She Dared to Write Poetry About Sex. Iranians Loved and Hated Her for It.
|The Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad died in a car accident in 1967, when she was 32.|
“I take the first true measure of my body and decide that it’s shame, not sin, that’s unholy.” It’s 1955 Iran and Forugh Farrokhzad, a soon-to-be divorced mother, awakens to sex and art in Jasmin Darznik’s novel, “Song of a Captive Bird.” A few pages later, having begun an affair with a progressive Tehrani editor, Farrokhzad writes the poem that will make her both a symbol of female strength and a notorious “woman without shame,” as Persian mothers like to say. In it she confesses, “I’ve sinned a sin of pleasure / beside a body trembling and spent.” She doesn’t hide behind metaphor, and she isn’t the meek beloved of the old poems. She acts on her own desires. When she pines, it isn’t for a romantic savior but for a body. Tehran is scandalized.
Farrokhzad was Iran’s most celebrated — and controversial — female poet, and Darznik, the Iranian-born author of the memoir “The Good Daughter,” recreates her sexual and creative liberation while exploring the threat she posed to social order in prerevolutionary Iran. By the year of Farrokhzad’s debut, the “New Poetry” of Nima Yooshij and Ahmad Shamlou — both men — had made Iranian verse more accessible, freer in form and subject matter. But critics instantly denounced Farrokhzad as a silly girl, dismissing her work as an outgrowth of the national fascination with the hedonistic West, a trend Tehrani intellectuals called “Westoxification.”
Farrokhzad was defiant, in life and in Darznik’s fiction: “By writing in a woman’s voice I wanted to say that a woman, too, is a human being. To say that we, too, have the right to breathe, to cry out and to sing.” By the 1960s, she had come to represent Iran’s New Woman. At once loved and hated, she was a literary sensation and an acclaimed filmmaker, who demanded that female desires, expressed in plain language, be given the weight of serious literature. Male poets had been writing breathlessly about women for centuries — why should the reverse be any less palatable?
Darznik follows Farrokhzad’s turbulent life from her abusive childhood — including a virginity check that turns violent — through her oppressive teenage marriage, motherhood, literary career and early death in a car crash in 1967. Her version is superbly dramatized and, with its cast of spineless lovers and hymen-breaking villainesses, a very Iranian tale, every scene designed to stir up fury or longing. Yet Darznik has composed her novel for Western ears, in elegantly simple language. She resists Persian flourishes in both her prose and her translations of Farrokhzad’s work; I question whether the poet would recognize herself in Darznik’s voice, compelling as it is. And here is a larger problem of poetic translation: How do you capture a language as floral and breathy as Farsi without access to its unique sounds? In Farrokhzad’s poetry, each sigh carries meaning.
Perhaps to replace these lost sounds, and to remind us that these events are happening far away, Darznik peppers her novel with everyday Farsi words. A hammam or a ta’arof here and there is to be expected. But ordinary words like “foreigner,” “filthy,” “bride,” “broken” and even “yes” appear in Farsi every few pages, only to be translated in the next phrase or sentence; these are markers of casual exoticism, the American cousin of Westoxification. They don’t capture the true sound of Farsi, its soft, easy rhythms, its heavy-hearted notes, often so grating to Western readers.
Near the end of the novel, Farrokhzad evokes the charged political atmosphere on the eve of the revolution: “We bought plastic roses and decorated our lawns and courtyards with plaster swans. We saw the future in neon lights …. Still our country wasn’t our own.” Today few Iranian women would say that their country is their own. They still argue about Farrokhzad. “She opened the tongues of women,” they say, and it’s not clear whether this is intended as a compliment. “Every poem I’d ever written was entangled with my country’s story,” the Farrokhzad of Darznik’s imagination says. “I loved its downtrodden, small-minded, generous people. I loved them; I belonged to them.” “Song of a Captive Bird” is a complex and beautiful rendering of that vanished country and its scattered people; a reminder of the power and purpose of art; and an ode to female creativity under a patriarchy that repeatedly tries to snuff it out.
Dina Nayeri is the author of two novels. Her first book of nonfiction, “The Ungrateful Refugee,” will be published next year.
Via The New York Times