Last month, before the chaos that is COVID-19 erupted and changed life as we know it, I got to speak with Elnaz Moghangard, a University of Miami alumni who debuted her first book, “Roya,” in January 2020. Her fiction novel is a coming-of-age story centered around a young Iranian-American woman grappling with the meaning of her identity and the pursuit of her dreams. An Iranian-American young adult herself, Moghangard said a lot of Roya’s story resonates with her own life experiences. She graduated from UM in 2015 with a degree in international relations and minors in journalism and business law. In addition to being an author, Moghangard recently earned her Juris Doctor from George Washington University Law School and runs “Millennial Nomaad,” a blog and podcast.
Q: What is your family’s background?
A: “My parents are both Persian. [Elnaz clarified that Persian and Iranian are often used interchangeably. Both suggest one who is from or has ancestry from Iran.] They’ve lived in the states over 30 years. My dad came to the U.S. to study engineering in California, so he has spent most of his life here. My mom and her family left after the revolution in Iran. Her dad was a composer — he used to create scores for the movies in Iran. My grandpa realized his family would have a better life if they left. First, they lived in Austria for eight years. Then they got visas to the U.S. and they moved here.”
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: “I was born in L.A., but I was raised in Marietta, Georgia. It’s like 20 minutes outside of Atlanta.”
Q: What elements of your own experience can be seen in this book?
A: “My culture, definitely. The quest for the integration of Roya’s true identity is what I probably resonate with the most. And it’s what I think a lot of people who have read it do too. And not just Iranian-Americans, but also people from different backgrounds, like my friends who are the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants. The experience we share being from a different culture, but being born and raised in the states, is different than having parents who were also born and raised in the States. For example, in my thoughts and in my attitude I’m very much American. By American I mean the creed of individualism, the pursuit of your dreams and believing you can create anything in your life. I love that part of my personality. But I think my Persian culture comes in with a deep value of family systems. Not to say that the American culture doesn’t have that. But as opposed to your individual journey, there’s an emphasis on your family’s journey.”
Q: So Roya, the main character, is 22. When I read that, I thought: ‘That’s around senior year of college.‘ Did you draw on your own feelings from that age?
A: “I get that question a lot. It’s such a hard question to answer. There’s only so much an individual’s mind can expand. So, the root of where the inspiration comes from, it has to come from something you know or have picked up on. Roya is her own character — her story is her own. But Roya’s heart, feelings and confusion at that stage of life, I would say, do mirror my own. So, in that sense, I feel very connected to Roya. Those feelings that went into building her character do come from a place I can resonate with. Very much so. Writing her character gave me this sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted with her journey.”
Q: How did your time at UM impact where you are today?
A: “My whole experience at UM in general, that whole stage of my life, was almost like an awakening. I left my home and I loved the community I grew up in, but it was very sheltered. I came to UM and it totally opened my eyes. I had never been around so much true diversity. People not only came from different backgrounds, but people who brought their cultures with them. I think the number one thing I took away is the people I met. Like all the kids at UM had side jobs, they were entrepreneurs, they were co-founding businesses. I saw that and thought: ‘Well if they can do it, I can do it.’ A 20-year-old can do a lot. At UM, we were taken seriously. And when I was there, UM was going through all these major changes — we had the student center being built and everything was in construction. We watched that place really grow, and we were growing and changing with it.”
Q: When did you start your blog?
A: “I started it while I was at UM. I had a blog before that, but then in 2013 I officially turned my personal blog into ‘Millennial Nomaad.’ I would sit at the Starbucks on campus and people would always come up to me and we’d start talking. Before I knew it, they’d be sharing their life story. This happens to me more often than people think, and it’s so interesting that it happens. I don’t know why. I started to realize just how much is going on in people’s lives and how much they don’t talk about it. So, when I started doing interviews, I wanted to capture stories of people doing really cool things. But I also wanted to capture the range of human feelings so that young people — and I still consider myself in that category — can realize that it’s okay to take a few hits, as long as you get back up and keep going. That was the whole purpose behind the blog.”
Q: What made you decide to write this book?
A: “I started writing this book completely out of order. I didn’t know it was going to become a book. A lot of my writing comes from moments where I’m kind of mellow — and I’ll really indulge myself. When I’m happy, I’m super happy. And when I’m mellow, I own it and say ‘ok, I’m going to put on some Lana Del Rey and sit with it.’ While I would listen, I’d imagine different scenes or different pieces of dialogue and I’d write them down as a creative writing outlet. And one day, when I wrote the first chapter of my book as it is now, I felt like there had to be something that continued from it. It was different than just like a random section. And I just started writing — drawing from the experiences from the people I knew, from my own life experience and from music that I listened to. I never thought it would become a book until I took 25 pages to my AP language teacher from high school, who I’d kept in contact with. She said: ‘There’s something here.’ That was the first time that the possibility of it becoming a book became real — she’s on the first page of my acknowledgements. At the time, I was already getting ready to go to law school. I give her the credit for giving me the encouragement and confidence that I could do it.”
Q: Do you have a specific audience that you’re hoping to reach?
A: “Definitely because of the story’s themes, Iranian-Americans. But also, anybody who identifies with having two different background cultures. Beyond the identity aspect of the story, the main themes of the book are heartbreak, loss, healing and empowerment — those are super universal. The biggest category of people I wanted to reach, regardless of background, gender or anything, are the creative visionaries — the people who feel like they don’t fit into a box. The main character’s struggle is that she really wants to break free from the typical things society kind of forces on you — she wants to pursue what feels right for her. I feel like those people would appreciate it the most.”
Q: You took a trip to Iran in 2016. What was that like?
A: “It was my first time visiting Iran after several years of having not gone. We went to visit my extended family as usual, but this trip was really special since we actually had a chance to tour some of the famous historical sites. Tehran is a very modernized city, and I always have so much fun. It actually reminds me a lot of a Middle Eastern version of NYC, which I think surprises people. Shiraz and Isfahan are a little more traditional, so it was really interesting for me to explore those cities from an “outsider” perspective. Another thing that stood out was just how genuinely excited everyone was when we mentioned we were visiting from the U.S. I think the enthusiasm and warm responses contradicted even what I had expected in a very pleasant way. Readers have consistently mentioned that my writing for “Roya” is really vivid and made them feel like they are there. I think a big part of that is because I did write down sensory details while traveling. I figured one day I would use those details –– the sites, the sounds, the energy of the environment –– within a story. I even teared up one day when walking into a bazaar in Tehran, because I had opened my heart to each moment so fully. It’s hard to explain, but when I say “Roya” has my heart in it, it’s not just mine. It’s really all those sensory details and emotions I picked up on around me coming to life. I really hope one day more tourists can go visit Iran. I am not naive to its problems either, but the country itself and its people are truly a beautiful experience that I wish more people could see.”
Q: How long did it take you to finish the book?
A: “The whole process from start to finish was about six years. The actual writing has taken me maybe a year and a half, but there’s a lot of heavy editing. When I went to law school I stopped writing it. What really inspired me to pick the book back up a year or two ago was when I realized that if I’m going to always encourage other people to go after their dreams, there’s no reason why, just because I’m in school and doing something different, I can’t pursue the things I actually want. Shortly after that, my cousin passed away in his mid-thirties. That was a big shock to my system. It showed me how short life is, how special it is. That was my final push to get up and stop wasting my time.”
Q: Who did the cover artwork?
A: “My aunt. The fact that she did it meant a lot to me. She had first painted that purple haze background as watercolor, and then drew the actual sketch of the girl. We’re only 10 years apart, so we grew up like sisters. We got to learn a lot about each other because working together is so different than a personal relationship. It was a really special experience.”
Although Moghangard’s first official book signing was postponed due to the coronavirus, she said she hopes to eventually do a book tour in Washington D.C., New York City, L.A. and Miami.
“Roya” is available on Amazon, Kindle and Barnes & Noble. From now until April 30, Moghangard is donating 40% of the book’s Amazon profits to the Refugee Women’s Network COVID-19 Response Fund, an organization that helps refugee women become financially independent and provides immediate needs until they are. Moghangard also has an Instagram page for her novel and for her blog.
interview_emmalyse brownstein photos_elnaz moghangard