When I landed at boarding school in Boston in the fall of 1980—from a public school in Toronto, another world—I assumed the Iranian girls knew the ropes better than I did. Posh New England culture was utterly alien to me; but how much more so must it have been to my fellow boarders lately of Tehran? Aware of the recent revolution—even at fourteen, one couldn’t not be—I nevertheless was unable to relate the girl brushing her teeth beside me in the dorm bathroom to mass demonstrations or the then ongoing hostage crisis half a world away. I never asked the Iranians a single question about their histories: it was tacitly accepted that it was too delicate a subject and, by force of silence, too remote from our placid world of emerald lawns and peeling white columns. What, I now wonder, must the Iranian girls have thought?
As far as I know, they haven’t yet written the novels that might tell us. Others, though, have provided us with powerful reminiscences in the form of memoir: shortly after the turn of the new century, Marjane Satrapi gave us her family’s extraordinary stories of revolutionary times and after, and created, through her iconic graphics, a now-celebrated visual style with which to convey the travails of her native country.
In spite of Satrapi’s triumph and memoirs by other Iranians in exile, not much literary art from within contemporary Iran has yet reached mainstream audiences in the West. The novelist Farnoosh Moshiri’s fictions—including At the Wall of the Almighty and The Bathhouse—have afforded us harrowing accounts of imprisonment and torture under the Islamic regime; but she, older than Satrapi, has also not lived in Iran since the 1980s (she is based in Houston). As we watch Iran’s current political upheavals from afar and try to understand the minds of its citizens today, we might wish for greater literary access: little recent fiction published in Iran is available in translation. The avenues of cultural exchange are not broad.
Early in the last decade, Azar Nafisi’s immensely successful memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) provided a wide American audience with a picture of post-revolutionary Iranian life; but Nafisi’s book is not a novel. Through her account, you glimpse fascinating facets of quotidian life in Tehran over a decade ago, but she doesn’t presume to provide rounded psychological portraits of her students, nor does she alchemically transform her stories in such a way as to create a work of art. As a reader, you learn enthusiastically from, but do not fully inhabit, Nafisi’s world.
Fiction and poetry work differently from history or autobiography, opening to us the interior lives, the unrecorded ephemera and minutiae of people and their places. The Iranian-American writer Dalia Sofer’s first novel The Septembers of Shiraz was published in 2007. Its story is fairly simple: Sofer recounts the incarceration in Evin Prison, not long after the revolution, of a Jewish Iranian paterfamilias, while his wife and young daughter struggle to find information about him and to continue their lives. Meanwhile, the couple’s older child, a son, faces his own challenges in New York City. The book is not elaborate in its telling; but Sofer’s eye for detail and her subtle understanding of character (how much more complicated is such a separation when husband and wife have been progressively more emotionally estranged beforehand?) ensure that the novel is both immediate and deeply affecting.
Like Satrapi, Sofer left Iran as a child and has lived in exile for most of her life. Her novel, then, describes precisely the Iran from which my classmates had fled; and perhaps this is in part why I find it so moving. Others of the young generation have addressed the situation differently: Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007) is the vital and engaging account of a family of Iranian-Americans following the September 11 attacks. Niloufar Talebi has translated and edited a volume of poetry entitled Belonging: New Poetry By Iranians Around the World, a book remarkable in its breadth and diversity, and in the power of its translations. From formalists to experimentalists, from the epic to the lyric, from the political to the erotic, Talebi’s collection offers us a rich sampling of contemporary Iranian poetry from the diaspora.
Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story, published in the United States last year, differs in several ways from these works. For one thing, although Mandanipour has been living in the US since 2006, his literary career has been, until this latest novel, entirely Iranian: this is his first book to appear in English, and while his fiction remained unpublished in Iran for much of the 1990s on account of censorship, he is one of that country’s most celebrated and accomplished contemporary novelists. For another, born in 1957 (and thus a generation older than most of the others), he was an adult when the Islamic Republic was created. He remained in Iran for a quarter century thereafter, and has, consequently, a very different perspective from those who left as children, in the early 1980s.
Mandanipour’s novel is not only directly concerned with contemporary Iran—it’s about a writer trying to write a love story that will satisfy the censors—it is also playfully engaged with Persian literary history, and at the same time, is formally innovative: the influences of Calvino and Kafka are evident in his ironic narrator’s metafictional banter. He both tells us what it is like for his young would-be lovers in Tehran, and, by allusion, by direct conversation with the imagined censor, and by striking out lines and passages of his prose, reveals how much he cannot tell us:
“Sara is studying Iranian literature at Tehran University.
However, in compliance with an unwritten law, teaching contemporary Iranian literature is forbidden in Iranian schools and universities…
…when Sara reads a contemporary story, she reads the white between the lines, and wherever a sentence is left incomplete and ends with three dots like this “…,” her mind grows very active and begins to imagine what the eliminated words may be…Sara loves these three dots because they allow her to be a writer too…But she never borrows any contemporary literature from her college library or the central library of Tehran University. Even if she wanted to, I don’t think she would find any books by writers such as me.
Ask me why, so that I can explain. [p. 14]
Playfully and yet with utter seriousness, Mandanipour exposes his constraints, and also the devices by which he might hope to convey his matter indirectly: traditional Iranian poetry; cinema. In so doing, Mandanipour expresses the complexity of his culture—not just of the society of the Islamic Republic, but of the underlying Persian traditions that continue to influence it—through the warp and weft of the text itself. This novel doesn’t offer a conventionally realistic narrative, but to read it—and to appreciate that simply on account of its publication, Mandanipour is henceforth unable to return to Iran—is to understand, by inhabiting rather than by being told, what life there now, and the making of art, might actually be like.