Some writers might rest on their laurels once they’d published four nonfiction books and hundreds of articles. Nahid Sewell, however, sought a means of sharing her ideas about tolerance. Born in Iran, Sewell had one foot in Persian culture and another in her experiences as a US college student. Like many other accomplished writers, Sewell came to realize fiction offered an opportunity to share her heritage and her newfound culture.
Sewell’s first novel The Ruby Tear Catcher relates the story that revolves around an Iranian woman’s journey to adulthood. The novel begins in the hills north of Tehran with the character Leila whose father took an enlightened approach to her upbringing. Sewell herself experienced the transformation to a more oppressive society in her country once theocratic rule began to dominate. Her novel could be a rabid political diatribe on women’s rights, but it isn’t.
Instead Sewell simply shares her story, including her surprise at discovering fundamentalism in her adopted country. In the lead character of Leila, Sewell offers an intimate view of women’s rights in Iran and of the interactions between fundamentalists in both Christian and Muslim communities in the US. Leila experiences love, imprisonment, and rape, and ultimately redemption in a novel that is best described as a page-turner. Sewell never succumbs to excessive drama, but rather uses strong skills as a storyteller to evoke empathy in the reader.
“Some of Leila’s story,” said Sewell, “is based on things that happened to people close to me. My own reaction to these events was profound sorrow, anger, guilt—even outrage. But I felt Leila needed to be a character of greater strength to face her tormentors with more stoicism than I could. We all need a hero and I wanted Leila to be our heroine. I didn’t want to tell readers how to feel. I just hoped they would be moved by both her sufferings and triumphs. I wanted people to draw on Leila’s strength, and have hope that the love of family and believing in yourself is what it takes to overcome even the most dire situations.”
Sewell adopted a comprehensive approach for her research. At times what she found took her in a new direction. She explained, “I used the Internet extensively to check the accuracy of historic facts, like dates related to the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war statistics as well as to look up street and organization names. As I searched the Internet to confirm facts, at times I’d come across articles that carried me back to days before and after the revolution. Some of those spawned ideas I incorporated into my story to add authenticity.”
Sewell relied on her own instincts and process when it came to getting the novel down on paper. She didn’t lock herself into a rigid narrative progression. She said, “I started with a blank page and outlined my thoughts in bullet-point format. Then I began writing. Sometimes I’d write Chapter 5 before Chapter 2, and then go back and make them flow together. As I began writing, new concepts or stories popped in, leading to revisions. I ended up with close to twenty revisions and one major rewrite before reaching the final version. While I may have started with a good idea of what I wanted to write, new ideas appeared—and were welcome—on the fly.”
The novel includes different geographical settings—Tehran, the northeastern US, and Paris, among others. Sewell decided travel would be necessary for authenticity. She returned several times to Iran, asking questions and listening to stories. “I traveled to the Caspian, the scene of Leila’s honeymoon. In Esfahan, I tried to take a photographic approach to the sites to be able to paint the picture of its famous blue-tiled mosques, the shaking minaret, the wonderful bazaar filled with traditional stamped tablecloths, artists hammering intricate designs on copper, and the intoxicating smell of spices.”
Sewell made it a point to visit Paris where she said she sat in cafes “to observe passers-by, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of the city.” In Europe Sewell’s observations and the prose that followed go to the heart of the global phenomenon referred to as migration.
Sewell said, “I’ve also watched the influx of Middle Eastern people, trying to get a sense for the changes in Europe with the increased presence of Moslems. Much of this latter research I hope to use in the sequel. Traveling to the scenes makes a huge difference in seeing and feeling what you write about.”
At times Sewell found her own emotions impacted by the experiences of her characters. She had to imagine the details of events that were often horrible. “I’d close my eyes and put myself there. At times it felt so real, I’d come away feeling drained, spent, angry, even frightened. It became very real to me, almost too real. I even had a nightmare about it once, imagining I was Leila in that jail cell. I woke up trembling; it really shook me up. I know someone who has been there but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to recount and relive the details. I don’t think I could bear hearing it.”
Much of Sewell’s life experience came in a culture thought of as a patriarchy. Her husband and her father, however, were supportive of her work. She said her husband Gerry was her “biggest editor and fan.” Her father—“so like Leila’s Baba”—was both supportive and proud.
Sewell acknowledged her book carried a social theme, but she was determined to “not make a political statement.” Instead in The Ruby Tear Catcher, she aimed at messaging on a higher level. She accomplishes this by including the character of Jack, Leila’s love interest who lives in a fundamentalist Christian community.
“My intention with this book was not to make a political statement,” she said. “I love my country and my people. I wanted this novel to spread a message of tolerance. I hoped to draw parallels between Leila, an Iranian Moslem, and Jack, an American Christian. The similarities are profound. At the heart of it, we’re all the same and should be far less judgmental of others over our differences. I’m mostly speaking out against fundamentalism, not politics.”
Fans are asking for a sequel and a film. Sewell said she has a sequel in the works, and she would “absolutely love’ to have a film made. She views women’s voices as critically important to understanding the Middle East where she sees “tremendous potential for women’s rights.” Sewell pointed out the Green Revolution in Iran was called the “Women’s Revolution.”
She has great hope for women in countries where rights are limited. “Despite extremist forces that stand against them,” she said, “the rights of women in the Middle East will continue to evolve just as they have in this country. I’d be honored to be an agent for change.”
(Kay B. Day—September 20, 2018; first publication The Writer Magazine, April, 2011)