Her second novel, The Good Remains (Grove/Atlantic Monthly, 2002), was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, and a finalist for The Virginia Library Award. “In this book,” she explains, “I strove to paint an entirely different landscape than Crawling at Night. While Crawling at Night was about urban alienation, The Good Remains was about the connectedness of a small town. I also wished to pay tribute to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”
The Sea of Tears, her third novel, was published in January 2005 by Counterpoint Press. “I felt a need to explore the only still ‘forbidden’ territory in writing—exploring the realm of true sentiment and feeling, without being hackneyed. A certain cynicism has been lauded in our culture as intellectualism, and I reject that concept. I also wanted to humanize characters from the Middle East, who I felt were being pigeonholed and overlooked culturally in the post 9/11 era.”
Her newest book is a travel/food memoir titled Feed the Hungry. It was published this summer by Simon and Schuster.
Gina: What inspired you to write a memoir after three novels?
Nani: I started thinking about family recipes and what they meant to me, which led me to remembering lots of things surrounding those recipes. And I’ve been really interested in all my writing in how food creates and fosters memory. That even a bad recipe can be as loved as something good, because it’s churned in nostalgia and love. I had a friend who loved burned food because his mother couldn’t cook. I kind of like the taste of an unmelted slice of butter on cold toast because my grandmother made it that way. Makes you wonder whether we actually “fall” in love or create love around reality.
I also love reading books with recipes because somehow you become involved in the world of the book even more. And then, lastly, I found myself looking at my family’s methods of coping and wanting to understand it more closely. I don’t know if I understood more, but I saw my family more three dimensionally, and therefore with more compassion.
Nani: Well, it’s this luscious tropical yellow salve my family gulped down by the gallons when we would go to the Bahamas. It has lots of fruit juices, Galliano, and banana liqueur and as kids we loved to suck down the last bit left in my parent’s glasses. Plus, it always had a maraschino cherry in it, which, I’ve learned as a parent, produces some kind of ineffable food euphoria in kids.
Nani: It’s amazing the many coats that lil’ ol’ grain can wear. I discovered it’s really important in sushi culture, maybe more so than even the fish, if that is possible. Sushi chefs initially suss out the quality of a sushi bar by the rice and the omelette (tamago) preparation. Perfect rice tossed with the right combo of vinegar, salt, and sugar really complements the right slice of toro, a mushy version degrades it. Then, later on, I discovered Persian cuisine and found a new style of rice—basmati rice melded with so many flavors—saffron, rosewater, barberries (think tiny cranberries), sour cherries…a typical Persian feast would include at least four different rice pilafs. I think rice has a soothing quality as well. Both of the above cultures eat a thin rice porridge when they are sick, and feed it to their children as their first food.
Nani: Basically, it kicked my ass energetically. I had kind of just started writing, had about 30 pages of a novel on my computer. When I saw the level of ambition there, I realized I had to get serious if I was going to do this. I kind of lost the amateur spirit and kicked into high gear. Everyone there seemed so driven and accomplished (including you, I remember that). Plus, I felt so at home. I loved that everyone there loved writing as much as I did.
I also learned that I really love air conditioning.
Nani: I’m working on a novel and also a book about Indian vegetarian cooking that I’ve learned from various Indian women in my neighborhood.