Catherine Dehdashti – Author of “Roseheart”
I have been a member of a Goodreads group for awhile now that is for ‘Indie’, or independent authors. It was my pleasure to meet Catherine Dehdashti there and connect with her on social media as well. Catherine has nearly two decades of experience as an essayist, food writer and communications professional who discovered that cooking and humor can play a big part in connecting people, including those of different cultures and generations. She has written for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Midwest Living, Iranian.com, the Minnesota Daily and other publications. You can see Catherine’s full bio on her website.
Her debut novel is “Roseheart” and admittedly, I have just begun to read it. Less than four chapters in, I find myself laughing at the first-person tale that is filled with humor and characters I can relate to. I am fortunate to have been able to interview Catherine, and I hope that this gives you insight on the type of person and author she is.
Before I move to the interview itself, let me give you a synopsis of “Roseheart”.
Roseheart, by Catherine Dehdashti is a story about family, set in the 1990s, and told through the sardonic voice of Valerie Kjos. She’s a a young Midwestern Gen X’er whose life is just barely coming together with her boyfriend when his Iranian mother, Goli, comes for a visit that seems to never end.
Valerie will have to decide what’s more important to her—doing everything her own way, or her beloved Naveed with his live-in mother, who might not approve if she knew everything about her. But as she’s about to learn, Goli has secrets of her own.
Christina: Being from the Midwest (United States), how did your family traditions merge with those of your husband’s family to further influence your love of cooking?
Catherine: I’ve lived in Minnesota for most of my life, but my mom is from the south (like the mother of Roseheart’s main character, Valerie) and my dad is from northern Minnesota. My dad got transferred a lot when I was little, too. So I’d already grown up eating about as much variety as existed in the white middle-class of the 70s and 80s. At home, my family had southern fried chicken as well as wild rice and lefse. But it was Uncle Ben’s wild rice—I don’t want to overly romanticize things here. The lutefisk was charming in its own disgusting way, but thankfully was served very rarely when grandparents came for holidays. I much preferred my mom’s southern cooking. I still don’t know what Minnesotans are talking about when they say “hot dish.” My mom made “casserole.” Is it the same thing?
I’d always been open to almost any kind of food (except the lutefisk). But I went about it in a really unfocused way, eating my way around Minneapolis’s Seven Corners and Uptown neighborhoods, but never actually learning how to cook. I don’t think I really learned until I was faced with a situation much like Valerie’s in Roseheart: my boyfriend’s mother moved in with us. She didn’t speak much English, and there was little I could do with her except to shop, garden, and cook. Learning how to do something well, at the side of a kind teacher, is a good way to fall in love with it.
CR: I looked up lutefisk, and trust me – it looks absolutely disgusting, so I don’t blame Catherine for having an aversion to it. And while Uncle Ben’s wild rice is nothing to be ashamed of, a “hot dish” where I am from (Iowa) means pretty much any food that has been cooked in either a crock pot or casserole dish. At least, that is how I define it.
CR: Catherine, what are some of the more specific influences your mother-in-law passed to you (ie. specific dishes, recipes, etc.)?
Catherine: My mother-in-law passed away six years ago. We miss the days when we would come home to a meal prepared with such love waiting for us on the table, and wish our kids had been able to know her longer. I’m so busy these days with a full-time job and family that I’m sort of back to eating my way around the block. Only now it’s the take-out food block in my suburban neighborhood instead of Uptown. I cook just a few times a week, and my husband cooks too. We cook a lot of Persian stews, which are nutritious and freeze well, so they’re great for busy families. My mother-in-law’s motto was sort of like the Boy Scouts: Always be prepared. She modeled that for us. Make stews and freeze them, grow herbs and dry them for winter, pick wild grape leaves when you see them. She could be ready for unexpected dinner company in half an hour anytime. I’m the same way now about food…although I need three days advance notice to clean the house.
CR: You say humor has motivated you – can you share a story that may not be in your book that readers can relate to?
Catherine: There’s this pre-Islamic Persian New Year ritual Iranians do every year still to this day. A couple of weeks before the New Year, they soak lentils in water, then put them on a plate in the sun until they grow into beautiful, tall, green sprouts. They tie a red ribbon around the stand of sprouts and put it on the New Year altar. Then on the thirteenth day of the New Year, families go picnicking at a stream or river. They toss the sprouts into the water while reciting something poetic about sending away the old bad luck and ill feelings from the old year so success can take root in the next year. It’s about forgiveness and renewal. The family watches while the sprouts get carried downstream until they are out of view.
One year, we kept tossing the sprouts into the river but they wouldn’t float away. They would get caught in an eddy and flow back our way again and again, and my husband would fish them out and throw them farther. They finally got stuck in some reeds on their way back. The previous year had been bad for my mother-in-law, health-wise. She said, “The bad luck is stuck just beyond our reach. Some years that has to be good enough. Now, let’s go home.”
CR: Imagining tossing lentil sprouts into a river and having them eddy back my direction makes me think of a saying at my house: “The only luck we have is the bad kind.”
CR: With Roseheart, what were some of your most personal reasons for writing the book?
Catherine: There are many reasons I could give for why I wrote Roseheart, but the main thing is that the story was just in me and I was only amusing and tormenting myself with it. That needed to change—I needed to share. In my bio, I suppose I do say I was motivated by how cooking and humor can bring people together. But it’s really not about me. That happened in my life, but the novel happened because these fictional characters were starting to act up and bang on things. They wanted to get out of my head. So there aren’t a lot of preachy reasons for the book, but it’s true that cooking and humor and lots of other things can bring people together. Obviously, there are limitations. Or else, like Firoozeh Dumas says in Funny in Farsi, Iranian and American diplomats could sit down with some rosewater-saffron-pistachio ice cream and just hammer this whole thing out.
The characters, especially Valerie, Goli, and Naveed, taught me that you don’t have to be perfect or fit a certain mold to be a good family. There’s a minor sisterhood theme in the book too. God knows sisters don’t always get along, but I love Valerie’s sisters in the novel now almost as much as I love my own.
CR: How has Minnesota culture and Persian culture clashed and/or gelled and do you feel that your story can motivate others to look beyond stereotypes to a 21st Century view of acceptance of multicultural families?
Catherine: I don’t have a lot of illusions about Roseheart making a different in getting people to look beyond stereotypes, but that would be interesting if it happened. Most readers are probably already people who like to learn things and to be surprised sometimes. Again, it wasn’t written to preach. I hope people find it amusing and fun to read, but there is some tragedy in it too.
I can’t claim any real expertise in either culture. I’ve lived in Minnesota since I was nine, but I still can’t figure out a solid, true definition of Minnesotans. And Iranians—Persian people—they don’t have any one culture either. I hope that people who want to learn more about Persian cultures will not rely on anyone like me, except only to learn my characters’ perspectives. I’m really interested in getting feedback from Iranina-Americans about how Valerie sees their world.
I wrote my masters thesis on Iranian-American women’s memoirs. I’d highly recommend dozens of books written by Iranians and Iranian-Americans to anyone who feels curious or just wants to read some fantastic literature. A few authors I recommend are Shahrnush Parsipur, Nahid Rachlin, Azar Nafisi (and also someone named Fatemeh Keshavarz who wrote a book to counter Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran), Roya Hakakian, Azadeh Moaveni…and so many others. Persis M. Karim has collected some of the best writing into a book called Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora.
Look for Minnesota writers too! We’re a very bookish state. It seems like being an intercultural family like mine (Iranian and Euro-American) was a more unusual thing in 1990s Minnesota, when and where this novel takes place. As far as acceptance, we have to all start with ourselves, examining our own prejudices and being willing to laugh at ourselves too.
CR: I think Midwestern states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois – they seem to be very education-minded. Bookish is a good thing in this era of digital overload.
CR: Did you ever expect that you would be drawn into a world that many see as restrictive only to discover a new freedom? And if so, how does your book reflect this?
Catherine: I never expected to live with my mother-in-law—that’s for sure. Regardless of culture, any 20-something independence-minded woman would feel having her live-in boyfriend or husband’s mother in the next bedroom over is a little inhibiting. But I did learn that extended families have been the way of the world for all but the very privileged since the beginning of time. And that the economic privilege that made that unnecessary also brought about some loss.
Although Valerie struggles a lot with family members—not just Goli, but with her own parents and her sisters—I think the book reflects that lesson I got about not taking family for granted, whatever type of family you call your own. A lot of people in the world are separated from their own family members, usually because of politics and wars. That is an unjust loss of freedom when you can’t see your family. I have been lucky to have the freedom to spend time with my family and another family I’ve come to call my own.
CR: Who would you identify as your target audience?
Catherine: Knowing your audience is the first rule of marketing, but it was the furthest thing from my mind when writing the story of Valerie and Naveed and their families. As soon as I thought it was Generation X women ages 35 to 55 who liked food, I found out that some of my early readers were reading parts of it out loud to their husbands in bed, or that their teenagers were reading it. At one point I thought it might be “chick lit.” But one of the people who endorsed the book is Jeremy Iggers, a Ph.D. in philosophy. He loved it. Most of the people who marked it as “to-read” on Goodreads look to be young women, not only my age (mid-40s), and I see at least a few men plan on reading it too.
CR: How much of the story is fiction vs real life?
Catherine: Roseheart is 100% fiction, in that there is no scene or character in the entire book that I envision as true to a specific person or event in my life. And yet, the story parallels mine to a really high degree. Family members and friends have read the book and identified with characters to the point they call a character “me.” I have to keep saying, “It’s not you—it’s really not. That character doesn’t even look like you in my head.” It’s hard for someone to see that. After all, they just read a scene and remember a very similar scene happening between us.
My husband said I cannibalized our own lives, and I really can’t argue with that. I sort of took it all in, but then I made something different out of it. Maybe it’s like another dimension.
CR: Why “Roseheart” – does that title have a special meaning?
Catherine: Yes! Valerie’s boyfriend Naveed’s mother is named Goli, which is sort of like “Rosie” in Persian. She’s also from an estate that grows wild roses, and she puts always sprinkles rosewater on her fruit. Naveed teasingly likes to call her Gol-ab instead of Goli sometimes, which means “rosewater.” The nickname “Roseheart” is another variation on that teasing, but you have to read the book to find out.
CR: When is the official release date and where can readers get the book?
Catherine: It’s officially May 11, but it looks like the two major online retailers are selling it now! That’s a little scary. The Kindle Edition should release on May 11, but I may bump it up a few days for anyone who wants to read it to get psyched up for Mother’s Day!
The book trailers are here:
(official one) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez0Dv0P236g
(short ad-style) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s-US5pDx8Y