Daughters of Smoke and Fire
Harper Perennial, Toronto, Canada, 2020
Ava Homa’s stunning Daughters of Smoke and Fire begins with three words that will reverberate throughout the 305 pages that follow: A woman alone, (p. xiii). This is not literally true, Leila Samam, the novel’s main protagonist, has friends and family who on the surface keep her company – but having others around you in no way guarantees a feeling of belonging or oneness. If you feel like a pariah within the same community whose support you require to help you rise above or navigate the entrenched and systemic racism and repression you live within, then wanting to withdraw, recoil then rebel are completely natural ways to feel. At the end of the prologue, in a scene that will be expanded upon later in the novel, this nameless woman we know little of, launches herself before a car: A final lunge and I was airborne,(p. xiv). At the conclusion of the novel, the woman we now know as Leila will once again be airborne, on her way to Canada where she describes herself – although she might not truly believe it – as an imposter bride,(p.249) who fears she might have saved myself from the threat of prison only to die alone in a foreign land,(p. 251).
1. The sight of them pierced my gut like the point of a silver blade. I looked into Chia’s eyes, and he into mine, but we never talked about the lines cut into Baba’s flesh, (p. 17)
What happens between these two moments in Iran, and later Canada, is the heart wrenching story of a woman trying to rise above both the conscious and unconscious oppression that has kept women, especially Kurdish women, in a state of educational, financial, and at times familial hopelessness for centuries. And it is this historical weight that makes Daughter of Smoke and Fire much more than a work of fiction. It also serves as a much needed introduction to Kurdish culture; its social structures, art, geography, academia and history as well as the geo-politics that led to the sickening betrayal and partition of the Kurds by western allies who cut Kurdistan into four pieces, dividing it among Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, (p. 102). It is a demanding book, but a book that deserves to be read and re-read and hopefully used as a springboard for western readers who know little on the subject matter. But it is not only Leila’s love story; Daughters of Smoke and Fire is Homa’s tear and blood-stained love letter to all of the Kurdish people, past, present and future who long for an end to their statelessness so they can celebrate, grieve and grow without fear of reprisals or repercussions.
2. 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, (p. 24)
The further we progress into the novel the more we learn about the meaning behind the names of the main characters. Many of them foreshadow the expected identity, true identity or fate fo the named. Leila’s father who was in prison when she was born, wanted to call her Nishtman which is Kurdish for ‘homeland’. This may help us understand Leila’s sense of not belonging. Like the Kurds who have been denied a homeland, Leila was denied this name since it was on a list of forbidden names by the Iranian government. Although outlawed, it was used in one of Leila’s first acts of rebellion when she named her doll Nishtman. Leila’s younger brother and the one she feels the purest of love for was named ‘Chia” which means ‘mountain’ in Kurdish. A famous Kurdish saying is that Kurds have no friends but the mountains and the Persian poet Ahmad Shamlou wrote A mountain begins with its first rocks and a human with the first pain,(p.301). Is Chia the first rock in the eventual mountain of Kurdish statehood? In the prologue, Leila describes the shiler flowers (that) stood elegant and tall, flourishing across the rough Kurdistan plateau, defying borders, (p.xiii). Shiler is also the name of Leila’s closest friend who rebelled against sexism and racism and left Leila to fight for the Peshmerga, Kurdish for “Freedom Fighters’, who also defied borders. Of Alan, Leila’s father , we are told Alan was a popular name, meaning “flag bearer.” It testified to what was expected of the children of a stateless nation, who had to fight against nonexistence. When you are a novelist and part of the world’s largest stateless people, names take on an increased significance and magnitude – Homa uses them brilliantly throughout her text.
3. How long could I continue like this, crushed as I was beneath the daily cruelties faced by my people? Denied our language and history, policed and imprisoned, tortured and executed – when combined with my personal failures it was too much to bear. (p. 95)
Nothing is trivial or redundant in this novel, with the help of our cell phones and computers the internet allows us to pause and search out even the smallest of details when Leila begins to study, confront and question her surroundings with her friends and brother. Both her and Chia find solace in foreign books and movies that have inspired or influenced their growing revolutionary ideals, but although Tolstoy, Orwell, and Simone de Beauvoir are mentioned along with numerous illegal and uncensored western films she has received from Shiler – like their favourite Scent of a Woman – it is Homa’s use of naming Kurdish films, writers and quoting radio and TV transmissions that make the dialogues in this text so important. Leila’s love of art and culture and her hatred of those in power who stifle this passion is what drives her to create films. But we must be under no illusion that these are not also the same artists who inspired Homa to become a writer or when writing this book. * They should also inspire the reader to explore their work as well.
4. Did you know that our region has the world’s highest rate of female self-immolation? There. We hold one international record. Despite our long tradition of having female rulers and governors, we’ve become a nation of burned women. (p. 157)
We no longer live in an age where we must pack off to a public, university or reference library when we want to research a new topic and Homa uses this to plant inquisitorial seeds within us. There are the poets: Simin Chaichi, Mr. Sherko Bekas, Ms. Kajal Ahmad, Jila Hosseini, Ms. Choman Hardi, Abdullah Pashew; the Kurdish political party leader and non-fiction writer who was assassinated by Iran Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the non-fiction writer Behrouz Boochani; there is the music of the Kurdish tenor, Shahram Nazeri, the Kurdish singer, songwriter, poet, writer, painter and film director Abbas Kamandy and the filmmakers Mehmet Aksoy, Bahman Ghobadi and Yilmaz Guney. As we read of Leila’s physical and intellectual growth from a child in Iran into a counterrevolutionary filmmaker in Canada, aren’t we also being told of Homa’s? As we read about Leila, Chia and Shiler’s inexorable push towards protest – I feel we are witnessing Homa’s as well. I can hear Leila scream the names I have just provided and then declare: What more do you want from us?! I can feel Homa bellow it as well. And after reading and rereading the ingenious poem A Complaint to God by Sherko Bekas, I, a non-Kurd, want to join the chorus.
5. Kurdistan won’t be free until women are, (p. 161).
But how does this work? How can such an abundance of references not detract or weaken the rhythm of the love story. It is because Daughters of Smoke and Fire reads like a screenplay. Characters and settings change, but in a fashion so fluid yet precise that even the most didactic of passages seem to fit in naturally. You only pause to reflect upon the atrocity mentioned, not because it truncated the flow of the scene. Radio dialogues play and important role in illustrating the hyper-repressive climate the Samam’s are surviving within. But while some writers may have the narrator introduce a few specific atrocities the Kurds have had to survive, Homa transforms the house radio into another member of the family, an archivist. On one occasion it reminds Leila and her family that two years ago a fight at a football match in Qamishili broke out between Kurdish fans of the local team and the visiting Arab team. Security forces arrived at Qamishli and opened fire on the Kurds, killing seven of them, (p 58). Technology as a character is nothing new, but what it shares and how it conveys this information can be. Whether it is the radio, a television, cell phones or the internet, technology plays a subtle but essential role in this novel since it helps broaden the reader’s knowledge of anti-Kurdish atrocities which intern helps us to better understand all of the main characters’ need for rebellion in one way or another.
6. The rage I’d kept bottled up inside of me boiled over, made me brave. I screamed at the guard who told me to fuck off. “International interventions will soon put a stop to your brutality!”
In the end, Leila’s journey to become a human, a woman, and a Kurd, (p. 297) cost her most of the people she loved. But there is hope that in her new home of Canada she will be free to create films to celebrate her people, to remember those lost and hopefully to one day see the scars on her father’s back reshaped into the outline of a Kurdistan free from hopelessness and unfathomable sorrow.
7. I want to be talked to. The world needs to accept us as people with strengths and weaknesses. For generations of Kurds, life has begun and ended in violence. I hope that time has passed. (p. 297)
*If you want to know why Leila’s father was so distant, depressed and physically damaged throughout most of the story, go to youtube and type in the name of his hometown “Halabja” and add “Massacre”. Once you spend some time watching the videos you will begin to understand why Daughters of Smoke and Fire is such an important book, why it is essential that it was not only written, but written by a female Kurdish writer and why all who read it should use it as a reference point in the global redressing of the wrongs inflicted upon Kurds for far too many years. As the Kurd’s story continues, one can only hope Leila’s will as well. A continuation of her story into a second novel, like Kurdish statehood, should be inevitable.
(Today – July 3rd, 2020, as the West is finally going through a long-overdue but sustained redressing of the wrongs committed upon its people of colour, its LGBTQ communities and their first-nations people, I can only hope this new willingness will lead to addressing the wrongs committed against the Kurdish People during current and past administrations. We must revisit the foreign policies that have led to the abuse, betrayal and abandonment of the Kurdish People for financial and geo-political gain while demanding Kurdish statehood so they can enter a period of truth and reconciliation as well as economic stability.)
Reviewed by Patrick Woodcock
Patrick Woodcock is the award winning author of 9 books of poetry, countless reviews and non-fiction. His 8th book of poetry, Echo Gods and Silent Mountains was written after living and working in Iraqi Kurdistan for two years. He is currently completing his new manuscript Farhang Volume 1.