Together Tea by Marjan Kamali
“In the car, Mina turned on the news. ‘Iran’ was mentioned in the same breath as ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue.’ Just once, Mina wanted to hear the name of her old country mentioned in the same breath as ‘joy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness.'” What Mina longs for is exactly what readers receive in Marjan Kamali‘s toothsome debut novel about an Iranian American mother and daughter, and their “Life on the Hyphen.” [Don’t, by the way, read with empty belly!] If you choose to go audible, comedian Negin Farsad (The Muslims Are Coming!) adds pitch-perfect authenticity (except not so much with the Korean names, not that I’m quibbling, ahem!).
In 1982, the Rezayi family escapes their native Tehran, and arrives in Queens to begin their immigrant lives: doctor Parviz makes pizzas, ordered about by entitled teenagers, until he’s able to pass the exams for his U.S. medical license and reclaim authority; math professor wannabe Darya bends over a sewing machine in the window of “Wa-g Dry Cleaning” until her love of numbers (and Parviz) leads her to start a Saturday math club which eventually helps her find number-crunching employment at a local bank. Their children are their successful American dream: their doctor oldest son, their lawyer younger son, and their youngest Mina, who is in the midst of getting her MBA, even as she longs to be an artist.
In 1998, Mina at 25 is still unmarried, and Darya is not above creating complicated spreadsheets that should reveal the perfect permutation for a perfect husband for her precious only daughter. “‘Together tea,'” Mina’s mother Darya says “in her Persian way of speaking English. ‘You come, Mina, and we’ll have together tea.'” In spite of her matrimonial objections, Mina is somehow convinced once more to meet the latest suitor who flies up from Atlanta for a sumptuous lunch and stilted conversation. Mr. Dashti’s matched relief when their visit is over gives Mina a sudden new idea: after 15 years away, Mina wants to visit Iran … and Darya surprises both husband and daughter by announcing she’ll be accompanying Mina ‘home.’
Yes, for the quickest description, Tea is something akin to Iranian American chick lit. But given Iran’s history and ‘axis of evil’ relationship with the U.S., Kamali is well aware of the challenges and tragedies on both sides of Mina’s ‘hyphen’: in Iran, revolution and war destroy parts of Mina’s extended family – including her beloved grandmother – while the vicious new regimes suffocate its citizens; in the U.S., Mina is silenced by a bully who lumps her with hostage-taking terrorists even as he literally gobbles up her Darya-packed meals. Darya’s closest American friends are originally Indian and Korean nationals who can empathize about being immigrants, but are also all too familiar with violently torn-apart homelands.
While Mina’s brothers advise her “‘make it easy for yourself'” by associating their heritage “‘with good stuff – like fancy rugs and fat cats,'” her father insists on a longer history filled with “‘astronomy, science, mathematics, and literature, and … a leader, Cyrus the Great, who had the gumption to free the Jewish people and declare human rights!'” Even as Kamali never loses sight of that longed-for ‘joy’ or freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness,’ she also makes sure to bolster her narrative with memorable, substantive heft.