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Kaveh Akbar on his debut novel 'Martyr!'


Cyrus Shams is both the son of the Middle East and the American Middle West, who's been instilled with tragedy. His mother, Roya, was aboard Iran Air Flight 655, which was shot down by mistake by the U.S. Navy during the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. He and his father, Ali, wind up moving to Indiana, where Ali works - overworks really - at a poultry farm and dies from a stroke. Cyrus becomes a drunk, drug addict and a poet - not a totally unprecedented combination. But at the age of 30, he is sober, restless and still in Indiana and thinks there might be one path left to deliver himself to a kind of immortality. "Martyr!" is the name of the debut novel from Kaveh Akbar. He's also poetry editor of The Nation, teaches at the University of Iowa, Randolph College and Warren Wilson College. He joins us now from Iowa City, Iowa. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAVEH AKBAR: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And that flight, of course, is in the novel, but Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down in 1988, wasn't it?

AKBAR: It was. It was. It was shot down by the USS Vincennes, a U.S. naval warship. They say that they mistook it for a military plane, and they shot it down. And all 290 passengers on board were killed, including 66 children.

SIMON: Does Cyrus feel doomed or spared?

AKBAR: I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I think one can feel doomed and spared - doomed to the same ineffable resting place that awaits us all and also spared from dying of addiction, from dying aboard that flight with his mother. So both.

SIMON: Cyrus has a poetry project in mind. Is he hoping that will deliver meaning or immortality or what?

AKBAR: Art is a mechanism by which people have sought immortality for millennia. The idea that we could store our intelligence in our stories, in language - meaning in each other - outside of our brains, means that we could transmit stories to family members that we would never know, who would be born after we died, right? And that's as close as I know of any human being ever achieving corporeal immortality. And so Cyrus is intensely interested in that. He's also interested in some kind of martyrdom, right? Not necessarily religious martyrdom or theological martyrdom but martyrdom for a divine that might be more terrestrial - right? - whether it be justice or land or dignity or family or art. He's suicidally sad, but he doesn't want to waste his suicide.

SIMON: He had an uncle who was once the angel of death. That must leave an impression.

AKBAR: Yeah. So the uncle in the book - during the Iran-Iraq war, he has a job where every night after the battle, he gets on a horse and wears a long, black robe. And he wants to give people a glimpse of the angel, of something celestial and holy in their dying moments to embolden them in their dying, to persuade them to die with dignity. He - that's his job. That's his job in the army.

SIMON: Does he hope it gives people meaning?

AKBAR: The way the Iranian government yoked itself to cultural and religious ideas around martyrdom and harness those towards its own sort of propagandistic ends is a story that I only glance upon in this book but could be the subject of, you know, a million graduate theses.

SIMON: I laughed out loud - and maybe I shouldn't have - of some of the sections of the book where Cyrus has a part-time job to educate doctors, in which he plays patients who have to get bad news. He's great at that. Am I right to think that this is probably not something he should be doing in his current frame of mind?

AKBAR: (Laughter) Well, yeah. So Cyrus is a medical actor who doctors train giving patients bad news by giving Cyrus bad news. And then he plays all these different characters. And yeah, I mean, his best friend in the novel is named Zee. And Zee thinks that Cyrus shouldn't be doing it because he's not necessarily in a good state of mind for it. And I appreciate you for saying you found the book funny, too. I do hope that it doesn't feel like a relentlessly dour slog. I mean, my experience of life on the planet Earth is private joys amidst collective grief and private grief amidst collective joy.

SIMON: Addiction looms over this story almost as much as martyrdom. Cyrus at one point writes, for a drunk, there's nothing but drink. There was nothing in my life that wasn't predicated on getting drunk - which raises a difficult question. Does he see martyrdom as a way out with a little more - I don't know - a little more style?

AKBAR: Sure, absolutely. I think that your two choices as a person in recovery are to relapse or to die sober. And you only really win recovery by dying sober, right? The entirety of your life is just a million, trillion opportunities to relapse. I am a person in recovery. I've been sober for 10 years. But it can be exhausting, and I think that there is a part of Cyrus that feels very, very exhausted.

SIMON: May I say something just from a family who's been touched by this?

AKBAR: Of course. We're talking.

SIMON: Good for you. Ten years...

AKBAR: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Good for you.

AKBAR: Thank you. I appreciate it. It's the hardest thing I've ever done and the most worthwhile thing. And everything else is made possible by that - the cat on my lap, the phone in my hand, the book that we're talking about.

SIMON: You turn over the last page of this book. You know a lot more Iranian poetry than you did when you first started out (laughter).

AKBAR: Yeah. That's the...

SIMON: Was that also...

AKBAR: ...The secret.

SIMON: ...In your grand design?

AKBAR: Well, I mean, the poet Li-Young Lee says syntax is identity - right? - which means that the way that I talk is inflected by all of my geographies and all of my genealogies and all of my histories and every movie I've ever seen in the order that I see them and every book that I've ever read in the order that I read them, right? And obviously, Persian poetry looms large in my consciousness, as does Sonic Youth and EPMD and Erykah Badu and Jean Valentine and all the other cultural reference that appear throughout the book.

SIMON: Do you have particular regard for the Iranian poet Ferdowsi?

AKBAR: Of course. There's a large biographical beat in the book that orbits him. But he's the great. He's the progenitor of so much else in Persian culture. The joke is every Iranian household has two books, the Quran and the Shahnameh - you know, Ferdowsi's great book - and only one of them gets read.


SIMON: The poet and now novelist Kaveh Akbar. He's written a novel, "Martyr!" Thanks so much for being with us.

AKBAR: Thanks so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.