Culture Street

Banafsheh Serov is the author of Under a Starless Sky, the true story of her family s escape from Iran. She lives in Sydney with her husband and sons, and owns and manages a small chain of bookshops. The Russian Tapestry is her first novel.

What was your inspiration for The Russian Tapestry?

At our wedding the pastor commented that it took two revolutions to bring my husband and me together. Following the Islamic Revolution, my family fled Iran during Iran/Iraq war, crossing the border illegally into neighbouring Turkey. Half a century earlier, my husband’s grandparents, Alexei and Marie Serov fled the Bolsheviks in a similar fashion as the Red Army annexed Estonia.

I first came across the story of Alexei and Marie 25 years ago when I was dating my husband. Visiting his family home I was struck by a painting of a military man, with an uncanny resemblance to my husband, in full dress uniform and sporting a breast full of medals. Intrigued by the portrait, I queried as to his identity and was told that the portrait was of my husband’s grandfather, Alexei Serov.

Part of the Russian nobility, Alexei’s family owned large estates and boasted court painters and musical conductors in their midst. Further conversations revealed Alexei was a General in the Tsar’s Imperial army and had fought on the Eastern Front during the Great War. Forced to join the Soviet Reds during the Civil War, Alexei later escaped, traversing through snow and blizzard to reach Lithuania.

Similarly Marie was also part of Russia’s social elite. Daughter of a wealthy Estonian merchant, she was schooled in languages at a Swiss boarding school and was in her third year of studying Law in St Petersburg when the revolution forced her to abandon her studies. She and her family endured eight months of hardship when the Germans invaded their homeland only to see them replaced by the much brutal and harsher Soviet Red army.

The parallel lives that led to both families migrating to Australia fascinated me. Like me, Alexei and Marie possessed a migrant heart.  They travelled half the world to start life anew in a foreign land, with little more than their hopes and dreams to sustain them. As a long-time lover of Russian literature, I started imagining their life and as their story started to take shape, I was swept away by the romance of the period and the tragedy of the war that followed it.

I believe each of us has a story that we carry silently within us, protecting it in the womb of our soul. Australia is the sum of all our stories, some ancient, some new. As the custodians of these narratives, it is our duty to keep alive the memory of our ancestors’ in the consciousness of the future generations. The Russian Tapestry is such a story. It’s the weaving and threading of anecdotes recited at family dinners with lessons in history. It is the sharing of the stories that bind us.

When do you write?

I have to juggle my writing with working in our family owned bookstores and running a family.

I wake around 5 am. I love this time of the morning, when the house is still and I can write uninterrupted for a few hours. I write till around 9am (my husband brings me coffee and breakfast), then I take a break. During this time I exercise, shower, do laundry, answer emails, clean up after the family, make calls etc. I start back again a couple of hours later and work through till my kids come home from school. After that, the house is too noisy and I often need to drive the kids to their various sport or lessons. When I’m getting close to a deadline or in the flow, everything else is neglected. There’s no food, the laundry and cleaning is ignored and emails go unanswered. I just write.

Which book has most influenced you?

I can’t say any one book has influenced me. I read widely and everything I read in some way leaves an impression. My favourite book however, if pressed to choose, is probably a toss-up between Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Hugo’s Les Miserable.

What would be the title of your memoirs?

Under a Starless Sky, is the memoir of our family’s escape from Iran, published in 2008, also by Hachette.  I’m not sure I’ll write another memoir. Nothing really can top living through a revolution, a war and fleeing your country.

Your greatest achievement so far … ?

At the risk of sounding clichéd my greatest achievement is my longtime love affair with my husband (we’ve been together for 25 years) and raising two happy, well-adjusted teenage boys.

What is next for you?

I’m currently writing my second novel. Keeping to the migrant theme, I’m exploring the effects of war and grief and the healing power of redemption. I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the year.

 

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