The author of the new novel Refuge reflects on three books that inspired her to become a reader and a writer.
The Little Black Fish
By Samad Behrangi
I’ve become a reader three times. The first time, I was barely six and lived in Iran, under the Islamic Republic. My mother had a book called The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi with illustrations by Farshid Mesghali, a children’s story with a political subtext that I didn’t understand at the time. The book was banned in pre-revolutionary Iran because of that underlying message, and I think that’s part of the reason my mother had it. It was a book for brave people, for people with dreams and a voice. But all I knew was that it was the tale of the adventurous fish that refused to stay in one place, and I loved it. After that, for years I read voraciously, devouring storybooks and textbooks and picture books on history and animals and the solar system. But then school took over and we escaped the country and I had a new language to learn. Recreational reading got pushed aside in favor of more practical pastimes.
Lord of the Flies
By William Golding
In my high school in Oklahoma, I read all the usual things. The canon. I was a budding feminist (though I didn’t know it), and so I read famous works by women, but I was never overcome by a story until I picked up Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I see now that it wasn’t the message or the prose or characters that got me. It was the anarchy, the slow abandon to evil, the breadth of human depravity. People could get so ugly and my teenage mind was fascinated. I was discovering symbolism for the first time. I read somewhere that “lord of the flies” was a translation of the word Beelzebub and that the pig’s head on a stick represented that. It blew my mind. The second time Jack said, “sharpen a stick at both ends,” I jumped out of my bed. “HOLY CRAP!” I said aloud to the empty room. “He’s gonna do it to Ralph!” My heart was pounding so hard, I had to get a glass of water before I could read on. My copy of that book has a dozen notes on every page. Its spine is broken and pages folded. It was the dirtiest, wickedest thing I had ever read and I couldn’t get enough. But, over the years, college applications and finals and sports dulled the delight I had found, and again books got pushed to the wayside. I studied economics. I joined a swanky corporation in New York City..
Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro
The third time I became a reader was in business school. I was twenty-six and thinking about moral dilemmas. I took a class called The Moral Leader in which we read literature as a way into the ethical questions we’d face in our careers. Our discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day centered on whether the butler of a Nazi sympathizer was in any way culpable. I don’t remember how I came down on that question. What I remember is this: I finally noticed the poetry of the words, the subtle voice, the way Ishiguro was changing my mind without ever expressing his own opinion. That semester I decided I didn’t want to be a businesswoman after all, but a writer. I wanted to get into people’s psyches. I wanted to have a voice, to whisper coded rebellion to children, like Behrangi had done, and to quicken the breath, like Golding had done. After that, there were no more sidetracks. I became a writer. I never stopped reading again.