Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: February 20 to March 2, 2014
Read count: 1

A moving journey about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and coming face to face with drastic cultural and social changes. Told through weaving prose and a believable voice, the narrative is similar to that of other fictional texts written about immigrant life, identity, and struggles. So not unlike the works of Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The story is about young twin girls Saba and Mahtab Hafezi growing up in a fictional farming village in Iran. The girls have a special hobby which is forbidden under the new regime: they love to collect American pop culture and basically everything American. They clip magazine articles about life in America, secretly watch American sit-coms and movies, listen to rock music, and make up stories about how great it would be if they lived in America, instead of where they are now. They dream of a life in which they don’t have to live in hiding, the life they had before the revolution. In reality, under the new regime, life is difficult for everyone, but especially for women and girls.

One day, Saba and Mahtab, along with their mother, are separated. Saba stays behind with their father. She doesn’t remember much about that day or what happened afterward, and so she assumes her mother and sister must have gone to America and that she and her father will join them at a later time. During the separation, to escape from her day to day life, Saba imagines Mahtab living the life they’d always dreamed of somewhere in Middle America and doing normal average American things, like have friends, hang out with her friends, go to school, etc. Basically all the things Saba could not do in Iran. These daydreams and wishes keep her going, she believes, until the day she and Mahtab are reunited.

We’ve all read one too many of these fictional semi-autobiographical narratives to know that these stories, what with an oppressive regime looming in the background, don’t end well. So I will only say that Saba does get to go to America later on in the story, and she comes face to face with the reality of an America she never expected. To say any more would spoil the later parts of the book.

The focus on America and Americana might turn some people away from this story. Saba and Mahtab put everything American on a pedestal, and their obsession does become grating after a while. But due to their current circumstances, it’s understandable that they would put America, as shown on the media, in place of their escapism. Fictional America is a shining beacon of assumed freedom compared to the Khomeini government, whose intent was/is to crack down on Western influence and return Iran to an extremely conservative way of life.

A reader who’s having a hard time with this book should keep in mind that America, or the ideal image of America, seen through the eyes of an immigrant is vastly different from the America as seen by the people who live here.

Those turned off by Americana might want to tune back in because every day life in Iran, both before and after the revolution, is written beautifully and described in specific tangible details. The author Dina Nayeri is an Iranian immigrant, and much of content of this book is taken from her own life and experiences. She is influenced by both American and Persian music, so both are featured a lot throughout the story. It’s a good balance, and I find that the music enhances the events in the story. It’s like having an author-selected soundtrack to go along with the journey. Speak of which, an author-selected list of songs can be found here.

There are a couple of quotes I’d like to add, which I will as soon as I get the book back from a friend, assuming she isn’t going to keep it or lend it to another friend.

— — — — —

I’d like to thank Heather Kirkpatrick of Riverhead Books and Will Martin of the Penguin Group for sending me a copy.

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