By Catherine Dehdashti
MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL (July 2015) —Readers often comment that they liked learning about Persian culture from my novel, Roseheart. At first, this troubled me. I’ve never even been to Iran. I worried that critics reading these reviews might think I’m trying to pass myself off as an expert simply because, like my main character Valerie, my live-in boyfriend’s mother came from Iran for a visit that lasted seven years.
In reality, Roseheart is written from the viewpoint of an Anglo-American waitress who grew up knowing little about cultures beyond her own affluent suburban neighborhood on Lake Minnetonka, just west of Minneapolis. She has a lot to learn, but her main journey is not about Persian stuff. Rather, it’s to grow up from her troubled American adolescence and accept her imperfect self. Nobody, however, has commented that Roseheart taught them a lot about messed-up, preppy-wannabe Minnesota girls.
But if so many readers felt like Roseheart gave them insights into Persian culture, maybe that’s an opportunity to share more. It’s true that Roseheart went past that usual focus on political events between two countries with a vexed relationship. There was the food, of course. There were some idiosyncrasies, a few words of Farsi and some rhymes (which I’ve heard I didn’t get quite right). I included mentions of iconic singers, like Googoosh and Marzieh, and poets, like Forough Farrokhzad.
But how could I have had a main character who was an Iranian woman (Valerie’s boyfriend’s mother, Goli Joon) without surrounding her with the strong Iranian female artists that my own mother-in-law so admired? How could I not sprinkle Roseheart with the dishes and rituals that were a part of my everyday life during the seven years my own Maman Joon and I lived together?
The reader should know, though, that those things are filtered through Valerie’s own upbringing, which so happens to be the same as my own (let’s just call Roseheart semiautobiographical). This doesn’t mean her viewpoint isn’t valid. It only means that the reader should beware about believing they learned about Persian culture from me or my fictional narrator.
Readers have dozens, if not hundreds, more options for that. I hope those who enjoyed a taste of something intriguing from Roseheart will try reading some of these books below.
A note: Outside of the modern classics category, most of my recommendations are written by women. Of course, Iranian-American men write too. I focus on women’s books because the phenomenal productivity of modern Iranian and Iranian diaspora writing has largely belonged to women.
New to market
Last Scene Underground: An Ethnographic Novel of Iran, coming out in fall of 2015 by Roxanne Varzi, is next on my reading list. Nahid Rachlin has called it “a whirlwind story of how it feels to be young and idealist during the time of the Green Movement.” I’m not sure how Varzi combines literary romance and ethnography, but I cannot wait to find out.
Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran, by Nina Ansary, came out in June 2015 and is what’s on my nightstand right now. Although this is nonfiction, it reads like an epic journey and is already helping me to better understand the historical context for other Iranian and diaspora literature.
Iranian modern classics
The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat (1937), is, in truth, a disturbing book with a female death fixation that I’ve never felt completely comfortable with as a woman. But its phantasmagorical prose, with a circular timeline, has stuck with me (for better or for worse) in much the same way as the writing of Gabriel García Márquez. It’s one of the most widely studied works of modern Persian literature.
Savashun (1969), by Simin Daneshvar is considered to be the first important novel published by an Iranian woman. That, naturally, makes me want to know more about the women’s novels that weren’t considered important. (Professor Farzaneh Milani has written about the Iranian female storytelling tradition going back to the legendary Shaherzad, and alluded to the thousands of unpublished stories that must be forever lost.) Savashun is about a woman, Zari, finding her own identity and strength during the time of World War II British occupation and traditional social upheaval.
My Uncle Napoleon (1973), by Iraj Pezeshkzad is a coming-of-age novel about a boy during the World War II occupation of Iran by Allied Forces. The novel treats political realities of the day satirically, while also presenting an endearing story of the boy’s love for Layli, his cousin. The boy narrator is always overhearing conversations (thin walls, hiding in the bushes, etc.) of feuding family and community members, tickling readers with many richly entertaining characters and situations.
Touba and the Meaning of Night (1987), by Shahrnush Parsipur, can induce an out-of-body experience, but her life has been marked by imprisonment for practicing her feminism and art. Four years in jail from previous punishments didn’t stop her from writing Touba. In fact, she kept going, writing Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran in 1990s Iran, then at least three other books after that.
Iranian-American literary memoirs
There are dozens more that belong in all of these categories, but I had the most trouble narrowing this list. These are just some of my favorites.
Persian Girls: A Memoir stunned me when it came out in 2006 because I had read much of Nahid Rachlin’s fiction and it seemed impossible that she hadn’t already told the story of her own highly eventful girlhood. Now it seems that all her previous writing was in practice for this heart wrenching book about family instability and her sister’s tragic life. But Rachlin keeps on writing, and her fans keep reading.
Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (2004) was the first I’d learned of journalist-producer Roya Hakakian’s upbringing in a Jewish family in Tehran. She sets the story straight about how and why Jewish citizens and other liberals supported the Revolution at first. Her broad view of the many types of oppression make this a thoughtful read for those otherwise tempted to make assumptions or see history as more clearly cut across divisions.
To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, Tara Bahrampour’s 1999 memoir of growing up between two countries with an American mother and an Iranian father was the first Iranian-American women’s memoir I read. My sister-in-law gave it to me, and I’ll always be grateful because it opened me up to a whole new literature. Since I’m also interested in food culture, I paid close attention to the meaning she gives to her food scenes, and they inspired the food scenes in Roseheart.
Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America was another memoir to come out in 1999, chronicling the first journey “home” after years of established life in America. It’s interesting that so many excellent memoirs came out right around the 20-year mark of the Islamic Revolution, which was a popular time to leave Iran.
Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran (2007), was the first memoir by Azadeh Moaveni, and still the one I love most. The story is both candidly personal and journalistic, almost like a collection of essays. I also like that she exposes the surprisingly liberal side of modern Iranian life for young urban professionals and partiers. Moaveni also co-wrote Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
Things I’ve Been Silent About (2008) is a more personal memoir from literature professor Azar Nafisi, author of book club favorite Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. It includes much of the history that Reading Lolita does, but with more background and, I think, even more bravery of heart. If you read Reading Lolita, check out a worthy counterpoint: Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (2007) by Fatemeh Keshavarz. Nafisi seems to take some of that criticism into account with Things I’ve Been Silent About, and it makes for a deeply rewarding read.
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2003), and nearly every other graphic novel by this immensely talented writer-artist, are some of the easiest recommendations I can make. Who doesn’t love to read a novel that reads like a comic book? Yet these books are as even more full of dark irony and political resistance than of lighter humor, and the drawings make you feel the isolation of Satrapi’s early life to the point of heartbreak. And yes, the film version of Persepolis is as good as the book.
History is what brings these books together for me, although they are entirely different.
The Blood of Flowers, written in 2007 by Anita Amirrezvani, is a colorful and romantic book about the Safavid royal era and a young woman living between poverty and the luxury of the court, her worth depending on the sexual whims of a prince. Although it has been considered neo-Orientalist by some, it’s a lyrical and visual read that sticks with me even today. She has also written Equal of the Sun (2013), equally enjoyed by lovers of historical fiction, and edited Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers (2013) with Persis Karim.
Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution (1992), by Sattareh Farman-Farmaian and Dona Munker, is a must-read if you want a long view spanning the 1920s through the early Pahlavi years, the 1953 U.S.- and British-led operation against Mossadegh, the later Pahlavi years and the Islamic Revolution. This is a gripping autobiography about a princess who became the “Mother of Social Work” in Iran.
Suri & Co: Tales of a Persian Teenage Girl (1995 collection of stories written 1968-1971), by Mahshid Amirshahi, is so thoroughly mischevious and authentically adolescent, it’s as if she’s critiquing her culture in the same way one vents about one’s own beloved but annoying brother. If it’s not in print, it’s often available used. I bought an extra, hoping my own teenage girl might someday dog-ear a copy of it the way I have mine.
Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity, a memoir of sorts written in 1914 by Taj Al-Saltanah, daughter of a Qajar-era king, was edited and published in English in 2003 by Abbas Amanat. Reading Crowning Anguish reminds me that feminism is a frame of mind transcending time and place. For once, we read about harem life from one who actually lived it.
Catherine Dehdashti is the author of the novel Roseheart (Watch the book trailer). Her master’s thesis, completed in 2009, is titled Channeling Iran, Bridging Cultures: Food, Memory, and the Search for Self and Home in Iranian-American Women’s Memoirs. Visit her on Facebook to comment about your own favorite Iranian and Iranian diaspora literature.
Media contact: Catherine Dehdashti, firstname.lastname@example.org
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