|Iranian woman walks through the snow at Azadi square in Tehran. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters. Courtesy the Guardian.|
When I was at university studying English literature, I took an interest in diasporic and migrant writings. Authors from India, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean all told the same kind of stories of exile and resettlement. Their books raised a shared set of concerns, reflecting homelessness, loss and attempts to reconstruct identity.
As someone who is part of the Iranian diaspora, my heart connected to these stories, but at the same time I felt something was missing. Yes, I sympathised with the writers and related to their experiences, but I could not identify with the cultural details.
I felt my voice, as an Iranian living away from my homeland, was missing. Back then, in the late 1990s, there were few Iranians writing in English about their experiences.
This changed one summer when browsing a dingy bookstore in Hong Kong, I came across Susan Pari’s The Fortune Catcher. I read the book in two days, weeping my way through it. Finally someone had depicted my very own Iranian experience in English. Now the world might understand our stories. Stumbling on this book was the beginning of a journey that has preoccupied my life.
Over the next several years, I dedicated myself to finding, reading, and researching the literature of the Iranian diaspora. Gradually, I came upon an emerging body of work. These books grew from a handful in the late 1990s to around 300 today.
Having read most of the books by Iranian writers in English, at least those that I could get my hands on, I see a body of work that paints a beautifully diverse picture of the Iranian diaspora, and makes a great contribution to the way Iranians are seen and see themselves.
Some of these books have won international acclaim. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2004) and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005) are well known. Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2006) and her recent The Last Illusion (2014), as well as Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran (2009), are also popular.
But there are many that have not received the attention they deserve. Here are my four favourites among the less well known.
- Gina Nahai Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (2000)
Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith traces the history of Iranian Jewish mothers and daughters through the troubled relationship between Lili and her mother Roxanna. Told lyrically, and in poetic language, Nahai takes us from Tehran’s Jewish community to life in Los Angeles, enhancing the story by granting her characters magical powers. In a world where Roxanna can fly and where magic rituals can heal, Nahai constructs a world where Jewish Iranian women can go beyond the limits of their social, cultural, historical - and even their country’s - borders to reclaim their own identity. This is an absolute masterpiece, marking the entrance of Iranian writing in English into the tradition of magical realism.
- Manoucher Parvin Dard e Del: Rumi, Hafez and Love in New York (2003)
A novel in verse, this is a wonderfully light-hearted account of Rumi and Hafez’s reincarnation as modern-day New Yorkers. When Professor Pirouz - a lonely academic of Iranian background in America, and a recurring character in Parvin’s work - decides to commit suicide, he travels to a desert and confesses his problems to two cacti, which happen to be reincarnations of Rumi and Hafez.
After discouraging Pirouz from committing suicide and sending him back home, they transform into New Yorkers and so begin to re-invent themselves for modern audiences. A witty, yet underrated book, Dard e Del transforms Iran’s beloved poets from the pages of history to become accessible characters. The book is a gem that changes the way Persian poetry is seen and read today beyond Iran.
- Morteza Baharloo The Quince Seed Potion (2004)
A novella set in Iran, The Quince Seed Potion tells the story of Sarv e Ali, a young boy who is sexually abused by his uncle, grows up with homosexual tendencies, and ends up as a servant in a prominent family. Set against Iran’s turbulent history leading up to the Revolution, the book follows his struggle as he tries throughout his life to hide or overcome his ‘disease’. A touching story, this is one of the first books in English addressing sexual abuse and homosexuality in Iran through literature, and is also unusual in taking the often hidden and unheard voice of a mere servant.
- Massud Alemi Interruptions (2008)
Another book dealing with male sexuality, this is the story of a young homosexual teacher who is picked up during protests in Iran on charges of being the leader of the rioters. Incarcerated for a while, he has to make up a fantastical tale to avoid revealing his sexuality.
Like Shahrazad, the queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, he weaves stories to captivate his interrogator and evade death. But death, as it turns out, is not always physical. This is another wonderful book addressing crucial but underrepresented issues about Iranian society.
Sanaz Fotouhi is the author of The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution (2015).
Via The Guardian