Interviewed by Sara Podwall

Lili Naghdi is an Iranian Canadian physician who was born and raised in Tehran. She continued her education and research after moving to Canada with her husband and daughter in 1996. Today she practices family medicine in Vaughan, Ontario, with particular interests in women’s and mental health. Being a family physician gives her the privilege of connecting with patients and participating in their care with a deeper understanding of the physical, emotional and social adversities they face. Interacting with people of many different backgrounds has also provided Dr. Naghdi with the opportunity to grow as a person, a physician, and an author.

Growing up in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, Lili became fascinated by the magical realm of literature, poetry, and history. She began collecting prized quotations at the young age of eight. Dr. Naghdi has written poetry and short stories in both Farsi and English, but she eventually followed William Wordsworth’s advice to “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” and turned to fiction.

On Loving is her first novel. Inspired by both the ordinary people she has the honor to support and by the great literature of Persia and the world — from Hafez to Forugh Farrokhzad and from John Steinbeck to Margaret Mitchell — Dr. Naghdi passionately agrees with Boris Pasternak, whose Yuri Zhivago is a physician and patriotic poet, when he writes: “Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”

SFBR’s Sara Podwell interviews Dr. Naghdi.

Quotes are peppered throughout the novel, “pearls of wisdom” as Rose’s father calls them. How did you choose the quotes and poems to use?

“Words” are simply powerful tools that can influence people, lives, and societies in the most inexplicable way, and to me, “quotations” are intriguing sentences consisting of these “words.” I’ve been a huge fan of literature all my life, indulging myself in getting to know as many literary figures as I could throughout the years. I’ve been taking time to document and gather as many “pearls” as I could in a notebook since I was thirteen – both in English and Farsi. Many of these quotes had lasting impressions on me to the point that I still utilize them during my consultations with my patients to refer to the specific points or to help them relate to particular situations in a more familiar manner. I’ve also been raised in a culture, and a family where reciting Hafez, Rumi, or Saadi’s poems and using proverbs in daily conversations are considered natural routines. While working on this novel, I tried to use the quotes that were most relevant to the scenes and the story itself. These quotations are mostly from the renowned icons that I’ve respected as long as I can remember.

Rose uses both medical knowledge and literary wisdom to inform her opinions on love. Do you think either discipline is more helpful in understanding love and was it important to you that she had a background in both?

I think at this time and age, most of us are searching for the facts behind every single phenomenon happening around us, to us, or reflecting upon us. An exploring mind never stops asking questions and searching for answers. I think Rose’s background as a physician eventually helped her justify the changes that happened to her based on physiological facts related to the effects of “falling in love” and empowered her to understand her real feelings. I believe both of the above were helpful in understanding and relating to the profound experience she had when she fell in love.

Rose’s surgical career is a big part of the novel. Why did you want her to be a doctor and was it important to you that she was successful? 

Surgeons are known to be tough characters in the public eye. I came to know people who cannot believe that a physician is indeed another human being who can encounter ups and downs, which she or he needs to overcome just like other individuals. I intended to draw attention to the fact that even an accomplished, highly educated woman with a sophisticated nature can have grave faults, regrets, and challenges. Being successful and in charge and control of someone’s life can easily give you the illusion of having superpowers and deceive you into thinking that you have the power to control everything and make yourself immune to life’s mishaps. However, in reality, these qualities never protect anyone against life’s hardships, misfortunes, and wounds, and at times, even a seemingly robust person would need to overcome emotional impediments and deal with heartbreaks and devastating matters much harder than other people.

What research did you do in preparation for writing the book?

I spent time researching further on physiology, pathophysiology, and psychology of love, PTSD, and mood disorders. I did some research on medical technology and clinical advancements that were referred to in the story based on the available data. Also, I looked into Iran’s history, literature, and culture, particularly the Bakhtiari tribe’s background in more detail. A beautiful journey to review the poems I’ve loved all my life was the most gratifying part of my research.

Rose went to Iran to learn more about her heritage so she could learn more about herself. How important is knowing where you came from in understanding yourself?
I believe it is essential to know a part of you that is unknown to you at any age. Many traits are transferred to us through the genes, and getting to know our background and roots certainly helps us understand important facts about ourselves and facilitates our personal growth in life.

Tradition was often an obstacle of true love. Do you think that is becoming less obstructive now than in Layla’s time?

I certainly hope so! But I should confess that unfortunately, I’ve been still working with some people that suffer from the suffocating effects of traditional chains restricting their lives in many ways. Despite knowing the limiting and restraining impacts of tradition on different aspects of their lives, these individuals quite blindly surrender to their tradition’s controlling gear either by ignoring its effects or by falsely justifying them.

Rose is often torn between her dispassionate, logical side and her heightened emotional side, do you think that vacillation is a necessary part of falling in love?
“Love” is a strange phenomenon. I believe that everyone’s conception of and experience with love may be different in many ways, but regardless of all these facts, dealing with any strong emotion such as “love” can be challenging. It can force you to deal with your emotional and logical side simultaneously without having any control over either. I think vacillation can be an undeniable part of the whole phenomenon.

The story is told is memoir format, as if reading a diary or hearing an old tale. Was hindsight important to the telling of this story?

By writing her memoir, Rose reviews her life story in a way she never did, and definitely for the first time, looks into her devastating yet gratifying life experiences. She is not only taking her granddaughter, Amanda, on this journey, but also, she is inviting us as readers to share her emotional ride through grief, triumphs, and regrets. When she finishes her story, she comes to an understanding that her strange life has taught her precious lessons to cherish forever and has made her a different person. Writing her memoir has had an amazing effect on her and is also another testament to the therapeutic effects of writing as an essential part of the healing process. That was one of the main reasons I created the plot this way.

Rose is constantly arguing that people are different after experiencing love. Why do you think love is one of the most transformative experiences?
“Love” is undoubtedly more than a feeling. It’s been proven that falling in love can cause physiologic changes in our system, and subsequently, these changes can result in a variety of experiences that, at times, are hard to explain. It can alter things at a molecular level in our bodies, affecting the release and production of certain hormones, and that is why it is fundamentally a transformative experience.

In the book, you quote a study that says falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second. Do you believe in love at first sight?

I came to believe in it by working with people from different backgrounds, exploring their experiences with love, and how these experiences changed them throughout my career as a physician with a particular interest in psychology and women’s health. If you talk to people who experienced love at first sight, you’d be amazed at how astounding and puzzling their experiences were even for themselves! I believe that anything is possible when love knocks at your door, and now we have the science to prove it!