We have to start somewhere

A week before she speaks at the Iranian Literary Arts Festival in San Francisco (November 14-17), I ask novelist Moniro Ravanipour to give some insights into her world of forbidden expression and her take on the Iranian philanthropy. [Also see original Farsi translacript]

I know you’ll be talking about this at the ILAF panel on Saturday but why do you think Iranian literature isn’t world literature yet?

We’re all waiting for a miracle. We’re waiting for the sky to open up and for everything to just fall into our lap. We don’t think each of us has a personal responsibility. At this point in time, there may be more than 6 million Iranians living abroad, many of whom are financially secure, specially the ones that live in the US—But after all these years away from home, where is that center in the name of Iran? Where is that place that looks like it was built on uniquely Iranian effort? As you know, most American universities are supported financially by American individuals, and people invest heavily in arts and culture. What do we expect? We expect others to pick up the slack for our culture. Opposition to fundamentalism has become hosting a million dollar wedding, and patriotism is reduced to serving Ghormeh Sabzi and Chelow Kabab.

Don’t you think other cultures have the same issues?

The Goethe Institute has branches all over the world. How come we’ve done nothing?

If the people of the world aren’t familiar with the guidance of Mahmood Dowlat-Ababdi or Ahmad Mahmood, then at least they know Rumi. Why is there no cultural society in his name yet? Not just for the sake of it, but for the promotion of storytelling and literature—to support talented writers, and to give literary grants! Does everyone else have to do everything for us?

When I was in Iran I was so excited to hear about Anoushe Ansari’s flight into space. This event momentarily changed the closed and tired atmosphere in Iran, and planted seeds of hope in the heart of every Iranian woman. So I wonder, does Ms. Ansari ever think in her mother tongue? Don’t other people of means want to do something to promote their own mother tongue?

So you think Anoushe Ansari has a responsibility to her mother tongue? Why her? Why not the government of Iran?

We have to start somewhere. Time has shown that the political system in our country can only change our holiday “Chehar-shanbeh Soori” (literally means ‘Wednesday celebration’) which is a sign of friendship and peace into “chehar-shanbeh Sooozi” (which translates to Wednesday inferno). The system that has created the conniving mentality of pitting “us” against “them” and it has to be removed by the root, before we can do something for our own language. This language is a gift that has been handed down to us and the least we can do, is as much as forefathers did, which is pass it down to the next generation. We need to build hope against all this hopelessness that’s so rampant in our country.

What is your experience publishing books in Iran? What is it 8 or 9?

The experience of publishing a book in Iran is an extremely difficult process. The last 30 years have been (cleansing/censorship) but it has had its highs and lows. I was very beleaguered around my first book. The book was enslaved and held hostage for 8 years before it got to print. But after 1369 (1990) the situation got a little better and I was able to publish my books: Del e Foolad (Heart of Steel), Ahl e Ghargh (The Drowned) and Sangha ye Sheytan (Satan’s Stones). Since we are the mercy of censorship, we cannot follow the usual writing protocol. Often, a writer’s first book takes much longer to get published than their second or third. Censorship, which is a relic from the days of slavery, enslaves writers, painters and filmmakers. It does not allow us to publish our books in an organic way. This is why authors like me have learned to write the book and let it sit at home until it’s due for publication. I only published two books in the 1370’s (1990’s) Koli e Kenar e Atash (Gypsy by Fire) and Siriah Siriah. In the 1380’s (2000’s) which is not over yet, I have two books published; Namhaye Nazly (Nazly) and Zan e Foroodgah e Frankfurt (Woman at the Frankfurt Airport). I also have 3 other books ready for print: Fereshetei Rooye Zamin (Angel on Earth) Shabhayeh Shoor Angiz (Wonderful Nights) and Asheghan e Ahd e Atiq (Ancient Lovers).

I am saddened for myself and my fellow writers who are embattled with a group of narrow minded, self absorbed people with underdeveloped principles, who still think they can create the world in their own image.

Tell us about the state of literature inside Iran.

It’s been about 9 month since I left Iran but I am well aware of what’s happening there. I know that Vistar Bookstore has been destroyed and Yaaghoob Nad-Ali has been tried and imprisoned. Until the last day I was in Iran and was reading the books that have been printed, I got the feeling that because most writers, think we’re not supposed to be political, they have simply retreated to the kitchen. Only a very few have maintained their integrity. In reality, our literature doesn’t have much stamina against the oppression of being “red lined” with increasing limitations on a daily basis.

As you know living and writing under the rules of another is not a modern human condition. We would fool ourselves into thinking that censorship is not so bad and it can even promote creativity. This was a mantra that many belabored and consequently endorsed the current condition of Iranian Literature. Like a condemned prisoner we convinced ourselves that someday our sentence would be over and so we turned a blind eye to many of society’s injustices. A free thinking writer does not acquiesce to the mind-numbing laws of oppression. A free thinking writer is against oppression, not a party to it. Of course, I do know writers who write independently, and do not give in to the absurdity of censorship.

How do you spend your time in the US?

I have an office at The Black Mountain Institute, an affiliate of the University of Nevada which I go to everyday. It is run by Carol Harter who used to be the Dean of the University 10 years ago. This institution is really a sanctuary for writers from all over from Jamaica, to Africa to New York. What’s attractive for me is the tireless work of women like Carol who put so much into bringing color to the cultural face of their home towns. There are women here that put everything they have into the furthering of cultural causes. The University of Nevada and its affiliates only thrive on contributions from individuals. Unlike wealthy women in Iran who see friendship as serving Ghormeh Sabzi and Kabab, wealthy women here place a great deal of importance on preserving the integrity of their societies.

I don’t know when we are going to realize that our language is our nation, and it goes wherever we go in mind, body and soul, and is part of the fabric of our existence.

[Also see original Farsi translacript]

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