A&E

Finding a home in the world

What if as a teenager you had to flee the country you were born in because religious radicalism had unleashed a wave of bloodletting and terror against the population?

What if you found your way to the United States, where you attended university, thrived in the career of your dreams, and settled into family life with a spouse and a child?

And what if in midlife, your marriage in tatters and yearning to again see your native land and the loved ones you left behind, you embarked on an extended journey to your birthplace?

Menlo Park author Donia Bijan doesn't have to call on her imagination to answer the first two questions. They closely reflect the reality of her early years to the present: Born in Iran, she left that increasingly dangerous country at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1978, finished her academic schooling at UC Berkeley, and trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School before opening her acclaimed restaurant, L'Amie Donia in Palo Alto, marrying and having a child.

But it's the third "What if?" that Bijan began struggling with in earnest several years ago -- knowing that with the political and religious oppression that still bedevils her native country, a prolonged or permanent stay isn't possible for her, but trying to imagine how a homecoming after decades of exile might shift her sense of who she is, of her place in the world. And in contemplating where that road not taken might have led, Ms. Bijan did what came naturally to one with vivid imagination and a gift for storytelling: She wrote a novel.

"The Last Days of Cafe Leila" is Bijan's debut novel, and it's being released this week and launched at Kepler's bookstore on Thursday, April 20.

It's a finely written, lively, and at times nail-biting read -- the work of a storyteller capable of evoking the colors, smells and flavor of an environment. That skill is not so surprising, perhaps, for someone whose early success in the culinary arts depended on the capacity to satisfy the full range of senses of guests at her table.

The book is in part an attempt to sketch out an answer for that third imagined scenario: the exile's homecoming, and her confrontation with painful new knowledge about the past and wrenching emotion avoided for too long.

"A novel's job is to explore the 'what ifs,'" Bijan said, and that's the journey she embarked upon with "Cafe Leila."

The main character is a middle-aged woman who travels to Tehran for the summer to visit her father, the owner and operator of the cherished Cafe Leila. Many years earlier, he had put his daughter on a plane to go to school in America with the intent of removing her from the growing perils and turmoil in Iran.

She takes her 15-year-old daughter with her, and if a novelist accepts the principle that fiction must involve conflict to be good, Bijan certainly hit the mark by dropping into the cast of characters a willful teenage girl forced to travel to a strange, suffocatingly restrictive land when what she wanted to do was hang out with her friends for the summer.

Sketching out answers

Bijan is not a first-time author. Her memoir with recipes, "Maman's Homesick Pie," was published in 2011. Though novel-writing can be a daunting proposition for writers of nonfiction, Ms. Bijan set upon the task with a sense of necessity.

"These characters came to me almost fully formed they wouldn't leave me alone," she recalled. "They kept saying, 'Let me in.'

"It started as a sketch. I had to find my way in, had to go through a door, and knew there would be very raw emotion."

Describing fiction as "a kind of salve," Bijan said that writing the novel was an attempt to sort out the emotions rising from displacement and nostalgia for her past life, and it helped her understand that "you can build a home from the beautiful ruins of your homeland."

The book is "not at all autobiographical," she said; rather, writing it allowed her to explore more themes -- larger themes -- than her own displacement. The setting "didn't have to be Iran," she says. It could be anywhere -- it could be Tennessee.

"The questions I asked myself, the riddles for me, were: Who do we want to be? What kind of person do we want to be?"

As an immigrant, she said, she sometimes feels like a guest in her adopted country. But she acknowledges that anyone can experience that sense of alienation, even those born here.

"All of us are guests at this enormous party, and must (ask) the same questions: How do you behave? How do you fit in? What did you bring to the party? Are you here to take something? To give something?"

Second act

Bijan began her working life as a chef who achieved a high level of respect and visibility on the Bay Area's restaurant scene, particularly with her popular bistro L'Amie Donia, which she operated for 10 years before closing it. Was it difficult to segue from a demanding life in the kitchen to a life at the writer's desk? Not at all, she said.

"All those years I was cooking, I never stopped reading," she recalled. "I'd come home from an 18-hour day and ... get under the covers and read. If I wasn't reading, I was writing."

Her life at the bistro fed her writing impulses. "The restaurant was like a village -- it was like a theater," she said. "I always had my eyes open, and was always listening to conversations. I had to write it all down."

Her writing tutors were the great novelists whose books she devoured -- "I'm pretty crazy about all the dead Russians and the dead Irish," she said with a laugh, although she adds that some of her favorite Irish writers, Edna O'Brien and Colm Toibin, for example, are still alive and writing.

She has not taken writing classes, nor has she joined a writers' group. And for good reason. "I can't have other voices in my head," she explained. "We all have one reader in our heads" that needs to remain the guiding force for an individual's creative work.

"I'm so happy when I'm writing, and I feel so fortunate," she said. She had earlier lived "the dream of being a chef, and then to have this second act -- it's a miracle. I'm sorry, I don't have another word. It's a miracle."

Bijan and her husband, the prominent artist Mitchell Johnson, have lived in Menlo Park for many years with their son, Luca. She dedicated her novel to them.

If you go

A reading to launch Donia Bijan's novel, "The Last Days of Cafe Leila," is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. The event is free, but the sponsor requests an RSVP at keplers.com.

Other area author events include:

● Wednesday, April 26, 7 p.m., Books Inc., 1375 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame.

● Tuesday, May 2, 6 p.m., Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco.

● Thursday, June 1, 6 p.m., Draeger's, 1010 University Drive, Menlo Park.

Go to doniabijan.com for more information.

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