Author of the Month
Dora Levy Mossanen [june 2005]
Chosen by reviewer Reviewer Kristin Johnson, MyShelf.Com
Dora Levy Mossanen has been called “an Isabel Allende of Persia.” Dr. James Ragan, celebrated author/poet and head of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California from which Mossanen graduated in 1991, says, “Dora Levy Mossanen’s HAREM lures us into a language as opulent as its world, filled with solitudes and lush tapestries of human frailty, love and ambition.”
MPW instructor and CITY OF NIGHT author John Rechy calls HAREM “A beautifully written epic novel that teems with sharply drawn characters and haunting scenes.”
The success of Mossanen’s first novel HAREM (Scribner, 2002) will no doubt be equaled by the lush fable COURTESAN, available from Touchstone in July 2005 and set during the Belle Époque of France and the early 20th century in Persia. Both HAREM and COURTESAN center around three generations of strong, spirited women affronting their destinies in a lost world of elegance, seduction, intrigue and romanticism.
Mossanen’s characters are driven by desire persisting in their dreams, by the need for “the privilege of defiance,” surrender forced upon the powerful, by the need for love. An albino woman is a “fragile girl with mysterious eyes and translucent skin…whose beauty was of another world. Since her birth, in only a week, her luxurious hair had grown to her shoulders, scintillating like a waterfall of pure silver.”
A Persian jeweler shakes “his slim body like a grand cat…His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a ponytail, his nut-brown beard perfectly clipped. His black tunic was carelessly open to reveal a muscular chest darkened by the sun, defying Simone’s image of a jeweler imprisoned in an atelier.”
COURTESAN, like Harem, will keep readers enthralled with the magic of Mossanen’s words. MyShelf.com reviewer Kristin Johnson, who is also a graduate of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program, talked stories with Dora Levy Mossanen.
Kristin: Dora, it’s a pleasure to interview you for MyShelf.com. You’ve just published your second book, COURTESAN, and are working on a third. Tell us about your writing career. How did you become a writer?
Dora Levy Mossanen: Many thanks, it’s my pleasure.
I discovered my writing abilities later in life and quite by chance. After my family and I fled the Islamic Republic in 1979, I decided to go back to school. I was married and had children at a young age and had not had the opportunity to attend college back in Iran. I enrolled at UCLA and got my bachelor degree in English Literature. These were difficult but rewarding years. I had just moved to the United States, with two young children, to a new country and an unfamiliar culture. But the wealth of literary subjects in the assigned books and the obligatory term papers were my first taste of the exhilarating process of creation.
After I graduated from UCLA, looking for a chance to write, I enrolled and was accepted in the USC school of Journalism. I remember well the first semester when I had to struggle to learn typing. Yes, I did not know how to type until then. At the end of the semester a teacher I remember fondly came to me and said. “Dora, you will be a great writer, but you don’t have what it takes to be a great reporter. Reporting is different from writing. You can’t have qualms about shoving the microphone in front of a mother who has just lost a child. Why don’t you apply to the USC Master of Professional Writing here?” And the rest is history.
Dora: The choosing of MPW Program was a turn of fate I am grateful for. As I mention in the answer to my previous question, it was by chance that I was introduced to the USC Master of Professional Writing, a program I had not heard about before. It was here that I learned from John Rechy the art of creating, cornering, and planting insurmountable obstacles in front of my characters. It was here that I first heard from James Ragan that we are rewriters rather than writers.
Dora: I started both my first novel, LIKE DUST ON A CHINA MIRROR, which was my thesis, and my next novel HAREM while in the MPW Program.
Dora: Spending my childhood in Israel where women are liberated and an important force in every aspect of daily life, when I moved to Iran, I could not come to terms with the idea of women hiding under chadors. Early on, I became fascinated with certain strong-willed women who despite all odds managed to rise to powers of position in backward countries in the Middle East. Rebekah in HAREM and Mme Gabriélle and Simone in COURTESAN are the products of a lifetime of observing and analyzing the women I was surrounded by.
Both for COURTESAN and HAREM, I started with my characters. I knew every detail about Mme Gabriélle, her blue hair, strong-willed stubbornness, obsessive desire for fame and wealth, from the very beginning. I also was very familiar with Rebekah in HAREM, her ambition, her violet eyes, but not that she would one day bring a eunuch to orgasm. That I didn’t know because I don’t make outlines, but give my characters the freedom to take me where they may.
Obviously the mother-daughter relationships in our own lives may not be quite that dramatic, but they’re powerful, and the grandmother-granddaughter relationships too. Do you see any part of your own relationship with the women in your family in your books?
Dora: Absolutely! I have two daughters and three grandchildren. I have yet to have come across more complex relationships than those of daughters and mothers. And when I had my first grandchild, to my great surprise, I could not believe the love and bond that developed between us. Yes, similar to Rebekah and Raven, similar to Simone d’Honoré and Mme Gabriélle.
Dora: In our lives, whether we live in France or Persia, in an oppressive or liberal society, we all come across such men. Don’t we? Every minute of our waking hours, and often in our dreams, dramas continue to unfold. The secret is to be observant, to record these moments, and these characters, and embellish to make them more interesting, sometimes in positive and other time in negative ways.
I agree with the interview in HAREM that these women in this
society (Persian and French) have become quite powerful in their own way.
Mme Gabrielle says in COURTESAN, “We are not just pretty faces who
provide sex. To overlook our insight and resourcefulness and to brand
us as whores is like calling successful businessmen pimps. Sex is the
icing on our relationships. Men keep coming back to us for our complexity,
political savvy, and wit. We are masters of our own fate, and this is
more than can be said of those so called ‘proper ladies’ who
don’t even choose their own husbands.” While women flaunt
their sexuality today, such as Britney Spears and the queen of sexy businesswomen,
Madonna, our society still tends to pigeonhole successful women like Condoleezza
Rice and Martha Stewart—and this is in America where we’re
supposedly liberated. What’s worse is that this mindset often comes
Dora: Your comment that “both men and women feel threatened and yet attracted by other powerful women,” is very astute. Relationships between men and women, but especially between women and women, and above all mothers and daughters, are quite complex and multilayered. I don’t consider myself an authority in that area, but the underlying theme in my novels is the reality that if young women have a strong support system, particularly powerful, encouraging mothers, they will possess the tools to climb to positions of power. Men might tie these women’s hands, but they wouldn’t be able to stifle their voice. And power is always both feared and admired. I guess it stems from the thought that, “I better not step on her toe, yet I so want to be like her.”
Dora: You are so right that the dilemmas about love and sex are no less complicated than years ago. And I believe will remain complicated forever. Love, just like sex, is an integral part of life and is sought, I believe, on a primal level. But somewhere along the line love, marriage, and sex became tools women and men took advantage of to better their status and that of their children in different societies. Rebekah and Gold Dust in HAREM and Mme Gabriélle and Françoise in COURTESAN use sex as a weapon to realize their dreams and, of course, in the process garner power and enter a social status out of their reach. See what happens to Simone in the end of COURTESAN. She certainly had no intention of misusing her sexual powers, but society would not allow it.
Dora: Faith must be an integral part of my characters’ lives, otherwise where do they find the courage to do what they do? In HAREM, Rebekah, who thinks she lost God somewhere along the way, seeks the Ancient Zoroastrian’s advice and, without realizing, she prays to God every turn she is faced with a dilemma. In COURTESAN, Mme Gabriélle, who believes she successfully erased her Jewish past, is not left in peace by her guilt and the ghosts of her past lovers. And Cyrus would end up paying dearly for his unwavering belief in his faith, whether it be religious or moral.
Dora: The first seeds of HAREM and COURTESAN were planted in my head in my childhood when I grew listening to stories my historian grandfather loved to recount. These stories did not only teach me invaluable lessons, but turned into scenes of my own, ones I embellished to create my books. Every story told in COURTESAN and HAREM is elaborated on and adjusted to suit the listener. In the process, each character learns a lesson.
Dora: I come from a Persian culture rooted in legends, mythology, superstition and folklore. Still, the supernatural evolved as I wrote and rewrote. And I followed John Rechy’s advice: “Magical realism is a form of writing that takes reality and interjects fantasy.”
Dora: LYLA has evolved since I wrote HAREM and COURTESAN. The novel is now called SCENT OF BUTTERFLIES. I will keep you posted about the developments there. I have been thinking about a sequel to HAREM. This project is at the simmering-in-my-head stage.
Dora: It has been a great pleasure. And I wish you great success in your future projects.
COURTESAN is a spiritual sequel to Dora Levy Mossanen’s novel HAREM. Once again, Mossanen mixes a life-altering liaison with a Shah, three generations of women coming to terms with the choices of the previous and next generation, Muslim-Jewish religious conflict, and people in a bygone elegant and dangerous but exciting world affronting their destiny, to borrow a phrase Henry James once used to describe his heroine Isabel Archer. One can see echoes of PORTRAIT OF A LADY, with a less unhappy fate for the female protagonists. Mme Gabrielle D’Honore and her daughter Francoise are not in the least like Serena Merle, but rather more like the women in Colette’s GIGI. Like Gigi, Simone, granddaughter of Gabrielle, believes in love. She rejects the family profession of courtesan in favor of Cyrus, a hunk of a Jewish jeweler whose mother-in-law hates Simone and gives better guilt trips than Barbra Streisand. She gives up a glittering chateau and the sensual trappings her grandmother employs with the help of her great-grandfather Rabbi Abramowicz, who despairs of what his daughter Mme. Gabrielle, nee Ester has become.
But just what has she become? The film DANGEROUS BEAUTY and the screen adaptation of VANITY FAIR deal with women becoming courtesans because of necessity. But for Gabrielle, Francoise, and in an unexpected twist, Simone after her husband dies, being a courtesan is a matter of choice.
Mme Gabrielle says in COURTESAN, “We are not just pretty faces who provide sex. To overlook our insight and resourcefulness and to brand us as whores is like calling successful businessmen pimps. Sex is the icing on our relationships. Men keep coming back to us for our complexity, political savvy, and wit. We are masters of our own fate, and this is more than can be said of those so called ‘proper ladies’ who don’t even choose their own husbands.”
Ironically, seeking to avenge her husband Cyrus, Simone helps one of those “proper ladies,” then goes on to be the heroine of her own story. It’s a rich, sensual fairytale about love as well as a realistic tale of mothers and daughters.
Singing bones. Magical evil eyes between breasts. Mint used to ward off evil spirits. Brutal husbands barbecued in clay kilns. Male organs pickled in a jar.
Clearly we aren’t in Iran any more. We’re in ancient Persia, one of the birthplaces of civilization. Civilization may seem a relative term when seven-year-old girls are married off to thirty-something blacksmith slobs called “Jacob the Fatherless” who, unlike Hephaestus, can’t make anything of a marriage but misery. Centuries later, child brides are enduring the same fate in India as portrayed in “Lesson One: A Wail” from Aryadan Shoukath. Happily, Dora Levy Mossanen’s debut novel HAREM, which draws on Mossanen’s childhood in Israel and Iran, is a fairy tale, a real Lancelot and Guinevere meets Lolita meets Aladdin and Mary Renault with just a little bit of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” thrown in. Tra-DITION, Tra-DITION!
Ms. Mossanen’s characters, from the child bride Rebekah to her sultana daughter Gold Dust to the incestuous albino princess Raven, throw tradition to the wind. No “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match” for these women. Although they are still bound by the strictures of a society that pits women against men and women against each other.
Centuries later, women still refuse to stick up for Martha Stewart and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ph.D., and also snipe at each other on “The Bachelor” the way the Shah of Persia’s women do in the seclusion of the harem.
There’s also royal court intrigue, the ongoing religious conflict between Jew and Muslim (the State Department travel advisory was just lifted in the Holy Land), mother-and-daughter conflicts, and the exploration of love versus lust.
Clearly, this is not your ordinary first novel. Concubines in the harem are “lounging bodies, too deep in opium dreams to care for worldly goods,” a tapestry shows that the Shah on a hunt “in full battle regalia and with a haughty expression spread a dragon.” Mossanen’s writing style is as endearing as her characters, especially the feisty, feminist (“You are the king. Change the law.”) Raven, whose future rule of Persia demands a sequel.
Reviewer Kristin Johnson, the founder of PoemsForYou.com, released her second book, CHRISTMAS COOKIES ARE FOR GIVING, co-written with Mimi Cummins, in October 2003. Visit www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com. Her third book, ORDINARY MIRACLES: My Incredible Spiritual, Artistic and Scientific Journey, co-written with Sir Rupert A.L. Perrin, M.D., is now available from PublishAmerica.
2005's Honorary List