Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Mehrdad Balali

In books, censorship, fiction, journalism, writing on December 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Mehrdad Balali

Mehrdad Balali. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Mehrdad Balali, author of the debut novel Houri (The Permanent Press). Originally from Iran, Balali spent 17 years living in the US before returning to his homeland to work as a journalist in 1991. A decade later, Balali’s press pass was revoked and he was banned from working as a journalist in Iran. He continued to cover events in the Middle East for international news agencies, including writing about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ultimately returned to the US in 2005 to write fiction.

In Houri, Balali relays a coming of age story about Shahed, an Iranian boy raised in poverty, who finds himself constantly torn between his devoted mother and his larger-than-life, exciting, but often thoughtless, father. Despite all odds, Shahed is able to move to the US for college, where he struggles to make his way as a young man. When Shahed returns to Iran for his father’s funeral, the story unfolds as Shahed confronts childhood memories and a drastically changed Iran. Stark scenes informed by the journalist’s experiences underpin Balali’s engaging and moving novel. Shahed’s tale is rooted in Iran’s history, full of life and heartache.

Quick Facts on Mehrdad Balali

  • Mehrdad Balali’s website
  • Home: Central Coast of California
  • Comfort food: sushi
  • Top reads: Henry Miller is the only person I can think of at this point that I really like and who influenced me in a lot of different ways. I like a lot of different writers. I don’t have any particular all-time favorites. I like Lawrence Durrell and Bernard Malamud.
  • Current reads: Eileen Goudge’s Garden of Lies

What is your history as a journalist?

In 1991, after the first Gulf War in the Persian Gulf, I went back to Iran after 17 years of living in Los Angeles, California. I started working for an English language newspaper called Tehran Times. I learned about media in Iran, and the inner-workings of a newspaper office. Then I got a job with AFP (Agence France Presse) and worked with them for six years. While working for AFP, I was also a contributor to The Economist. In 1999, I moved to Reuters.

After I had worked at Reuters for one year, the Iranian government banned me from working and revoked my press card. Reuters had to move me out of Iran because they thought I was in danger. They moved me to Dubai to cover Iran from afar. After September 11, 2001 when US–led forces attacked Afghanistan, they sent me to Afghanistan. I made two trips to Afghanistan and stayed for about a month each time. When Iraq was attacked, then I was sent to Kuwait. I was there for four months covering the invasion of Iraq. After that, I was in Bahrain for two years, and then I left Reuters and returned to the US, where I’ve been living and working as a writer since.

What was the reason given for why Iran revoked your press pass and banned you from working as a journalist?

The government wanted information from me that I didn’t have. It seemed like having a press card was a privilege, not a right, that was given to people who were willing to cooperate. They said I was not cooperating with the authorities and that’s the reason why they took it away. 

How was life on the road as a journalist?

“You never know when you are

 going to land in hot water.”

It was very exciting, but at the same time very scary. You never know when you are going to land in hot water. I got a lot of enjoyment and excitement out of it, even though at the same time it was stressful. I wanted to make it as a good journalist, so I was willing to risk it. But in the end, I paid for it with my health because it really gave me anxiety.

How long did it take to leave behind the anxiety?

Well, once in a while it still happens if I’m under stress or something. Luckily, I have a personality where I can put things behind me and look toward the future. At this point, I’m kind of severed from that part of my life.

What languages do you speak?

Farsi and English fluently. I also studied Arabic for three years when I was in the Middle East.

When you were reporting, what language were you writing in?

Always English; it’s actually like my native language. That’s what I’ve been reading since I was 20. It’s the language I’ve always written in. I’ve never written in Farsi—I’m not good in it.

How has your background in journalism influenced your work in fiction?

It influenced it a lot. In the beginning, when I was writing the first chapters of Houri, and I showed it to friends, they told me that there was a lot of journalistic style in my writing and I should change it because it didn’t work in a novel. I had to be very conscious of that, and keep working on it to be able to change it.

“Journalism taught me to think clearly,

to be terse, be to the point,

and sensitive to what makes a good story.”

Journalism, especially the news agencies’ styles, taught me a lot of things: to think clearly, to be terse, be to the point, and sensitive to what makes a good story. In that sense, it really helped me. I just had to change the language that I used in the novel to be less journalistic prose.

Do you miss your work as a journalist?

Yes. At this point, I have a son and I want to be close to him while he is still in high school. Once he is finished with school, I’ll be free to go back to that profession. But yes, I miss it and I want to go back to it someday.

What are you working on at the moment?  

I’m working on a fictionalized true story. It’s about a young man, 22 or 23, of Iranian descent who thinks he’s a woman. The story is about a transgendered person, and that’s all I can say about it at this point. Right now, I’m trying to clarify what I want to do with this book. I’m getting ready to rewrite the first draft and start from another point in the story.

Where did the idea for your first novel, Houri, come from?

My father. He died in 1978, about a year or several months, before the revolution in Iran, My father was a womanizer, a happy-go-lucky person who loved to go out, and was a bit of a reckless debaucher. The characters in the book are exaggerated, of course, but the idea came from the way I saw my father when I was a child. I combined memories and reminiscences with some fantasies to create the character of Baba, the father in the book. The boy in the book, Shahed, is kind of myself as a child; but he’s also fictionalized. There’s a lot about him that was not really me. Many other characters are also driven from characters I’ve known in my life, and I fictionalized and stylized them.

So, the idea for the book comes from the question, if my father had been alive after the revolution when all the fun was being ditched, what would have happened? How would he have taken all of these things? It was this thought that drove me to write about Baba and a kid.

Are there scenes in the book that you also drew from what you witnessed as a journalist?

Definitely. The events that take place in the 1980s, when Shahed is an adult, are almost all driven from my own experiences, and some were based on stories that I’d heard from people I trusted. These were real events, but I stylized them to fit the fictional narrative. Also, the name Shahed means witness. He’s supposed to be a witness to life. It’s really more common as an Arabic name than a Persian name, but I liked the meaning.

What do you hope readers will take away from Houri?

I just hope that readers will enjoy the story. It’s a human story about a little boy, and the way he sees his life. Sometimes we don’t pay attention to children and their world; we think that because of the way they behave, they’re not aware and conscious of things, or that they’re just on the margins of life. But it happens a lot that children are keenly aware of their circumstances, and so keenly observant that they see things deeper than we do. When I was writing about the child, I was putting myself in the skin of a twelve-year-old boy, and the way I saw and perceived the world at that age. At that age you might not draw sophisticated conclusions from the chaos around you, but you feel and are affected by it intensely. You may feel sad, or happy, but you just can’t analyze the situation the way an adult would.

I think Houri is a universal father-son story, a child torn between the values of his devoted mother and the charm of his charismatic albeit selfish father. Baba’s world is filled with fun color and beautiful women, but he has no sense of family responsibility. Mama, on the other hand, is totally committed to her children, but her world lacks sparkle. The boy finds himself caught between the two worlds. Where does his allegiance go? Definitely to the mother, it turns out, because he understands it is the mother who makes the sacrifices, who is the victim in the relationship.

What I witnessed as a child really shaped my view of the injustice and gender inequality, at least in that part of the world, when I was growing up. I looked around myself and there were people like my uncle, who was a very good man, very good husband, and very loving. But at the same time, I could see a lot of women who were victims of their male-dominated society, tradition and laws. Many of these women were forced to get married, like my mother, at the age of 14, because they had no other opportunities in that society. And she would end up in the hands of a man, with no free will of her own, even though she’s very intelligent, beautiful, and resourceful. I became very sensitive to this issue of gender inequality. 

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of Houri?

I think women tend to feel more affinity with the book than men. Some readers might find it a little culturally remote, but I think as they read on they get brought into the world of the book.

I have read lots of reviews, and I’ve seen some conflicting comments, but most of them are positive. The people who didn’t like the story said it was too sad. And everybody hated Baba, but I didn’t mean to make him hateful. He was a man of his passions; he had appetite, he had a passion for life. It was just that he was too spoiled, and had little cultural education. He had no sense of his responsibilities. I wanted to show the vibrancy in him, the life in his warped personality to make up for his callousness.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Because I have a full-time job, I usually write on weekends, and sometimes after I get home from work. In other words, whenever I can.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I really like where I live. I don’t think it really matters where you live. You have to find a way to be content. I used to be a very restless person, but a measure of contentment comes with age, I guess. You learn to make your peace with your surroundings.

“You learn to make your peace

with your surroundings.”

What do you listen to when you work?

I love music. I have a collection of about a thousand songs from all different genres. I love jazz, and listen to a lot of that, but my taste is not limited to that. It depends on my mood and the song.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

When I write, I’m completely involved in the act of writing and I don’t feel time pass. It’s the ultimate relaxation for me. If I have any worries, I forget them when I’m writing. I’m most entertained when I’m writing. I don’t necessarily enjoy my time at a party or crowded places. I enjoy hiking or just spending my free time reading and writing.

“If I have any worries,

I forget them when I’m writing.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Discipline is very important. You should also immunize yourself against rejection, because every writer is likely to face that at some point. Write for yourself, for you own pleasure.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

The best advice came from an agent that I approached. She told me not to rush it, to wait on publication until the book is really ready.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

The most challenging aspect of writing for me is the command of the English language. I wish I could express myself better. I wish I could write with more flair, but it is not my native language, and I have to really think about every line I write.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to spend time with my friends.

About Mehrdad Balali

Mehrdad Balali is an Iranian-born American who returned to his homeland as a career journalist in 1991. He worked for the next 15 years for international news agencies, covering social and political upheavals in the Middle East. After being banned from working in Iran, he covered events in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf States, and eventually returned to the US to spend his time writing fiction.

Buy Houri, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Mehrdad Balali.” Words With Writers (December 12, 2011; updated February 6, 2012), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/12/12/mehrdad-balali/.%5D

Houri cover

Houri by Mehrdad Balali (The Permanent Press).

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