“I arrive in Tehran two days after my brother called to inform me about Dad’s death,” says Maana Khanoom at the opening of the title story in the new collection by Iranian-Canadian poet and scholar Nilofar Shidmehr. The sense of foreboding that begins “Divided Loyalties” characterizes the collection, but the darkness arises from the strength of the story’s verisimilitude. This tale of a first-generation Iranian-Canadian – a former architect who works as a Vancouver realtor because she can’t find a job in her field and who returns to Tehran for her father’s funeral – will reverberate with many immigrants. Most resonant is Maana’s entanglement in dysfunctional family dynamics, such as her mother’s jealousy. In a striking scene from Maana’s youth, her mother arrives at the house of the girl’s Aunt Raazi in a chador to effectively kidnap her own daughter.
Shidmehr’s grasp of images coupled with psychological nuance create a gripping read. The numerous family secrets and rife tension could be perceived as melodramatic, particularly by those unfamiliar with the struggle of first-generation immigrants like Maana (who feel guilt at aspiring for independence from their family). But Shidmehr’s masterful control of pacing precludes the tone from becoming operatic, instead creating a deeply felt portrait of a particular place and its people.
Divided Loyalties begins in 1978, a year before the Iranian Revolution, and closes in the 2000s. In the opening story, “Sakeen,” preteen cousins role-play Cinderella in a bedroom while their families drink tea in the living room. The cousins invite Sakeen, a maid, to join them. She has reached puberty and uses the game to inform the girls about menstruation. The play-acting turns all too real when class differences reveal the darker side of the Cinderella fairy tale. “Sakeen” is a rare story of anger and violence among young women, who are generally portrayed in fiction as nurturing and kind.
Despite such transgression, Divided Loyalties is filled with characters who possess a moving tenderness. Consider “Saving the Dead,” in which Maryam returns to her hometown, Bam, while working with an aid organization in the aftermath of an earthquake. She helps an elderly man find his daughter, who turns up in the rubble, naked, with a disembodied arm supporting her back. The man cries out – the presence of the arm implies his daughter’s relationship with a man outside of wedlock, a serious cultural dishonour. Maryam’s sudden embrace only emphasizes this anguish.
Stylistically, the stark, protean beauty of Shidmehr’s writing recalls the shape-shifting work of Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son. On a more thematic level, every woman in Divided Loyalties is embroiled in fighting secrets carried across oceans, religion’s subtle but fatalistic cause and effect, and immigrants’ double lives. Shidmehr’s is a necessary, feminist voice that is at once defiant and humbling.