Of all the powerful stories in the history of the Kurdish people, we have heard little about Kurdish women. Now, author Ava Homa tells an extraordinary story in one of the first books ever published in English by a female Kurdish author.
Kurdish people make up the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, with numbers estimated between 30 and 40 million — roughly the population of Canada. A century ago, their traditional homeland of Kurdistan was divided up and ultimately parcelled out to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Decades of oppressive regimes forced Kurds into a bitter choice: assimilation or annihilation. The consequence is that many people of Kurdish descent are alienated from their language, culture and heritage.
While Kurds are known as the fierce fighters who pushed back Daesh, many Kurdish men remain imprisoned for their anti-government activism and Kurdish women have one of the world’s highest rates of suicide by self-immolation.
This is the world into which Leila Saman is born. She’s the main character in Homa’s “Daughters of Smoke and Fire.”
Homa, who grew up in the Iranian part of Kurdistan and now lives in exile in Toronto and San Francisco, knows firsthand the challenges of striving to forge an identity. While she has previously written a collection of short stories, “Echoes From the Other Land,” this is her debut novel. She writes with such authenticity that her ambition, rage and struggle seem visible in Leila’s own.
In “Daughters of Smoke and Fire,” young Leila is growing up in Iranian-controlled Kurdistan in a family scarred by generations of trauma. Her father (like the author’s own father) was tortured as a political prisoner in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. He’s been released but remains chronically depressed. Her narcissistic mother neglects the children.
As Leila reaches her teens, she yearns to study filmmaking to tell her people’s stories but has no educational prospects. She forms a fierce attachment to her bright younger brother, Chia, who has a good chance of getting into a university. But, like his father and grandfather, Chia has revolutionary ideas. He papers his bedroom walls with posters of Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela. He says things such as, “So ridiculous that the battles fought by wealthy countries are called ‘World War’ and poor countries’ fights are ‘tribal war.’”
When his activism becomes increasingly political, he is suddenly “disappeared.” Leila must channel her fear and anger to embark on a harrowing mission to find not only him but her own identity. That’s when the novel turns from a coming-of-age story into a page-turning thriller.
The power of “Daughters of Smoke and Fire” lies in its unpredictability and absence of good-evil stereotypes. The men are not all predators, nor the women all victims. All characters, including the Kurdish ones, are complex and flawed. There’s a disturbing sex scene that involves neither violence nor coercion.
Leila’s fervour is occasionally melodramatic — “That night I dreamed my chest expanded. It cracked open, and a phoenix rose into the air.”
Through Leila we smell the spices, taste the stews, climb the mountains, fear the morality police. One amusing scene depicts Leila, trying to learn English, mixing up the words “cement” and “semen,” which you suspect Homa must have done herself. There’s a strong Canadian connection too. (And it’s delightful to learn that “poutine” has the same pronunciation as the Kurdish word for boot.)
The story has a broad reach — as Leila says, the battle for self-determination isn’t personal but has occurred throughout history. “People in Rwanda, Bosnia, plantations and indigenous residential schools in North America were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds.”
“Daughters of Smoke and Fire” is a gripping and enlightening read, and Ava Homa’s voice is one that needs to be heard.
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