Interview with Shahrnush Parsipur, Author

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Shahrnush Parsipur is arguably one of the most important Iranian writers working today. First published when she was just sixteen years old, much of her writing casts a spotlight on the lives of women, in a style that combines frank language with magical realism. Parsipur has been jailed under both the Shah’s regime and that of the Islamic Republic for her work, which is currently banned in Iran. Most recently, Parsipur was the first-ever fellow of the International Writers Project at Brown University, and her e-book was published in late 2007.

In our interview, Parsipur discusses the impact of manic depression on her work, and explains how writing fiction is like playing God.

Pars Arts: Your new e-book, The Continuing Stories of Men from Various Civilizations, is a series of stories, all of which were written in the United States at different times. Can you describe the process of writing this book?
Shahrnush Parsipur: In 1992 I was invited to go around the world to speak – I wanted to go to Sweden and Germany, but I was jailed in Iran. So after I got out of prison, I came to Los Angeles and traveled to different cities to speak. In every city, I wrote a story. My first impressions of America were in these stories.

The America of Americans exists in many other stories already; this book deals with the America of a foreigner. When we first come here, what we see and notice are billboards of Coca Cola ads or big bags of popcorn in the cinema. Or massive portions of food. Or the big Chinese, Jewish, and Indian influence here, seeing the number of restaurants. This is what a foreigner sees. Most foreigners don’t go to the Midwest, so they don’t see traditional American life. Mostly we go to the east and west coasts, the hubs of foreigners, and that is what I wrote about.

PA: Why did you decide to publish this as an e-book, rather than as a traditional print book? Have many people have downloaded the book?
SP: Nur Karlica Iverson, who created my website [and illustrated the e-book], asked why I didn’t sell my books online. So in October or November of 2007 we published these stories in an e-book. There haven’t been many downloads because I’m not sure how to market them. And some people have trouble with downloading it because they don’t have the right software.

PA: This book, like Women Without Men, has strong elements of magical realism. Why do you prefer this style?
SP: Old Iranian stories use this style a lot, like in One Thousand and One Nights. All of these elements are in this book. And I use this old style now because there are a lot of things that you can’t say plainly. When you write about a country like America, when you pass through it and see a bird’s-eye view, you can see a lot, and I used magical realism to capture this.

PA: You have noted Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Sadegh Hedayat as influences. In fact, this new book reminds me a lot of Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor (The Blind Owl), which relies on repetition with a difference as one of its main devices, as does your book. Why did you use this device in your e-book?
SP: When I was writing these stories, I was mindful of the differences that Iranians in Iran had with each other. Some people insisted on having beards, a symbol of tradition. Some people insisted that they were creative types and wanted to listen to music and drink; they’re the “tar player” of my stories. And others would shave their beards and just be ordinary. So I took these three types and decided to have fun with them and these stories came to existence from me playing with these three types of characters.

PA: You’ve spoken before about your struggle with manic depression. Many of the most successful writers in history have suffered from depression, including Hedayat. What role does this illness play in your work and in the way that you write?
SP: I didn’t have manic depression until I was 44 years old. I’ve now had it for 16 or 17 years. I think part of it is the influence of technology in my life; maybe it has to do with some electrical imbalance because of too much exposure to computers. Also, the times I spent in prison in Iran were a strain on me, emotionally.

The way that I’ve coped with this illness is that I’ve put magical realism aside. Before this, my mind would fly from place to place. Now that I’m manic, I try very much to keep my spirit calm and balanced. I stand in the way of my imagination, because I have to take care of myself. There’s no one else to take care of me.

In this sense, men who write are lucky and have an advantage. When they become writers, someone else usually cares for them – a woman. They go out and drink a lot and come home to collapse, and the women take care of them. But when a woman falls apart, there’s no one to take care of her. So because of my disease and because I have to take care of myself, my art, instead of moving forward, has perhaps suffered. When my mind wants to play, I don’t allow it to do so.

This illness started when I wrote Aghl-e Abi [Blue Reason, published in 1990 and not yet translated to English], and those around me didn’t think I was sick – they thought I was just very deep. So I lived with this for some time before I got myself treatment.

PA: Part of the reason, and maybe the main reason, your work is banned in Iran is its sexual content. Why do write about sex and why do you think sexuality is such a problem in Iran?
SP: Middle Eastern people have always been under attack and in wars and conflict, and this has made them take on a role of guardians of sex and sexuality of women; the attackers have always killed the men and sexually assaulted the women. So in a way the Middle Eastern society sees itself as guardians of women. But they’ve become such guardians that they’ve become oppressors.

Lately I write about my own sexual experiences for Radio Zamaneh. I see it as necessary, because as an older woman, I want to write about things that young women do and often feel guilty or bad about. Because I did those things, and maybe that helps them. But still I think sex will always remain a taboo for Iranians, because Iran is a central place that was always under attack. America is relatively far from its enemies, so there’s not that constant, unconscious fear or threat of rape.

PA: In the last few years, much of the most popular literature written in English by Iranian women has been memoir. Now we are seeing more fiction. Have you read any of this work and do you have any thoughts about it?
SP: Though I read many female authors, it’s mostly Persian work. I am aware that many women write memoirs, and I think this is because writing fiction is very scary. Writing fiction is like being a god. Getting to this point is a little difficult. Women are tiptoeing to this creativity by putting down their memories first. They write their memoirs, and when the fears go away, they can write stories.

Fiction was hard for me, too. When I finished Sag va Zemestan-e Boland [The Dog and the Long Winter, published in 1976], I felt like my entire being was empty. When I finished Touba, I felt like my being was shaking. And when I wrote Aghl-e Abi, I couldn’t believe it was me that wrote it.

Now, in America, I’m away from my homeland and no one understands my language, and I don’t understand theirs. When I publish a book now, ten people here read it and tell me it’s interesting, but it’s not a fortifying experience. If I was in Iran, the feedback would be more inspiring because it would come from a big community. For there to be a fire, there must be some fuel. When you live in exile, you burn yourself out.

PA: What are you working on now?
SP: I’m writing a book now that’s been about Iran and now I want to add a section about America, which I’m still debating about. Asiyeh Dar Miyan-e Doh Donya [Asiyeh Between Two Worlds] follows the life of an Iranian woman that goes from a village to the city and becomes a servant.

PA: How do you see your place in Iranian literature?
SP: I am a writer, age 61, and have a place among my peers. I don’t see myself as a very important person. But I was the second woman to write a novel in Iran, and I have written most of the novels about Iranian women. In this way, maybe I have a good place in Iranian literature.

[Image via Voices from the Gaps]

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