SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
How does Rez, a laid-back stoner of a surfer dude from Laguna Beach, get drawn into a web of fanaticism? Laleh Khadivi's new novel tells the story of Alireza from the time he's a 14-year-old chemistry whiz, the son of Iranian immigrants to America, to his transformation into an American kid who leaves America behind in all ways and disappears into a forbidding and destructive life. "A Good Country" is her new novel. Laleh Khadivi, author of "The Age Of Orphans" and an award winning director of documentaries, joins us from Berkeley, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.
LALEH KHADIVI: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
SIMON: I know your novel is centered around the story of how a kid finds fanaticism, but I got to tell you, there's a hit from a bong in the first paragraph that will make any parent wince at the idea of decriminalizing marijuana.
KHADIVI: (Laughter) Yeah. I don't think that it's a straight line from smoking marijuana to fanaticism or radicalization. But I do think that there's something that happens to boys becoming men that is a series of rites of passage and tampering or becoming involved with illicit drugs or having sex. Or any of these taboo things are some of these portals that kids go through, boys especially. And fanaticism to me, as I was witnessing it in a global way, was the last portal. And I wanted to write something that charted these transitions from just a little bit outside the line to a little bit more outside the line until finally there is no way back.
SIMON: The Boston Marathon bombings are an important touchstone in this book. And they're felt personally by Alireza's friends in Laguna Beach.
KHADIVI: That's something that I thought about a lot when I was sort of following the story of the Boston Marathon bombings and how it was to be Muslim in this country and to be a Muslim man in a place that's already slightly turned against you. But I imagined a situation in which someone in your very close community was affected by an act of terrorism, and you are of the Muslim family, what the ramifications would be like in that community.
And I took it a few steps further and then did research and found that it wasn't that uncommon for people who were related to, you know, Russian immigrants or children of Muslims or practicing Muslims to experience racism in high school afterwards. It tends to be that people are looking for someone to blame.
SIMON: Let me ask about Rez's relationship with Fatima - sort of begins as a crush. He tutors her in chemistry. And then the chemistry takes over, if you catch my (laughter) - my drift. They're equally brilliant, too. What are they seeing each other?
KHADIVI: I think Rez is at the point where he's realize that the American idea of himself is not going to pan out. And he looks to Fatima, and he sees her. And she has never had an American idea of herself. She's had an idea of herself as belonging to her family and belonging to sort of a Middle Eastern subculture in Southern California and staying within the clan.
And he looks to her and sees the ways in which this brings her strength. She doesn't try to have American friends or be an American teenage girl. And this makes her endlessly fascinating to him.
SIMON: There's a moment in class I want to ask you about there. They're discussing "Madame Bovary." And Fatima and Meagan (ph), another young woman in the class, have a telling difference of opinion.
KHADIVI: Yeah. I came to that when I was thinking about what it meant to outlaw the hijab in France and what it means to claim yourself as a woman in a world that is supposed to be becoming more pluralistic but is actually becoming more tribal. And it should be an acceptance. And I think when a Middle Eastern woman would like to claim her authority and her strength and her centeredness while being covered, the West, in general, will give her argument about that.
And in "Madame Bovary" there is a - you know, Flaubert is trying to make this statement about female vanity and a sense of class sort of raising yourself up and having your womanhood be your bootstraps. And in this case, Meagen is arguing that that's the way it should be. And America offers you this, and it's an illuminated culture because of that. And Fatima says, no, I think that it actually weakens and debases the woman to have to expose herself or use her beauty to attain wealth or stature.
SIMON: Rez goes on the Internet. What's he searching for?
KHADIVI: He's seeking people who have converted. The novel is largely about the act of conversion. How you begin as one thing and how you end as something else. And he meets these boys, who are men now, who have left their countries and their families and their immigrant lives in Western Europe or the United States and who have gone to the Middle East to join more fanatical Islamic organizations under the auspices that they will create a country for them. And they will be considered men, not second-class citizens of any sort.
SIMON: Rez and Fatima want to give their lives to something noble. And I won't give away the ending. But does that make them vulnerable?
KHADIVI: Yes. It makes them incredibly vulnerable. I mean, being an adolescent makes you vulnerable, but being an adolescent on a mission makes you even more so because they have an idea of a life that has not yet been proven to them. And they're willing to risk everything. Their relationships with their families, their futures, their opportunities that they have not yet seen themselves in for an idea that is a romantic notion.
And teenagers have been doing this since the beginning of time. Romeo and Juliet did it. And that myth, you know, writ large over multiple cultures - teenagers are constantly throwing all their eggs in a single basket and hoping for the best. And if anything, I wanted to capture the beauty of the spirit that goes towards this and the ways in which this can disappoint.
SIMON: Laleh Khadivi, her novel "A Good Country." Thanks so much for being with us.
KHADIVI: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATEO MESSINA SONG, "UP THE SPOUT")
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