23 January 2024
Mary Efendi: From an Azerbaijani Immigrant to an American Bestselling Author
A story of an Azerbaijani-American writer whose debut novel, I Sat Alone by the Gate, is more than just another immigrant tale.
Image: courtesy photo
“I think writers write not because they choose to write; that’s their way of processing the world. I know I write because there’s no other way for me to live,” says Mary Efendi, an Azerbaijani-American writer whose debut novel, I Sat Alone by the Gate, became an Amazon bestseller a week after its release in June 2023. This book became a major success in the author’s motherland as well. “Yesterday, I found out it’s number five bestseller at one of the local bookstores in Azerbaijan.”
I Sat Alone by the Gate tells the story of an 18-year-old Maryam, who moved to the United States with her mother and brother, leaving behind her beloved Baku and all that it had to offer—protection, stability, family, friends, and society that was so familiar. Although the book is based on her life, Efendi specifies that it is still a fiction novel. “The beginning of the book, from the first chapter till the middle—like the 30th chapter—is based on our story. Once I felt the confidence as an author to start writing fiction, once those characters were formed, I made a deliberate decision to fictionalize it.”
This book—and the author confirms it herself—is not a page-turner, full of suspense and drama. It is an immigrant story of a young girl having to face the world on her own. “As a writer, your first story is going to be your story. You either have that story in you—whether it is a thriller, detective story, or love story—or you don’t. Because the fabric of the story is already in you, all you are doing is extracting it,” she explains how her debut novel was destined to become “an honest story of what it’s like to get on a plane and move somewhere else.”
Efendi, whose real name is Mehriban, spent 20 years in the U.S. and became an imprint of a successful immigrant who achieved ‘the American dream.’ Like her character Maryam, Efendi worked at the optical shop in Chicago, with her younger brother working at a restaurant as a busboy, and her mother trying to learn English at the Jewish center nearby. “It was pretty brutal in the beginning. When you are that age, you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation,” the author reminisces. “I have two kids now, and if I had to pick up my kids and move to a country where I didn’t speak the language and had my child go and work, even if she was 18 years old, I would freak out, so I am not sure how my mom did it. But at the time, it all felt like a play.”
It is a character-driven novel with the central theme of the character’s homesickness and the constant struggle to find a reason to stay in the U.S.—Efendi was able to convey this feeling so vividly in her book that a reader can feel the anxiety amidst panic attacks that an 18-year-old girl is going through.
Image: courtesy photo
“When you move from a city where you lived all your life—or if you move from a city where you’ve lived for a long time—you never have a clear idea of how attached you were to it. You are not aware of how socially saturated your life is. Here you are, getting on the plane; you get off in a country where the number of acquaintances, family, and friends goes down to zero. You end up missing something you cannot really describe. You feel sick almost, but that feeling of sadness is intensified by the fact that you feel like something is wrong with you because you can’t put your finger on it.” The only solution, Efendi believes, is time. “Nothing makes it better, not even if you fall in love with somebody. It is not easy to get through that, especially if you are a nostalgic type of person, and Maryam is like that.”
Writing this semi-autobiographical novel took two years. “It’s such a long road, and statistically, there's such a low chance that you are going to make it,” the author says. “You have to do it because there’s no other way for you to process life. I’d have continued to write no matter what.” There’s truth to her words, as before writing a novel, Efendi wrote a blog for ten years. She might have continued doing that if it hadn’t been for a message that changed her life.
At the end of 2015, she received a message from an editor of a literary journal, Azerbaijan International, “You are ready to write a book.” Efendi confesses that if it weren’t for that message, “it’d have taken me much longer to believe that I could put my name on a book.” Soon after, the author would come every Saturday to a coffee shop in Houston—where she lived at the time—and would spend her mornings working on her novel. Until finally, in 2018, it was finished.
Needless to say, there was a long way between finishing the novel and getting it published. After years of sending her manuscript to different publishing houses and getting rejected, Efendi got her lucky break in December 2021. She received a phone call from a publishing house wanting to publish her book. There was still a long road ahead in rewriting the book and working on the manuscript development, for which Efendi took a year's leave from her corporate job at Exxon Mobil. However, that was a minor detail for an immigrant girl from Azerbaijan who finally got a chance to tell her story to the world.
As her writing career was about to take off, her personal life was also changing. Six months before her book was scheduled to come out, Efendi moved back to Baku due to “a dream job offer” that her husband got from Baku. So, when the time came for her book to be released and for Efendi to go to the U.S. on her book tour, she was going through emotions similar to those of her 18-year-old self.
“I see myself moving back at some point, but I also realized that… there’s a world out there that I haven’t seen. For the first time in my life, I really don’t know where we’ll end up in a couple of years.” As a true writer, Efendi doesn’t let life get in her way and instead is focused on spending her days interviewing people in Baku for her next writing project that concerns Azerbaijan’s Soviet past.