA: I think growing up I spelled it “Norooz” because I knew a family with that last name. But then in college, our Iranian club spelled it Nowruz, so I adopted that spelling.
AK: Seriously? That’s excellent.
AA: Right? Can you imagine your last name being a holiday?
The Western equivalent would be if your last name was Christmas. Or Easter.
Like “Oh, hello, I’m Joshua Christmas” “Oh hi Joshua! I’m Esther Easter.”
AK: You didn’t see it but I snorted my tea a little bit just now.
AA: There must be a gif for that.
AK: I tried to google gifs for that and it was…not good. Don’t ever google “snort tea out nose.”
AA: Readers, you’ve been warned.
OH MY GOD I JUST GOOGLED IT.
I know you said not to.
BUT I COULDN’T RESIST.
AK: I WASN’T TAAROFING.
AA: Wow. I’m going to need some time away from the internet to recover from that.
AA: Did your family have any special traditions for Nowruz?
AK: Growing up we didn’t have many special traditions…I struggle to recall if we even did the haft-seen in our house. Since my dad is Iranian and my mom is white, I sometimes think it was hard for them to negotiate how far to lean into the holiday. I do remember my sister and me always got to take the day off school though. Most of my dad’s family lives in Vancouver now (they left Iran before I was born), and so on the occasions when I spend Nowruz there, there’s a lot more tradition.
AA: I was going to ask about your dad’s family. So much of Iranian tradition relies on community. We were lucky in that most of my parents’ brothers and sisters lived nearby.
AK: Very much so. And I confess I’m a little jealous! Growing up we’d visit Vancouver every summer, and so for two weeks it was like being immersed in this culture that I didn’t really have back home. And then we’d fly back to Kansas City and I’d have to go back to pretending to be as white as I could. You grew up in the DC area, right?
AA: The grass is always greener on the other side, my friend! We went to so many mehmoonis (Iranian parties) growing up, especially during Nowruz. And of course every weekend it was like, “Ugh, another one?”
Yes, I grew up in northern Virginia, right outside DC.
AK: I mean, I never turn down free chelo kabob…
AA: That part of our culture we NEVER got tired of. Chelo kabob for life.
AK: I’ve been meaning to petition Unicode for a chelo kabob emoji.
AA: I actually have a friend who successfully petitioned Unicode for new emojis…Let me see what I can do.
But what about your family? Aside from all the mehmoonis, did you have any special traditions?
AA: Oh, so many. I grew up going to Farsi school, taking Iranian piano lessons, learning to play the tar…
AK: Oh wow.
AA: And all I wanted was to be more “American!” I wanted to fit in! Which is why it’s so interesting to me that you grew up in Missouri and yearned for any connection to your Iranian heritage.
AK: I would say I definitely came to that yearning more as I grew older and realized I had that missing part of me.
AA: As a teen, or in your twenties/thirties?
AK: There were moments as a teen where I felt it, but it got a lot stronger once I went away for college, and I didn’t even have my dad around to provide that connection.
I think the first moment I consciously realized I valued my heritage was the day I looked up the nearest Persian grocery and went to get some groceries for myself.
AA: That happened to me in college too! I missed my mom’s cooking so badly that I decided to learn some of her recipes.
AK: Did your mom always “forget” to mention crucial steps so you’d never be able to make it as good as her?
AA: Nah, but her “measurements” are so vague. Like “just a pinch of this, and two pinches of that, and two shakes of turmeric”
I was just like WHAT IS A PINCH AND WHY AREN’T WE USING TEASPOONS?
That’s family recipes for you!
AK: “Oh, about a handful!”
Okay but your hand or my hand?!
AA: “And two tea…cups of cinnamon” You were so close, mom. So close.
AA: I hope you snorted your tea again.
Read more about Arvin’s book, Down and Across, out now!
And read more about Adib’s book (and pre-order!), Darius the Great is Not Okay, out this August!