Writing Toward Resiliency in “Daughters of Smoke and Fire”

An interview with Ava Homa on her debut novel, "Daughters of Smoke and Fire."

In her debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire, Ava Homa brings readers to her former home of Iran and invites them inside the struggle of two generations of Kurds trying to survive in a country that does not want them. As the main character Leila, an aspiring filmmaker, fights for the release of her imprisoned journalist brother, Homa unfurls the history of an oppressed people fighting for their right to live, love, thrive, and create.

A woman alone on a mountain at dusk.”

This opening line of the prologue is how the reader enters the world of Daughters of Smoke and Fire. The faceless, nameless young woman contemplates suicide for reasons the reader doesn’t understand. Colors of the landscape come into focus, her anguish sharpens. But the reader does not know who she is. We leave this woman at the end of the short prologue not knowing her fate. It jarred me. But as the novel progressed I came to know this character intimately. I discovered what brought her to that traumatic moment on the mountain at dusk.

I saw her.

The prologue, which initially felt disconnected, was precisely the right way to enter this story because the unnamed woman can be viewed as a proxy for so many Kurdish women pushed aside and unseen. Yet, in Homa’s hands, that anonymous figure comes into sharp focus and emerges as an individual with her own complex story full of love and longing, fighting to be seen and trying not to break. 

As the heart-breaking story of Leila, her idealistic brother, and their father who bears the scars of state-sanctioned torture on his skin, unfolds, Homa peels back layers of sorrow and injustice to reveal the resilience and hope of so many Kurds living in the stateless nation.

Julie Carrick Dalton

You dedicated Daughters of Smoke and Fire, one of the first novels written in English by a Kurdish woman, to Kurdish women. What do you hope it might mean to them? Does that ever feel like a burden to you that so many people—myself included—focus on your book being a ‘first?’

Ava Homa

Every time the women of the stateless nation, the Kurds, have gained some regional autonomy, they have astonished an inattentive world by their skills and competencies. Kurdish women are the female fighters who defeated the Islamic State (IS), who created Jinwar—an ecologically sustainable village for Yazidi women who escaped IS slavery. Kurdish women made polygamy, child marriage, and honor killing illegal in Rojava [Kurdistan in Syria] and Bashur [Kurdistan in Iraq]. Kurdish women have been parliamentarians like Leyla Zana, painters like Zara Dogan, poets like Choman Hardy, and Simin Chaichi, and activists whose names are kept secret for their own safety. I am lucky to have contributed to their achievements by writing a novel in English and I hope that more and more minority women around the world will rise up despite all that is at work to mutilate our spirits and our voices.

Kurdish women deal with a wide spectrum of injustices—genocide, ethnocide, patriarchy, economic and political exclusions, and more. These oppressions are violent, they are visceral. They break your spine, psychologically, and physically. Above all, the states ruling us deny Kurdish pain, blame us for resisting when we should simply surrender to their will, to their assimilate or annihilate policy.

It takes a lot for some of us to lift our heads out of our mass graves, reach out to other women, and show them that resilience is possible, that hope is alive. We have no control over what the oppressors do to us but we have control over how we respond to oppression. We are the living examples of, “They buried us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” I hope that Daughters of Smoke and Fire will help change the situation for Kurds and for all the disenfranchised. I believe that any push toward justice will serve humanity. The current pandemic is a sobering reminder of how connected we are as a species despite borders and all else we have made to separate and prioritize a group over others.

Julie Carrick Dalton

Your book digs into issues of identity on many levels. As an Iranian-born Kurdish woman, Leila deals with the oppression of the Kurds in her home country. Within the Kurdish community, she feels limited by her gender. Westerners make assumptions about her because they perceive her as Muslim. She recognizes and feels indignant about the limits society tries to place on her, but she doesn’t immediately rise up as a hero. She struggles. She fails. She doubts. She watches others rise up around her as she slowly finds her own agency and voice. Does this slow-burning, quiet resistance reflect your own experience?

Ava Homa

I never thought about comparing my journey with my fictional characters. I realize that when a Kurdish woman writes a novel about a Kurdish woman, everyone thinks it’s autobiography. But, in writing fiction, I focus on creating credible characters, not superhumans. I wanted Leila’s journey toward self-liberation to be relatable.

Now that you are asking, in many ways I had a much harder childhood and youth than Leila and perhaps that made me braver and more determined. I have had little interest in putting my own life on a page though because fiction is a lot more sensible and redeemable. Fictional characters have understandable motives, even the most despicable ones. Also, fiction needs to offer a balance between joy and suffering, something that life can lack.

In my twenties, I was able to make my way out of the morass through education. I won admission and a scholarship from the University of Windsor in Canada and earned my Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing. That’s a missed or impossible opportunity for Leila and many other Kurdish women. I wanted to explore ways a Kurdish woman can tap into their inner strength when changing external realities is not an option.

Julie Carrick Dalton

You present several versions of femininity and womanhood in the characters of Leila, Leila’s mother, Shiler, and Joanna. Leila holds more conservative ideas about her sexuality than many of the other women around her. You allowed her time and room to discover herself. Did you struggle to define how Leila and the other women thought about themselves sexually in an environment that fought to control women’s bodies to the point of administering virginity tests on young women?

Ava Homa

Sexuality is an omnipresent yet unspoken topic there. Everyone alludes to it, mostly through humor, but no one openly or anatomically discusses it. Thus, it’s open to misinterpretations and misinformation. Female sexuality is refuted, is buried under a mountain of stigma, or is limited to procreation. For Leila, sexual liberation comes later in life, when she falls in love, and when she no longer has to deal with pressing issues. But she eventually discovers and taps into the forbidden garden of desire as a part of her self-discovery.

Julie Carrick Dalton

You write in the Author’s Note that Daughters of Smoke and Fire was, in part, inspired by the real-life Kurdish journalist Farzad Kamangar. Can you describe how his story influenced you?

Ava Homa

In 2010, when Farzad Kamangar’s letters, written behind prison bars in Iran, went viral on the internet, I was struggling to find my way in exile in Canada. I appeared successful but had too many questions whirling in my head. I still do. Every time I find answers, more questions siege me. I had graduated with an MA in English and Creative Writing—guaranteed unemployment for an immigrant. My collection of short stories Echoes From The Other Land was to be published by Mawenzi Press the October of the same year, and I had just met my lovely husband. But I had also come face to face with racism and exclusion, in my job environment and the book industry. I had started to observe all the subtle ways discrimination was at work in my new home, as opposed to the loud and blunt violence of the country I had left behind. I saw that I wasn’t silenced in Canada but I wasn’t heard either. I felt guilty that I had saved myself but was unable to help my loved ones, activists, and writers who still suffered in Iran. Writing in my third language was taxing and daring, even crippling; earning a living was a challenge. How many options did a writer in exile have, if any?

Farzad’s letters, some of which are adapted in the Daughters of Smoke and Fire, shook me to the core because he showed me it was possible to find meaning even when torturers break your bones—for having a Kurdish ringtone on your cell phone, for having an accent. He embodied the truth that igniting one’s imagination was a/the way out of prison, something that no one could take away from you.

He wrote about love, hope, and justice while being physically and psychologically tortured. Farzad defeated atrocities by refusing to give in to them; he liked to say he wouldn’t let them “kill him inside.” To me, Farzad is a model of humans’ ability to rise above oppression, like Viktor Frankl, like Nelson Mandela. Being touched by his voice and his message, I realized that I had no time for doubt and self-pity. I kept on writing despite all the reasons not to.

I am thrilled that the publication of Daughters of Smoke and Fire coincides with the tenth anniversary of his execution. As I have said before, tyrants fall one after another, Farzad and his like transcend.

Julie Carrick Dalton

Did you always know the shape of this story or did it evolve as you wrote it?

Ava Homa

It changed a lot. I threw out a couple of manuscripts. I wrote in third person before first person, trying to find out which one worked. I realized when I was writing in first person it was easier for me to empathize with the characters.

Julie Carrick Dalton

What has the response from the Kurdish community been? Are there plans to translate your book into Kurdish, Farsi, or other languages?

Ava Homa

So far, I have received a lot of warm support from the Kurds who feel heard. Yes, there are a lot of plans for translation but it’s too soon to reveal them now.

Julie Carrick Dalton

What are you working on now?

Ava Homa

I am writing my second novel, the love story of a Kurdish couple who are separated by the Islamic State’s genocidal attack. IS committed mass murder, kidnapping, and looting on the Yazidi minority. I hope this novel will also be an homage to human resilience, human ability to make meaning, find strength, and overcome difficulties. I believe that at the end what makes us human isn’t what we do throughout our time, but our ability to transform and grow while dealing with small and big obstacles that life throws at us.

Daughters of Smoke and Fire
By Ava Homa
Overlook Press
Published May 12, 2020

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is forthcoming from Forge Books in January 2021. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and other publications. She contributes to DeadDarlings, The Writer Unboxed, and GrubStreet’s writer’s blogs. A Tin House alum and graduate of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator, Julie holds a Master's in Literature and Creative Writing from Harvard Extension School. She also owns and operates a 100-acre organic farm in rural New Hampshire.

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