Interview with Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran�, in time for her appearance at the Iranian Literary Arts Festival in San Francisco Saturday November 17th. Dr. Keshavarz is Professor of Persian & Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages & Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Books about life in Iran have been consistently whiny that often belabor the victim mentality. Tell us how Jasmine and Stars is different.
We live in a world which still suffers seriously from an “us” versus “them” malady. Even in the absence of such bifocality, representing another culture is a hard thing to do. Now, add the fact that Iran and the U.S. have been embroiled in almost three decades of political conflict. In other words, no one will have a perfect solution. So far the villain versus the victim model has been the one applied most often. It provides something of an immediate relief for the burning questions we have “Why revolution?”, “How to make sense of some trends in present day Iran that seem backward looking?”, “Why religion suddenly seems so central to everything?” and more. The villain/victim scenario takes away the pain of having to look at the complicated reality.
My solution in Jasmine and Stars is not a personal invention. Neither have I discovered a way out of the maze. What I have done is to complicate the black and white of the villain/victim model by importing multiple voices and faces of contemporary Iranians into the picture. Contemporary Iran has wonderfully articulate men and women: writers, painters, teachers, film-makers, and more. They have a lot more agency than a seduced twelve year old girl, namely Lolita. Why not let them speak for themselves about the positive and the negative?
So in Jasmine and Stars, you will hear Farrokhzad and Parsipur. But you also hear a peasant lover of Parvin Etesami’s poetry, and my “uncle the painter,” who has been a bright star in my life.
What has the audience reaction been to J&S?
The book’s second print came out three months after its publication, and six months into the publication, we were talking paperback. Bear in mind that Jasmine and Stars has had no institutional or political support.
I have had over 20 national reading/signings and can barely keep up with the invitations. I don’t want to have the wrong-headed assumption that everyone thinks like me or agrees with me. But for now, I am delighted to have been showered with loving reactions. Opening my e-mail has become a source of joy. I am now collecting every single e-mail I get whether from Iranian Americans who know and love Iran dearly or Americans who have never been to Iran or heard anything but one-sided perspectives on the culture.
You’re going to be talking at the Iranian Film Festival [I think you mean Literary Festival]. Is there a specific point you’d like the audience to leave with?
I will talk about why Persian Literature (like any other) can be a source of joy and at the same time a socio-cultural tool with amazing precision for looking at the complexities of contemporary Iran. Literature is a multi-agent tool. It is intricate, lively, and full of delight and surprise. It cannot be manipulated by despotic regimes who try to kill the vibrancy of the culture from the inside. Nor can it be reduced to the black and white of the villain/victim scenario by those who encounter it from the outside. Once you have met Parsipour’s wonderfully charming prostitute Zarrinkolah “the one with a golden hat,” you know contemporary Iranians are far more than voiceless victims.
I hope the audience gets a taste of the humor, freshness, and delight in present day Iran and leaves greatly tempted to look for translations of the works of contemporary Iranian writers.
Why do you think Iranian literature does not have a global readership yet?
We live in a world that rewards speed and efficiency. I would bet few people can think of two or three friends who are not in a constant state of running to catch up with their duties and responsibilities. This is wonderful in many ways. But the downside of it is that most of us simply do not have the time get out there and explore the cultural treasures that the world is entrusted with.
One of the results is that we all focus on our own area but the parts of the world which do not fall in that area maintain a ghostly presence for us. That is, they have a name and a vague presence in the background. That is what ghosts are, distant and faceless. Only those cultural products that are labeled “significant” are freed from their ghostly positions and become visible.
What do you think it will take get it to the next level of global readership?
Persian literature is full life, full of surprise. It is intricate, beautiful and self-critical. You might say, well, what else does it need to be freed of its ghostly presence and become a visible part of the canon of world literature.
On one level, we need to push at the rigid institutional borders with their Eurocentric obsessions. Those of us in the academia have to simply impact departmental cultures and the hiring processes to open the way for specialists in Persian literature and culture to be taken more seriously. We should also do that by coming out of our small corners and becoming part of comparative literature and translation programs to have a presence in teaching, translating, and critiquing Persian literature.
Last but not least, Persian literature must be brought into its world literature habitat which could be ill-equipped to receive and sustain it at first. That is why we speak of “translocation” when discussing translation. You need to take complex pieces of writing and relocate them in the new culture by connecting them to all means of survival in their new cultural environment. Then, they will work their magic: they will speak for themselves!