Ava Homa, a writer and activist born and raised in Iran’s Kurdistan province, has embraced the adage to “write what you know” in her stark and elucidating debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire. The broad scope of her story encompasses 50 years of Kurdish history—and the ways Iran has attempted to eradicate that history. In much the same way Native American children were treated by the U.S. government beginning in the late 19th century, Kurdish children are alienated from their roots as early as first grade, when “overnight,” Homa writes, “we were robbed of our language, our heritage.”
Homa centers her novel on a young Kurdish woman named Leila Saman and her family. As a boy, Leila’s father saw his six uncles massacred by Iraqi soldiers, and in the years that followed he was imprisoned and tortured for his leftist activities. Leila and her brother, Chia, grow up vaguely aware of their father’s horrific past, though he never opens up about it. In their 20s, the siblings move to Tehran, where Chia attends the university and Leila works in a bookstore, saving her meager earnings so she can eventually follow her long-held dream of making films “to tell our stories.”
Through the courageous character of Leila, Homa paints a picture of many Kurdish women who have struggled against persecution and the misogyny embedded in religious extremism. When Chia is drawn more and more into the political scene, his activism attracts the attention of the Iranian authorities. He is jailed, and Leila is not allowed to visit her beloved brother for over a year. Frustrated by her inability to help Chia, Leila begins publishing his activist writings online, putting herself in danger as well. Her exodus from her birthplace mirrors that of the author, who now splits her time between Toronto and the Bay Area.
Homa’s remarkable novel serves as a potent and illuminating window into the persecution of the Kurds, which has existed for decades and continues unabated today.