In the late 1970s, activists in Iran had a brief moment of hope. The revolution had succeeded; the shah’s repressive regime had been overthrown. But things quickly turned for the worse. The newly formed Islamic Republic threw vocal dissenters in prison, and in 1988, it quietly executed thousands of them.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree, a new novel by Iranian author Sahar Delijani, explores the personal repercussions of that tumultuous political period. It’s a series of interwoven stories that start in Tehran’s Evin prison and ripple outward across families, continents and generations. The novel evokes the scents, sights and gut-wrenching emotions of oppression, as in this description of Tehran in 1987:
A taxi passed by, trailing a confused noise of singing. Along the gutters, the rusty garbage cans stank sourly. Everything crinkled dusty and black, cluttered with policemen and Revolutionary Guards and Morality Guards and religious guides and food shortages and blackouts and the menaces of a war, at times far, at times near.
Delijani grew up in California and now lives in Italy, but she was born in Evin prison — the same prison depicted in her novel — while both her parents were detained there. She tells NPR’s Rachel Martin about her mother’s experience giving birth in prison, why many Iranians don’t know about the executions of 1988 and how, after writing this novel, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to return to the land of her birth.
On how the character Azar, a pregnant activist who gives birth in Evin prison, was inspired by Delijani’s own story
“My mom gave birth to me a few months after she was arrested, and then she gave me … to my grandparents. And she was released herself about a year after, and then my dad about two years after. …
“She knew that [the prison guards] would open the door just enough that I could pass through. She knew this before that day. She would tell everyone. And it was exactly what happened.
“This chapter [about Azar] is very much based on my mom’s experience. So, for example, you know, being interrogated while going through labor was another thing that was true. … She told me about it.”
On why many of her characters are initially unaware of their parents’ imprisonment
“My parents always spoke about their past in prison, but I wrote those stories in the novel, of people not knowing, because a lot of people in Iran don’t know of what happened in 1988. Afterwards it was just, you know, it was just like the bodies — it was just buried, like that. And no one ever spoke about it. So in a way, those children in the book that don’t know symbolize that part of the society that didn’t know what was going on just a few kilometers from the city.”
On whether she has spent much time in Iran
“I used to go back very often in all these years that I’ve been away. And sometimes it’s really interesting how, as an, almost an outsider, you know, you go and you observe with a different sort of attention. And everything, you know, stuck in my mind. … But now I don’t know. We’ll see what happens after the book.”
On whether she’s concerned about how her book will be received in Iran
“Yes, you know, by the government. Even though these executions [weren’t] exactly a secret, I’m sure they don’t want these sort of things to be, you know, to be known — not on such levels. And you know, dictatorships work in this way: You don’t even know what you’re afraid of, what you’re worried about, what you risk. My mom says, ‘Well, you know, you should just wait a little bit and see what happens.’ “