Simply a stunner
The proper etiquette of meeting Shahrnush Parsipur in the United States
July 9, 2006
The English translation of the novel Touba and the Meaning of Night (FeministPress.org) by the pre-eminent Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur was recently released by a major US publishing house in New York. One no longer needs to have an Iranian passport or an Iranian visa to get onboard Parsipur’s imaginative boat. To make it even easier, her boat sails at all hours from most bookshops and the entire Cyber Space near you... Her 1989 Women without Men (FeministPress.org) has also been available in English (since 2004).
A decade into the Twenty-First Century and years after small publishing houses in Europe translated her epic novels into German, Swedish, French etc -- America and the Big Apple woke up to her salient lexis. In the evening of May 3rd 2006, I met Shahrnush Parsipur for the first time at a Feminist Press reception in New York, where the English translation of Touba and the Meaning of Night was being launched.
Shahrnush Parsipur, the giant of Iranian women’s literature, was radiant, relaxed and seemed excited. Shaking her hand nervously, I introduced myself with my full name and wittingly she responded: “nice to meet you Golbarg Bashi” and immediately put me at ease. I was in the presence of greatness -- I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know the name of Shahrnush Parsipur -- from my childhood in Iran when my parents and my book-worm of an aunt Mahru “Mimmi” read and admired her work, to my adolescence in Sweden where the Persian originals of her work adorned my family’s library, to my student years in Britain where I wrote academic papers on her fiction. As she gracefully exchanged greetings with everyone who had come to attend the launch of her book in English -- it felt more like the celebration of a national icon’s lifetime achievements than yet another book launch in New York City.
Shahrnush Parsipur’s Touba and the Meaning of Night is considered one of the unsurpassed masterpieces of modern Persian literature. The protagonist of the novel, Touba, a young girl turning into a determined woman, goes through major personal upheavals throughout a turbulent 80-year long Iranian history. Touba’s life-story is connected to the historical predicaments of her country and thus makes the novel one of the best works of literature to provide a fictive narrative of contemporary Iran.
When we read Parsipur’s Touba and the Meaning of Night, we feel that we are reading modern Iranian history but through the perspective of a distorted vision. But we soon realise that the distortion is less in the story that we are reading and more in the history that we have learned. Now this history is turned upside down, and written from the hitherto silenced voice of a woman. It is the interwoven tale of two fictional readings of two straightforward histories -- Iranian history of the twentieth century and the ordinary life of a woman who happens to have been named after a legendary tree. Touba is married to a Qajar prince, she is eccentric but her ordinary life passes by historical and metaphysical domains. Touba is the fate of Iranian contemporary history but it is narrated from the hidden side of a woman’s perspective, which to the narrator (Touba herself) seems to have always been evident but rarely visible in the public.
Touba’s life-story comprises both her own wonderful and magically realistic language and her ahistorical presence in a country’s historical events. One can argue that in one fictional account Shahrnush Parsipur counters the entire masculinist historiography (tarikh-e mozakkar) and the result is a her-story at once empowering and magical.
Yet, non-Iranians have had little chance to get to know Touba or her country’s history. In the United States and Europe familiarity with Iran’s literary, historical and political scene (outside the academy) and thus public opinion in “Western” countries about Iran have been more dis/informed by the media and an avalanche of autobiographies, by journalists, ex-diplomats or expatriate Iranians telling their life stories as a plot, factual or manufactured or a combination of both -- most of the time self-serving, at best an act of narrative therapy, at worst exacerbating “the East/West divide” and more recently squarely at the service of global neo-imperialism (1).
The English translation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s Touba and the Meaning of Night appears at a time (post 9/11) when the US and European market has been flooded by a new genre of English memoirs written by Iranian women and with publishing houses head over heels signing lucrative contracts with “victimised” Iranian (or Muslim) women -- ranging from Hirsi Ali to Irshad Manji to Azar Nafisi. As Laila Lalami writes in her review of such works, “Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern”. These types of memoirs seem to have gained their momentum in the course of the propaganda preparation for the “war of/on terror” (2), so that, as the distinguished post-colonial feminist Gayatri Spivak says, “White men [can] save brown women from brown men” (3) .
In the meantime superb Persian novels by authors such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Moniru Ravanipour, Goli Taraqqi and/or prison memories by committed activists have had no snow ball chance in hell of getting translated into English, published or promoted (4). One can only hope that with the publication of the English translation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s much-anticipated novel, more high-quality works of contemporary Iranian literature will become available in languages other than Persian.
The first thing that one notices about this translation is the idiomatic ease and fluent diction with which the novel reads in English. The translation of Touba and the Meaning of Night is quite beautiful. Kamran Talattoff, a scholar of Persian literature, and Havva Houshmand have done a wonderful job translating one of Iran’s greatest works of literature.
All translations are thankless jobs. The better a translation the more the translator/s disappear into the prose and diction of the writer they are transforming into another language. It is, however, exceedingly important to keep in mind the labour of love and dedicated scholarship that usually goes into translating a literary masterpiece. In this respect, Shahrnush Parsipur has been blessed by exceedingly competent admirers of her work. This particular translation, however, is overburdened by too many explanatory accoutrements that in fact slow down and overtax the literary grace of the text. The novel does not need a foreword, an afterword and then a biography to introduce it to an English-speaking readership.
To be sure, each one of these items is quite informative in its own right (especially to students of literature and history). But their collective imposition on the literary grace of this novel adds an unnecessary and even distracting succession of alternating narratives that is damaging to the literary integrity of the work. These additional narratives project an undue nativist anxiety over the novel -- Talattoff thus writes:
“... every turn of the page of the translation called for explanations. Parsipur’s novel is replete with religious, literary, and other cultural references. Some readers may not fully appreciate how central to the narrative is Sufism... fewer are likely to grasp Parsipur’s references to the ethereal girl in Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat... They also might easily overlook the subversion of the symbol of the pomegranate, an image that has symbolized the feminine in classical works such as those of Nezami Ganjavi... Such footnotes would have been indeed necessary every time the text refereed too or portrayed something from the medieval period, or some complex aspect of a society in a state of transformation from a traditional time to a peculiar mode of modernity. In the end, we decided that the narrative would have been interrupted too often if we succumbed to the expedient of footnotes. Instead to the extent that was possible, we incorporated the necessary information into the text”.
All such anxieties may indeed be well-founded, but catering to them is a dubious and damaging urge. When Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s works were translated into English, his writings spoke for themselves and did not need a group of scholars of Latin American literature putting an explanatory scaffolding around it or contemplating giving it footnotes or incorporating “necessary information” into his text or worrying that the US audience were not going to grasp Latin American concepts and history. Márquez’s words danced freely and spoke volumes to a global audience -- and thus can, I daresay, Shahrnush Parsipur’s.
I had read the original Persian of Touba and the Meaning of Night cover to cover when I was a student in Manchester. At the reception of the Feminist Press for Shahrnush Parsipur I obtained a copy of its English translation and had her autograph it for me. Initially, it was a strange feeling to read Shahrnush Parsipur in English. But after a while that sense of oddity began to fade out and the familiar magic of Parsipur’s diction began to work itself out through the unfamiliar habitat of its English rendition. Touba and the Meaning of Night is simply a stunner (in any language)!
At the conclusion of the reception, I arranged to see Parsipur for lunch on the following day so I could interview her, and she gracefully agreed. At about noon time the following day, and over my husband’s outstanding Baqali Polo, we sat down and reminisced about Touba, Mahdokht, Zarrin, Mones, Farrokh-Laqa and most importantly Shahrnush...
THE TEXT OF THE INTERVIEW WITH SHAHRNUSH PARSIPUR
(May 4th 2006 -- New York, USA)
Golbarg Bashi: Thank you very much for this opportunity to sit down for a chat.
Shahrnush Parsipur: Of course, with pleasure.
GB: I am interested in your intellectual topography. I would like to begin to ask you when and how you came to the United States, and why did you chose this country as opposed to somewhere in Europe?
SP: When I wrote Touba and the Meaning of Night, it became very successful. I received many invitations from many countries. But the first country that I came to was the United States; of course I had invitations from Germany and Sweden as well. But because of my previous book, Women without Men, I was arrested. And as a result I could not go to Europe and I came straight to the United States. I remained in the United States for about 9 months and I travelled to a lot places -- I delivered many speeches and saw many cities. At the end of my trip, I went from Iowa to Europe. In Europe, when I was in England I suffered a mental breakdown -- because I am diagnosed with Manic Depression. I was hospitalised in England and returned to Iran in a very bad shape. A year later, the Germans invited me because of the German translation of Touba and the Meaning of Night -- in order to give a talk in Hamburg. From Germany I called my contacts in the United States, where my other book Blue Intellect [Aghl-e Abi] was about to come out. Because this book was banned in Iran, my publisher told me why don’t you come to the US to launch the book yourself? I came to the United States in order to help publishing my book. I arrived in New York and one day I was walking and thinking to myself that I have no future in Iran and they don’t let me work. Last night when we were watching this film about those kids (5), I thought to myself that all Iranians have to go though this phase, we realise that we don’t have a space in our mother country [jame’ey-e madar] and we have to leave. I had remained in Iran for about a year, and I could not make a living. There was absolutely no way for me to make ends meet. No publisher dared to touch my work. Then I thought about trying to stay and work in the United States so I can make a living. It was with this idea that I came to the United States and thus a trip that was to last only a month, for me to just go to Germany and go back to Iran, turned out to be a journey of some twelve years. And here too, because of my illness, I have had many breakdowns and as a result I have not been able to work as I had wished here in America to make a living. I still have that dream so I can raise some money and go back to Iran.
GB: In Iran, you are best known for your books The Dog and the Long Winter [Sag va Zemestan-e Boland], Touba and the Meaning of Night [Touba va Ma’nay-e Shab] and Women without Men [Zanan bedun-e Mardan]. How would you divide the various phases of your writing career?
SP: The first phase of my writing is up to The Dog and the Long Winter, at this period I am a young writer who is either working or studying and writing. This period begins with the time when I was fourteen or fifteen years old until about when I was twenty-eight. In this period, I am writing short stories and I publish them in various periodicals. But I cannot finish my first novel, The Dog and the Long Winter, the first section which I had written in fact when I was eighteen years old. Imagine, at one and the same time I am a university student, I work for a living and then I married quite abruptly -- I have a husband and a child, I have a lot of customary entertaining that I am obliged to attend to. In short it’s quite a crowded situation.
When I was twenty-eight, I received my bachelors degree. Mind you, I went to university quite late and attended evening classes which was a six-year programme. It was two years longer than for those who attended day school. So then what I did was I summarily divorced my husband [yeh bar-e shoharam ro talaq gereftam], I completed my degree at university -- so two of my problems were solved. My child and I rented an apartment along with my maternal cousins. It was there that I began working on The Dog and the Long Winter. I used to write at night and sleep during the day. This is the period of my writing during my early youth. Then, I went to France -- during a time of my life when I was in high spirits. In which period I wrote my book Small and Simple Tales of the Spirit of the Tree [Majeraha-ye Sad-e va Kochak roh-e Derakht] which I like a lot. It was after that that the Iranian Revolution happened. The rest of my work is written during this revolutionary period and after that when I was in prison and upon my release which is a really terrible period.
So I can consider the period after I turned twenty-eight until the end of my time in prison and when I left the country, as the second phase of my writing career. Then I came to the United States and I wrote my Prison Memoir [Khaterat-e Zendan], and after that I wrote Shiva and after that I wrote The Proper Etiquette of Drinking Tea in the Presence of Wolf [Adab-e Sarf-e Chai dar Huzur-e Gorg] which I had put together earlier. After that I wrote Sitting on the Wing of Wind [Bar Bal-e Baad Neshastan]. At any rate, I wrote all these books in the United States. So this would be the third phase of my writing career.
GB: Which still continues?
SP: Yes, still continues.
GB: In your writings I have noted that you are particularly interested in mythical and ancient cultures and you have extensive knowledge about them, especially in China, India and Iran. I wanted to know how and when you become interested in these sorts of subjects and what has been the influence of this knowledge on your fiction.
SP: I cannot pinpoint a date in which I can tell you when I became interested in mythologies. The reason for my interest in mythology was a Chinese book called I-Ching ... and this book is a fortune-telling book. But it’s a strange book as one of my American friends put it -- this is a book of strategy and tactic. This is a book that consists of sixty-four tables, each consisting of six lines. Inside this six-line sixty-four tables, the Chinese do fortune telling, the same thing we do with Hafez by way of fortune-telling. The Chinese do the same however ordinary Chinese do not use this book. This book is at the disposal of only the experts. At one point I noted that these tables resembled a chessboard and chessboard also has sixty-four squares on which the pieces move with the same logic of probability. Exactly as in the book I-Ching. This became very interesting to me, the similarities between these two cultures. I wondered what kind of relationship could have existed between these two cultures. Meanwhile I looked at an instrument in Iran called Raml. Raml consists of two cylinders on which four cubical squares rotate and as far as I could tell that too consists of sixty-four squares. Because two cylinders times four cubical squares becomes eight cubical squares, and eight times eight becomes sixty-four, when these cubical squares rotate. So I discovered something that was very interesting, one was this book I-Ching, the other thing was chessboard and the third thing was Raml, which is a small instrument. I had no doubt that there must be some sort of relationship [khishavandi] among the three objects and there must be a common ancestor, or parentage for these three objects. And since the parents are quite close to this phenomenon, we need to find out their more distant ancestry. It was with these vague ideas that I began to try to understand Raml. Mind you, in Iran Raml is a very secretive phenomenon and not everyone knows about it. Nor do they teach everyone about it. I managed to find a teacher and brought him home, initially he was playing hard to get and was reluctant to share his knowledge. In short I was quite baffled as to what this Raml business is all about. Soon after that I went to France in 1976. In France I went to a university, in the company of a friend. At that university, there was a gentleman -- a distinguished professor, specialising in Occult Science [uloum-e makhfi]. I told that professor that I have noted these similarities and I really don’t know what to do. He told me to go and study Chinese. So I started studying Chinese. He told me to study the Chinese Civilisation first, and then proceed to study Indian Civilisation and then try to connect all of these things together and see what happens. So I went to the Department of Chinese Languages and Civilisation and began my course of studies, which in about two years coincided with the Iranian Revolution. My circumstances in France became rather perilous. In 1980, I returned to Iran. What was your question again?
GB: My question was the influences of...
SP: It was through my studies of these three instruments that I was attracted to mythology. I had purchased a book to translate -- it was called Histoire de Croissance a Des Idea Religieux [The History of Religious Belief and Ideas], unfortunately I cannot remember its author. In that book, I read a number of Sumerian myths. One of which was the myth of Gilgamesh and other one was the Sumerian myth of creation. I was deeply influenced by them. From that point forward, I was deeply enmeshed in mythology and related matters.
GB: What has been the influence of these mythologies on your work? How does it manifest itself?
SP: These myths show themselves in part in my Women without Men, in part in Touba and Meaning of Night and in a considerable part in my Blue Intellect. Mostly in these three books.
GB: To move to a different subject, I know that you have written extensively about your prison incarceration. But I wonder if you could tell me now about the reasons and conditions of your time in prison?
SP: I have been to prison four times and I have extensively discussed them in my Prison Memoir [Khaterat-e Zendan]. It is very difficult for me to explain them again. But I will tell you...
The first time was because I publicly protested the execution of Khosrow Golsorkhi and Keramatollah Daneshiyan -- they were both poets, on which occasion I resigned from the Iranian National Television. Because I believed the reasons of the state for the trial and execution of these poets were not sufficient and it was wrong. In the letter of resignation that I wrote, I indicated that I was not opposed to the government [hukumat] or monarchy [maqam-e saltanat], I still am not opposed to it. But that execution was unjust. At any rate, because of the circumstances surrounding this resignation, I was arrested and put behind bars for 54 days. I was incarcerated.
The second time it was in 1981. I had returned to Iran in 1980. I tried to find a job to earn a living. My sister-in-law had a number of publications which she used to go and purchase. Both to read and to share with us. This particular publication was of a leftist leaning. Right now I cannot remember to which political group it belonged. The name of that publication was Rahaee [Emancipation]. I used to borrow it from my sister-in-law and read it. At any rate, a number of this particular publication had accumulated at my brother’s house. When a number of the leading cadre including Ayatollah Beheshti and his comrades were assassinated. All of these publications were immediately banned. I went to my brother’s to return my niece. My brother had asked my mother who had at the time was in the kitchen to get rid of these publications. But my mother had forgotten and these were left in his car and he had driven to the village of Evin a few days later and these publications were discovered by the police and the Hezbollah militia. At this point they arrested all of us. None of us were political activists, neither my mother, nor my two brothers, nor I. Each one of us was sent to prison for different reasons and periods. Mine become longer than all of them. It lasted for four years, seven months and seven day -- but I was never officially charged.
On two other occasions, I was arrested after the publication of my Women without Men, when a Hezbollah affiliated periodical attacked me, claiming that this story is anti-Islamic, unethical and contrary to this, that, or other things [zede behman]. I was arrested -- I believe in the month of July of 1990. I was in jail for about two months and my family put my maternal aunt’s house as collateral and bailed me out. After that I reported back to the prison in order to release my aunt’s house from any collateral obligation. These are the four times I went to jail.
GB: Again you have written in considerable detail about your experiences in prison. Could you just tell me briefly how you reflect back on your prison experiences?
SP: During my second term in prison, many executions took place. Large groups of people were executed. Maybe six, seven thousand people were killed, which later in addition to the executions that took place in 1988, the number exceeded to ten thousand deaths. These were exceedingly frightful years. The atmosphere of prison was terrorising...
GB: Among the books you have written since you came to the United States is The Proper Etiquette of Drinking Tea in the Presence of Wolf [Adab-e Sarf-e Chai dar Huzur-e Gorg]. Has your living in the United States had an impact on your writing? Do you consider yourself a writer in exile?
SP: I left Iran because I did not have a source of income. In the United States, I became a political refugee. Not initially, because I did not consider it proper to seek political asylum. But eventually I was forced to do it -- because I had no other way of staying in the United States legally. Right now, I live in the United States. I tell you in absolute honesty that my returning to Iran is an entirely personal question concerning my family. My son is in Iran and I wish to live with my son. But I cannot tolerate the atmosphere in Iran -- I have become too old to walk in the streets and a, say, fifteen year-old girl to come and tell me “Hey Sister, fix your veil” (khahar hejabat-o dorost kon). You know my connections to certain aspects of Iran have been cut. Iran is a place where people get on each other’s nerves. It is as if they are striking each other’s nervous cords violently. They create a condition in which one has no choice but sit down and just cry out loud. The reason for that is simply the fact that the class differences are quite pronounced. The villagers have invaded the cities. They are consistently curious to find out how you as an urban dweller live. Thus on every occasion they grab hold of you and interrogate you. And I for one have no patience left in me to answer these questions. It is very difficult for me. On the other hand, I don’t really feel at home here in the United States either. I would have very much liked to have become completely American. But that is also impossible, because I live in an Iranian domain and about ninety nine percent of the time, I associate with Iranians. So the expression, choob-e doa sar tala (damned if I do, damned if I don’t), is perfectly applicable to me.
GB: Would you say that your presence in the United States has had an affect on your work?
SP: Yes, right now there is a historicity to my writing. Because I no longer am in touch with the daily realties of people in Iran. So I am in effect attending to a history. But I must say that I really wish I could go to Iran to meet the younger generation. I mean the young people who are now writing and working. It would be priceless for me to see them working.
GB: I see your point that there is now a certain element of historicity in your writing but do you also write about the exilic condition?
SP: No, so far I have not written anything about the United States because if I were to do so I would have to talk about characters that I have met here in the United States -- bringing them on to the stage. And I don’t think they would want to be dragged to that scene.
GB: Well, I think they would be honoured... My next question concerns the visual adaptation of your work. Recently Shirin Neshat has adapted certain parts of your Women Without Men for a video instillation -- in one of which you play a part and I understand that she is also working on a feature length adaptation of the entire book. I wonder what are your own thoughts on these visual adaptations of your literary work?
SP: Well, you see, you write in a certain way and the filmmaker imagines and portrays your work in a different way. I categorically like and endorse Shirin’s work because she is an artist par excellence and extremely talented and as a result I believe in this particular work -- she is also very successful. Of course she has made some serious changes in my work but this is the prerogative of any filmmaker to change the subject in a way that she can turn it into a film. As for my acting in all honesty, I am not an actress (chuckles). Bringing actors and actresses from Iran is very difficult. First of all, Women without Men is banned and the book itself is quite problematic. The other thing is that the Islamic Republic does not allow women to appear in movies without a veil so there are these kinds of problems as well. So the actors and actresses had to be selected in Europe and the United States. Well, Shirin was quite limited because of these restrictions and asked me to come and play the role of the Mother. So I said fine, I’ll do it. And I started acting.
GB: So your consider this a positive development -- I mean this transformation of your literary work into a visual work of art.
SP: Oh definitely.
GB: In your work, both in your fiction and in your memoir, you talk quite freely and frankly about moments of eroticism and sexual intimacy, i.e. you bring rather private and taboo subjects into the public domain. These I believe are liberating for your readers. Perhaps preventing women in particular from experiencing false guilt over these feelings. Where did you find the courage to write so publicly about these taboo issues?
SP: You see, Golbarg jan, from the time I was a young woman I discovered some secrets. And that was that unless you have sexual experiences you cannot enter the domain of public work and social activities. Those in power know this fact and thus transform women to sexual objects. I mean they first and foremost repress and denigrate women -- then they direct them to put a wedding gown on and go to their husband’s home and come out wearing the shroud. I mean to say that they train women in certain limited roles. So the most important barrier in front of a woman who has ambitions in creative work and wants to do something important is to overcome her fear of sexual taboos and matters. It is very funny that in our society you come across women who are more than seventy years old and still don’t know what an orgasm is. You come across young girls who go to a public bath and are afraid to sit down for fear of getting pregnant by some semen that might be floating around. There are some strange fears around which must be overcome. The way to do so is to talk about sexual matters as much as possible openly and honestly. In order to make it possible for women to get to know their own bodies. So she knows who she is and where she stands. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in sexual anarchy, not at all. But I completely endorse sexual freedom. This must come to pass so that women can become somebody. Having said all of this I hereby declare in this particular historical juncture that in my judgement the best thing a woman can do is having a husband, live with her children and carry on a quiet and dignified life!
GB: ... Are you concerned that since you left Iran, you may have lost some of your readership? And would you say that this potential loss may have an influence on the way you write?
SP: Well, my books keep selling rather well in Iran. Unfortunately there is no honest publisher in Iran to tell me exactly how many copies of my books are actually sold. Do you see what I mean? For example there is a publisher who publishes my Touba and the Meaning of Night or Dog and the Long Winter. I call him once a year and I ask him, how much have my books sold and when would he give me my royalties. To which he responds, “I beg your pardon Madame, I still have more than a thousand copies of your book sitting in my storage”. I call him a year later and he says “would you please Madame, I still have two thousand one hundred copies of your book collecting dust on my shelves”. You see what I mean? My books instead of getting reduced in number they keep increasing in this man’s inventory. Something fishy is going on. Right now, I have no idea who is reading me. I have no factual information and this is quite an agonising issue for me. Because you need to have an active, agile and provocative relationship with your audience so that you can continue to write. But unfortunately I do not have this relationship.
GB: So it has had an impact on the way you write now?
SP: That is true.
GB:... because you have no idea how you are read and understood inside Iran.
SP: That is true.
GB: Right now two of your books have been translated into English...
SP: Three of my works.
GB:Women without Men...
SP:... I have a novella called ‘Tajrubeha-ye Azad’ that appears under the title of Trial Offers in the book that Professor Heshmat Moayyad has edited and is called Chicago Anthology of Modern Persian Literature published by MAGE in Washington D.C.
GB: That is right, so those two plus Touba and the Meaning of Night makes three of your works that have been translated into English.
SP: That is right.
GB: So, are you now conscious of your English-speaking readership and do you think this possible attention may have an impact on your writing in the future?
SP: I really don’t know my dear -- I am sixty years-old. When I write, still, Iran remains my main frame of reference. Do you see what I mean? Because I have not experienced the American society intimately. I do live in the United States but I live amongst the Iranians. But this is a time for me to discover what Americans say about my work and how they connect to it. In other words, I will discover what Americans think of my work. Time will tell.
GB: In other words, you are still not conscious of what your English-speaking readership thinks or does not think of your work?
SP: That is true.
GB: But if you were to become conscious of that audience -- it will have an impact on your work, right?
SP: Perhaps. I don’t know.
GB: And that would lead you to write about issues in this country?
SP: Perhaps. So far I have not written anything about the place where I live.
GB: I would also like to ask you about the writers that you have read and admired, both in the past and right now, and been your inspiration?
SP: Two writers more than anybody else have had influenced my work. One is Dostoyevsky from Russia and Charles Dickens from Britain. I have read them a lot. I have been extremely influenced by these two writers. Dostoyevsky, I loved so much that when I used to attend an Italian school run by catholic nuns -- on every Sunday there used to be a special programme that they would sit us down and preach to us -- I used to think that if I were to become a Christian and I were asked to wed the Christ, I would wed Dostoyevsky. This is how much I loved Dostoyevsky. As for Charles Dickens, I read one of his works called Great Expectations thirty-three or thirty-four times. The last time I read it was in fact when I was in prison in the Islamic Republic and I noticed that I still loved it -- it is yet to tire me. But the interesting things is that I have not read anything else by Charles Dickens. I have just read this one book over and over again. Among the French, I love Honore de Balzac. Two Latin Americans have heavily influenced me -- I adore Gabriel Gárcia Márquez and I love Gorge Louis Borges and people like them. I am very sad that I don’t know anything about contemporary Chinese or Japanese literatures. I believe that if I were to know these two literatures, I would have been influenced by them.
GB: Have you read all of these authors in their Persian translations?
SP: Yes, I have read them all in Persian.
GB: Who among Iranian authors have influenced you most?
SP: Sadeq Hedayat. His Blind Owl has had a tremendous impact on me. I have used Hedayat’s Blind Owl in Touba and Meaning of Night. In my Blue Intellect, I have extensively used the Blind Bowl. There seems to have been a constant challenge between me and the Blind Owl in these two books.
GB: I know that you say that you are not a political person -- but do you follow the political news for example the issues concerning the women’s movement inside Iran...
SP: Look, I read this news -- but they don’t touch me. In other words, I am not constantly engaged with them.
GB: But they do interest you, right?
SP: Of course they do.
GB: Thank you Ms Parsipur -- sorry if I tired you.
SP: Well you know after so much grape juice...
(1) For a critique and analysis of literature at the service of Empire, see Laila Lalami’s The Missionary Position. The Nation (June 19, 2006 issue), Negar Mottahedeh’s Off the Grid: Reading Iranian Memoirs in Our Time of Total War. Middle East Report Online (September 2004) and Hamid Dabashi’s Native Informers and the Making of the New American Empire. Al-Ahram (June 1st 2006).
(2) The term “war of/on terror” belongs to Zillah Eisenstein, an American anti-racist feminist activist, professor and author. Her seminal book Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism and ‘the’ West is one of the most cogent feminist critiques of the US Empire.
(3) See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1988: 271-313.
(4) Committed academics, chiefly among them, Farzaneh Milani, Zohreh Sullivan, Kamran Talattoff and Farzin Yazdanfar have meticulously translated and analysed contemporary Iranian women’s literature but unfortunately their work is limited to academic circles. For a foundational text on Iranian women’s literature in English see Farzaneh Milani’s wonderful book Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women. New York: Syracuse University Press. 1992.
(5) Here Shahrnush Parsipur is referring to a documentary film titled Sound of Silencedirected by Amir Hamz and Mark Lazarz that we saw together on the evening after her book launch in New York. This film was screened in the context of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Golbarg Bashi is a Ph.D. student in Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol, UK and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in New York, US >>> Visit GolbargBashi.com