Tragedy & Triumph: Ali Eskandarian’s Golden Years

Article by Rosie Barron | 15 Jan 2016

Oscar Van Gelderen – ‘the publisher with the golden nose’ – was also editor of Ali Eskandarian's modern beat novel Golden Years. He tells here of the tragedy behind this posthumous publication of the murdered writer, singer and songwriter's debut work.

On 11 November 2013, singer, songwriter and novelist Ali Eskandarian was killed alongside two members of the Iranian-American band Yellow Dogs. They were shot to death by a fellow musician and expatriate who then took his own life. Previous to this, Eskandarian had been conversing with his friend, the publisher Oscar Van Gelderen, about his debut manuscript.

Tragically, he was never to see it published, but the work – a new genre in itself, weaving sex, drugs, music and war – was left in Van Gelderen's capable hands. The publisher chats here to The Skinny in an interview we dedicate to the memory of Ali Eskandarian and the legacy of Golden Years.

Oscar Van Gelderen on his life and career

I'm a publisher in Holland, I've been into publishing for 25 years. I have run an independent company called Vassallucci, in the 90s, and since 2008 I've been running Lebowski, which is part of an independent group called Overamstel. For a long time now I've been publishing an eclectic mix of authors: a mix of international authors such as Dave Eggers, David Sedaris, Niccolò Ammaniti, Marlon James and Phil Klay, and underground and counter-culture writers such as William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Chris Kraus and many others. We also publish (urban) art books: A Dutch ‘translation’ of Banksy’s Wall and Peace, but also Slinkachu and Vhils. 

My other great love next to publishing (and my wife) is buying art. I have been collecting art since 1997, and from 2007 on, bought [pieces by] many urban and street artists. After a while I wondered what's happening with this kind of art in Syria? In Egypt? Or Iraq or Iran, or Palestine? 

I have always been very interested in finding art and books from countries where the public eye has not been looking very much, where art is often oppressed and therefore needs to operate underground. That's how I discovered Icy and Sot – two young street artists who were then living in Iran, and since 2012 in America. 

Often in these countries repression is so hard it denies its citizens access to books, music and the internet, so creativity usually starts from copying your idols. For Icy and Sot, they heard about Banksy and wanted to make Banksy-esque work in Iran. 

I started to collect their works in 2009, 2010. From there one thing led to another – my wife and I began representing them, hosted a show in Amsterdam and then came up with the idea of doing a pop-up show in New York, in the summer of 2012, and that's where I met Ali Eskandarian.

The Yellow Dogs and life on the road

Ali Eskandarian was a little older than the other guys. In fact he called them – both in Golden Years and in real life – ‘the kids’. I think this book gives the reader a good insight into how these guys live, the jokes they make, the dope they smoke, the girls they chase – and I particularly love the scenes when they are cooking, it reminds me of growing up as well, when I was living in squats, having fun, it has an innocent feel, like being one of the kids, full of hope, because that’s why they all moved to New York, to make art, music, follow their dreams.

Ali had already relocated with his family from Iran to Germany, and then to Dallas, so he knew his way around a little more than the kids. Ali was already more of a man. This moving around, travelling, making new places your home – this 'on the road' mentality that accompanies art, the movement that accompanies war... all this movement adds extra layers to the book. It's not just making art, it's a way of life.

You can feel there's more power and more ambition, maybe more eagerness in these guys; they made big sacrifices, leaving friends and families behind. In the West we have it relatively easy – we can be writers and artists and musicians and if it doesn't work out we can do other stuff, but for these kids, for Ali, it seems more like a way of life and that's what I really like. There’s more fire.

(Continues below)

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Meeting and working with Ali Eskandarian

I met him only once and I had a very good feeling about him. I saw him performing in the gallery where we showed the works of Icy and Sot. Afterwards I listened to more of his music, watched a few clips – it's all very powerful stuff. Then I got an email, a brilliant email, in which he announced working on a novel, asking me if I wanted to read it. 

When you meet someone you really like and they tell you that they wrote a book, the first reflex of a publisher is this: “Oh no, how can I avoid reading it?” In your head you are already typing the rejection letter - before the manuscript arrives. And then I got that envelope and on the first page were two words: American Immigrant. I thought: that's an awful title. But then I started reading it, and it turned out these were the only two bad words in the book. I suggested a different title, thinking, 'Let's change these two bad words into two good words,' and suggested Golden Years. Ali loved the title, the wink to Bowie, the double meanings. In hindsight the title is ironic, of course: it's about dreaming of the years to come, and for Ali, they will never come.

But to get back to the manuscript: I read it in one sitting. I said to my wife, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy can really write!’ The writing is very fluid, it weaves together all these monologues and scenes. It's tremendous, I was so excited. It was unedited, untouched, it was completely unspoiled. No one – except for some friends – had seen the manuscript. No agent, no editor. I wrote to Ali: ‘I will publish this baby, but since I'm a Dutch publisher, I first need to find a great American or English editor, then we can try and sell it. I will tell all my international publishing friends about it, but in the meantime let's not wait, let's get it out.’

That's when I decided to release parts of the book on, a website developed by the people behind Twitter. I wanted to get started so people could take note: I set up his Facebook page and his Twitter account. We had it all worked out, and I thought he should come over to Europe. I wanted to introduce him to my friends, thinking they should meet this guy and get as excited as I was about him – and around that time we got the phone call from New York, that Ali had been killed, that two brothers who played in Yellow Dogs were killed too, and that Sot was wounded, he was shot in his arm. It was such a shock; I was sick in bed for a week.

Publishing Golden Years

All of a sudden you have this orphaned manuscript – what do you do now? It's already difficult enough to edit a book with a living author, but how do you appeal to and edit the book of an author who is not around any more? I was very honored that Ali’s family – because of my commitment to Icy and Sot’s art, and to Ali’s book – trusted me, saying, 'Why don't you take the book and do what you think needs to be done?' I immediately asked my dear friend and literary agent Vicki Satlow to help me in selling the book, and we made seven deals: the book will be published in Holland, Germany, Portugal, UK/USA, Spain, Turkey and Romania.

It was very exciting to see the book coming together and eventually it was ready to come out. We invited Ali's family to the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague in Holland, where we launched the book and held a tribute to Ali. It was very emotional: I've been publishing 25 years but at this I was truly moved, this was something special. There is something about Ali, about his writing, that’s very sincere. There's no posing – that's why I thought he's the real deal.

Eastern literature and film adaptations

There have been talks about turning the book into a film. We have spoken with the other guys that lived with him; with Obash and Koory, the surviving band members; with Ali Salehezadeh, who is the manager of ‘the kids’; and Icy and Sot, and they are reserved about the idea. They have mixed feelings about it, which I can totally understand. There are many people that want to make a documentary about the Dogs, about the book, about Ali, and I'm sure that this film will come but somehow it feels too soon – the wound has not healed yet. It's such a loss, such a crazy way to die; a deranged guy taking a shotgun and killing whatever moved. It’s so senseless.

In the end, with Golden Years we have something really special in our hands and I just hope for him and his family that many people will read it and pay attention to it. Ali called the book his ‘Great Iranian-American Novel’, and as I wrote in my afterword for the book, let’s call it that way, until someone proves him wrong.

Golden Years is out now, published by Faber & Faber, RRP £14.99