An Iranian Family Saga That Reads Like a Movie
How being actor and documentarian helped Rabeah Ghaffari write her debut novel “To Keep the Sun Alive”
Rabeah Ghaffari has had an exceptional career. She’s an actor, documentarian, and film editor who has worked with Shirin Neshat and Tony Kushner, and, most recently, written a screenplay for Sex and the City costumer Patricia Field. She’s told many stories in many forms — but when she began thinking about a retired judge and his wife in pre-Revolution Iran, holding their family together from the center of an ancient orchard, she knew this story was different. Ghaffari began writing a screenplay, which morphed into her debut novel, To Keep the Sun Alive.
To Keep the Sun Alive is an old-school family saga, lush and many-voiced. Her characters argue about Iran’s religious history, its government corruption, and what path the nation should take forward, but Ghaffari keeps her own focus squarely within the family. She’s interested in how Ghamar, a prickly mother approaching middle age, interacts with her teenage daughter Nasreen; how Nasreen and her secret lover Madjid teach each other both love and idealism; and how two brothers, a judge and a cleric, become intellectually distant as they age.
I spoke to Ghaffari about translating film experience to the page, turning ideas into characters, and the delights of writing a novel, which she described as a joyful experience. Reading To Keep the Sun Alive is equally joyful. Even at the novel’s saddest moments, it’s a delight.
Lily Meyer: Reading To Keep the Sun Alive made me constantly hungry. Your writing about food is so wonderful, and you keep it at the novel’s heart. Did you intend to build your story around meals?
Rabeah Ghaffari: I’ve heard that from so many readers! Writing about food wasn’t conscious on my part, but food is such a big part of culture. Wherever you go, you engage first with food. But I didn’t think about it. It came naturally to talk about what the family in To Keep the Sun Alive eats — the rice, the tahdig, all the dishes at their first big lunch.
LM: Did you watch the episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat where Samin Nosrat and her mother make tahdig? What did you think?
RG: She did such an extraordinary job. Every episode was incredible. My mother lives in Mérida, where the second half of the Mexico episode takes place, and I loved watching it. Mexican cuisine is so complex, and she did such a beautiful job. There was something so earthy and empathetic and beautiful about that documentary. All the artisans and practitioners she engaged, all the people for whom cooking is a tradition — I found so beautiful and moving. And the tahdig at the end! I’m sure every Iranian watched that and was like, “I can make a better tahdig than that.”
LM: I’d love to hear about your own work as a documentarian and a film editor. To Keep the Sun Alive is such a visual book. How did you use your experience in film to create visual detail on the page?
RG: The book was originally a screenplay that I wrote in 2006, after returning to Iran for the first time. I was working in film then: making documentaries, cutting films, working at a production company. I trained as an actor, too, so I was doing theater and acting in films. A screenplay was the logical thing for me to write, though I didn’t consider myself a writer, only a reader. The screenplay got me to the Sundance Lab and the Berlin Festival, and that gave me confidence in my writing. But trying to get a film made is a Herculean task. It requires an immense amount of capital, and so I started turning the story into a novel because I could. I could finish a novel without a production staff. So that was how it became a book.
Having worked as [a video] editor helped me immensely once I began writing. When you edit documentaries, you get hours and hours of footage. You have to cut those hours into a story. That experience taught me to create a structure. It taught me how to enter scenes, and what moments to juxtapose. Having trained as an actor helped, too. It helped me develop characters, helped me write dialogue, helped me observe what happened when characters interact. You know, writing a novel is the same as making a film, in some ways. A novel and a film have the same elements, but novelists do it all. You’re the actor, the director, the set designer, and you’re doing it alone in your head.
LM: Was working alone liberating for you? Or lonely?
RG: I loved it. Writing this book was a joyful experience. I want to do it again and again — to keep writing novels as long as I can. Maybe I loved it because I had no structure. Nobody expected me to write a novel. I had no school, no support, no expectations, which was exhilarating. Plus, to get a scene or chapter or paragraph right is exhilarating. While I was working on the book, it gave me a certain sense of meaning. I had this constant feeling of accomplishment, which was funny, because if you tell someone, “I wrote a great paragraph today, and I was so happy because I got it right,” they don’t understand. But it felt great. Incredibly difficult, though. I have a lot of blind spots. I had to rewrite the book, dismantle it, put it back together over and over. Still, it was a joyful experience.
LM: Could you talk more about those blind spots?
RG: Some were simple: I’d over-write, or under-write. I had no idea how to bring a person into the room. I never knew how much to explain. Or there were flat characters, ones who needed color. There was so much re-working. It took me a while to get comfortable writing badly, too, because I have this intense desire to have the first try be perfect. I had to get comfortable with showing people drafts that were a mess, which, Lord have mercy. That was really hard.
LM: And yet you emerged with a beautifully structured book. To Keep the Sun Alive cycles between present-day Paris and Iran right before the Revolution in a way that feels formally perfect. How did you create that structure?
RG: I wrote the main story chronologically, then added the Paris sections, but I knew the story’s structure from the beginning. I wanted to compress time by bookending the novel in one day, starting in the morning and ending at night. It’s a cinematic structure, almost. It helped that I was never concerned about suspense. The novel opens with Shazdehpoor alone in Paris in 2012, and three pages later, you meet his whole family in Iran. After that, you have to wonder: What happened? Where is everybody? I hope that alone creates a sense of dread.
Another structural component are the three stories within the story, each of which take you to past historical moments. I included those because I wanted to evoke history that might foreshadow, or explain, the revolution that is to come — but I didn’t want to give the reader a history lesson. I didn’t want footnotes. I had footnotes, actually, and when I began working with my editor, she told me to take them all out. I was thrilled. The book shouldn’t need footnotes or explanations. It should pull readers into a place and time that are distant from their own, and it should make that distance not matter. Those are the reading experiences I love most. Like when I was reading Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina! I’d bounce into bed at the end of the day, needing to know what happened next.
LM: The story’s biggest event is the Revolution, which you convey through a short sequence of letters from the novel’s protagonist, Madjid, to his family. How did you decide to write the Revolution through letters rather than dramatizing it?
RG: There were two factors at play in that decision. One was that I wasn’t there. I left Iran with my parents several months before. I talked to family members who were there, I read, and I looked at documentary footage, but I wasn’t there. The other factor was that I didn’t want to make the Revolution the novel’s central point. I wanted to keep it almost in the background. I think books should talk about the Iranian Revolution, and I hope more people write about it, but not me. I wanted to look at it from a bird’s eye view. I wanted to show, in a short span of time, the euphoria — those utopian six months — that so quickly gave way to dread.
LM: Though Madjid is the novel’s protagonist, I was struck by how many female archetypes you include in the novel, and then complicate. How did you pull that off?
RG: I made Madjid the protagonist naturally. Like most of the characters in To Keep the Sun Alive, he’s based on someone I’d heard of: a young man who was married to my aunt and was killed in the Revolution. I never met him, but the story of his death always stayed with me. It broke my heart to think about how much he trusted the system that took his life. Thinking about that led to thinking about Madjid.
The female archetypes weren’t intentional at all. I only saw them later, once I’d developed the female characters’ relationships with each other, with men, and with society. I wanted to watch women with diverse experiences and backgrounds — and women of different ages, like Ghamar and her daughter Nasreen — interact. I’m very interested in how people relate to each other, and I’m particularly interested in the antagonistic relationships between women. Also, I have a sense that when people outside Iran think about Iranian life, they take a monolithic view. In no way do I want to diminish the issues Iranian society has, or that individual Iranians have with the state, but it’s a complex society like any other. You can’t only say that men are aggressors and women are victims, and I think the family is a perfect place to dramatize that. Families are like their own little states. The power struggles within families are, I think, universal. Certainly the family is a perfect place to explore these archetypes of gender, and to ask fundamental questions about how we relate.