Book Review: Daughters of Smoke and Fire

by L.A. Hunt

Author and activist Ava Homa sets out in her powerful debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire to describe for the reader what statelessness feels like. She does so with visceral prose and a narrative that never flinches from the harsh reality of living in a country that does not recognize one’s ethnicity, and in fact punishes an ethnic minority for their native regional roots. Homa writes in her Afterword,

Kurds are often the majority among political prisoners and suffer the most vicious torture. Kurdish regions have been intentionally kept underdeveloped, resulting in entrenched poverty and all the trauma and trouble that follow the plague of poverty.

Homa’s work of fiction, an homage to Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish elementary school teacher, is also a literary event. It is the first novel to be published in English by a female Kurdish writer. The story, set in Iran, depicts how oppression, political persecution, and racism work to destroy one Kurdish family. The narrative focuses on Leila, who dreams of being a filmmaker and giving voice to the story of her people, and her younger brother Chia, a teacher who aspires to a becoming a human rights lawyer and delivering his community from cruel anonymity to an acknowledged existence.

Leila struggles with her university entrance exam scores but is desperate for filmmaking classes, so she makes monthly installment payments on a camcorder. She feels a need to become film-literate: “I had a strong urge to document my little joys, partly because I had an irksome fear that they would be short-lived and partly because I wanted to be able to replay beautiful moments over and over again.” The camcorder also serves to remind her that her dreams are allowed, even when the actions of those around her crush them regularly. Chia, always the supportive and encouraging little brother, tells her, “Dreams matter, Leila gian. Desires matter. Take them seriously.”

When Chia goes missing, Leila fears the worst and sets out to find him. When she discovers he has been arrested and sentenced to death for documenting the government’s crimes against humanity, she sets in motion a series of events that may have a catastrophic outcome. In the middle of the journey however, Leila finds a sense of camaraderie from families of other political prisoners and thus discovers a purpose for her films that she could never have predicted. She is determined to tell Chia’s story, to create a legacy not only for him but for her people.

Homa is a talented storyteller, and her characters are vibrant and complex. Leila’s mother and father are bruised, damaged individuals and imperfect parents, which illuminates Homa’s dexterity for creating characters that are authentic and genuine. In addition, she uses shifting point of view to tell the story of the Kurdish people. While the subject matter is vast and multifaceted, she deftly creates dialogue that is precise without seeming expositional and that always rings true as a reflection of her characters.

Homa doesn’t mince words when it comes to the way Kurdish women are treated. She confronts cultural misogyny head-on by placing Leila in situations where she must suffer the brutality of a society where women have no rights, voice, or power. Leila describes the weight on her shoulders as “heavy beneath the daily cruelties of living as a woman.” Kurdish women must always defer to men and are constantly subjected to a double standard. “Women came in only two types: whores or dutiful slaves to their families.”

Homa also dissects the cultural phenomenon of Kurdish women setting themselves on fire as an act of both bravery and rebellion. That these women have no other recourse but to leave this world to end their suffering is a haunting image that persists long after the last page has been read. Chia explains the self-immolation to one of his students: “Women who lost all reason to live wanted their internalized burning rage to manifest on the outside too. A dramatic death testified to an agonizing life.”

An interesting point about the shifting point of view and the focus on women in the novel: Homa chooses to examine only the men in her story, not the women. Leila is the vehicle through which much of the narrative is developed, but the choice to give Leila’s father and brother a voice with their own first-person point of view chapters feels incomplete. While the chapters shed light on their experiences and offer insight into their characters, not examining Leila’s complicated mother is a lost opportunity for the reader to understand what drives her character to make the interesting choices she makes in the novel.

Ultimately, Daughters of Smoke and Fire transcends Kurdish oppression, and Homa knows there is a sense of belonging and universality for all oppressed people:

The rain splattered down after a loud thunderclap. I lifted my face and palms to the sky. I wasn’t alone, I saw then. People in Rwanda, Bosnia, plantations, and indigenous residential schools in North America were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds.

Ava Homa’s voice is necessary in a world that lately seeks to divide instead of unite.

L.A. Hunt resides in Los Angeles where she spends her time studying the craft of writing, working on a YA novel, and creating/pitching TV pilots and screenplays. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own paths and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. She is a current MFA in Creative Writing fiction major and screenwriting minor in the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low Residency program.