Mehri Yalfani’s new collection consists of nineteen short stories, primarily from Iranian women’s perspectives set in Iran and Canada.
In the story “Rainy Day,” a little girl longs for a doll with golden hair; in “Adopted Child,” a successful business professional delays having a baby but then discovers a secret; in “Armchair Émigré,” siblings struggle to settle their parents’ estate; an educated woman finds herself cleaning the home of a wealthy, illiterate woman to pay the bills in the story “Adam,” and, in the title story, a family is divided (literally) when the mother loses her job and they must make difficult decisions for their future.
These varied, compelling snapshots of family, friendship, culture, tradition, discrimination, class issues, and struggle offer a glimpse into the challenges and joys of immigrants and refugees’ lived experiences in the Canadian diaspora.
Mehri Yalfani was born in Hamadan, Iran. She graduated from Tehran University with a master degree in electrical engineering. Mehri immigrated to Canada in 1987. She has published numerous books in Farsi as well as in English, most recently the novel, A Palace in Paradise (2019) and the short story collection, The Street of Butterflies (2017). She lives and writes in Toronto. www.yalfani.com
Excerpt from “Ziba Sepidrooy”
The first day that Zinat came to my home to clean, there was a four- or five-year-old girl with her.
She said, “Don’t worry, she won’t bother you.”
I asked her, “What’s her name?”
With a sneer, she continued, “Her name is Ziba, but she isn’t beautiful. Her family name is Sepidrooy, but as you see she’s neither beautiful nor white.”
In the girl’s face was a hidden sadness, the sadness of not being beautiful, perhaps. But she was beautiful, like the children all around the world, she was beautiful.
I gave her a doll. She took it with reluctance. In her eyes was the same hidden sadness. It seemed that the doll didn’t make her happy.
Zinat asked, “Why is the doll black? Like Ziba.” And laughed sarcastically.
I said, “The doll is beautiful, like Ziba.”
And Ziba stared at the doll with the same sadness.
Ziba was sitting in a corner, playing with her doll.
I said, “Zinat, it’s time for you to have one more child.”
“No, For me, one is enough. Our Shah says, ‘Fewer children, a better life.’”
“Two is not many. Think about Ziba; a sister or a brother…”
Ziba looked at her mother, then at me and put her head down. She caressed her doll’s hair.
I said, “Ziba is a clever girl.”
“What do you mean by clever? I wish she was beautiful. I could marry her off. But…”
In her “but” was regret and in Ziba’s eyes was sadness.
I put some money inside a sketchbook and gave her along with a box of colored pencils.
Zinat grabbed the sketchbook from her and took the money, saying, “Children don’t need money.”
I said, “Buy her a new dress.”
“She’s ugly. Even wearing velvet, still she’s ugly.”
Ziba gave me the sketchbook and said, “It’s for you.”
I went through pages. It was filled with sketches. A little girl with a sad face beside a flower bed or in a corner of a yard – lonely by herself.
I said, “Ziba, your sketches are beautiful, like yourself.” A sad smile appeared on her face. The next week I gave her another sketchbook with another box of colored pencils. And again she filled it with her pictures of flowers and birds, and gave it to me the week after when she came to my place with her mother.
Zinat arrived with a baby in her arms and Ziba.
I said, “What happened?”
“Imam says there is a need more soldiers for Islam’ army.”
Ziba was sitting in a corner and cradling Maysam on her legs. She was sketching the table, chair, TV or whatever was around her. Her mother screamed at her, “Leave that sketchbook aside and take the child outside.”
Ziba took Maysam in her arms and went to the yard.
I said, “Zinat, Ziba is a good girl. Why are you mad at her?”
“She doesn’t help me. She just wants to draw.”
“She likes to draw. You don’t let her to play with her doll. You believe it’s sinful, so she shouldn’t do drawing? You weren’t always so superstitious.”
“She’s committing sin. I have to marry her off.”
“Marry her off? She’s only ten years old.”
“The girls become mature at ten.”
“You? Weren’t you miserable marrying so young?”
“It was my fate.”
I gave Ziba a box of water colors and a big sketchbook and told her this is your gift for the new year.
She took them with the same depressing smile on her face and said, “I’m the first student in my class.”
“Good for you. Keep studying hard. You must become someone.”
“Talk to my mother please.”
Zinat came to my place with two children and Ziba. One was in Ziba’s arms and one in hers.
I asked her, “Isn’t your husband working?”
“He’s working for the Masjid’s Imam.”
“He’s not working anymore as a construction worker?”
“No, he gets a wage from the Imam.”
“Doesn’t he give you money for home?”
“He married another woman, a widow of the victims of the war.”
Ziba gave me the sketchbook and said, “It’s for you.”
I looked at it. Half of it was blank.
I asked, “Why didn’t you complete it?”
Zinat said, “Next week she’s going to her husband’s home.”
After Ziba married, I didn’t see Zinat anymore. She invited me to Ziba’s wedding but I didn’t go and didn’t want Zinat to clean my home anymore. Then we immigrated to Canada and I didn’t find out what happened to Ziba.
Taraneh said, “Look. Most of the features look like you.”
“Yes, you. Look closely. It’s as if the painter was painting your face.”
I said, “I don’t know the painter,” as if Ziba Sepidrooy was a name I had never heard.
I asked the gallery director about the painter. She said, “She was supposed to show up but something happened and she couldn’t make it.”
The gallery was full and the paintings were very expensive.
Taraneh said, “Look at this. It’s exactly you. A young woman caressing the head of a five- or six-year-old girl.” The little girl’s face wasn’t clear in the painting.
A man got close to the painting and asked the gallery director the price. The director said, “It’s not for sale.”
The man said, “It’s a masterpiece. I’ll buy it at any price.”
I looked the painting. Was she me or a woman who looked like me?
My doorbell rang and I went to answer. I saw a van in the parking lot. The man who rang the bell asked me, “Are you Simin Bahrami?”
“Yes, it’s me,” I said.
“Ms. Sepidrooy has sent a painting for you. Will you let me bring it in?”
“Why not?” I said.
And I said to myself, why me?
The man brought the painting and asked me, “Where do I leave it?”
I showed him a place in the living room. He put the painting against the wall, gave me a package and left.
I removed the paper from the painting. It was the same woman and the little child, the painting that didn’t have a price in the gallery, the one a buyer was ready to pay any price for.
Was I the woman in the painting?
I was absorbed looking at the painting and confused. I wished Taraneh was there, too, to see that the painter had given the painting to me. But why me? I opened the package. It was a sketchbook and a letter. I read the letter first.
“Dear Ms. Simin:
Anything I have is because of you, from those sketchbooks and colored pencils that you gave me when I was a little girl. My small gift to you is just to say thank you. All these past years, you were in my mind and this sketchbook is the same one that I wanted to give you but you said, keep it. I kept it for you.
Witu love and appreciation
I paged through the sketchbook. It was full of drawings of a ten-year-old girl, from all around of our house in Iran. Paintings of me, my daughter, Azita, my son, Nima, and my husband Farhang. That day I gave the sketchbook back to her. Half of it was blank. Remembering that day, I felt regret, and recalled a small girl who had an unsaid sadness in her eyes.
I searched her name in Google and found her in Wikipedia.
Ziba Sepidrooy, born in Hamadan
Married at eleven years old
Widowed at fifteen, with a daughter, called Simin, her husband was killed in the war.
At twenty-one, she got her high school diploma, then a bachelors degree in fine arts from the University of Tehran. She was awarded a scholarship in England. The names of the cities and countries in which she has had exhibitions didn’t stay with me.
I called the gallery. A woman answered the phone. I asked about Ms. Sepidrooy.
She said, “She left Toronto at the end of exhibition.”
I asked her, “Do you have any address for her?”
She said, “No.”
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