Reader’s Guide for Aria with some responses from the author
1. While in Tibet, Jasmine remarks in a letter to Justin that she finally understands her need to travel, that it is not only about escaping her environment but instead connecting with the “fundamental elements of life” and “becoming simple.” Do you find Jasmine’s explanation to be believable? Does her choice of travel destinations make sense in the context of her character? How does traveling to a new place affect your perspective?
Travel has always been a solace for Jasmine. Dot mentions it, and Jasmine admits her need for solo travel was a challenge in her relationship with Justin. Separation from her home environment brings her perspective and an affirmation of her independent spirit. Returning to the basic elements of food and shelter, transportation, and health, Jasmine distills to her simplest self. She needs to rebuild from the roots upward after the death of Aria and the culmination of losses she’s suffered. Traveling to meaningful places allows her to reinvent her notion of self, appreciate what she has, and trigger the introspection she needs in order to heal. The Sonora Desert in Arizona represents a place of spirituality, which is not comforting to an agnostic Jasmine ever more skeptical of God since the death of her daughter. Guatemala is a place where she seeks closure with Justin. Her travel to his former Peace Corps village allows her to feel closer to Justin after his death—enough to tell him the story of their daughter--and closer to the earth. She plants maize, a basic food staple, and in doing that, reaffirms the cycle of life. While Tibet may seem like a coincidental destination after she meets an American ex-military guy who’s found love and redemption in Buddhism, in truth, Jasmine has been attracted to Buddhist experiences since college. Her first boyfriend, Carlos, left her pregnant to become a Buddhist monk in Thailand. In going to Tibet, Jasmine yearns for a magical moment of insight during meditation, some cathartic experience. Returning to her parents’ home country of Iran is the final catalyst for deep healing that Jasmine has needed, despite her trepidation at being judged and further rejected by her family. She must make peace with her mother otherwise she is perpetuating her mother’s sense of loss around her only daughter.
2. Aria begins with a poem by Joan Swift and closes with a poem by Dana Gioia. What do you think the poems mean?
The opening poem by Joan Swift captures the voice of Aria, who we only otherwise hear through her mother’s and other characters’ recollections. Dana Gioia’s closing poem is Jasmine’s agnostic prayer for Aria and herself, her understanding and acceptance that Aria’s loss will be with her for time immemorial.
3. There is a split open pomegranate on the cover of Aria and pomegranates make appearances throughout the book. What do you think is the significance of pomegranates in this novel? Discuss the symbolic role of pomegranates in different cultures and mythologies.
The pomegranate is a native of Persia, like Jasmine, and it becomes an ambassador to Jasmine’s beloved grandmother, Mamani Joon. The fruit links Jasmine to her past, and features richly in global mythology as a symbol of birth, eternal life, death, and healing. The sweetness and sourness of the fruit becomes a metaphor for life in the mystic tradition; true happiness cannot be experienced in the absence of loss. The deep red skin of the pomegranate is thought to link it to the blood of the earth, a taboo color. On the cover, the pomegranate is split open like a broken heart. Jasmine’s first moment of anger after the death of Aria is associated with her smashing the fruit against the walls of her home. Jasmine is permanently stained by the loss of Aria. Iranians believe that Eve was tempted with a pomegranate in the Garden of Eden says Margaret Shaida, culinary historian and author of The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.
The ancient Egyptians were buried with pomegranates in the hope of re-birth. Jewish tradition teaches that the pomegranate is a symbol for righteousness, because it is said to have 613 seeds that correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. For this reason and others, many Jews eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah. In Greek mythology, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and the harvest, goes into mourning for her daughter and all green things cease to grow. Zeus, king of gods, demands Persephone’s return to Demeter so that growth will begin again. However, before she leaves Hades, Persephone eats 4 pomegranate seeds, condemning herself to spend 4 months of each year with Hades in the underworld, during which time Demeter goes on strike and we experience winter. These days, Greeks traditionally break a pomegranate at weddings, as a symbol of fertility. In China, a sugared version of the seed is eaten on the day to bless the newlyweds. The fruit has long been used in folk medicine in the Middle East, Iran and India. Healers have used the bark, leaves, skin and rind as well as the edible bits of the fruit to cure everything from conjunctivitis to hemorrhoids.
4. Aria is an epistolary novel, written as a series of documents that are mostly letters. Do you think this is an effective narrative device? What other epistolary novels, if any, have you read?
Epistolary narrative gives an intimate sense of what the characters are experiencing, an insider view into their psyche. However, writing a letter is also one layer removed from a character’s actual thoughts and deeds; it is filtered through what they wish to share with the letter’s recipient. It is telling rather than showing.
Many other writers have attempted epistolary novels: Beverly Clearly, AS Byatt, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabakov, Amos Oz, Stephen King, Yann Martel, Alice Walker and Jane Austen among others. The first truly epistolary novel was Diego de San Pedro’s Prison of Love in 1485. Some epistolary pieces that have influenced the author are: a short story by Marilyn Sides entitled Master of the Pink Glyphs and Letter to a Child Never Born by Oriana Fallaci. Unconventional narrative with some epistolary prose that have also influenced the writing of Aria have been: The Art Lover by Carole Maso, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and the Griffin and Sabine series by Nick Bantock.
5. There are many foreign words used throughout Aria, and often they are not defined. Did you find this added to or detracted from the travel descriptions or emotional content of the letters? Read a favorite passage aloud.
6. Gelareh Asayesh, Iranian-American journalist and author of the memoir Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, says: “Pretending is the immigrant’s avenue to wholeness.” To what extent do you believe this is true for Jasmine’s mother, Maryam? For Jasmine herself?
Immigrants often have a fractured existence, a part of them is in their adopted country, and a part remains in the homeland. This is certainly true for Maryam, Jasmine’s mother. Furthermore, life in the adopted country is often not nearly as easy or rewarding as one imagines. This is also true for Jasmine’s parents, who must struggle economically and culturally to make a life in the United States, and pretend to be having a golden life in America to save face with their relatives back home. While Jasmine seems much better integrated into American life than her parents, her ignored Iranian cultural heritage haunts her each time she suffers losses. At times, she pretends to be wholly American, but her Iranian upbringing never ceases to impact her.
7. Jasmine’s boyfriend Alexander has made the reverse journey from/to the United States as Jasmine’s parents. Do Alexander’s travels help him to better understand Jasmine? What is Alexander’s relationship to the US? How is his grieving different from Jasmine’s?
Alexander’s worldly experiences help connect him to Jasmine. Indeed, he has been to the Middle East before she returns there, and even knows the cuisine. Alexander has been escaping his Mid-Western rural heritage ever since he can remember. His childhood was a troubled one in which he never fit in with his family or community. As Alexander matures, he comes to peace with his identity, returns to the States after an adrenaline life of chasing wars abroad, and lives a cosmopolitan life without denying his farmer roots. Jasmine must reconcile her own country of origin and heritage before she is fully able to heal.
Alexander’s response to Aria’s death is understandably different from Jasmine’s. He grieves with the help of support groups, psychotherapy, and art. His need for Jasmine grows stronger after Aria’s death. He needs to make love to her, writes her hundreds of unsent letters, and feels lost after her departure. Jasmine needs distance from Alexander, feels guilty about leaving Aria in his care, and does not believe she deserves happiness after Aria’s death. She has difficulties expressing her losses in public, particularly in the American context of memorial services, and must escape her home environment to rebuild herself.
8. Jasmine once remarks to Dot that she seems to be repeating the same tragedies as those in her grandmother’s life history. What do Jasmine and Mamani Joon have in common? Does Jasmine believe that betraying her heritage brought her tragedy? How commonly do people repeat family history? Why does Jasmine have such keen interest in the stories of her grandmother?
Both Jasmine and her grandmother are mavericks in the context of their culture. Mamani Joon smokes, gambles, learns poetry, travels alone, wants to be a doctor, and falls in love with a nomad, all unconventional traits for a woman of her generation in the traditional Islamic context of Iran. Jasmine is impacted by Berkeley’s hippie culture, gets pregnant outside of the context of marriage on two occasions, and chooses to live with her boyfriend Justin while pregnant, though all are in stark contrast to the cultural mores with which she was raised. Both Jasmine and her grandmother lose their first loves and first daughters. Recording her grandmother’s stories are one way that Jasmine feels close to her after her death, and comes to terms with her own past. Family histories are often repeated. Jasmine often wonders if she’s being punished for betraying her culture, but finds solace in the unconventional stories of her grandmother, who is a role model for her within her family life and a safe way of connecting to her past.
9. Ekphrasis is a term used to denote poetry or poetic writing concerning the visual arts. Alexander uses ekphrastic writing in his letter to Jasmine on at least a couple of occasions. Discuss these examples, how art helps Alexander connect to Jasmine even when she is far away. Explore instances when visual art has helped you heal or changed your life.
Alexander finds connection to Jasmine in a bonsai tree, a Rodin statue, a memorial to killed firefighters, and paintings by Robert Ferrandini. Alexander sees Jasmine everywhere, and finds art to be a particularly powerful medium, especially when Jasmine distances herself from him.
10. Jasmine has an abortion in college. Two decades later, while meditating in Tibet, she writes a letter to her “sweet ghost baby who was never meant to be.” Does the death of Aria impact Jasmine’s feelings about her decision to abort? Does Jasmine’s mother, who had great difficulty becoming pregnant, react to the abortion in expected or unexpected ways? Are there any Muslim countries where abortion is legal?
Aria’s death makes Jasmine re-examine all of her past choices, including her decision to abort her first pregnancy. However, in the end, she reaffirms that choice to abort, is at peace with not having taken that road, as much as she wishes that circumstances had been different for her at that time. Jasmine’s mother, who battled infertility, is surprisingly pragmatic when it comes to Jasmine’s abortion. She seems more scandalized and betrayed by Jasmine’s decision to engage in premarital sex, than her decision to end her out-of-wedlock first pregnancy. Maryam’s reaction to abortion is not atypical of many Iranian women today. Abortion is illegal in Iran, but is generally safe for those women who can afford it (performed underground by doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics). Hymen reconstruction surgery is also increasingly common. Abortion is legal in Turkey and Tunisia, and is performed legally to save the mother’s life in Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
11. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said: “My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.” Though Jasmine’s journey through the world is a solitary one, does she ever transcend her lonely experience of grief?
Jasmine often finds comfort in being among groups of women, whether she is working the fields in Guatemala, meditating in Tibet and returning in the evenings to the nuns, or connecting with her family in Iran. Indeed, while her grief begins as an individualistic, solitary one while she is in the States, by the end of her time in Iran, she finds most solace in the communal experience of mourning.
12. Both Iran and the United States have a strong presence in this book. Jasmine and her parents must struggle with negotiating both places and must ultimately decide where they belong. Did Aria allow you to see the United States or Iran in a new way? Where do you feel like you belong?