“It Sounds Fantastical, But We Lived It”: An Interview with Novelist Ari Honarvar

As Ari Honarvar’s debut novel A Girl Called Rumi turned a year old, Agape Editions invited her to speak about the novel, her experiences living in Iran & the USA, and what activism means to her.

Fox Henry Frazier: Your first novel, A Girl Called Rumi, has been out for a year now. It’s been so exciting to watch the book make its way through the world, garnering recognition and awards as well as finding new readers. Why was the novel important for you to write, and what do you hope readers have found in it? How do you feel about it all now? How did your first ‘book birthday’ go? 

Ari Honarvar: By now, everyone knows about the recent protests in Iran. The novel begins with my own story of how women of Iran lost their right to ride a bicycle or sing in public and music and the morality police began cracking down on our civil liberties. Music and dancing as we know it became illegal. Freedom of expression became curtailed and dissidents were punished. Then Saddam Hussein of our neighboring country Iraq took advantage of the internal turmoil and attacked Iran and started a war that lasted 8 years and destroyed countless lives. We were being attacked from the outside and from within. When you say this out loud, it sounds fantastical, like something from the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, but we lived it. Millions of us. And 43 years later, Iranians are still fighting for their rights.

Because we couldn’t express ourselves and let our hair down and summon joy, there was also a war on our coping mechanisms. We had two options: Take risks that could end our freedom or life. 2. become resourceful in how we brought joy into our lives. One of those ways was the soul-saving power of poetry and storytelling. This is why I wanted to tell this story. And I didn’t want to present a singular experience. We brought joy into our lives no matter what. So the book doesn’t just rely on what was wrong during a terrible time but all that was right too—the delight of childhood friendships, the breathtaking nature, the food, the poetry. I wanted to honor both joy and suffering because life is a dance between the two opposing forces. And as the storyteller in the book suggests all states of being are sacred. 

In the past year, I’ve been overwhelmed with kind messages and reviews from readers and feel fortunate to have received enthusiastic trade reviews and awards. I’m grateful that my book continues to resonate with so many.

My first book birthday coincided with the arrest and subsequent murder of Mahsa Amini by the Iranian morality police for the “crime” of not wearing her hijab properly. Just like the murder of George Floyd here in the US, mass protests ensued that were met with police brutality. Dozens have been killed so far. My heart is in Iran right now and because I can’t be there physically to support brave Iranians who are fighting for women’s rights, I do what I can to bring attention to their plight and garner international support for their struggles. 

FHF: Anyone familiar with your social media presence knows that you’re very supportive when it comes to amplifying the voices of those who need it—from those who have suffered in the USA due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to the courageous activists taking a stand for women in Iran right now. Is there anything you want to say about that? What does it mean to you to help amplify the voices of other activists and people who exist in marginalized bodies?

AH: Because my rights were cut in half as a girl in Iran and I have experienced the consequences of losing one’s freedom, I’ve been sounding the bell about what could happen here. Those of us who saw the writing on the wall knew Roe v. Wade reversal was coming. We also knew it wouldn’t matter that the majority doesn’t agree with the ruling. Amplifying voices of the oppressed is certainly an obvious avenue but it isn’t enough. No one method is enough. Meaningful change requires persistence, organization, and creative ways to enjoy mundane aspects of activism—especially locally, because at the local level we have more agency and we’re also more impacted by local laws and policies. 

FHF: Anyone familiar with your socials also knows the beautiful, joyous video clips you share of the dance programs you put on at refugee camps. I’m such a fan of this work you do, and the videos always brighten my day when I come across them. What has it been like, doing this kind of work? How did you get into it? 

AH: I work with two nonprofits, Gente Unida which focuses on migrant children, and Musical Ambassadors of Peace which focuses on the healing power of music and dancing. I run music and dance circles specifically for refugees because I want to  give them what was denied to me as a child (which was the healing power of music and dancing) and what I longed for as a newcomer (which was a sense of community.) Something I could’ve really used coming here at the age of 14 and without my parents. So in the past several years I’ve danced with thousands of refugees—victims of torture and freed ISIS sex slaves, those from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Mexico, Central and South America, Ukraine, and so on, in California, Mexico, and in Europe. Besides dancing, we bring donations to shelters, both monetary and food and essential supplies and we spend time with those who need extra support after the program.

FHF: Do you consider yourself an activist? Why or why not?

AH: I consider myself a lover of life. I do my best to do right by all my relations. I’m a big fan of harm reduction while taking my own well-being seriously. Working with a lot of activists, I see that burnout and compassion fatigue are real. That’s one of the reasons I’ve begun offering workshops that use joy as a sustainable fuel to keep us going despite the mounting challenges.

FHF: What projects are you working on right now? How are you feeling & thinking about them?

AH: Besides my regular dances with refugees, I’m working on a Rumi poetry audiobook put to music with guided meditations for each poem, followed by a sound immersion. I’ve begun offering Resilience through Joy workshops inspired by dancing with refugees at schools and organizations. I write articles and I continue to speak at events on the intersection of the arts, spirituality, and social change. I hope to begin my next novel before too long.

Ari Honarvar is the founder of Rumi with a View, dedicated to building music and poetry bridges across war-torn borders. She dances with refugees and offers Resilience through Joy workshops on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, and elsewhere. Her Rumi’s Gift Oracle Cards brings together elements of the Western Tarot and the ancient art of Persian poetry divination and her award-winning novel, A Girl Called Rumi, is based on Ari’s experience growing up in post-Revolution Iran. 

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