Kousha Navidar: Welcome to Notes From America with Kai Wright. I'm Kousha. I'm a producer on the show. Thanks for hanging out with us. A mission of our show is to foster insight and connection during a divided time. That division shows up in a lot of ways. Often, it's between the experiences of Americans who live in urban versus rural communities. In 2016, New Yorker cartoonist and writer, Navied Mahdavian, moved from San Francisco to rural Idaho.
This was right after Trump was elected. Like so many big choices we make in our lives, the outcome of moving to a remote cabin in Trump country was a lot. In ways you might not expect, yes, it was often intimidating, sometimes scary, but his emotional space also changed. What was most interesting to me in hearing Navied's story was the ways in which he found community and the ways in which that new community showed up for him.
I recently guest-hosted All Of It with Alison Stewart, and Navied joined me to talk about his recent graphic memoir that captures his experience from becoming a bird lover to finding out how much you can love elk kabobs. It's called This Country, and I'd like to share it with you now. I hope you enjoy.
Kousha Navidar: You're listening to All Of It on WNYC. I'm Kousha Navidar, in for Alison Stewart. In 2016, New Yorker contributing cartoonist Navied Mahdavian and his wife made a drastic life change. They moved from San Francisco to a remote cabin in Idaho, with no plumbing or heat. The landscape was stunning and harsh. Sometimes the winter was so cold that their car wouldn't start, leaving them stuck at home with dwindling groceries.
Their neighbors were friendly, often lending a hand, but Navied, the child of Iranian immigrants, suddenly found himself in Trump country among people who would say things to him like, "You're not a Muslim are you?" Or use the n-word in casual conversation. As time wore on, Navied and his wife had to decide whether the joys of life in a beautiful remote location outweighed the challenges. Navied writes about his experiences in his new graphic memoir, This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America. The book isn't out quite yet, but you can catch him here in New York on September 12th at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. In the meantime, Navied Mahdavian joins us for a little preview. Navied, welcome to All Of It.
Navied Mahdavian: Thanks for having me. I've never heard my book described that way.
Kousha Navidar: [laughs] It is captivating, both in words and in images. Listeners, we want to invite you to add your own words to this conversation. Have you ever moved from an urban to a rural area? What went into that decision and what was that adjustment period like for you? What were some of the challenges you faced? If you've moved from a rural community to an urban one, tell us about that journey too. Give us a call. Navied, I really want to get to this book. Three years in rural Idaho, how'd you keep track of everything you would write and draw about? Did you keep a diary that you revisited? Did you sketch day by day?
Navied Mahdavian: I wish that I were the type of person who journaled and kept a diary. I did do some landscape sketching, sketches of some of the flora and fauna, but I'm not the type to write about my day-to-day experiences. When I sat down to write the book, it was actually this incredible experience of being able to sift through my memories. There was a lot that I had forgotten had happened. As I put this list together of all the things that have happened in three years, it felt natural to write the book because so much did happen.
Kousha Navidar: In the book, you and your wife, Emily, are considering to make the move from San Francisco. How did you land on Idaho in particular?
Navied Mahdavian: We visited on a whim. It was on vacation. Neither of us had been to Idaho. We picked a random spot on the map and that was it. We went and the mountains are breathtaking. It's an incredible view and it just seemed so full of promise. It was a big decision to make the move. It was a romantic thing. Picking up, moving from the city to middle of nowhere America but then there was also the practicality of it. Land was cheap. We could build a home. That's not something that we could do in San Francisco, as everyone knows.
Kousha Navidar: Actually, I moved from San Francisco to New York City so I don't know if that's going from the frying pan to the fire, but whatever. That's another conversation. What were some of the challenges in rural living that you didn't fully anticipate or understand?
Navied Mahdavian: I'm a city boy. I was born in Miami, lived in my 20s in the Bay Area. First and foremost, it was the seasons. When I first got there, that first winter, January didn't get above zero the entire time. It got down to negative 37. Immediately neither cars would work. We were just there but I remember even in that moment when neither cars were starting, there was just this sense of like, okay. I was okay with it because we were there.
That was the plan and even if we couldn't get into town, there was something that felt very liberating about being in the middle of nowhere and just getting to explore and figure out, well, what does that look like? Just really the nature. I feel like in the book, the land is maybe the central character of the book. I try to lean into that and to capture those moments of quiet, that moment of extreme weather, and what it was just like to be in a place like that.
Kousha Navidar: There were a bunch of skills that I heard, or that I saw you pick up over the course of the book, and I don't want to ruin anything, but it includes learning how to use an axe. One thing that I think a producer on the show will love is learning to identify birds by their songs. Was there a skill that you picked up that you're especially proud of?
Navied Mahdavian: Yes. The running joke initially was about using a chainsaw. At first, it was absolutely not but then you have to know how to use it in order to get firewood but I do remember there was this one distinct moment, I had these coveralls, which is puffy overalls that are insulated, and I had been chainsawing, and then I looked down and there was this just like the insulation, the cotton was everywhere, and there was this long Yash going from the top left of my chest to the bottom right of my stomach. I think somewhere in there, the chainsaw had nipped a little bit of it. For the remainder of the time, it was a nice reminder of the skill that I had picked up and how dangerous it was to learn, but then handy.
Kousha Navidar: I'd love to also talk a little bit about the people in Idaho. It's a pretty complicated relationship that you describe in terms of the folks that you meet and how they show up in ways that you expect and that you don't expect. What were some ways that people really showed up for you during those years in Idaho?
Navied Mahdavian: I think that complex is a good way to describe it. That's what I was trying to capture in the book. I think that I went into it with some preconceived notions. When I tell people that I was a Middle Easterner moving to Idaho, they probably, also my mother, there was lots of protests as I was moving because she was concerned but there is this ethos that small-town living has, and I think it's a cliche that big cities are alienating, but you don't really get that until you see the way that people in small towns do show up for you.
One of my closest friends who I met there, Josiah in the book, he happened upon me when my car had gone off the road. I was stuck in the snow and I couldn't get out. Everyone always stops whenever somebody appears to be in trouble. He helped get me out of the snow. I feel like that was just a recurring thing where people would just stop by to see if you needed help.
Kousha Navidar: Can I bring up another story about Josiah actually since you brought him up? There's a really beautiful moment in the book, which I gotta say being from Iran myself, I moved when I was really young, it really struck me, which is when Josiah learned that one of your favorite foods is kabob. He showed up to your house with elk kabobs. I just got to ask for all the folks out there who might be into Persian cuisine, how do elk kabobs compare to kabob koobideh?
Navied Mahdavian: My parents were pretty skeptical, but elk kabobs were better. They were great.
Kousha Navidar: Wow.
Navied Mahdavian: They were much-- It may have just been the experience of eating elk kabobs. That night, I got to see the northern lights for the first time. It just felt like something had clicked in my time. There was a moment where I remember he was texting and he had asked, for those of you who don't know in Iranian food, saffron is a big part of the cuisine. He had texted asking if I had any saffron because he didn't think that the local market would have it. [chuckles] I was able to provide that but definitely, it was better and I haven't had it since and I don't know if I'll get to again.
Kousha Navidar: I want to try elk kabobs now. I've had elk before, but it's just really struck me. We're talking to Navied Mahdavian about his new graphic memoir, This Country. We are asking you, listeners, about your experience either moving from an urban to a rural spot or the other way around. You can call us and we've got a caller here that I'd love to bring into the conversation. Happy, from Manhattan. Hi, Happy.
Happy: Hi there.
Kousha Navidar: How are you?
Happy: I'm good. I've done both.
Kousha Navidar: You've done both. Tell us your story. How was it, how do they compare?
Happy: As a little kid, my parents moved from the greater New York area to Plattsburgh, New York. At five years of age, I didn't know what country it was. I discovered frogs. I discovered turtles. The whole wildlife that lived in two or three blocks of our house eventually became a 46xer, which is the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks. I became a country boy. Then I went to college in the Hudson Valley, and eventually, I wound up working here in the city. What I've learned is they don't have Broadway Upstate, and you can't find nature like that.
Kousha Navidar: Happy, thank you so much for calling in. I just got to say as a person from Albany, New York, I totally get what you mean. Maybe no Broadway, but there's definitely the Adirondacks that we love. Shout out to the Adirondacks, the 518. [laughs] Navied, how does that resonate with you because you, yourself went from an urban to a rural area and then from rural back? How did that switch go for you?
Navied Mahdavian: I think that what impressed me the most was how much of a character the land was. We had a tiny house surrounded. We had six acres, but then around that was just hundreds of acres because it was mostly a ranching community. Since then have gone on hikes. It's not quite the same. Something I explore in the book is how the land operates on the body. I feel like there's this intuitive way that we're meant to be in the world. It was nice to experience that for a few years. I think cities have a way of flattening time and space. It's always sunny. One's always harried. It was nice just to be able to be in that quiet.
Kousha Navidar: We're talking to Navied Mahdavian whose new graphic memoir, This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America chronicles his experience going from San Francisco to rural Idaho. We're going to take a quick break, but before we do, I just want to ask again if you have a story about moving yourself from a rural to urban area or the other way around, give us a call. We'll be right back.
This is All Of It. I'm Kousha Navidar and I'm lucky to be here with Navied Mahdavian. His new graphic memoir, This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America chronicles his experience moving from San Francisco to rural Idaho. Callers, we want to hear from you. Do you have a similar experience? We have a caller that I'd love to hear from right now. Mimi, from Manhattan. Hi, Mimi.
Mimi: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
Kousha Navidar: Absolutely.
Mimi: I wanted to share my story of moving from an urban to a rural place. I grew up in a big metropolitan city in India. After I came to the United States, I lived in Chicago and Minneapolis. Then I moved to a tiny, tiny place in western Michigan for work. I remember the first weekend there, I came back to work on Monday and someone told me, "Hey, were you there down the river?" I was like, "Yes, did you see me?" They were like, "No, my grandmother saw you." What? [laughter] "They said a brown woman with long black hair, so who else could it be?" [laughs] I was like, "Oh, I guess I'm the only one."
Kousha Navidar: How did it feel to be described as, "Oh, the brown woman with long black hair?" Was that the first time that you've been described that way or what was that experience like for you?
Mimi: [laughs] I did feel the pressure of being a cultural ambassador, and that was also the only point of time in life where I was a literal traffic stopper. People would actually stop their cars to look at me and point at me but overall, the people were very warm and welcoming and they wanted to take me fishing and teach me how to shoot, none of which had ever done but the only thing that I struggled with was how Christian the atmosphere was. I actually had people tell me to my face, "You're a good person, but you don't believe in Jesus Christ, so you're going to go to hell and there's nothing to be done about it." How do you react to that?
Kousha Navidar: First of all, Mimi, thank you so much for calling. A couple of things that stood out to me from what you were saying and Navied, I'd love to get your take on this. The idea of being a cultural ambassador and the idea of having to navigate folks who are kind, but then they say things that really you don't know how to respond. How was that for you listening to Mimi's experience?
Navied Mahdavian: Mimi's experience, I was smiling along because all of it sounded so familiar. I also felt like the cultural ambassador growing up in Miami and then moving to San Fran. I was never a minority but then being in a town of 500, it was my first experience of being a minority. One of the jokes that I make in the book a recurring joke is that everyone in small towns knows who you are. First time we showed up, at that time we were just camping out on the land and our neighbors showed up and they knew who we were, knew our names, and they're debating where my name was from.
I think that sometimes it felt like was it because I was a person of color or is it just because people in small towns. You only have 500, any new face is going to be of interest but there definitely were moments where I felt like a cultural ambassador. A moment that didn't make it into the book was, I was at Josiah, my friend's mother's wedding. A woman came up to me and said, "I heard that you're from Iran." She said, "My children are interested in that. They want to read the Quran. What do I do?" She was just so scared. I was like, "You can read it with them."
I thought if only I had my pocket Quran, I could pull out to read it with her. There is this experience of feeling like you are speaking for a larger group of people and trying to negotiate that with just being at a wedding.
Kousha Navidar: It reminds me of my own work outside of All Of It. I work on a show called Notes from America with Kai Wright. One of our goals on that show is to find connection and insight in a divided time. It seems like your experience is right in the center of that target. Did your time in Idaho give you any insight into how you achieve that goal or anything like that?
Navied Mahdavian: Yes. I think it was just time to spend with people on an individual level. Not to bring up Josiah again, but there was this one moment, again, didn't make it into the book, but he came up to me one day and he was apologizing for something that his father had said. I hadn't met his father before, so I didn't know what he was talking about, but I guess his dad had referred to me as that terrorist. Later on, when we were invited to Josiah's dad's house, he came up to me, apologized for this thing that there was no reason for me to have even known about it.
I wasn't in the room, but he apologized and then gave my wife, Emily, this handkerchief that had belonged to his mother and this beautiful silk which she still has. It was this incredible moment of humanity. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been there, if I hadn't developed this relationship with Josiah. I hope that even though that there is this pressure to act as a cultural ambassador, I think that in many ways, I feel like I got out as much as I think that they did from these interactions that lasted over a long period. I think it took the three years, but I think that went both ways.
Kousha Navidar: Time is a huge theme in your book. That idea of time being the key ingredient towards bridging what some see as a divide, I think is really insightful as well. There's a text we just received that I think brings us to another part of that very nicely. It reads, "My family moved from Queens to West Virginia in the mid-'90s. The move was a bigger culture shock than moving from Pakistan to the US. Fortunately, we all left West Virginia before it became Trump country. Because of social media, I've seen how dangerous the politics of my neighbors and some friends would have been for my family. I'm still undoing all the whiteness I tried to take on during the decade I was there." What does that make you feel, Navied?
Navied Mahdavian: I think that I was lucky in that I moved there right after Trump's election. In the last few months that I was there, I remember driving and seeing Three Percenter flags. The Liberty Conference happened a little bit after that, which was an ultra-right-wing conference. Having visited during COVID it definitely felt like there was this shift where, what initially drew me to the place, this openness, this welcomingness that I felt from this small-town ethos.
It felt like that had evaporated with COVID where masks were not a thing. The thin blue line hats were everywhere. It felt like this caring that we had for one another, which I think a lot of people experienced during COVID with masking up, caring for people who were health-compromised just didn't exist there. It felt much more political. I do wonder what being there now would be like now that things just feel much more divided where those nuggets have grown.
Kousha Navidar: Your book almost could be, not necessarily a tool, but like a jumping-off point for people to engage in that conversation, I think. In the about minute we've got left, what do you hope people take from reading your memoir?
Navied Mahdavian: I think it's a cliche, but a cliche for a reason. I think people are people and so much of what I experienced there. There was that cognitive dissonance where people would use the N-word or make jokes about rag heads but then would invite me back next time I'm around in town. I think that there was this way that people engage with you on an individual level the way they see you and then the way that we experience one another in politics at a macro level. I hope that people take away that at the end of the day, we're each just trying to figure out where we belong, who we are. I think fundamentally people are good outside of politics.
Kousha Navidar: [laughs] Navied Mahdavian is the author of the new graphic memoir, This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America. It comes out, what's today? Is it September 15th? Is that correct?
Navied Mahdavian: September 12th.
Kousha Navidar: September 12th. My apologies. September 12th. Navied, thank you so much for joining us.
Navied Mahdavian: Thanks for having me.
Kousha Navidar: Notes From America is a production of WNYC studios. We love to hear from you, so if you heard anything that sparks a thought or a question, hit us up. Go to notesfromamerica.org and look for the little green record button that's partway down the page. You can leave us a voice note right there just by clicking on that button. Just be sure to please include at least your first name and where you're located. You can also follow us on Instagram. You'll see recaps from all the episodes and exclusive content that's just made there. Our profile is @noteswithkai. This segment originally aired on All Of It.
It was produced by Kate Hines and Jordan Loft, and engineered by Juliana Fonda. Our theme music is by Jared Paul. The Notes from America team also includes Karen Frillman, Florencia Gonzalez, Guda Garcia, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, David Norville, Kai Wright, and Lindsey Foster Thomas. Andre Robert Lee is our executive producer. I'm Kousha Navidar. Thanks for listening.
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