In The Stationery Shop, Marjan Kamali tells the story of a romance that reaches far beyond its origins and across the span of the characters’ lives. Amidst growing political turmoil in their home of Tehran, Roya and Bahman do not expect to fall in love amidst the books of their local stationery shop, let alone find their entire lives changed by it. Little do they know, this will also be the year that Prime Minister Mossadegh is removed from power with the assistance of the American government.
In the very first chapter of the book, Kamali reveals the characters in their old age in 2013. “I’m never terribly wedded to one thing, but with the opening I was extremely wedded to it,” Kamali told Spine. “I knew that I wanted the book to start with readers knowing that [these characters] haven’t seen each other for sixty years.”
This idea took shape as a result of one of Kamali’s real-life experiences at a book reading at a nursing home for her previous novel, Together Tea. While there, she met an older Iranian man in a wheelchair. “Organizers kept shushing him and dismissing him whenever he tried to talk.” Kamali felt drawn to the man and later discovered that he had been an important former Iranian dignitary with a rich past full of travel and experience.
While the elderly man’s life and background are not the basis of the book’s narrative, Kamali’s intense emotional reaction to him, coupled with a desire to explore the history of 1953 Iran, inspired her to write The Stationery Shop.
To research for the book, she read extensively about the history, but was also “lucky because I have access to elders in my family who lived through it. Especially my father, he basically chatted with me about this for many years.” Her father spoke of a stationery shop that he knew in Tehran that served as a hub, selling both books and stationery goods. This is how the stationery shop became the essential location for the couple’s first meeting, and it further illuminates the Iran of the 1950s that Kamali discovered in her research.
“What I didn’t realize was how sort of glamorous Tehran was in the early 1950s, when there was this burst of cafe culture and movies and film. Cinemas were blooming. Publishing was taking off. There was this new class of intellectuals and the young people felt they were on the verge of a new beginning.” The stationery shop in the book serves as a culmination of this history. “That was very key to me, to have this anchor of this place where ideas were exchanged and it was also, from what I learned, quite international. There was a huge, just, opening up. It was a way for Iranians to access ideas from around the world.”
While keeping all of this historical context and setting in mind, Kamali still remained mindful that the fictional narrative did not get too bogged down in the actual history. “One thing I told myself was, at the end of the day, I’m not a historian, I’m not a scholar, I’m not here to educate. I’m a storyteller.” To maintain the book’s character-driven focus, she used the analogy of a painting with a foreground and a background—Roya and Bahman in the foreground, and the events of 1953 in Tehran in the background. “Sometimes they are in harmony, sometimes they are in contrast.”
Despite her focus on story rather than historical education, Kamali did feel a sense of responsibility while writing. “We have so few Iranian characters written about or represented and the ones we do see in the media are painted with a very broad brush. The trickiest part was creating characters who were authentic and real, and being true to nuances that are so often lacking.”
This was one of the many things she kept in mind while writing her characters, who are only seventeen when they meet and fall in love. “Their courtship would have certain constraints due to societal mores and manners. I wanted to be true to how two teens would interact in that time. At the same time, there is this universal young love.”
Kamali guides us through their love and its long-lasting ripple effects, as well as the long-lasting ripple effects of Iran’s political turmoil. Throughout the editing process, Kamali did not remain confined to linear, chronological timelines or a single character’s perspective. A majority of the novel follows Roya; however, readers get a glimpse into a number of side characters’ stories and the ways that they intertwine with Roya and Bahman’s.
“I think the more the author knows, even if it’s not included, hopefully it ultimately shows,” said Kamali. “Sometimes it will strengthen the story.” This is how at least one of the side characters received her own chapter. Kamali wrote a chapter from this character’s perspective to get to know her better and strengthen her own understanding. It wasn’t until her editor voiced a desire to see more of her that the chapter was included in the book.
Throughout the editing and writing process overall, Kamali says, much took her by surprise and it made the writing more emotional. She tries to give this experience to the book’s readers as well. “I chose the order in which to reveal certain things in order to maximize the drama.”