We sat down to talk with Babak Lakghomi, author of South, published by Dundurn Press. His novel will be released in the U.S. on September 12, 2023. In advance of this release, and with a review copy in hand, we asked Lakghomi about his book, and even squeezed in a question on book recommendations to try to add to our TBR pile!
OWC: In the review copy, you have a letter to the reader where you describe how you were
taken by the parallels between what was happening in the United States and your home
country of Iran. Can you expand on those parallels and how they inspired South?
Lakghomi: The writing of this started in Trump period when there was an increased anxiety around climate change and even more than that, the nature of truth. We were at a time where it was very hard to assess what is true and what is not. All information required screening and filtering to find what was real, and this became somewhat challenging at a personal level for me. As I was reflecting on that, I was observing events back in my home country – which, as you know, has a history of censorship and propaganda – and it seemed like a lot of these issues were global. Even though we were talking about a totalitarian government there and a democracy, or a notion of a democracy, here; I was shocked by the circulation of misinformation, how it was bending the narrative. This was one of the central concepts of the book. There are a lot of other things going on, but this was one of the starting points for it.
OWC: You can also feel that in parts of the book where you don’t know what’s real either.
Lakghomi: Yes. My hope was that the reader experiences that as well. The narrator’s access to information, and what is happening to him, is really blocked. He’s receiving information in fragments and from somewhat unreliable sources, so he’s not even sure who is on his side and who is not. There’s also some level of unreliability from the narrator after a certain point in the novel. Initially, he starts as a sane person but as he dissolves into this landscape, his reliability becomes somewhat questionable.
OWC: It provides a very hallucinatory experience as a reader. You feel kind of submerged in that mental state where you have no idea what’s real and what’s not. We also noticed a lot of the characters didn’t have names- they were either going by descriptors or a letter in the case of the narrator. We wanted to hear a bit about why names weren’t included.
Lakghomi: I think part of that was to communicate the coldness that the narrator is experiencing. These aren’t names for them, but functions based on what they do. Other than the narrator’s wife, everybody else is described by their function. Hopefully, this would show the detachment and coldness that he’s experiencing under these circumstances. In addition, this is a story that isn’t really based on a certain place, it has elements from everywhere, so I felt like having characters with names would place the story more and diminish that sense of universality.
OWC: It definitely accomplished that. It’s interesting you mention the coldness and detachment because in some ways your prose also does that. It’s very direct and generally not very embellished, so you get that austerity with the way you wrote the book.
Lakghomi: That was my hope as well, that the experience of detachment comes through the prose. I think there is a passiveness to the narrator. He’s basically carried around by whatever is happening to him, and he doesn’t have much agency to take action. He’s challenged continuously, but he’s still passive. There’s also a historical aspect because a similar thing may have happened to his father. Under such circumstances, and limited flow of information, what does it mean to have agency? I was hoping that this sense of detachment and passivity would come across in the prose itself, as opposed to just saying it.
OWC: To follow up on the mention of passivity of the main character, B chooses to remain in the country and not flee. We’re curious about that choice and if it’s meant to be part of the overall passivity of the character.
Lakghomi: I actually had a different reading of that. I felt like there was a minor change in him, not a very dramatic one, but I think he wants to stay and engage in something - whether that’s the writing he’s doing or the pieces of information he’s collecting he wants to show some agency. Yes, he’s not engaging in the protests, but he’s continuing to write which I saw as sort of an action on his behalf. He has not fully given up, despite what happened to his first book that got manipulated and changed.
OWC: You mention the manipulation and the changing of B’s first book. Several points throughout the novel B receives these cryptic messages - maybe from the editor, maybe not - making these large changes that were inconsistent from what he felt occurred in past conversations. We were wondering if this was a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to your real experience as an author, if you’ve been in a situation where you feel like the rug got pulled out from under you and you get this totally different feedback.
Lakghomi: That’s interesting. I’ve been asked this question by others that have read the book.
OWC: You don’t have to say any names. *Lots of laughter*
Lakghomi: No, no, no. I did my first book with Tyrant Books and that was so far from my personal experience. I was reflecting on the censorship of information, whatever you create - whether it’s under a totalitarian government or for a market that has certain expectations of perception and profitability – it was more about that than a personal statement or experience.
OWC: Happy to hear that! Speaking of totalitarian government, we noticed a motif of the wind throughout the novel. We felt like it might have represented something more, like how you can’t see the concept of government, but you can certainly feel it and the way it alters your life. We didn’t know if the wind meant something to you or if you wanted the reader to get something from that.
Lakghomi: I think that’s definitely open to interpretation. I wasn’t particularly trying to have a certain metaphor about the wind. It was more something for the locals, a thing they blamed their misfortunes on. To them, the wind was responsible for the bad things that spread. I think that it’s somewhat open to interpretation and hopefully each reader brings their own reading into it. You’ve probably noticed that I’m pretty obsessed with Kafka. That’s something I really like about his work. You can have different readings, and while each of those may work, it’s still challenging to reduce his novels to a certain metaphor. So that was my aim with this novel - whether it was successful or not, that is a different story.
OWC: Well, we had different interpretations, so it was successful with us! Another interesting thing we noticed was in that fever dream state of the book, where he is on the rig and we don’t know what’s going on, you used the words “you” and “your.” We wrote down this quote, “You woke up in a c-can again. Your body bruised and blue” – it feels like we were brought into the situation, dealing with everything that B was dealing with. Was this your intention?
Lakghomi: Yea, that’s a good reading. I also felt like I needed some diversification in the rhythm of the prose. He’s almost addressing himself when he says that, but also all the people that are there along with him. I think as a result, the reader can experience being in that space.
OWC: What are some of the challenges you faced when writing this novel?
Lakghomi: That’s a good question. I’m interested in madness and insanity, and the narrator is almost going insane in the middle of the book as a result of what is happening to him. It was challenging to translate the perspective of someone experiencing that without completely alienating the reader. It’s difficult when you are trying to push the boundaries of what fiction is or what perception is, and at the same time you want to maintain the communication with the reader.
OWC: That’s honestly one of the things we loved about the book. Even though we may have felt unmoored at times, you did such an excellent job at creating this atmosphere of foreboding dread. His descent into madness just kept us going because we loved that mood you created and we kept turning the pages. It was a really fast read.
Lakghomi: That’s wonderful to hear, thank you.
OWC: It makes us wonder, have you read At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop?
Lakghomi: No, I haven’t had the opportunity.
OWC: Talking about the descent into madness and your obsession with insanity, we wondered if you had read it. We think that author is also very into insanity. Okay, now that we gave you a recommendation, you owe us one. We’re always trolling for exciting literature, especially outside of the mainstream. We would love to hear any books that you think are under the radar, overlooked, or just under appreciated.
Lakghomi: The difficulty is that there are a lot of them that fall under the radar, especially with fiction in translation and indie books.
OWC: Since you mentioned translation, our group has a reading challenge this year and one of the prompts is to read a book translated from another language. So, we’ll narrow the field and ask for a translated novel.
Lakghomi: That makes it easier. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the French writer Antoine Volodine? He writes under multiple heteronyms, but I think that is the most famous one. His book Minor Angels is translated by Jordan Stump, who also translates another favorite French writer, Marrie Redonnet. She’s inspired by Beckett and wrote these very short novellas that are around 100 pages. One of them, Rose Mellie Rose, is my favorite of hers. They seem super simple, but they have this amazing impact.
OWC: It takes a lot of work to make an impact with few words, so that shows a lot of skill. We’re excited to look into those. Thank you for these recommendations! We really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to chat with us and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.