Iran/USA | 2008
Dalia Sofer was born in Iran and fled at the age of ten to the United States with her family. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and has been a resident at Yaddo. A graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, and author of The Septembers of Shiraz , she lives in New York City.
I arrived at Santa Maddalena late on a cold night in April, after a harrowing trip involving a canceled flight, a slapdash bus ride, and a taxi driver lacking all sense of direction but possessing abundant Italian outrage. Along the way, my anticipation had slowly morphed into anxiety, and already the missing had begun—I longed for my bed, for my cat, for my desk, for my books, for my friends, even for the lousy Chinese take-out restaurant near my apartment—in short, for New York, which I had gladly said farewell to only twenty hours before. Beatrice greeted me at the door and led me inside, to the kitchen, where crackling fire and warm soup were waiting. We ate and chatted and by the time we were peeling pears—Beatrice slipping slivers to her beloved pug Alice who fluttered about—I knew that everything was going to be all right.
I had come with only the first twenty or so pages of my second novel—whose progress had been thwarted by the publication of my first—a happy occasion for any writer, but also a daunting one. After months of travel for readings, I felt as drained and bruised as a scruffy sponge. What I needed was a chance to turn back inward, to that place where I feel most sane—if not necessarily happiest. What I needed was silence.
And this was granted to me, from the very first day, when I woke up and opened the glass doors that linked my room to the garden. Facing me were bamboos, bees, lilacs. Beatrice had thoughtfully given me a room decorated with artifacts from the Iranian Qajar era—around me were portraits of hunting kings, silver candelabra, and a ceramic tile, inscribed in Farsi—“Khosh amadid—welcome.” On the walls were photographs of her relatives, including her Armenian mother, who, I later learned, had fled Turkey with her family during the Armenian genocide (which Turkey still likes to refer to as “massacre.”) Having fled from Iran myself, I sensed that on this topic—irrevocable loss—Beatrice and I mirrored one another. And as I got to know her better over the coming weeks, and listened to her speak lovingly of her late husband Grisha and his fractured past—I understood the tremendous gift she had offered him: she told me of her decision to settle in this house that she fixed up with her impeccable taste and which eventually became Santa Maddalena. “What Grisha needed was a home,” she said to me one evening.
A home is what she offered him, and since his death, what she has offered the scores of writers who have been lucky enough to stay at Santa Maddalena. I may have felt this more than most, as I was in the unusual position of being the sole writer-in-residence for much of my stay. While I missed the company of other writers, I felt like a pampered houseguest, often having dinner with Beatrice and the lovely Nayla (her assistant and distant relative of Grisha’s). Occasionally, guests would join us and I’d find myself surrounded by colorful storytellers and first-rate conversationalists. And on Sundays, when the staff had the day off and Beatrice and I found ourselves with empty dinner plates, we combined our less-than-dazzling culinary skills and came up with something remotely edible (luckily, we were both quite forgiving of our own mediocrity).
I got more writing done during my one month at Santa Maddalena than I had during the previous six months combined. My days were comprised of uninterrupted writing, reading, and afternoon walks among olive trees and cypresses. In a place like this you allow yourself to simply watch a lizard make its way up a sun-bleached wall, or follow a spider as she weaves her web—indulgences that let your mind wander into its forgotten recesses. And each time I walked through the hallway to my room and passed the rack where Grisha’s many hats and canes hung, I became mindful of all the sentences that had been born in that house—starting with his.