The Kurdish people have a long history of denied legitimacy, which has forced their authors to write in languages other than their own. Consider the writer and filmmaker Kae Bahar, who survived torture as a teenager and an attempt on his life by ISIS. After fleeing to England, he published Letters from a Kurd in 2015. Set in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the account (regarded by many as the first Kurdish novel in English) follows a young boy struggling with his non-traditional gender identity — in a country of brutal sexual repression. He finds escape through foreign films and by composing imaginary letters to his hero, the actor Clint Eastwood. Bahar’s text serves as a meaningful introduction to Ava Homa’s own debut, Daughters of Smoke and Fire, the first novel in English by a female Kurdish writer.
Unlike the much older Bahar, Homa was born in Iran. But like him, she writes in exile and in a foreign tongue. Homa, who now divides her time between Toronto and San Francisco, previously published short fiction, including “Lullaby,” a tale about the young Kurdish activist Farzad Kamangar. After imprisonment and torture failed to crush his inner life (he turned his suffering into rhapsodic poetry), Kamangar was executed. Nevertheless, his words shook the foundations of a theocracy that continues to feed on division, fear, and despair. With Daughters of Smoke and Fire, Homa has again used his story and his trials to fuel her writing’s incendiary power.
Homa’s novel bears fiery witness to the lives and struggles of a stateless nation. In the prologue, a woman is alone on a mountain at dusk, with an invisible boot pressed against her throat. This imagined suffocation conforms with her sense of a “stifled future,” as she bemoans “the daily cruelties of living as a woman in La’nat Awa, the damned place.” Her name is Leila, and the “damned place” is the Kurdish region of Iran. It is a setting where, by law, a man’s life is worth twice as much as a woman’s; where the government, through its official policy of “Enjoining Good and Forbidding Vice,” encourages children to inform on adults who don’t comply with religious or political edicts; where relatives must pay a bullet fee to retrieve the corpse of an executed family member; where, in short, Kurds have a “criminalized identity.” But the story is not simply a list of complaints. The opening expands into a tale of witness, where a persecuted collectivity is represented by members of a family whose lives pulsate with urgent passions.
Names provide an additional layer of symbolism within this story of defiance. Leila’s beloved younger brother, Chia, who becomes a political martyr, has one that means “mountain.” Their father, or Baba, whose badly scarred back is a canvas of torture, imprisonment, and hunger for justice, is Alan Saman, a name that in Arabic denotes a folkloric flag-bearer. Their mother’s name, Hana, means “hope, flower, happiness,” contradicting her volatile narcissism and domestic displeasure. Leila’s best friend, Shiler (“lily”), and her mother, Joanna (“beautiful”), are both ill-fated — especially Shiler after she joins the peshmerga in the mountains. And the handsome young man who eventually becomes Leila’s saviour is Karo, which means “strong”— an epithet he earns after redeeming himself for his unintended role in Chia’s tragic fate.
The book spans Leila’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, building from the persecution and atrocities she meets with in Iran to her daring attempts to find and free her imprisoned brother and the subsequent threats to her own safety. Half Kurdish, Karo only gradually emerges as a hero when he engineers Leila’s escape to Canada, first by means of a sham marriage, to get her past the Iranian authorities, and then by arranging her refuge with his wealthy mother in Toronto. Over these tension-filled sequences, the story deepens as an exploration of freedom, identity, and finally love.
While the narrative unfolds with genuine force and suspenseful momentum, Homa’s characterizations can stray into clichéd or strained metaphors. Red poppies are described as dancing in the breeze; there is “a garden of anguish”; the past is compared to “a colony of mosquitoes.” When she focuses on particulars of Kurdish affliction, Homa is on firm ground, but when she attempts to raise the dramatic pitch of her plot, she is guilty of exaggeration, even melodrama, as when Leila admits that “an overpowering urge to scream my story, to expel it from beginning to end, seized me. Suddenly I could see the heads of all those Kurds crushed beneath tanks.”
So, too, the novel’s structure, which jumps between the narrations of Leila, Alan, and Chia, seems unsure of itself at first. The father’s narrative is the shortest and is related in the third person, keeping him at some distance from the reader, yet simultaneously allowing for an objective focus on his trauma. (However, one could wonder how a third-person perspective fits into what is essentially a first-person account.) Chia’s diaries and notes are incorporated dramatically into his section, but it is Leila who emerges as the ultimate storyteller, and through her the author clarifies her intent.
The Canadian part makes up the final fifth of the book and feels tightly pressurized. Leila, by then in her mid-twenties, realizes that her new home has its own reprehensible record of racism and injustice: “Neither of the countries was mine. One had crucified my brother and threatened to kill me. One had killed its own natives at one point and I wasn’t sure it had a place for the likes of me.” Nevertheless, she makes an assiduous attempt to learn English, and she matures sexually, listening to her body yearn for Karo; but her frustrations with the language, her disapproving mother-in-law, and the ghosts of her past are expressed naively. As Leila learns the facts of Karo’s accidental role in her brother’s capture and his sincere efforts to honour Chia’s memory, her doubts fall away and the two marry — properly this time. Homa rushes through Leila’s university studies in order to solidify her role as a political activist. She eventually becomes a celebrated filmmaker who documents Kurdish suffering.
Throughout, Homa’s focus remains fixed on Iran. The ending is shaped with dark metaphors — life as landfill waste or compost — but it ultimately points to optimism as Leila, pregnant with her first child, anticipates a future of “blithe abundance.” Her parents, who had shown her very little understanding or acceptance before their own exile to Canada, relish the spectacular success of Warrior Butterflies, Leila’s film about three female Kurdish freedom fighters. The epilogue shows her parents watching a televised broadcast of the film, the bitter tumult of their past conflicts put aside. A single tear streaks down Baba’s face as he composes an email with the subject line “My daughter.” Such sentimentality threatens to turn the story into a stereotypical weepie, dulling the sharp edges of a narrative about hard-earned identity. Yet the book survives its flaws. Daughters of Smoke and Fire is a groundbreaking work of “warrior” witness.