Review by Holly Mason
Growing up in a Kurdish-American home, I only had my mother’s stories of Kurdistan and Iraq as a frame of reference for that land and the Kurdish experience and struggle. She described pleasant nights, sleeping on an upper courtyard in the fresh air with her siblings; her mother interpreting dreams each morning; sharing one doll with her sisters; sharing one small dinner chicken with a family of ten; and as a young girl, her heart beating quickly while meeting Saddam Hussein in a field. Later, she would find out that he tortured her cousin until he agreed to become Uday Hussein’s body double. For my mother and her family, being Kurdish in Iraq meant needing to escape to avoid persecution and ending up in the US as refugees in 1975.
Consequently, images of Kurdish oppression at the hands of Hussein’s regime (even before he was officially in a position of power) were stored within my mind at a young age. Images of a family of ten packing up one suitcase, going on two horses through the mountains, and hiding in caves, were clearly situated in my memory. And a vivid understanding of Kurdish female oppression within a deeply patriarchal society took up residence in my mind early on. Reading Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa crystalized so much of what I had imagined since childhood. Of course, the book also offers its own distinct, individual journey, one specific to Kurds in Iran and Eastern Kurdistan, particularly to Kurdish women, and emphasizes that even within the collectives’ experiences and struggles, individuals remain their own—uniquely human.
In part, Ava Homa’s Daughters of Smoke and Fire is the coming-of-age story of a Kurdish girl, Leila, growing up in the Kurdish region of Iran. Even from a young age, Leila feels the unwavering weight of stacked oppressions: cultural repression, language stipulations, and immense gendered pressure. This is the story of a young Kurdish female finding her worth beyond familial obligations, gendered expectations, and formidable stereotypes. This is a story of generational trauma, but also of an endearing sibling relationship and several strong, meaningful female friendships. As Leila’s journey progresses to uncover the disappearance of her Kurdish activist brother, Chia, she also comes to better understand herself and her own power.
Almost immediately, in the first pages, we can tangibly feel Leila’s difficulty in navigating familial and societal expectations as a young Kurdish woman. A sense of failure follows her around, tugging at her mental and emotional reserves daily. Everywhere she turns, she is told she is not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough. Homa writes, “Mama and Baba agreed on one thing. The only cure for my uselessness, they established, was to marry me off, but since I was not particularly pretty or good at housework, I didn’t have a single suitor” (37-38). Leila’s journey is one of universal female coming-of-age moments, but also quite specific to her own intersectional struggle as a Kurdish daughter in Iranian-Kurdistan. She tells us from the start, “I was borne on a pendulum between faith and terror, between agitation and paralysis. I’d never felt more alone” (148). Tightly wedged between her own insecurities, her families’ demands and expectations, and the malevolent treatment of Kurds and Kurdish women, through Leila, this novel explores the stark reality of Kurdish female suicide, a cause that Ava Homa remains dedicated to addressing. Leila’s dear friend Shiler describes this crushing pressure, saying, “I finally understood why so many women do themselves in. Everywhere I looked was a dead end” (176).
In a book brimming with action and internal complexities, Homa crafts well-rounded characters and relationships. Early on, while the female protagonist is picking flowers with her friends and contemplating her father’s trauma, we learn she is an extreme empath. Leila thinks to herself, “…I felt their pain somewhere inside me; the hurt was very real” (6-7). This is in reference to both the pain of the flowers and the pain of her people. With great care, Homa also masterfully constructs the father character, giving him dimension, and allowing us to see why the attacks he experienced as a child have turned him into the angered, grief-stricken person he has become: a man leaning heavily on alcohol to get by. Further complexity is evident in Leila’s mother, whose concern for her daughter is deeply rooted in patriarchy. When Leila is in the hospital, her mother is more concerned about whether Leila’s “virginity” was taken in the crash (suggesting it could be surgically repaired if so), rather than her daughter’s well-being (111). Each character in the book is fully actualized and intricately stitched.
There is also great tenderness in these pages. Readers see a deep bond between Leila and her brother, Chia, who always, even amid common sibling poking and prodding, encourages her to persist. With classic tough love, he pushes her. He believes in her when it feels like no one else does. Take this soft moment as a representation and embodiment of the endearment between Leila and Chia, when she visits him where he is detained: “‘Choni khoshkakam?’ How are you, sister? Chia mimed the question, pretending to wipe my tears despite the glass. We laughed and we cried together” (180). During that same visit, in an attempt to offer his sister bravery, he turns the conversation to poetry saying, “When I am out, we will see which of us knows more ghazals by heart” (180). He extends her hope and the normalcy of a sibling challenge. He directs her attention to the poetic artform, which he knows to be a space of power and healing.
For me, as a daughter of diaspora, one of the most thought-provoking elements of the book was its examination of language. Without being didactic, this novel offers instruction, historical context, and insights in Kurdish histories. And, because our protagonist is coming-of-age, we get to learn right alongside her. For instance: “Joanna sat me in a chair next to Shiler, who was busy practicing the Kurdish alphabet her mother had taught her: a as in azadi (freedom), h as in hemni (peace), n as in nishtman (homeland)—everything the Kurds were deprived of” (4). These word choices are highly significant. Homa conveys that language is an incredibly layered concept, especially when language use and acquisition take place within an environment of immense distress, and particularly when use of one’s mother tongue is a punishable crime.
This language conversation is important to me. My mother and her family speak a mixture of Kurdish (both Kurmanji and Sorani dialects blended together) and Arabic. However, it is difficult for them to read or write in Kurdish and, for some of the younger siblings, it is impossible. This is a result of linguicide—the erasure of a language. The Kurdish language was criminalized in many areas and Kurdish youth were required to complete their schooling in Arabic (in Iraq), Persian/ Farsi (in Iran), and Turkish (in Turkey). My mother and her siblings were forced to speak Arabic in public but were required by their father to only speak Kurdish in the home. For my mother, one instance of practicing the other language with her little sister resulted in a beating. Linguicide—the erasure of Kurdish language, in this case—is explored compellingly in Daughters of Smoke and Fire, and we see the devastating effects of what happens when a people-group is stripped of their mother tongue and means of communication. As Homa writes:
I’d faced this same horror when I began school, and now it was Chia’s turn, the inheritance of all the students of Kurdistan and other non-Persian regions in Iran: Beginning in grade one, we were forced to learn to read and write in a new language entirely different from the one we’d grown up speaking, and when we struggled, it was literally beaten into us. Overnight, we were robbed of our language, our heritage. Little by little, we began to understand that our mother tongue wasn’t the language of power and prosperity. At a young age, our alienation from Kurdish history and literature—from our roots, identity, and inevitably our parents—began, escalating with each year that passed. (24)
In Daughters of Smoke and Fire, Ava Homa asks us to look and to not look away—be it visions of incredible beauty or Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Halabja, where within a few minutes, five thousand Kurdish civilians died in an aerial bombardment of mustard gas and nerve agents. The book is not one-note—there isn’t just pain. There is also great warmth. One element of the book I found incredibly compelling and beautiful was the theme of strong, sustaining female friendship. Homa builds believable bonds between Leila and her confidants Joanna and Shiler. These friendships are deeply-rooted, bright, fun, warm, and realistic. It is clear that strong female relationships are important to Homa, and within the novel they are a source of strength. We see women working together and supporting each other. When Leila is en route to seeking asylum, it is Shiler who gives her the courage to carry on. And in a space where a female character says, “I was headed toward the main road, toward the world of men. The streets belonged to them,” it is key that we also experience fully developed moments of joy, laughter, conversation, and dedication between female characters (xiii).
Without spoiling anything, it would be foolish of me not to mention that this book also gifts readers with an unlikely romance, making the last section an absolute page-turner. Ava Homa’s crafting of intimacy and desire is incredibly even-handed, realistically structured, and quite breath-taking. Ultimately, Leila finds herself figuring out life in a new land and navigating new language parameters. Thought-provoking questions of home and sanctuary, and the complexities therein, are explored through Leila’s new positionality. Fittingly, it is books, writing, and film that offer Leila a source of strength and expression, as well as opportunity and a space for survival. These art forms allow her a way forward. Daughters of Smoke and Fire illustrates a Kurdish woman’s quest for her own agency and voice. For anyone who considers themselves an ally of the Kurds, an ally to women, or a global citizen, this gripping novel needs to be on your essential reading list.
Homa, Ava. Daughters of Smoke and Fire. The Overlook Press, 2020.