The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., the newest novel from Gina B. Nahai, may begin with a murder and the disappearance of a body, but the whodunit element is merely the bookend for a story that is far more concerned with the lies and power we wield in the face of others, and what happens to communities when they are uprooted from one country and placed in exile in another. Here, Nahai writes of an Iranian Jewish family from a refreshing perspective: Rather than focus on external war narratives and religious scapegoating—tired tropes in American-penned literature about the Middle East and the Jewish faith—Nahai opts to present readers with the history of a family fraught by dysfunction and debilitated by community in-fighting and secrecy. What results is a novel that feels more universal than anything, and an engrossing, expansive epic that charts not only thousands years of Iranian Jewish life, but the brutality of one family’s survival amidst revolution and cultural upheaval.
Nahai, whose previous books like Cry of the Peacock and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith traverse similar territory, began writing The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. in 2008, propelled by questions of change. “What is especially striking in our case,” she says of the Iranian Jewish population, “is that we remained basically unchanged for 3,000 years.” She is specifically interested, she notes, in the Iranian American Jewish community’s recent confrontation of the issue of which traditions are worth preserving and which are worth abandoning in the face of modernity.
Born in Tehran in the 1960s and a Jew herself, Nahai, like the characters in her new novel, eventually moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1977, where she attended UCLA and has remained ever since. Because of this, she has watched the community grow and has witnessed its shift from segregation—for the first 10-15 years, Nahai says, Iranians lived in the U.S. in a way that mirrored how they lived in Iran, ghettoized and separated from the rest of the population—to integration. But even now, the Iranian American Jewish community still maintains enormous levels of privacy, not only when it comes to affording outsiders windows looking in, but secrecy from within as well.
“I grew up in a community that puts exceptional emphasis on making things appear as if they’re all right,” Nahai says. She insists this mentality causes harm, and works in her life, and in her writing, to break down these perceptions. “My purpose has always been to reveal the truth as I see it…just for the sake of exposing it and ending this veil that people pull over everything.”
As such, many of the plot elements of The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. are based in reality. There have, for instance, been mysterious murders, and the LA-based Iranian Jewish community has been affected by the same financial duress that afflicts those in the novel. The characters as well, Nahai notes, are composites of real people. One of the most striking features of The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is Nahai’s presentation of women—they not only tend to overshadow their male counterparts, but are also in ruthless competition with one another, their threats against each other as emotionally malicious as they are violent. They are, in other words, human. Nahai grew up surrounded by disempowered women, whose stories often seemed like their only weapons, and her writing of strong female characters is a way to honor this, to not allow these voices to fall into the shadows of obscurity.
Ultimately, Nahai hopes to enlighten readers by presenting them with a community that is often misunderstood or is altogether absent from both literature and the larger cultural conversation. She would like further discussions on Judaism to include non-white Jewish populations, and for the novel to provide an avenue for people to read about characters who are not mirror representations of themselves. “It would be great if people discovered the community and saw it for what it is,” she says, “which is a group of people who have a whole lot to offer culturally, socially, intellectually to this country, and who have flaws like every other group.”