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Iranian American writer discusses new novel about struggling with survivor's guilt


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A young Iranian American poet considers life, death, "The Simpsons," Rumi, and a whole lot more. It's all part of a new novel by a young Iranian American poet named Kaveh Akbar.

Jeffrey Brown has that story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jim Lehrer, Co-Founder and Former Anchor, "PBS NewsHour": Good evening. Aftermath from the Iranian airliner shoot-down dominates the news of this holiday.

Jeffrey Brown : In 1988, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. military accidentally shot down an Iranian commercial passenger jet, killing all 290 people aboard.

That real-life tragedy sets in motion the fictional events in the new novel "Martyr!" by Kaveh Akbar.

Kaveh Akbar, Author, "Martyr!": I have always been fascinated by this event, and nobody in America knows about it. And one of the projects of the book is to give texture to — you hear a number like 290 people were killed on board.

If that number was 289 or 291, it wouldn't make a difference intellectually, right, for me; 290 is a middle-large number. It's more than five. T's less than 10,000, right? But that one life, every character in the book, their life is shaped by this event.

(Cheering and applause)

Kaveh Akbar: Thank you all so much for being here.

Jeffrey Brown : The 35-year-old Akbar, whom we met at an event at a Brooklyn public library, was himself born in Iran to an Iranian father and American mother, and came to this country at age 2, his family eventually settling in Wisconsin.

He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa and has made a name for himself as a poet and poetry editor, including at the "Nation" magazine. But a longer story began to swirl around in his head, and he gave himself a crash course in writing narrative.

Kaveh Akbar: Just through the process of doing this for months and months and then years and years and constantly feeding it narrative, I'm consuming narrative voraciously while I'm doing this, in the form of two novels a week and a movie a day, was the sort of silly diet that I put myself on.


Jeffrey Brown : What do you mean, to study narrative, to really?

Kaveh Akbar: Yes, of course.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes?

Kaveh Akbar: To study narrative absolutely kleptomaniacally.

You know, I would read Morrison and Nabokov and Tolstoy and also Agatha Christie and also old pulp science fiction and just everything that I could find and get my hands on. I just wanted to understand how an author moves the reader through beats of narrative without making it feel super heavy-handed, without making it feel just like a cudgel of exposition.

Jeffrey Brown : The result is "Martyr!" And that exclamation point is important.

Kaveh Akbar: I think it would be a pretty dour-sounding title if it had just been "Martyr" without an exclamation point. I think it would have felt kind of joyless, maybe relentlessly sad or relentlessly somber, and that's not the sort of book that it is.

It's a — I think that it is oftentimes funny, hopefully, and oftentimes it is quite joyful and it is quite ecstatic even.

Jeffrey Brown : It's a mash-up romp whose protagonist is an Iranian-American Midwest would-be poet named Cyrus, whose head bursts with contemporary pop culture and medieval Persian classics.

Is that you too?

Kaveh Akbar: Of course. Of course.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes?

Kaveh Akbar: I was born there, raised here. I love Ferdowsi. I love the Shahnameh. I love Hafez. I love Islam. But I also love Erykah Badu. I love EPMD and Vogue and Sonic Youth. And it has shaped the person that I am. It has shaped the identity that I walk through the world, just as yours has you and everyone's has.

Jeffrey Brown : Another theme in the novel also links to Akbar's personal experience. In his 20s, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs, a self-destructive period that nearly did destroy him.

Kaveh Akbar: I am in recovery. I'm 10 years and some change sober. It has…

Jeffrey Brown : So, it's personal?

Kaveh Akbar: It's absolutely personal. It's very, very personal.

And all of my work orbits recovery in one way or another, explicitly or implicitly. And every experience of my life, every interaction that I have, my spouse, my dog, my teaching position, the fact that we're sat here right now, is predicated on the fact of my recovery, right? Had I not recovered, I wouldn't have any of this.

Jeffrey Brown : But that stays with you, I mean, that doesn't go away.

Kaveh Akbar: Of course. I'm no less an addict today than I was 11 years ago. I just have better tools with which to cope with it. You learn techniques. You gain a community upon which you can draw. And so it's not like I'm walking around white-knuckling it today.

I have resources. I have community. But I'm no less an addict. You know, if I take the first drink or if I snort the first line or whatever that thing is today, all bets are off, right? The partition between me and an early preventable death is a little bit thinner than it is for a lot of people. And that is true for Cyrus.

That is something that the addict thinks about all the time.

"'I have been thinking about dying,' Cyrus Shams said to the artist as he settled into the black chair across from her."

Jeffrey Brown : For his character, a quest for survival and meaning, for the author, years into his own recovery, something similar, but now bringing his first novel into the world.

Did you have fun writing it?

Kaveh Akbar: It was thrilling. It's among the most fun I have ever had writing. There are extended conversations with Lisa Simpson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Rumi and the dead are talking and deliberating.

And it's just — it's such a strange thing to be putting into the world. And I hope that it coheres. I hope that it makes narrative sense and doesn't seem too wacky. But it was absolutely thrilling to write.

Jeffrey Brown : All right, the book is "Martyr!" with an exclamation point.

Kaveh Akbar: With an exclamation point, "Martyr!"

Jeffrey Brown : Kaveh Akbar, thank you very much.

Kaveh Akbar: Thank you so much, Jeff. My luck to be here.

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