A quarter of a century and a lifetime ago, I shared a bus from Adelaide home from school with someone who dreamed of a career as a concert pianist. At the time, she exuded confidence and other identifiable American characteristics. She once announced in front of a school assembly with a lyrical and American accent, that “hip hop hurray” would be the theme of the next “prom.”
After high school, Marsha Mehran pursued her dreams at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. The next time I heard from her from a classmate (and now Daily reporter) Tom Richardson, the year of the 20th anniversary of high school graduation, she had passed away.
In the years that followed, Marsha had, on the surface, lived the kind of life that I regularly dream of. She was a novelist published in 15 languages and 20 countries. His first novel, Pomegranate soup, was an international bestseller. But, according to Irish media, Marsha died in 2014 in a small town in the west of the country, a 36-year-old recluse with mental illness, as she tried to finish her third novel.
When Marsha was found, she had been dead for over a week. The autopsy could not identify the cause of death. A broken heart is hardly a scientific diagnosis.
The life of Marsha was an incredible story, lived in a series of exotic settings. Its nomadic existence should not imply a lack of interest in finding a home. Her parents both practiced the Bahá’í Faith, considered a heresy in Iran, where Marsha was born. Immediately after the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Mehran family moved to Argentina. Shortly after, they settled again in the United States, a country where his prodigious talent was recognized. It was the only country where she felt at home.
Marsha’s literary output was closely tied to her life experience. Pomegranate soup and its sequel, Rose water and soda bread, Tell the story of three Iranian sisters who escaped the Islamic revolution in Ireland, where they established a cafe in a small village in Mayo Country. The village, “Ballinacroagh,” was fictional, but the narrative reflected Marsha’s personal journey from Tehran, her hometown, to County Mayo, where her own story’s untimely end was written.
His posthumously published book (his father, Abbas, completed the final versions), Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty, took place in the city where his family fled the Islamic Revolution – Buenos Aires. It is about a group of Iranian refugees, one of whom is opening a beauty salon in Buenos Aires, which becomes the place for the weekly reading of Persian poetry. This strongly echoes the actual experience of the Mehran family, who shared Persian poetry and food, and provided andazi (hair spinning) to the patrons of the cafe (El Pollo Loco) they established in their apartment rented in the city in the early 1980s.
Common themes unite the three books: displacement and new beginnings, cultural expressions that transcend time and place. The books elevate and celebrate expressions of Persian culture. Pomegranate soup and Rose water and soda bread were filled with vivid descriptions of distinctive Persian gastronomy, while Marsha’s third title focused on Persian poetry.
Marsha’s stories invite a deeper cross-cultural understanding, both in and through her writing, which invites participants to reimagine Persia for the richness of its culture rather than its adherence to Islam. I only became aware of her books after her death, but reading them made me feel that the fusion of fiction and biography was an attempt by a young writer leading a life of perpetual travel to find an emotional mooring to its itinerant existence.
In a recent conversation, Marsha’s father Abbas, himself an artist, described how she was placed in an outstanding student program in Miami. From the age of 11, Marsha avidly read Tolstoy. War and peace and Anna karenina were the favorites. Abbas was convinced at this point that she would be a writer. Her parents divorced and Marsha moved again: to South Australia, where she attended Marryatville High School and then briefly the University of Adelaide.
When Marsha died, many tried to claim her as their own. She has often been described as Iranian, but others have praised the time she spent variously in the United States or Ireland. Few have referred to her time in Australia, a country she returned to after another brief stay in America, even though it was a formative period in her life. Abbas wondered if our reluctance to assert that Marsha was a consequence of ‘big poppy syndrome’, but in truth, she rarely referred to Australia in media interviews.
Marsha has found a home in America. In the United States, Brooklyn, where she arrived at the age of 19 to work in a restaurant run by members of the Russian Mafia, was her spiritual home. Yet despite her dedication to America, she was denied permanent residency. When I spoke to him, Abbas asked if the timing, in the early years of the War on Terror, was why someone of Iranian descent was denied a visa. It is inexplicable that a country that considers itself great condemns a person to statelessness.
Marsha moved to Ireland, a continuation of a life in exile. Rejection of America shattered her spirit, a situation made worse by her inability to achieve a level of art that she found acceptable in her third novel. According to her father, Marsha worked on the novel from 2008 until her death in 2014, 20 years after our shared bus trip. She was found lying vomit in a messy cottage in the west of Ireland. A sign on the front door of his rented, modest and isolated residence read: “Do not disturb: I work.
Since I became aware of his extraordinary life, and his death, I have thought a lot about this person whom I briefly knew, but whom I hardly knew.
In the meantime, I have visited his country of birth twice and studied his language. Such was my admiration for his literary hero, Tolstoy, I once gave his name to a dog. And now I have accepted an invitation to serve on the advisory board of the JM Coetzee Center for Creative Practice, which aims to bring together academics and literary and musical (as well as multimedia) artists – a connection to Marsha that I will explain.
Marsha chose writing over pursuing her original goal of being a concert pianist, and her writing retained a lyrical quality. Her lyrical style fitted well into the arc of her personal story. She was both a natural writer and a trained musician, and it was the easy fusion of the two genres that gave her work its accessible and poetic character.
The transcendence of music and literature is not a new idea, and many famous novelists have found their first love in music, notably the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who has thought deeply about this connection. Haruki Murakami ran a jazz bar – Peter-Cat – and enjoyed listening to jazz while reading novels, before becoming a novelist himself. Polyphony was a technique deployed by Coetzee.
Like Marsha, Coetzee was also denied a visa to reside in the United States, believed to be a consequence of his active opposition to the Vietnam War. This latter rejection was not fatal and Coetzee was adopted as a South Australian. Its connection with the University of Adelaide is a wonderful thing. Our tendency towards self-deprecation might explain any reluctance to celebrate this special connection.
In one piece she wrote for The New York Times Magazine, Marsha referred to the warmth of her Australian comrades, but otherwise described a lack of anchoring in a “pale and homogenized culture”, which may be more a reflection of an experience of Australia limited to the suburbs. is from Adelaide than from Australia itself. Australia wasn’t the only country that failed to satisfy Marsha’s search for her place in the world: along with Iran, Argentina, the United States and Ireland, Australia was one step among many.
Marsha’s work suggests that Persian culture provided a metaphysical anchor in the absence of a place she was allowed to call home. But the essence of Marsha’s life remains elusive. Hers is the story of a person whose mind crossed continents, countries and contexts without ever being allowed to settle.
A shooting star, a mystery, a tragedy. A life to remember.
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