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Nerdette Book Club's selection for March is 'Martyr!' by poet Kaveh Akbar.

Nerdette Book Club’s selection for March is ‘Martyr!’ by poet Kaveh Akbar.

Photo courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan (Akbar) and Knopf Books (cover)

How the Midwest, poetry and addiction influenced Kaveh Akbar's ‘Martyr!’

🎧 Click on the red listen button to hear Nerdette’s full conversation with Kaveh Akbar.

Our Nerdette Book Club selection this month is Martyr!, the first novel from poet Kaveh Akbar. The Nerdette team chose it because it’s vibrant, incisive and the perfect combination of devastating and funny.

The novel is about Cyrus, who lives in Indiana, where he and his dad moved from Iran after his mom died. Since then, his father also has died, and Cyrus is struggling with addiction. He’s a poet, though he’s not sure what that even means, and he’s haunted by existential questions about what makes life worth living and whether anything is worth dying for. When he learns of an Iranian artist exploring similar questions at an exhibit in New York, he hits the road to learn as much as he can.

On the first Tuesday of each month, Nerdette host Greta Johnsen hosts a conversation with the author of that month’s Book Club pick. Then Book Club returns on the last Tuesday with a spoiler-filled panel discussion. Here’s an excerpt from the March conversation with Akbar, condensed and edited for clarity.

Nerdette: I really loved a lot of things about this book. But I think especially the deep Midwestern-ness of it all was lovely to see.

Akbar: Yeah, I love the Midwest. I’ve lived in a lot of different places in the Midwest, I’ve lived in Milwaukee and Indiana. I visited Chicago constantly throughout my life; I now live in Iowa.

I was also born in Iran, and I’ve also lived on the coasts and in Florida, but the Midwest is home for me. It’s a place that I think a lot of people see as quite unliterary in certain ways. You read a lot of brilliant New York novels or campus novels set in the Northeastern, ivy-bedecked institutes, or people traveling abroad, or California, but I love the space of the Midwest. I love the big, monolithic skies in the Midwest, and I love the general Midwestern affect, too. I think it’s so fascinating and plumbable. And I wanted to bring that into these characters.

It’s funny because I originally wrote that question to say that I found it really refreshing that this wasn’t a Brooklyn novel. And then our producer pointed out that half of it does technically take place in Brooklyn! It was so funny to unpack because it doesn’t feel that way at all.

But when he goes to Brooklyn, it’s very country mouse in the big city. He’s taken by the skyscrapers. Cyrus, the protagonist of the book, says that he knows that native New Yorkers aren’t supposed to look up, you’re just supposed to look straight ahead, that you can always tell you’re a tourist by looking up. But he keeps looking up because he’s just so dazzled by them all. It makes him feel good to still be permeable to wonder, but it also makes him feel a little bit like a rube.

So I want to talk more about Cyrus. He is a mess. He's still somehow really endearing at the same time. I know you and he share a lot of biographical bullet points, but obviously you diverge a lot too.

Both Cyrus and I were born in Iran and moved to America as children. Both Cyrus and I are addicts in recovery, though I'm a little bit further along in my recovery than Cyrus is; Cyrus is in relatively new recovery. I've been sober for 10 1/2 years.

We’re both writers, though Cyrus is sort of fledgling in that regard. There are these sort of biographical symmetries, but he also feels quite distinct from me in certain ways, or he feels like a person that I have been, but maybe have tried to grow beyond in certain ways, psychospiritually. He’s constantly getting in his own way, and saying the wrong things to the wrong people and being callous or negligent of the people who love him.

He sits across from a dying woman talking about contemplating suicide and the ethics of suicide as she's dying right in front of him. And he does all this with an absolutely chilling lack of irony. He's just so obsessed with his own psychic life that it's hard for him to see very past it. Certainly that's something to which I can relate.

There is an event that is pretty crucial to the storyline in this book that I had never heard of. It happened in 1988. The U.S. Navy attacked an Iranian plane and everyone on board was killed.

So July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, stationed in the Persian Gulf, shot Iran Air flight 655 out of the sky, killing all 290 people on board, including 66 children. They said that they mistook it for a fighter plane.

I think the vast majority of Americans have never heard of it. Or there's certain people whom, if you say “the USS Vincennes incident” they'll be like, “Which one was that, again?”

But the fact that we don't remember it is testament to the ubiquity of such events. The fact that they are legion, that they happen constantly, that it was probably one of several such instances of our accidentally massacring innocent people who had nothing to do with anything. “Oh, well,” you know, “that's just the unpleasant but necessary cost of being a military superpower,” you know — but to those 290 people, it was awfully important.

Think about how you love your family. Like, that's how all of them love their families. And this idea that they could just be like, absented from the world. And then just utterly forgotten.

So Cyrus's mom was on that flight, narratively in the book. And part of the project of the book is to show that this one act, this one individual act of the violence of empire that kills 290 people, one of those 290 people, their death causes everything that happens in the book — everything that happens in the book from Cyrus's consciousness to the poems that he writes to the lovers that he takes, all of it.

This book has gotten such amazing critical feedback. What it is like to put such a deeply personal novel out in the world and have people be like, “F*** yeah, dude?”

It's weird. It's really, really weird, to be honest. When Knopf bought it, I was like, “You guys know what you’re doing, but this is a weird book!”

I mean, I'm an Iranian guy writing about addiction and Lisa Simpson and this really weird niche center of a lot of different Venn diagrams.

But those are the best ones, right?

And I think that is what everyone kept telling me, you know, like it is in its sort of specificity and weirdness that it becomes sort of interesting. It's not just like some guy with a gun and fill-in-the-blank presentation, and they're, they got to find the Magna Carta and the ruins or whatever.

It's clear I don't read a lot of pulpy thrillers.

That's totally a book I've read.

Yeah, but you know what I mean? Like, yes, it's a really weird book. And it's death haunted. And it's about martyrdom from a guy with a name that sounds like he maybe ought not to be writing about martyrdom without getting put on a lot of lists, you know? And so yeah, I mean, it's immeasurably gratifying.

Greta Johnsen hosts and produces WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast, which Anna Bauman produces. Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis is a digital producer. 

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