Growing up, Pushcart Prize-winning novelist Pauls Toutonghi often ended his family dinners with either baklava or honey cake. His Egyptian father would spend hours creating nut-filled, ever-so-sweet baklava, while his Latvian mother whipped up her own beloved homeland treats.
“I may be the only Egyptian-Latvian in the world,” Toutonghi said while laughing. “Or, at least only one of a handful.”
Toutonghi just released his second novel, “Evel Knievel Days,” on July 17th and will be speaking at Watermark Books and Cafe on Aug. 25. Toutonghi’s novel is a humorous coming-of-age story that explores cultural bonds and family ties.
Khosi Saqr, the novel’s narrator, grew up in Butte, Mont. His father, like the author’s, is Egyptian. His mother, however, unlike Toutonghi’s, is a multi-generational American.
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“She’s very prototypically American,” Toutonghi said. “I think that she falls in love with him (Khosi’s father) because he is so different from anyone else she had met.”
When Khosi turns three, his father leaves Butte and heads back to Egypt, cutting ties with both his son and ex-wife. Khosi longs for a relationship with his father. Although he tries to fit in in Montana, he often feels out of sorts with his surroundings.
“He’s one-half Egyptian, and he really struggles to fit in,” Toutonghi said. “I really struggled to fit in, too.”
Although the author’s family life was quite different from that of the protagonist, Toutonghi brings to the novel a strong sense of Egyptian culture, as well as his sense of longing to belong to his native city — in the author’s case, Seattle.
Toutonghi wanted to set the novel in Butte because of its rich history. Not only was it one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi in the late 1800s, but it was the new home of Chinese, Irish, Lebanese, Finish and Italian miners.
Into this historic town Robert “Evel” Knievel was born in 1938. Khosi, like his fellow Montanan, is a daredevil.
“The book is about taking risks,” Toutonghi said. “The spirit of Evel Knievel and his risk-taking comes through.”
During the town’s Evel Knievel Days festival, Koshi’s mother gives her son a signed Evel Knievel program that said, “Keep riding.” Khosi viewed this paper as a talisman and carried it across the ocean.
Khosi, who speaks Arabic better than Toutonghi, travels to Egypt in search of his father. While there, he is introduced to many customs, including the preparation of food.
“Khosi actually realizes that the culture is very different than what he is used to,” Toutonghi said. “He also realizes that his father is not a nice man. He has to come to terms with this.”
Toutonghi also traveled to Egypt to find his past, but he went with a tour guide — his father. Similar to Toutonghi’s experiences with this ancient land, Khosi walked through crowded markets, ate cardamom-spiced delicacies and was greeted by the warmth of many Egyptians.
In Egypt, Khosi realizes the bonds of family, performs wild feats and ends up in humorous situations. For Toutonghi, the journey also was bittersweet; he penned the book while traveling through his father’s homeland during the unrest of 2011.
“Red Weather,” Toutonghi’s first novel, is a coming-of-age story about a first-generation Latvian boy.
“It’s almost like we’re being introduced to his cultures through his writing,” said Beth Golay, the marketing manager at Watermark. “He’s just such an amazing writer. It’s a great book for anybody who loves literature and really good writing.”
An hour before the reading, Watermark is hosting a meal that showcases several of the delicacies mentioned in “Evel Knievel Days.” They also will draw from Toutonghi’s favorite recipes.
Although Toutonghi is proud of both his Latvian and Egyptian heritage, he is equally proud of his American roots. Toutonghi holds a doctorate in English literature from Cornell University and teaches literature and creative writing at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.