Iranian Women and Contemporary Memoirs
By: Farideh Goldin, 2004
There has been an explosion of memoirs by Iranian women writers since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The books are written and published not inside Iran, whose bibliophobic government has killed many writers and their words, but abroad--not in Persian, but in English and French.
A decade after the Revolution, scholars of Iranian women writers and Iranian autobiographies called attention to the rarity of autobiographies and even biographies by Iranians and fewer still by Iranian women. Farzaneh Milani wrote, "Avoiding voluntary self-revelation and self-referentiality, most Iranian writers have turned their backs on autobiography." In a later article, she added, "Granted the part played by humility, self-censorship, discretion, and unfavorable living conditions, the fact remains that whereas [Iranian] male writers have produced a handful of life narratives, no woman literary figure has ever published an autobiography." William Hanaway went even further to suggest that maybe autobiography is "too Western-centered and culture-bound for Iranians to make use of it," more of a cultural form rather than literary genre that does not lend itself to the Iranian. They blamed continuous political oppression against freedom of speech and literary expression; they blamed the indirect style of writing in Persian, where speaking of oneself is at best impolite, at worst, vulgar; they blamed the spiritual veiling of women that keeps their voices silenced.
What happened in the decade following the publications of Milani's Veils and Words and articles by Milani, Hillaman and Hanaway in Women's Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, in which they had suggested that the Iranian culture did not lend itself to life narratives? What enabled Iranian women to break with tradition, to write in a genre that is the most forbidding in the Iranian literature?
There are approximately 25 books of khaterat written the following decade. This collection is impressive. Of these, I consider twelve to be western-style memoirs, five of which were published in 2003, 2004, and were mostly well-received and read enthusiastically.
The Persian word khaterat is often used casually by Iranians to refer to any autobiographical narrative. Khaterat can be poetry by Forough Farokhzad, or Homa Sarshar's In the Back Alleys of Exile, which is a collection of essays and poetry, or Zohreh Sullivan's Exiled Memories-all very important and ground breaking books, but not memoirs as defined by western literary standards.
Categorized as memoirs are also recent books published by mostly members of the Qagar and Pahlavi royal families, for example, Farah Pahlavi's An Enduring Love, Ashraf Pahlavi's Faces in The Mirror, Soraya Esfandiari's The Lonely Palace, and Satareh Farman Farmaian's Daughter of Persia. I label them as biographies whether or not they openly acknowledge their ghost writers or co-authors. Farman Farmaian's book names a coauthor, Dona Munker. The purpose of most books in this category is to rewrite history, to correct supposed misunderstandings, and to interpret the events from their writers' points of view.
Then there are books such as Farideh Diba's My Daughter, Farah and Khaterat-e Taj Ol Moluk, books presented as life-narratives that are actually forgeries to achieve similar political aims. These works, in a convoluted way, reaffirm that memoirs by Iranian women are being read and have an impact.
Undoubtedly the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is the catalyst for almost all these memoirs. Virginia Woolf wrote that for a woman to write she needs to be able to have life experiences, to travel, to see, to experience the world. The shock of displacement, of exile, even if not necessarily the writer's, but for her parents and extended family; the inability to return to one's homeland easily, safely; and awareness of the suffering of family, friends, and those left behind-all such overwhelming life-experiences propel these books of memoirs. Moreover, the nostalgia among the Iranians in exile and the westerners' curiosity about Iran reinforces the momentum.
Carolyn Heilburn wrote, "A woman sits down to write her memoir, recording not only her own story but that of a place and time that has since disappeared." I would like to add, that in case of Iranian women memoirists, the memoirs explain a world that has not disappeared but one that the writer has lost. The cover page to Shusha Guppy's The Blindfold Hors e, for example, describes the book as an "evocation of a way of life that has been destroyed forever." In Snake's Marble, Mehry Reid hopes that her "memoirs will help keep those [Iranian] traditions alive in the minds and hearts of Persians wherever they might be. Her first chapter, in fact, is named, "Window to the Past." Reid writes, "For many years, I thought about writing the memoirs of my childhood, but when my daughter... told me that she was carrying my first grandchild, this was the catalyst that got me started. I wanted to leave for him and his descendents a family history of sorts and a feeling for the customs, traditions, and way of life of the country where half of his forebears were born. I personally started writing my memoirs, Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman, at my daughters' request, who wanted to know about a country they might never be able to visit.
In our zeal to recapture the Iran we knew for our children, many Iranian women memoirists tend to record parts of our past, or rather Iran's past as if for an encyclopedia, reaching out to the Iran that is forbidden to us, trying to paint it with our words.
The Western movement in women's memoirs has enabled Iranian writers, who are often well-read in western literature, to treasure seemingly mundane details of life. Sizdah-bedar picnics in Gelareh Asayesh's book Saffron Sky, and "Sleeping on the rooftops under the desert sky," the recipe for Norooz food of sabzi-polo and dried fish in Rouhi Shafii's Scent of Saffron, and the custom of cleaning sour grapes for Passover or visiting a women's public baths, the hamam in Wedding Song are common scenes in Iranian women's memoirs, attesting to the importance of not just historical events but also of everyday life, home details, and women's work that are characteristics of women's memoirs.
Modesty and secrecy prevented Iranian women from recording our life narratives until recently. Writing of self is frightening; it has consequences. Life narratives cannot possibly explain the author's life alone without involving other family members and friends. When Farzaneh Dumas told her father about writing her memoir, he responded, "Great! Just don't mention our name." Even before I decided to write a book about my life, I received messages from family members threatening law suites if I spoke about family matters in my lectures. We have imported the taboo about speaking and writing candidly from our Iranian past to America.
Although Iranian women traditionally shied away from writing and especially writing memoirs, the facts are that the oral tradition of telling of one's own or ancestral lives are part of the Iranian women's oral tradition. I remember vividly the winter nights my mother, grandmother and aunts gathered around a space heater, sharing life stories of women's past and present. This tradition of story telling has also inspired contemporary women fiction writers. For example, Gina Nahai started writing her first book, Cry of the Peacock after a summer she spent at home, in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother and aunt, retelling old stories of life in Iran, of the events in family and neighbors' lives. Dorit Rabinyan, the author of Persian Brides, similarly, wrote her first novel inspired by the tales her grandmother and mother told her. Then, why didn't these writers record their stories in the form of nonfiction? Nahid Rachlin, an Iranian-American fiction writer, contemplated writing her memoirs a few years ago; in fact, she published one slice of her life narrative in the New York Times Magazine, but then changed her mind. As with many other women writers, the baring of soul, telling the private scenes of her life felt too frightening.
The amazing explosion of memoir writing by Iranian women in recent years could also result from the fact that, in Jill Ker Conway's terminology, we are finally willing to take "agency" for our life stories; that we realize our stories not only matter, but that they can be received enthusiastically; that these khaterat, these memories are worth taking the risk for. Most importantly, with the wealth of material on Iranian history and the fallout from the Iranian Revolution, and western curiosity about a country that was recently labeled as an axis of evil by the Bush administration, it is possible to have a personal story that is not totally private; it is possible to write a life narrative that is more political than confessional.
Almost all these books of life narratives are written in English. Why would any writer choose a language other than her own to tell the story of her people? There are, of course, commercial considerations: these memoirs reach wider audiences if written in English. With Azar Nafisi being a best seller in the U.S., the probability of other women memoirists imitating her is much greater. Even if not spoken, the English language is understood in many areas of the world, especially since it has become the language of computer technology, a language of wider communication, and international business. The Indian author Anita Desai said that to her English is the key to a world literature. In an interview, Nahid Rachlin told me that few of her readers are Iranians. Iranians who read her books have been living outside the country for many years. The new generation of hybrid Iranians, barely remembering Iran, read the memoirs nostalgically, comparing them with the stories of their parents' experiences in Iran.
Additionally, with the west's increasing curiosity and awareness of Iran, these autobiographies give rare glimpses of life through a lens that is not colored by the western media. About writing her memoirs, The Journey from the Land of NO, Roya Hakakian said, "Many English speaking friends always wanted to hear the story of Iran and its revolution as I had seen it. So, in a way, I wrote this for them." Similarly, about Firoozeh Dumas, the author of Funny in Farsi, the Iranian critic Mersedeh Mehrtash wrote," Firoozeh's work focuses on one of the most important aspects of our community's efforts towards self-representation: our image. By taking matters into her own hands and writing a book on her experience in America-as an Iranian-American-Firoozeh is helping our community set our image in our own words, and on our own terms." Dumas herself said, "I hope that my book serves as a bridge for non-Iranians, taking away the fear of the unknown. The media has portrayed us as such a frightening group of people and I hope that my book reveals the warm and lovable side of the culture. It's hard to hate a group of people when you see the shared humanity."
Jumana Faroukhy writes about Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis: "From the start, Setrapi makes it clear that her mission is to dispel the Western notion of Iran as a land of fundamentalists and terrorists. In Persepolis, the author portrays her parents as westernized intellectuals who adopted western styles: her mother wears pants, not a chador, and her father shaves his beard against the enforced Islamic rules. In an interview with Janet Saidi, Setrapi added, "I wrote this book to give the image of Iran that I knew." She added, "Anytime I was outside my country and saw pictures of Iran, it was pictures of women in chadors and guys with guns."
To alleviate the west's fear of the Islamic Republic of Iran, many writers look for metaphoric images to reveal the western side of Iran, the familiar, friendlier aspects of the country and its people as victims themselves. In The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale, Nesta Ramazani uses the "metaphors of movement," of ballet, to fuse Iranian and Islamic traditions with the western thought process. Marjane Satrapi's comic strip memoir is filled with the images of American insignia, "Denim Jacket with the Michael Jackson Button," "Nikes," and western music: the BeeGees, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder. Firoozeh Dumas in Funny in Farsi, mingles her parents' Iranian ways, like their arranged marriage when her mom was 17 with their learned or practiced American life-style, for example, Firoozeh's adventures in baby sitting or her father's affinity for ham. Azar Nafisi brings her western readers closer to Iranian life through Western books. The message is, of course, we are more like you than you think. We are the same people, also the victims of Islamic fundamentalism and theocracy in our own home. The exception to this rule is my own book which does not portray pre-Revolutionary Iran as a paradise lost. Being a Jew from a smaller town in Iran, I experienced a different Iran, a difficult Iran.
Many Iranian women memoirists attempt to preserve the culture, hence the encyclopedic form of some of the narratives, describing the customs in their finest details. Farzaneh Dumas said, "We need to preserve our culture by preserving our language and literature. Speak Persian without all the English words thrown in. She persuades Iranians, "Write your stories." While saying this, the irony must have even escaped Dumas herself that to preserve her culture she wrote her story not in Persian, but in English. Can the language of the west that has preconceived notions of the Iranian culture and the Iranian woman, a language that is based on western patriarchal construct that views the east, views Iran through distorted lenses, be used as the medium to define and defend Iranian culture and thoughts?
Most international writers, including Iranians, realize that their voices can be heard only through English. The Indian writer, Anita Desai speaks German, Hindu and Urdu fluently. Yet she feels that English is her literary language, a language that is easier to bend and shape to her thoughts and feelings. Iranian women's contemporary memoirs have earned them international recognition and wide readership because they write in a language that is widely read.
These Iranian women write in a language with which they are probably the most comfortable. Most of Iranian women memoirists received western-style education. Nafisi spent her High School years in England, and received her higher education from Oklahoma University, Satrapi left for Vienna at age 14 and finished her education in France, Asayesh emigrated at age 15, Dumas moved here at age 7, Ramazani was sent to a boarding school in England as a child and later went to an English speaking Presbyterian school in Tehran, Roya Hakakian has been in the U.S. since mid-1980's where she received most of her education, I studied English at Iran-America Society in Shiraz in my high school years and attended the American-style Pahlavi University for higher education.
Additionally, two decades after the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian children have grown in the west, comfortable with their adopted languages and cultures, speaking English or French without or with little Iranian accent. It is, therefore, natural for them when they write to adopt the language of the countries that have adopted them.
But is it natural or even acceptable to consider these memoirs Iranian? Can a writer be Iranian if she doesn't write in Persian, or worse yet, when she doesn't know how to? I asked Azar Nafisi if she ever considered writing a memoir in Persian. She replied, "I wanted to write this story when I lived in Iran, but I could not. There were many reasons why this book could not be written in Iran, not all of it political. There were too many restraints, too many rules, imposed by the government and many of the readers. I don't know if I would have written the same story, in the same style; even the language you write in can decide the way your book is shaped, but I know I had the same urges when I was in Iran."
I asked the same question from Roya Hakakian, whose book Journey from the Land of NO, will be released August 2004. She replied, "I don't know when I chose to write in English. It just came." I asked both writers if they would like for their memoirs to be translated into Farsi. Nafisi replied, yes, "but I want to have control over the translation. It is translatable as far as any book is. It is so difficult to capture the nuances, the lights and shades of a book in another language." Hakakian answered, "I [would] like for my work to be translated into Farsi, but as you put it, I am not sure it'll make a whole [lot] of sense in translation."
When I was asked the same question, I replied "No" immediately. Persian is a circuitous language. Centuries of oppression and foreign rulers taught Iranians to evade direct responses in order to keep their heads. I cannot imagine a book as direct as mine would be translatable into Persian, and if it is ever translated, I fear it will be called vulgar.
The next few decades will be a testimonial to the effect of these books that have broken the barrier of language and culture for Iranian writers outside Iran. Whether they will be read in their English form or translated into Persian, they will undoubtedly be read by the growing number of highly educated Iranian women. The impact of these confessional books on Iranian readers will be a fascinating subject to watch and to study.
Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words (New York: Syracuse UP, 1992), 201