It was in March 2017 that Liana Levi, of the independent French publishing house that bears her name, came to Sandra and Sandro Ferri with Disoriental, a debut novel by Négar Djavadi, a French-Iranian screenwriter. Levi and the Ferris, owners and publishers of the Italian press Edizioni E/O and the founders of Europa Editions in the U.S./U.K., knew each other from Paris (where, coincidentally, the long-married Ferris met). Sandra Ferri was immediately taken with Disoriental, which had been published in France in August 2016: “I fell in love with this funny and moving novel, which is a pleasure to read and full of charm. The story of a young girl and her family is placed at the core of this exploration of Iranian history, which, at last, thanks to this endearing novel, I’ve been able to understand a little better. It is also a very effective tale about relationships: between sisters, between youth and tradition, between husband and wife, between the culture of the west and the east.” E/O bought Italian rights, and Europa bought U.S./U.K. rights, with Sandra Ferri serving as editor of the Italian edition.
Rachael Small, director of publicity at Europa, is the U.S. editor. After reading Disoriental in May 2017 in its original language (Small is not only fluent in French but passionate about it), she asked to do the translation review for the English-language edition. It was Small who brought me the manuscript after a casual conversation about forthcoming books. Her enthusiasm was not misplaced. “Disoriental is the kind of book that reminds me why I first became a reader,” she told me, “to see the world through the eyes of others and delight in the beautiful possibilities of language. Djavadi has created a narrator whose voice is approachable and edgy all at once, and Tina Kover [who translated from the original French] has brilliantly rendered that voice in an English so clear and natural that you feel as though you are sitting with your dear friend Kimiâ over coffee, listening to her tell stories. These interweaving family stories made me laugh and think”—and, Small admits, cry—“in the most beautiful way.”
Before coming to Europa, Small was a freelance translator from French and Spanish; she’s lived in Paris and Mexico City. And though she came to publicity as a way of breaking into publishing, her goal is not to edit exclusively; she enjoys the personal interactions of publicity, and from my conversations with her, and after reading Disoriental, I can tell you she’s a talented editor and a talented publicist.
For me, Disoriental is exciting as a novel in translation and as a novel by a woman; it’s touching and perceptive, and yes, funny, but also a story told with a gimlet eye, with a studied insight. I’ve always loved literature in translation; for a while I rebelled, convinced I should only read books in their original languages (which severely restricted my reading), but, fortunately, that edict expired. It’s especially fortunate, because otherwise I would have missed Disoriental, my latest “I love this book and can’t put it down.” (I’m a little stunned and also thrilled that this column is delivering these heartbreaking novels.) The author came to France as a young girl, and, for a bit of exotica, her bio says that she crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister.
The novel reflects Djavadi’s family history and also the history of Iran, which is told in scattered footnotes and folded into the story. The novel’s narrator, Kimiâ, a wildly modern woman, is introduced while she is waiting in a fertility clinic in Paris. She speaks directly to the reader, describing the Sadr clan, her origins, and her close relatives: her grandmother (“Sometimes, in the middle of Parisian crowds, sitting in a café or on a folding seat in the metro, in a century driven by technology and machines, I catch myself thinking about how my grandmother was born in an andarouni.... I’m the granddaughter of a woman born in a harem”); her many uncles, known by their birth order, “Uncle Number One, Uncle Number Six”; her activist, dissident, journalist father, who opposes both the shah and Khomeini; the effect of blue eyes being introduced into the gene pool—“her son, her prince with the eyes of Light, was a personal gift from the All-Powerful”; and the family servant, Bibi—“she had invented her own language, a strange muddled mixture of Persian and the Mazandarani dialect, watered with liters of saliva that built up in her mouth, and which she occasionally swallowed in one gulp like a hard-boiled egg.”
Djavadi captures the culture of Iran, her tone clever and amusing and uncritical. Read Disoriental, and, like Sandra Ferri, you will gain some understanding, as when Kimiâ tells us: “Iranians don’t like silence. This tendency to make endless small talk, to throw sentences like lassoes into the air to meet one another, to tell stories which, like Russian matryoshka dolls, open to reveal other stories, is, I suppose, one way to deal with a fate made up of nothing but invasions and totalitarianism.”
Or when she explains sexuality in Iran in the 1970s and a womanizing doctor who, having studied in France, was famous for introducing “the French word vagin to designate that intimate part of the female anatomy that Persians, prudish and reserved, never mentioned by name.... With their mouths full of pastry and saffron pistachios, women talked to each other about their vagin; first giggling, then blushing.”
The novel has its serious side, addressing homosexuality, the conflict between liberalism and conservatism in Iran dating back to the beginnings of the 20th century, the intervention of England and the U.S. in their greed for Iran’s oil. But the beauty of Disoriental is most importantly its sure-footed storytelling, its captivating characters, and its surprising ending.
Disoriental will be published in Italy in September 2017 and in the U.S. and U.K. in May 2018. As of April 2017, the French edition has sold 65,000 copies and is still selling well. It’s received prizes in France and garnered positive press. French Elle calls it “the revelation of the new season”; Le Monde, “a voice that enchants us as much as it grips us.” As of this writing, rights have been sold to Germany (Beck, publishing October 2017) and Spain (Malpaso, published April 2017).
This article was corrected to fix a typo in the headline.