Wanting more out of life

A conversation with Massud Alemi, author of "Interruptions"


Wanting more out of life
by Doost

A conversation with Massud Alemi, author of Interruptions (IBEX Publishers, 2008). Also see excerpt from first chapter and his features' index in iranian.com.

Where does the title of your novel come from?

The novel takes place in revolutionary times, in fact about a couple of years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It was the time that major aspects of the society underwent pretty drastic transformations. Attacks on basic freedoms of the people had already started and the mere audacity of the regime to go places that no other dictatorship had gone before (to borrow from Star Trek) had created a funny and ironic situation. People couldn't believe that not only were they not getting the things for which they had fought so hard, but they were losing some of the things that they had pretty much taken for granted for such a long time. That gave people sort of that deer caught in the headlights look. It was the time of major interruptions in the people's lives. And there are of course many other interruptions at every level of the society, personal, political, cultural, national, you name it. This book is about all of those things, as much as a novel can be about such concerns without losing sight of the fact that it is also a story about characters and their loves and hopes and dreams.

Where did you get your idea from?

It's funny, because it had a different title at first. It was after I finished writing the book, through revisions and complete rewrites that it slowly began to dawn on me that the initial title wasn't expressive enough. From that moment and for a long time thereafter I was unhappy about it. Then I realized that if there is a common thread that connects all the episodes and characters of this book together, or what some people refer to, the theme of the book, it is the disjointed lives of the characters. Then it became apparent to me that indeed if there is a single characteristic that defines Iranians irrespective of their backgrounds, political beliefs, and social conditions it is the fact that they have all had interrupted lives. This is at every level, personal, societal, historical, political, even in our love lives, we are an interrupted nation. I mean there is very little evidence of continuity in us and in our lives, whether personal and private or otherwise. That's when I decided to change the title and call it by something that captures that theme.

How did you stumble on this theme?

I don't know. I don't tend to write thematically; i.e. I don't sit down and say to myself: "Well, interruptions seem to be the right thing to write about. So, I think I'll write a story about that." I know this is trite, but if there was any choosing, it was the theme that chose me. As I said, I was working with a different title, much narrower in scope. It was after the book was finished, and after it underwent several revisions that it began to reveal its meaning. It was a revelatory experience. I learned a great deal about myself and about writing during this whole process.

What in your upbringing can lead us to better understanding of the novel?

My parents were both veterans of unsuccessful marriages, complete with baggage and children of their own when they met each other. Their repudiation of their past lives, coupled with negation of their current circumstances, helped them shed their old selves, or at least they tried to, adopting new personas to go along with their new lives. Coincidentally, that may have been precisely what was called for in the Iran of the 1960s. The country had come out of a long period of turmoil and was headed for social and economic development. It turned out that many parents at the time felt the same way. In my father's circle of friends, for example, it wasn't unusual to put your son or daughter in a Catholic school; the association with that foreign element seemed logical for a modern education. That's how I ended up in Don Bosco, a Catholic school run by the Vatican.

So you weren't brought up as a believer? Where did your parents get their values?

My mother was puritanical; her experiences with two unfulfilling marriages had turned her against men. All men should be put in a giant boiling pot, she used to say, the best of them on top, the worst of them at the bottom. She upheld feudal virtues, improvidence, virginity, loyalty. She denied sex, yet she was natural in other ways, warm, fond of eating, in love with cooking and baking. She was a true matriarch, sexless, humorless, a heroine that ruled us with an iron hand, a devouring maternity that surrounded us and protected us while keeping all notions of independence away from us. Those two went hand in hand, relentless love and suffocating protection. She was heroic, ready to fight for her children, sacrificing, exposing herself to the humiliation of taking out loans for our comfort. At the same time accumulating in us a sense of guilt, a sense that she had given her life for us, that she had wasted her youth so that we would not have to. All of this instilled in us a feeling like we were in debt to her, a debt bigger than the national debt, and we felt too small in contrast to her grandeur, unable to repay her for all that she had done for us.

How does this background contribute to your writing?

When I was eight or nine, I used to pretend that I was an editor of a magazine. I turned notebooks into magazines that I would fill with hand-written stories and self-made crossword puzzles. I'd even design my own ads about soaps and watches. The rest of the pages would be filled with interviews with my friends, and poems that I would compose. My mother, a woman of some literary taste and ambition herself, would trash those poems by calling them inarticulate and cheesy, causing me great pain. She wanted me to become somebody important, a doctor or an engineer. Somebody to be reckoned with. But I always recovered from the blows that she delivered to my ego, and went back at it again and again.

There are many love stories; why should we want to read your novel?

Your point is well taken; all love stories are already told. The love story in Interruptions takes place in one of the tumultuous periods of recent Iranian history. It's after World War II when unprecedented openness and freedom descended upon the society. That whole political and social background gives the story a unique flavor that I think you'd want to read and perhaps gain a new appreciation for Iran's struggle. Secondly, the characters are unique in not accepting their fate, wanting more out of life. It is the force of their need that propels the story. That need coupled with the inadequacies of the characters and their lack of any tools to deal with their inadequacies (and of course, the particular background of the story) causes disruptions at different levels in their lives. Interruption in every aspect of people's lives is a real thing, and needs to be acknowledged, and so this is what the novel is about.

What is it like writing in an adopted language?

Someone said that writing in a language other than your mother tongue is like going to another planet. A planet which probably you’ve heard of before and you've seen in pictures. But actually visiting it is an entirely different matter. You come across strange objects … leaves, insects and rocks that you’ve got to name upon arrival, and discover their properties. You make mistakes, for sure, and you have to go back to your ledgers and correct those mistakes. And objects are not the only things. There are jokes, songs, habits, falls, injuries, spectacles, secrets, and rituals that you never knew existed. It’s quite an adventure.

How do you define your alienation from the Iranian exiles?

I am an anti-revolutionary in the Iranian sense of the word. I was opposed to the idea of an Islamic Republic with all of my nineteen year old existence, when it was put to referendum shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Iranian exiles, scattered all over the globe, are split into as many social and political factions as was the entire nation before the Islamic revolution. It seems to me that they take their ideas far too seriously and give themselves much more credit than they certainly deserve. If you asked me what is the biggest sin of the Iranian exiles? I'd tell you that it is living in America (or Europe, Australia, Japan, etc…) as if they are not part of this country. I don't know about other societies, but in America, we are living against the nature that's sustaining us. It's purely psychological, the feeling that we are too superior to join other Americans in their flea markets, yard sales, school PTA meetings, etc …. I think it's important for our young to join America even if their parents resist it. I joined America very early on. If I'm writing, and as long as the language of the majority in this country is English, I feel compelled to write in English.

How do you define your alienation from present-day Iran?

As a deep distrust of the theocratic regime. As the keen satisfaction of never having supported Khomeini and his revolution. Memories of that other Iran, the one that’s thick with culture and art is a source of pride for me. You have to understand that Iran for me is a place where I grew up, but with which I haven’t been able to form an adult relationship. Having said that, one is faithful to the food one was brought up on, and that in a way constitutes patriotism. I've madly craved Persian cuisine on occasion, and those who know me, also know that on those occasions nothing can stop me from getting a bellyful of Basmati rice, or Ash, or Kashk-e Baudemjune. I'm loyal to the country of my parents, but not strongly enough to want to go back and live there. I've spent almost all my adult life in America; going back to Iran would be impossible since the Iran that I knew no longer exists. However, I'll never achieve a 100 percent American identity, either. While it is exhilarating not to belong to a fixed spot on the map, it's a disappointing experience not feeling oneself in the center of something. There are so many things which I cannot say to an American friend with any hope of being understood. Therefore, I write, hoping that some of what has gone into my making will come across, and people will be able to make some sort of sense out of it.

Do you think in English, or do you translate your thoughts from Persian?

Often I have been asked the question whether I translate my thoughts into English. The answer to this question is by no means a simple one. Nabokov once said that we do not think in words but in images. I cannot say this is a universal truth, because I know people who disagree with it. However, thought is as often pictorial or purely emblematic as verbal; a writer's vocabulary is not made up of just words, but images, incidents, situations, smells, tunes, characters. I can't think of anything without imagining it, without giving it shape in my mind's eye and ear.

I lived my childhood in a different culture, speaking a different language. The things that I experienced in my childhood are defined, tagged and classified in Persian. For them I have had to find proper substitutes in English. Conversely, the things that I experienced in my adult life are defined, tagged and classified in English; I have no name for the majority of them in Persian. The Persian language has a lot of shame incorporated in its character. I cannot swear in Persian as easily as I do in English. It's a language of repressive respectfulness. Therefore, a lot of times I cannot speak about my feelings in Persian, either. Nahid Rachlin has written about this much more eloquently than me.

What is your relationship to America?

I grew up with American foreignness deep inside my soul, knowing the Marx Brothers, Superman, X-man, Mickey Mouse, Batman, the stories of the Civil War, the Depression, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. All this gets high marks in the geographical entity known as Iran. I recited American poets and read American novels; listened to Rock and Roll and Bob Dylan and Donna Summer as I fell in love, for the first time, in the Summer of ‘75. I have danced to America, cried with America, and even when I fantasized about the outcome of the impending revolution, I admired America, not just because I had woven its music into my love affairs and not because I had incorporated its world into my dreams, but for what it once symbolized in my mind—for the impossible idealism of the American forefathers, the freedom fighters of the War of Independence. It was through its charm and expertise that America conquered us, and impressed us with jokes and Hollywood movies, and books, yes novels of Stowe, Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Updike. As an alternative to the old world, America hasn't let anyone down, I don't think.

Obviously America hasn't let you down. Have you been successful?

Success means different things to different people. The publication of my novel gives me joy—for having lived forty odd years not quite in vain—and yet no long-term satisfaction because there is a long road ahead.

Visit www.massudalemi.com