Fereshteh Molavi's newest book, Thirty Shadow Birds (Inanna Publications), is an exploration of the challenges faced by new immigrants and the deep scars left by a legacy of violence.
Fleeing the bloodshed of her homeland, Yalda arrives from Iran with her young son in pursuit of a more peaceful life. Once safely in North America, however, she finds that the horrors she escaped continue to follow her in the form of deep-seated post-traumatic stress. Amid the growing Western panic over global terrorism, and with another son training as an armed security guard, Yalda must rise above her fears and tragic memories to make a new life for herself where she can truly feel at home.
Thirty Shadow Birds takes a deep and compassionate look into the inner lives of immigrants fleeing political violence, highlighting the long-term effects that trauma can have on individuals and families.
We're thrilled to have Fereshteh in today to speak about the evocative title of her book, the challenges of getting her work published in her home country of Iran, and how she feels about one-word titles.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
The title of my newest book comes up from the roots of the story. Thirty Shadow Birds, like my other novels’ titles, goes further than indicating a single meaning, concept, or thing. It seems polysemous words, names, and titles always appeal to me – maybe because of my inclination towards the poetic use of language. At first, the title looks simple and clear; however, it has a connotation. Those who are familiar with Eastern culture, Sufism, and classical Persian poetry, can sense the undercurrent. Other readers will gradually get it in the process of reading the novel. So, while the number ‘thirty’ in the title declares the number of birds, the phrase ‘thirty bird’ (its Persian equivalent also reminds the mythical bird: Simorq) implies the literary allegory used in the famous masterpiece of the great Persian poet and Sufi, Attar. In Attar’s work, ‘The Canticle of Birds’, the philosophical concept of ‘unity in diversity’ attends a metaphysical ideal. On the cover of my book, though, the title, first and most, refers the readers to what they may find in the narrative of Yalda, the protagonist of the novel, who pursues her own individualistic approach and interpretation.
What, in your opinion, is the most important function of a title?
A new book is eventually a new product in the market, but naming a book is not just a marketing decision. We all know that a title is expected to tell us (writer and readers) what the book is about. So, a perfect title suits both the reader’s need and writer’s needs. For me, the main function of a title is to capture the core of the entire book and to reflect the writer’s personal style.
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
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As I begin to ponder a story, I deliberate for a long time before giving it the best possible title. This makes it hard for me to come up with an all-time favourite title. Nonetheless, I can name one of them: Stoning of Summer. I like this title of one of my short stories very much. I admit that the title is not easily-grasped, but it intrigues. The story is about a forbidden love and ‘summer’ is a metaphor for it. ‘Stoning’ is a form of hard punishment (torture and execution) since ancient times where a group of people throw stones to the condemned person. As the story unfolds, the reader finds out how the love affair of the protagonist is doomed.
How do you feel about single-word titles?
I think single-word titles can work well for short stories or poems. For novels and essays it seems to me a single word is not adequate enough to fully convey what is expected of a title. I know some think it is possible to distill the whole work into a single word. From my point of view, single-word titles may give a hint of the story, or, may pique the reader’s curiosity; but it fails to be a title in its full capacity.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
No, for my current book, since I started developing the story idea, I came up with the current title. Among my books, however, one has a strange backstory that instigated a title change. In a nutshell, I was trying to publish one of my novels in my home country, where every book should be reviewed by the book censorship office in order to get permission for publication and distribution. After a long time of waiting for the permit, my publisher informed me due to odd circumstances, he failed to get it for my work. I felt devastated because a rejected book meant my baby book was stillborn. Later on it was recommended to try my luck with a new title so that the censorship officers could not recognize it as an already rejected one. I was emotionally attached to the title for a couple of years and it was difficult for me to replace it with a new one. Confronting the harsh reality of book censorship, I eventually changed the title and it worked.
Born in Tehran in 1953, Fereshteh Molavi lived and worked there until 1998 when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipient of awards for novel and translation. Her first book in English, Stories from Tehran, was released in 2018; and her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto.