In our modern world we’re seeing some cultures be enveloped and lost to the vestiges of time, for activist and best-seller author Dr. Darya Hodaei, this is not an option. Her impressive resume aside, her undeterred passion and dedication for keeping her Azerbaijani Turkic culture alive and relevant for her children and children everywhere is certainly inspiring to say the least.
On top of her clinical research job, she is the CEO of Englishazerbaijani, a cultural platform that is a hub for those who are curious about preserving the beautiful Azerbaijani culture and for her to share her latest work.
Her latest book, Jirtdan’s Halloween, is a marriage of traditional Azerbaijani culture with Western elements and has drawn some critical acclaim in the community for its wildly imaginative art style and informative content.
She took some time to answer a few questions about what drives her, what inspired the creation of Jirtdan’s Halloween, and the importance of keeping culture alive for future generations.
Hi Darya, welcome! Can you tell us a bit about yourself to begin the interview?
My name is Darya Hodaei. I am a Doctor of Pharmacy and clinical research professional, children’s book author, and culture/language activist (I am CEO in Englishazerbaijani platform). I enjoy learning about different cultures, I especially enjoy exploring my own roots a little further.
I was deprived of having education in my own mother-language because the schools in Iran are all in Persian so as a non-Persian kid I was kept away from my own linguistic, cultural, and historical heritage.
Has writing stories always been a passion of yours?
I’ve been writing short stories since I was 9 years old, but once I started studying hard to get admitted to the college I totally forgot about this passion. Once I became a mom, I started getting interested in knowing more about my Turkic background. It was then I decided to promote this awesome culture and its traditions, and what can be better than introducing future generations to this much beauty?
Congratulations on your latest book “Jirtdan’s Halloween”! What inspired the story for this book?
Thanks! The story of this book is a modified version of a very old Azerbaijani Turkic tale. I was looking for a spooky story since all the kids love Halloween which made me think of the story of Jirtdan and Dev. I brought the location to Disney World and added some elements of western culture to it to give it a modern update to attract new generations.
Who is the character of Jirtdan based on?
Jirtdan is an old Azerbaijani Turkic kids’ character. My grandmother used to tell us Jirtdan and Dev’s story each night we stayed at her place when we were kids. Almost all Azerbaijani kids, no matter whether they’re from Iran or the republic of Azerbaijan have memories with Jirtdan if their grandparents were into folk stories. In our folklore, Jirtdan appears in several stories of which “Jirtdan and Dev” is the most famous one.
Was it a conscious choice to blend American themes such as Halloween and Disneyland with traditional Azerbaijani stories?
Sure. I was thinking about second generation Azerbaijani kids living in the US or the Azerbaijani ones who might be interested in US’s culture when I came up with the idea of mixing these two cultures. This mixture also helps American kids get familiar with our rich cultural background. It helps in increasing the diversity and better inclusion for kids from different cultural background.
When kids see elements from their own culture, they find it easier to stick to the story and learn the elements that they are not too familiar with. However, when they see the whole book as unfamiliar, they might not be as interested.
When Jirtdan and his friends are captive in Dev’s castle they play apple bobbing. What is the significance of this?
The main reason I use cultural elements in my books is to help preserve the culture and convey it to the new generations. When I was searching for some western Halloween cultural events, I came across this awesome tradition. Funnily, it was mentioned on one of the websites that this tradition is also sadly in danger of being forgotten.
The girl accompanying Jirtdan, ‘Lady Tick-tick’ or ‘Tiq-tiq Khanim’ has her own story. She is looking for a friend/soulmate in her original story and at the end of that story she cannot find anyone. In apple bobbing, when someone cannot catch the apple, it means that they will not be able to find a soulmate which is why she did not catch any apples (like her fate in the main story).
Jirtdan asks Dev to cook some traditional Azerbaijani food for him, Tebriz Kuftesi and Baklava. Are these popular treats for kids?
Honestly, nowadays the kids are more into junk food, and they are rarely interested in healthy cultural foods – so, by putting those foods in the book, I was trying to encourage the kids to like those foods.
Witches eventually help the kids escape from Dev’s castle before he can eat them. Are witches also popular characters in Azerbaijani folklore?
Not really. In Azerbaijani culture and among Azerbaijani Turks, witches have always been vicious and troublemaking. Nowadays, especially in Turkey, it is getting popular to symbolize the witches as powerful women and as symbols of resistance against the old men-centered culture in which powerful women like witches are labeled and marginalized.
The witches give Jirtdan and his friends a piece of bread with salt to protect them on their way home. Why is this?
This is an old tradition of Halloween among some people. Some people back then believed that while traveling during this season you should have bread and salt because it protects you from evil spirits. I was trying to somehow revitalize those cute traditions and amuse the kids by these cool Turkic and western culture.
Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any other books planned?
I have another addition to the “Fun Facts” series set to be published in a couple of months. This book is a continuation on from my first entry which was about animals, and this one is about fruits. After that, I will focus on directing an animation about Kor Oghlu who was a Turkic epic from Azerbaijan. We also have a storytelling character in our culture named Qari Nene and I am planning to let the kids get familiar with her too in our upcoming animation. This animation will be published by Englishazerbaijani this spring. I also will write a children’s book about Kor Oghlu and Qari Nene this year.
Thank you, Darya, for your time!
We cannot wait to see what comes next! We hope that more people follow the example of Dr. Darya Hodaei in creating and fostering environments where curiosity and cultural exploration can be celebrated and accessible for all.
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