I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how they spend the day.
June 1, 2023: Marjan Kamali
Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop opens in 2013, in New England, in Roya and Walter’s kitchen. Each is seventy-seven, and they have been married a long time. Walter eats a hard-boiled egg for breakfast almost every day. Roya tells us that’s because he’s Walter. I’m such a nut for marriage stories that I was in. Give me more dish-drying and eggs.
Not to be. In Chapter Two we go back to 1953, to Tehran, to the summer Roya is seventeen, and to the breakfast table where she eats not eggs, but fresh naan with feta cheese and homemade sour cherry jam. And before the chapter is over, we are in the Stationery Shop.
Roya loved running her fingers over tablets of smooth pages in that shop. She loved the boxes of pencils that smelled like lead and promised knowledge. She could spend an entire afternoon just looking at fountain pens and ink bottles or flipping through books that spoke of poetry and love and loss.
A few moments later,
Roya nodded and was reaching into her purse when the bell above the shop door chimed. The door burst open, letting in shouts from the streets and a huge gust of wind. The pages of Rumi ruffled in her hand. A boy her age entered the store in a hurry… He walked in whistling a tune that was wistful and filled with longing.
And then he’s gone. “Who was that?” Roya asks. “That is the boy who wants to change the world,” Mr. Fakhri, the owner of the shop, tells her. And the big questions become how did Roya get from this boy in Tehran to Walter in New England and how (and why) do our lives turn out the way they do.
Marjan’s writing is beautiful and full of details that place the reader in a scene—pamphlets with Prime Minister Mossadegh’s face scattered on the ground, elephant’s ear pastries, pink-cushioned chairs, green-feathered hats, the Cinema Metropole on Lalehzar Street. About a third of the way in, Roya has occasion to receive a letter from the boy who would change the world, who is called Bahman and who smells like the wind. The passage below is a perfect example of what the writer Mary Gordon calls “saturating a moment.”
She ran her fingers across the letter, willing his scent to rise from the paper, wanting part of him to sink through the pads of her fingers. She had only seen his handwriting once before, the inscription he’d written inside the notebook he’d given her as a gift for the new year. Seeing his handwriting again felt like holding a piece of him. In each stroke, with each curve and dip of the letters on the page, she could feel him. And when she read the letter over and over and over again, his voice was inside her.
I’m not going to give the story away, but I will tell you that I never thought about Walter again…
The Stationery Shop is a big, thick, love story set amidst the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. You will also meet Zari, Roya’s younger sister, and Mrs Aslan, Bahman’s mother. There will be khoresh stews. I kept my pen in the book as a bookmark so I would be ready to underline. I couldn’t wait to get back to the story each day.
Marjan’s debut novel,Together Tea, was a Massachusetts Book Award finalist. Her novels have been published in more than twenty languages. Her essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Literary Hub, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She was born in Turkey to Iranian parents and spent her childhood in Turkey, Iran, Germany, Kenya, and the U.S. A 2022 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Marjan teaches creative writing at GrubStreet and lives in the Boston area with her family.
Come back on JUNE 1st to read how MARJAN KAMALI spends her days.