Melody Moezzi is an Iranian-American Muslim author, attorney, activist, and visiting professor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Kirkus calls her latest book, The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life, “a heartening narrative of family, transformation, and courage” that “could shatter a variety of prejudices and stereotypes.” She is also the author of Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life and War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, as well as a United Nations Global Expert and an Opinion Leader for the British Council’s “Our Shared Future” initiative. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and myriad other outlets. She has also appeared as a commentator on many radio and television programs, including NPR, CNN, BBC, PBS, and others. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Emory University’s School of Law and School of Public Health, Moezzi lives between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, Matthew, and their ungrateful cats, Keshmesh and Nazanin. Follow her on Twitter at @MelodyMoezzi and on Instagram at @Melody.Moezzi.
When I picked up Melody Moezzi’s latest memoir, The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life, I had the distinct feeling this book landed in my hands for a reason. I’d been searching for a work that could nourish my creative soul for some time, a work that could speak to the struggles of our modern life and creating art. The Rumi Prescription is the book I’ve been waiting for.
Moezzi’s other books, War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, feature a strong voice matched only by its sheer wit and brilliance. Moezzi’s latest memoir is no different. It centers the teachings of the Sufi poet, Rumi, and how his ancient words speak to our ever-present life maladies, such as depression, anxiety, and distraction, to name a few. The memoir was sparked, however, by Moezzi’s own creative block and inability to write. In a last ditch effort, she turned for answers in the poetry of Rumi, which her father had recited her entire life. Through Rumi’s teachings and her father’s guidance, Moezzi details for us how she went from the depths of creative despair to breaking through the barriers that once held her back.
Moezzi and I grew up in Centerville, a sleepy suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and the home of Esther Price Candy Company. Moezzi’s sister, Romana and I were friends, as only backyards separated our homes. Our fathers worked at the same hospital. Despite our seeming similarities growing up, though, Rumi (or any other poet) was not a regular discussion in my household. As I read this book, I found myself hungry to know more about Rumi and sad that I hadn’t experienced a father who shared lines of poetry as prescriptions for my everyday ailments. Perhaps that’s why it feels like kismet helped to guide this book into my hands.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Melody Moezzi to ask her a few questions about her writing process and The Rumi Prescription.
Meredith Doench: I loved your book, Melody. As a writer, I am always curious about another’s process. So, let’s start with the basics. What sparked the idea to write about your journey of studying Rumi with your father?
Melody Moezzi: Thanks so much, Meredith! If it weren’t for a brutal case of writer’s block, this book wouldn’t exist. As in, if I weren’t painfully creatively stuck for a year, then I wouldn’t have sought a way to get unstuck, and I’d never have researched, let alone written, The Rumi Prescription.
MD: Was this your original plan for the memoir, or did it grow out of another idea?
MM: My original plan was to study Sufi poetry in Persian with my dad and write about the experience. I didn’t know the book would focus on Rumi exclusively at first, but given more than 90% of my dad’s lessons and recitations revolved around Rumi, that quickly became clear. I also didn’t know that the experience of going to California to study this poetry with my father would take up less than a quarter of the book and that the majority of it would actually be about me trying to apply these poetic prescriptions to my own life (instead of simply learning how to recite the verses). I certainly didn’t know it would take as long as it took to write, either. Ultimately, in a lot of ways, I wrote this book while I was living it.
MD: How long did it take to put this manuscript together?
MM: It took a total of five years from conception to publication, and two years just to get the proposal in order, which included two rounds of my agent trying to sell the book. During the first round, everyone rejected it, but then, during the second, the book sold at auction. The content didn’t change all that much between round one and two, but the world did. I suspect Trump’s election and his Muslim ban served as a kind of wake-up call for big publishing, though you can never be sure about this sort of thing. Still, I sensed that there was suddenly this deluge of white guilt that swept through a lot of industries, including publishing, and perhaps that played a part in the sudden interest from editors. I also think Beyoncé and Jay-Z naming their daughter Rumi helped. No, I’m not joking.
It’s sad to think that these sorts of things would matter at all, but they seem to. Especially for writers of color. It’s like we get these tiny windows of opportunity when people will listen to more than a few anointed tokens within our given groups, and then those windows slam shut for a decade or more. The rest of the time, editors seem perfectly fine saying that they published a book by a Muslim or an Iranian five years ago, so naturally there’s no room in the market for a book by another one of us.
MD: How was the process for this book different from your other creative nonfiction work?
MM: It was so different. For one, the narrative in The Rumi Prescription is interspersed with original translations of Rumi’s poetry. Being clinically insane, I insisted on keeping Rumi’s rhymes throughout, which of course took forever. My dad, who helped me with all of the translations (I chose the words in English; he guided me through the classical Persian), insisted that preserving the rhymes wasn’t necessary, but for me, it felt vital. People memorize this poetry in its original Persian, set it to music, and dance to it in ways they never would if it didn’t rhyme. I just felt like ignoring the musicality of Rumi’s verse would do him and my readers a deep disservice, so I refused to ignore it. This easily added at least a year to the time it took to write The Rumi Prescription, but I think it was worth it. Also, though this book is a memoir, it’s also a sort of ode to self-care, and as such, I address my readers directly in this book in a way I’ve never done before, which was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
MD: Speaking of Ahmad, I totally fell for him through your writing! His gentle wisdom spills from these pages. I wanted to jump into the book at points, pull up a kitchen chair, and listen for hours to your father talk Rumi and life lessons. I love how this isn’t just your story, but his as well. Your mother is also in the book. Did your family realize they would eventually become such a large part of this memoir? Did they have any objections to being featured so prominently in your work?
MM: I’m not sure they realized how much the book would revolve around them at first, but eventually they did, and thank God, by then they were cool with it. I’ve written a lot about my parents before, and I’m so grateful that they’ve always been such good sports about it. Then again, there’s not all that much they need to be good sports about: they are and always have been amazing parents.
MD: As someone who bucks most conventional religious/spiritual systems, I was incredibly curious about the process of adopting Rumi and the Sufis as spiritual guides. I’d simply never thought of this before, but the idea was quite beautiful to me. I mean, who better to lead us into the spiritual world than a thirteenth century mystic who travelled his own road to enlightenment? You had me on page 3 with the description of Rumi’s poetry, which “exists in a language relatively free from gender—with no ‘she’ or ‘he,’ no ‘her’ or ‘him’—for Rumi rhymes, like the divine, save no room for petty partitions. Instead they invite us to tear down our barriers and unite through love.” This book calls for the inclusion of everyone and a movement of love. How do you see the book’s message as a “prescription” for our current political and cultural climate?
MM: I think a whole lot of people in so-called “fly-over” states like Ohio, where I grew up, are incredibly smart, and they don’t appreciate being belittled or underestimated. Nor do they enjoy being told they’re voting against their own interests, even and especially if it’s true. When I see people voting against their interests now, I don’t think of them as fools. Instead, I think of them as people who are wounded and afraid—and who may not be able to fully comprehend, let alone articulate, that hurt and fear. So of course, it’s easier for them to lash out at Muslims than it is for them to lash out at their own sorrow and insecurity. Rumi says, Only Grace opens our eyes. Only Love calms fury’s cries. I don’t always succeed, but my father and Rumi have helped me try to meet fear with grace and hostility with love.
Ultimately, you can’t cure someone’s pain or fear by reasoning with them. For that, you need to actually listen to them and withhold judgment for a hot second; but as a society, we seriously suck at that right now. Instead, we ghost and cancel people for minor unintentional missteps. And then, naturally, those same people feel hurt and ostracized, and in an era when real-life Nazis are making a comeback, it simply doesn’t help to conflate things like unfamiliarity with Islamophobia or ignorance with racism.
I’d rather give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that their animosity against someone who looks like me or believes what I believe isn’t actually about me, because I truly believe it isn’t. I’m confident that, for the most part, it’s all about their own fears and insecurities. And regardless, I’ve just reached a point where I refuse to respond to someone who denies my humanity by denying theirs. By studying Rumi with my father, I’ve come to realize that I can’t deny anyone else’s humanity without inadvertently denying my own. Regardless of whether we choose to believe it, we’re all connected on this planet—so the way we treat each other always comes back to us in one form or another.
MD: A large segment of this memoir deals with mental health and your bipolar diagnosis. More so than your previous memoir, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, The Rumi Prescription shows how bipolar disorder is a chronic illness that must be met and managed every single day. It’s so inspiring to read about your daily self-care routines, as well as the very human moments where you fall short. How did your self-care routines or thoughts on mental health issues change once you began studying Rumi?
MM: I stopped seeing self-care as optional. I also started seeing it as a revolutionary act, because if I don’t take care of myself (as an artist, an activist, and a human being), I am of no use to myself or to anybody else. I know from personal experience that failing to take care of myself is a recipe for burnout.
MD: I also love how this book highlights some of your work as an activist for equality, democracy, and diplomacy. Speaking of, you recently donated a generous number of copies of The Rumi Prescription to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) as a fundraiser for the organization. What prompted you to do so?
MM: I hate marketing and publicity. It all just feels so inherently dirty and disingenuous to me. I also hate how expensive books have become. More than all of that though, I hate war. After the second time Trump nearly stumbled into war with Iran last year, I decided I had to do something beyond just donating $100 on my own. So I looked into donating some books to NIAC—the largest Iranian-American organization working to promote peace and diplomacy while protecting the civil rights of Iranian-Americans like me. I’ve been a longtime donor, but I wanted to do more. So ultimately, I donated a thousand books for them to use as part of a fundraising campaign. I feel so grateful to have been able to do that. It’s still a drop in the bucket, but I’m hoping that it will encourage others to donate in whatever way they can, now and in the future. [If readers are interested in donating $25 or more to NIAC to get a free book, they can do so here: https://www.niacouncil.org/rumirx/.]
MD: Hands down, one of my favorite parts of this book is how you write about writing. As an anxious writer who knows all too well the barriers of writer’s block and the terror of not measuring up in the writing world, I could easily relate to your journey. It was interesting to see that part of your self-care involves a reduction in social media engagement, which has been touted by many to be a “necessity” of all writers. What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to write their own stories?
MM: Write the stories only you can tell, not the ones you think people want to hear. Treat yourself with kindness and mercy. Most importantly, don’t take the advice of other writers like me or anyone else all that seriously, because we’re not you. Listen to your own creative intuition around what will and won’t work for you based on your own distinct skills and motivations.
MD: The Rumi Prescription was released March 3rd. Will you be doing a book tour? Where can we find you on the road?
MM: I had planned a whole book tour—and I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to do a series of early dates thus far in coastal and central North Carolina. But other tour dates in California, DC, Boston, and several other cities are now on hold because of the novel coronavirus. As a result, I’m looking into doing some virtual tour dates. I’m not sure exactly how that will work yet, but I’m trying to embrace Rumi’s advice right now: Forget your plans and embrace uncertainty. Only then will you find stability. In the meantime, the best way to keep up in terms of actual and virtual tour dates is to see the events section of my website here: https://www.melodymoezzi.com/events/.