HPR: Given that your work was at one point banned in Iran, how would you characterize your experience as a writer in a politically repressive country?
Shariar Mandanipour: I’m not a political man. I studied Political Science, and maybe because I know something about politics, I hate politics. I’m a writer, but, unfortunately, in a country like Iran, being a writer, not a governmental writer…being a sort of dissident or a writer that you write for the freedom of writing, that you want to write beautiful stories. At first…they look at you as a political or as an opposition person, opposition of the regime. There are times that Iranian writers, we announce that we are not…a political party, we just need freedom of expression, and, because of it, some Iranian good writers, some Iranian good translators were assassinated. They didn’t involve [themselves] in any politic[al] matter, and a few of them [were] sentenced to prison. So the way that a dictatorial regime looks at you as a writer, they see you as an opposition [figure]. And you have no choice…even if you announce it, if you declare it, that I’m not involved in politics, they can’t believe it, and I think they are right. Because when you write against censorship, and you write about freedom and freedom of writing, freedom of expression, it is something against the dictator.
HPR: As a writer, in that sort of environment, what sort of authority or responsibility do you have to convey stories that might not otherwise be told?
SM: You know, the history of literature…engaged literature or even socialist realism literature. And I’m sure that these kind of stories, they will kill stories, they will [be] against art. You are a writer, and your job is to write a beautiful sory. You shouldn’t say to yourself that you’re going to write about the suffering that a good man is taking in a prison…If I decide to write this story…that the regime imprisons our good students…it wouldn’t be a good story. You just want to write a good story. If you are living there, if you are a human being in a country like Iran, at last it comes to your story, if you want to write a love story. The suffer[ing] of people will come into your story somehow. I’m talking about the art, not any political engagement..or any sort of socialist realism that you will feel. In Russia, before the revolution, they had great writers. After the revolution, because there were purely socialist realism stories, you don’t see any good writers. [They] were censored and [had] to publish their work underground…I know that my engagement is to write a good story. If I suffer with my people..their happiness, the beauties, or the evils that they make will all be reflected in my story.
HPR: Many of your stories address major events in Iranian history, such as the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Is there any context or background that you would want or expect readers to bring to your work?
SM: Of course, you know that I was at the war, for my armed service. For ten months, I was at the front lines in such an absurd, maybe foolish war between Iran and Iraq—two dictators, it was a war between two dictators. I went there to experience the war, and, as a writer, it was so dark and bitter, as a human being, being in war was so dark and bitter for me, but, as a writer, it was good for me because I could write about it…I think it’s so natural. It was so painful, being there, seeing your best soldiers killed, it comes to my nightmares here, even after many years, and it comes into my stories. Right now my story, the novel that I’m writing, it is just about the war, so I can’t get rid of it.
HPR: Would you describe your work as rooted in distinctly Iranian themes and experiences, or do you intend for it to have a certain universality that appeals to all readers, regardless of their backgrounds?
SM: Each writer is standing on his or her culture, is standing on his or her country, and there are writers that are looking maybe to the sky or their head over the clouds. It depends on how they write, it depends on how much artsier they are, or how much better writers they are. So no matter if, for instance, a writer is writing about a small village in his country, his novel is a universal novel. For instance, let’s look at Faulkner. He’s an American writer, he made a sort of imaginary state…so he’s writing about maybe southwest Americans or somewhere there, but he’s everywhere. For instance in Iran, in an Arabian country, people understand him. So no matter [whether] a writer wants to write for the world or just for his or for her people, it depends on his art of writing. If he writes well, if the story works well, everybody could be his or her reader.
HPR: What elements of your work do you think were seen as objectionable or as challenging the authority of the regime by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance? To what extent would you consider yourself a political activist?
SM: I am a member of Iranian writers association, but it [was] banned after the Revolution. We didn’t have an office, the regime [said] that this association [was] dead, they denied it. We believe that, as much as we are writing, our association or organization is alive, even if we don’t have any publishing or magazine or even a room where we can get together to choose, for instance, our editors. Because of it and because of my talks here and there, against censorship, of course they picture me as a poitical writer. Although I don’t believe in any ideology, I’m not a religious writer, but this is the way that censors look at you. There were times that I couldn’t publish my book because censorship [became] worse and worse in that era. There were times when the censorship machine was a little bit better—then someone like me could publish his books. They didn’t even let me continue my studies in the university. I wasn’t somehow…at their standards. But it was wonderful that there were times when Iranian students could have a sort of NGO, and they invited somebody like me. And 700 students were sitting in the cellar listening to someone like me. After Ahmadinejad…came to power…or [was] elected in a fake election, they banned 99% of students or NGOs. They banned independent magazines. I was chief editor of one of them [and] they banned it. Right now in Iran, Iranian writers hardly could publish their books. But someone like me, I’m here. Of course it’s my job to maybe shout against censorship, write about censorship in my essays. If I get a good idea for a story, like what I got in my last novel, I write about it. Censoring an Iranian Love story…I’m a writer in this novel, or the writer would be a sort of alter ego of me. He wants just to write a love story, and he starts to say [why] he can’t write just a small, simple love story in Iran…and he writes about censorship, how much it corrupts the language even. If you write a beautiful sentence, it would be against censorship, it would be against censorship. You know how dictators use language, to fool people, to fool their followers. Iran is a religious regime…the clerics [and] the supreme leader of Iran—they fool people with language..They use language in a way that I call corruption of language. They use the best words. For instance, Ahmadinejad …claims that Iran is the freest country in] the world. Imagine it—he is using the word of freedom. Someone like him. Thousands of students were arrested. Two of them were sentenced to [be] lashed. One of them just wrote a light [criticism] against Ahmadinejad. People [were in] the streets because they asked “Where is my vote?” in a peaceful protest…When somebody like him talks about freedom, it is the corruption of language. So, for writers, maybe it is their best job to make the language clean.
HPR: Identity and its mutability seems to be a prevalent theme in your writing. You are from Iran but have been living in the U.S. How has this change of setting impacted your sense of yourself as a writer and the focus of your work?
SM: Because of my style of writing, my stories, as the critics call it, it is complicated, and my problem of censorship in Iran was less tham my friends, because censorship couldn’t understand what I was writing about. Although there were stories, …that they didn’t let me publish in my books. For four or five years, I couldn’t publish any books in Iran. There were stories that at last you can get permission to publish. I tried not to make a sort of self-censorship…like a sort of virus that it lives in your body, in your mind, and you think that you are writing freely. Censorship controls your mind at last. That was my situation in Iran, to try not to self-censor, although I cannot claim that I was not under the influence of censors. I was born in a country [with a tradition of] censorship. I grew up with censorship, many kinds of censorship. When I came to the United States, I knew that …there aren’t any censors here. The first months, I was looking, ‘Who am I here?’ In Iran, it is a pleasure…it is just like fighting with dictatorship…you are on the front line when you are writing. They when I came to the U.S., I said ‘okay, who am I here?’ …For six or seven months, I was looking for what I could] write to find the passion of writing.. Then I found out that I was going to lie here, so I can write whatever I want to write, so I started to write Censoring an Iranian Love Story…Just reading fifty pages of it, a publisher accepted the book. Then I felt [that] yes, I can be a writer here as well. If I try to write well, it will help my culture. Although I couldn’t publish the Persian version of this novel in Iran—it is impossible—but it is published in eleven countries and in fourteen or fifteen languages—it is a message of literature. There are people who are reading about the the message of Iranian literature and about censorship…so I found my way here to write [and] I found the way that I can write. Alhough I miss my country so much…I can go [back], but there is no guarantee [that I wouldn’t] be arrested at the airport. Some scholars and reporters…they arrest them at the airport, just when they arrive in Iran…And right now, they ban people to leave Iran—filmmakers, writeirs, reporters, journalists—it is a new kind of way to make dissidents suffer.
HPR: Where do you want to go next with your writing?
SM: Right now…I’m writing about the war. It is a man who lost his left hand at the war and even his memory. And he is going back after the war is finished, after many years, he is trying to get back to that place where he lost his hand…And it comes to me…I started to write this novel two times before, when I was in Iran. I started writing it. The first time I wrote about 100 pages, and then I found it doesn’t work…Two years later, I tried again…At last I found the form of narrating this story in America. Of course I found that it is from my experience in the war. It comes from me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Via The Harvard Political Review.