Daughters of Smoke and Fire: An authentic literary Kurdish voice

Abbas Vali , Kevin McKiernan

Ava Hma was born and raised in Sina, Kurdistan, Rojhilat, and received her Master’s Degree in English and Creative Writing form the University of Windsor in Canada. Her collection of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and she is the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship. 
What you will read in Nawext are reviews by Kevin McKiernan and Professor Abbas Vali:


Kevin McKiernnan is the author and award-winning documentary filmmaker of Good Kurds, Bad Kurds who has recently released his powerful movie about native Americans, From the Wounded Knee to Standing Rock. 

Ernest Hemingway, as the story goes, was approached by a young man who declared that he, too, was a writer. “Really?” Papa H reportedly said to the startled man, “then show me your scars.” That is a challenge Ava Homa, the Iranian Kurd and author of the new book “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” would surely manage. While Kurds in Iran have long lacked the global profile of their brethren in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, this is likely to change with the publication of Homa’s gripping first novel. The scars she bears as a Kurdish feminist reared under Iranian rule and living now in the “cruelty of exile” are evident on every page.

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” could have been the true story of Iran’s manipulation by outside powers and the internal suppression it fueled. Or the truth about U.S. meddling in Iran’s tragic eight-year war with Iraq during the Reagan years, when the CIA picked out targets in Iran for Iraqi chemical attacks. We don’t learn any of that, nor do we hear about the hopeful but short- lived experiment in Iran’s Mahabad, the only Kurdish republic in history. That is where Kurdish aspirations were snuffed out in 1946, after the Soviets made a deal with Tehran to withdraw their support in exchange for Moscow’s continued access to Iranian oil.

In this haunting piece of political fiction, the author has taken a different tack, a much more personal one. This is the gut-punch tale of Leila, an alienated Kurdish girl swimming upstream against a tide of sexism and ethnic hatred, whose own body, chafing under state repression, sometimes feels more like a “rental.” Despite being “more native to the land than the people who rule her,” she must endure life under the Morality Police whose clinics conduct “virginity tests.” In one scene, she grimaces as she passes by Tehran display windows where government censors force the shop owners to cut off the nipples of mannequins. 

Some of the best writing here is cinematic, as in the scene of the doomed and falsely accused Kurdish teacher, whose last act of resistance is to offer chocolates to the guard escorting him to the gallows. There are many examples of the author’s dark humor, too, like the airport scene where an Iranian TSA agent aborts an intrusive luggage search after inadvertently touching some unboxed Kotex in her suitcase. Leila has been rescued, Homa writes, tongue-in-cheek, 

by “infidel-saving sanitary pads.” 

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” provides a graphic portrait of prison torture and execution, with the emotional toll it takes on families left behind. Leila is lost and emotionally scarred, smoldering with anger, but unable to ignite. The only way forward is to go back--back to her star-crossed Kurdish roots, which, ironically, are the cause of her disabled life. Maybe now she’ll have a chance of becoming the person she has always been--the chance that, in the words of an old Irish proverb, “What is bred in the bone will out.”


The Making of Kurdish Identity

 Professor Abbas Vali, author of Kurds and the State in Iran

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is focused on the lives of a Kurdish girl Leila and her brother Chia growing up in post-revolutionary Iran. Both become political in different ways. The story is for the most part told from the perspective of Leila, with a couple of short passages by the father and brother. It's also inspired by the life of Farzad Kamangar, though according to the author's note it's not meant to be his fictionalised life. 

The narrative of their lives is explicitly mapped against the history of Kurdish struggles. The brother is born on the day of Halabja; their father was from Halabja, imprisoned in Iraq and fled across the border to Iran. There are references to other political events throughout (including the assassination of Sharafkandi), and also to Iranian developments (the Green movement). All this is a lot to fit in, and it's done for the most part skilfully and with a light touch.

What I found most striking and original was how “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” resisted romanticising the experience of living under oppression. The family at the centre - the brother and sister and their parents - are all damaged emotionally and in their relationships: the parents are basically too traumatised to be able to respond to their children's problems. 

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” opens with the narrator looking at her father's back covered with scars from his time in prison, and the whole novel is a story of scarring, really, visible and invisible. The mother is a fairly horrible character who has never got over her resentment at being left alone with a baby while her husband was imprisoned. And Leila, who struggles to make herself act, is full of self-doubt and failure. The temptation to make people heroic is undercut by the way they all characters, at various times, find themselves unable to support one another, held back by fear or lack of understanding, even Chia fails to recognise how his sister is being damaged by her life as a woman. 

That sense of trauma rippling across generations and families is very powerful.

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” also interestingly varies from a theme which is quite common in literature of the diaspora: the story of the clever girl growing up in Iran, constantly told she's worthless, having to cover herself, encountering periods, struggling with love and desire. I think the Kurdish element gives a particular twist to the story of self-liberation, and highlights the complications of different political loyalties. 

It is that intertwining of political and personal desires and difficulties that Daughters of Smoke and Fire does particularly well. 

As a narrative it was very compelling - you know things are not going to end well, but it is a gripping and moving story, and I read it in a single day. The novel illuminates these troubled lives convincingly and movingly, and tells important stories that are not much known beyond the Kurdish community.

“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is a compelling narrative of consciousness and empowerment that skillfully intertwines the personal and political, joining a story of suffering and trauma with one of love and desire. The novel is striking and original in its refusal to romanticize life under oppression. It is a story of visible and invisible scarring, of violence and suffering transmitted across generations, of gender oppression and political exclusion and silencing, but it is also a moving and timely novel of hope and transformation, and of self-liberation.


25 May, 2020