BookLife Talks with K.A. Lillehei
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'At Dawn the Simorgh Appears'
Set in the 1970s and following the lives of two women, Lillehei’s At Dawn the Simorgh Appears is based on the poem “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid ud-Din Attar, which was written in 1177 and is part of the Persian epic about the mythical Simorgh, a gigantic and kindhearted bird.
What is the story behind this? Why and how did you write it?
Since childhood, language and cultures, especially mythology, have fascinated me. It was natural that I would pursue a PhD in linguistics and anthropology. Although now I’m a data linguist, I began as an anthropological linguist, which allowed me to explore cultures and languages. For decades, I studied Middle Eastern cultures, which altered my perspective of the people drastically and positively. It’s important to look beyond the obvious, the images portrayed in the West. I became passionate about sharing awareness and knowledge from the other perspective, which is seldom discussed unfortunately. In the West, we are less familiar with Middle Eastern myths, because Greek and Roman mythologies form the core of our traditions. Myths help explain cultural and societal values. As I read the incredible stories, I found the same themes as in our stories in the West and discovered that we have more in common than we tend to think; I became intent on promoting rapprochement and building bridges.
What was your writing process like?
I constructed the story line to follow the three-part arc of the Simorgh epic. In the first part, the female protagonists are held captive in a dark cell, in a metaphorical state of unknowing. In the second part, they escape, which begins a physical and metaphorical journey that entails seven challenges and ends in a major conflict that brings about transformation. The third part is the denouement, the unfolding of the story and its resolutions.
What kind of research did you do to ensure the historical and cultural accuracy?The characters were very clear. I spent hours interviewing Farah, my Persian teacher. The stories of incarceration in Evin Prison in Tehran are true, as are the beautiful stories of her family. As for Anna, she is based on me, and Arabic speakers will recognize that her name means “I,” so I know that character well. I also know the desert well, having grown up in the American Southwest. Living in an Iranian community for decades gave me personal, firsthand insight into the Persian lifestyle and philosophy. I also spent hours online researching everything from social customs to the area’s fauna and flora. For example, I spent at least 30 minutes listening to one bird call, simply to transliterate it as “jit-jit-jit”—but that’s the joy, and the consequence, of having an academic background. Besides, research is a writer’s staple, and it’s great fun!
How do you imagine readers at this moment will connect to At Dawn the Simorgh Appears?
The story embodies universal themes of awareness, transformation, family values, commonalities, and so on. The real story is about the women, their search for their own identity, and how they are transformed by each other and achieve their full potential. These concepts are beyond time and place and could easily be adapted to anywhere, including the streets of New York or London. The human struggle to find oneself is eternal. I hope that readers will recognize a universal truth in the characters and find some insight into their own relationships and sense of self.
Are you working on a new project?
Yes, several. The next book is about Sam, a refugee boy who crosses the Zagros Mountains into Turkey to reach safety in the West. He is accompanied by his mythical hero, Rostam, and his horse, Rakhsh. I am also working on a book about a man searching for his father and overcoming the loss of the love of his life. This book is based on the myth of Arash the archer, and Arash is actually the male protagonist in the Simorgh story, which might be called a “synquel.” The Simorgh and Arash stories will ultimately converge, producing a sequel featuring the main characters of those two books.