The English translation of the novel Touba and the
Meaning of Night by the pre-eminent Iranian writer Shahrnush
Parsipur was recently released by a major
Shahrnush Parsipur & Golbarg Bashi
A decade into the Twenty-First Century and years after small publishing
houses in Europe translated her epic novels into German, Swedish, French
etc-America and the Big Apple woke up to her salient lexis. In the evening of
May 3rd 2006, I met Shahrnush Parsipur for the first time at a Feminist Press reception in
Shahrnush Parsipur, the giant of Iranian women's literature, was radiant, relaxed and seemed excited. Shaking her hand nervously, I introduced myself with my full name and wittingly she responded: "nice to meet you Golbarg Bashi" and immediately put me at ease. I was in the presence of greatness-I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not know the name of Shahrnush Parsipur-from my childhood in Iran when my parents and my book-worm of an aunt Mahru "Mimmi" read and admired her work, to my adolescence in Sweden where the Persian originals of her work adorned my family's library, to my student years in Britain where I wrote academic papers on her fiction. As she gracefully exchanged greetings with everyone who had come to attend the launch of her book in English-it felt more like the celebration of a national icon's lifetime achievements than yet another book launch in New York City.
Parsipur's Touba and the Meaning of Night
is considered one of the unsurpassed masterpieces of modern Persian
literature. The protagonist of the novel, Touba, a young girl turning into a
determined woman, goes through major personal upheavals throughout a turbulent
80-year long Iranian history. Touba's
life-story is connected to the historical predicaments of her country and thus
makes the novel one of the best works of literature to provide a fictive
narrative of contemporary
When we read Parsipur's Touba and the Meaning of Night, we feel that we are reading modern Iranian history but through the perspective of a distorted vision. But we soon realise that the distortion is less in the story that we are reading and more in the history that we have learned. Now this history is turned upside down, and written from the hitherto silenced voice of a woman. It is the interwoven tale of two fictional readings of two straightforward histories-Iranian history of the twentieth century and the ordinary life of a woman who happens to have been named after a legendary tree. Touba is married to a Qajar prince, she is eccentric but her ordinary life passes by historical and metaphysical domains. Touba is the fate of Iranian contemporary history but it is narrated from the hidden side of a woman's perspective, which to the narrator (Touba herself) seems to have always been evident but rarely visible in the public.
Touba's life-story comprises both her own wonderful and magically realistic language and her ahistorical presence in a country's historical events. One can argue that in one fictional account Shahrnush Parsipur counters the entire masculinist historiography (tarikh-e mozakkar) and the result is a her-story at once empowering and magical.
Yet, non-Iranians have had little chance to get to know Touba or her country's history. In the United States and Europe familiarity with Iran's literary, historical and political scene (outside the academy) and thus public opinion in "Western" countries about Iran have been more dis/informed by the media and an avalanche of autobiographies, by journalists, ex-diplomats or expatriate Iranians telling their life stories as a plot, factual or manufactured or a combination of both-most of the time self-serving, at best an act of narrative therapy, at worst exacerbating "the East/West divide" and more recently squarely at the service of global neo-imperialism[i].
The English translation of Shahrnush Parsipur's Touba and the Meaning of Night appears at a time (post 9/11) when the US and European market has been flooded by a new genre of English memoirs written by Iranian women and with publishing houses head over heels signing lucrative contracts with "victimised" Iranian (or Muslim) women-ranging from Hirsi Ali to Irshad Manji to Azar Nafisi. As Laila Lalami writes in her review of such works, "Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern". These types of memoirs seem to have gained their momentum in the course of the propaganda preparation for the "war of/on terror"[ii], so that, as the distinguished post-colonial feminist Gayatri Spivak says, "White men [can] save brown women from brown men"[iii]. In the meantime superb Persian novels by authors such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Moniru Ravanipour, Goli Taraqqi and/or prison memories by committed activists have had no snow ball chance in hell of getting translated into English, published or promoted[iv]. One can only hope that with the publication of the English translation of Shahrnush Parsipur's much-anticipated novel, more high-quality works of contemporary Iranian literature will become available in languages other than Persian.
The first thing that one
notices about this translation is the idiomatic ease and fluent diction with
which the novel reads in English. The translation of Touba
and the Meaning of Night is
quite beautiful. Kamran Talattoff, a scholar of Persian literature, and Havva
Houshmand have done a wonderful job translating one of
All translations are thankless jobs. The better a translation the more the translator/s disappear into the prose and diction of the writer they are transforming into another language. It is, however, exceedingly important to keep in mind the labour of love and dedicated scholarship that usually goes into translating a literary masterpiece. In this respect, Shahrnush Parsipur has been blessed by exceedingly competent admirers of her work. This particular translation, however, is overburdened by too many explanatory accoutrements that in fact slow down and overtax the literary grace of the text. The novel does not need a foreword, an afterword and then a biography to introduce it to an English-speaking readership. To be sure, each one of these items is quite informative in its own right (especially to students of literature and history). But their collective imposition on the literary grace of this novel adds an unnecessary and even distracting succession of alternating narratives that is damaging to the literary integrity of the work. These additional narratives project an undue nativist anxiety over the novel-Talattoff thus writes:
"...every turn of the page of the translation called for explanations. Parsipur's novel is replete with religious, literary, and other cultural references. Some readers may not fully appreciate how central to the narrative is Sufism...fewer are likely to grasp Parsipur's references to the ethereal girl in Blind Owl by Sadeq Hedayat...They also might easily overlook the subversion of the symbol of the pomegranate, an image that has symbolized the feminine in classical works such as those of Nezami Ganjavi...Such footnotes would have been indeed necessary every time the text refereed too or portrayed something from the medieval period, or some complex aspect of a society in a state of transformation from a traditional time to a peculiar mode of modernity. In the end, we decided that the narrative would have been interrupted too often if we succumbed to the expedient of footnotes. Instead to the extent that was possible, we incorporated the necessary information into the text".
All such anxieties may indeed be well-founded, but catering to them is a dubious and damaging urge. When Gabriel Gárcia Márquez's works were translated into English, his writings spoke for themselves and did not need a group of scholars of Latin American literature putting an explanatory scaffolding around it or contemplating giving it footnotes or incorporating "necessary information" into his text or worrying that the US audience were not going to grasp Latin American concepts and history. Márquez's words danced freely and spoke volumes to a global audience-and thus can, I daresay, Shahrnush Parsipur's.
I had read the original Persian of Touba and the Meaning of Night cover to
cover when I was a student in
At the conclusion of the reception, I arranged to see Parsipur for lunch on the following day so I could interview her, and she gracefully agreed. At about noon time the following day, and over my husband's outstanding Baqali Polo, we sat down and reminisced about Touba, Mahdokht, Zarrin, Mones, Farrokh-Laqa and most importantly Shahrnush...
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THE TEXT OF THE INTERVIEW WITH SHAHRNUSH PARSIPUR
Golbarg Bashi: Thank you very much for this opportunity to sit down for a chat.
Shahrnush Parsipur: Of course, with pleasure.
GB: I am interested in your intellectual topography. I would like to begin to ask you when and how you came to the United States, and why did you chose this country as opposed to somewhere in Europe?
SP: When I wrote Touba
and the Meaning of Night, it
became very successful. I received many invitations from many countries. But the
first country that I came to was the
SP: The first phase of my writing is up to The Dog and the Long Winter, at this period I am a young writer who is either working or studying and writing. This period begins with the time when I was fourteen or fifteen years old until about when I was twenty-eight. In this period, I am writing short stories and I publish them in various periodicals. But I cannot finish my first novel, The Dog and the Long Winter, the first section which I had written in fact when I was eighteen years old. Imagine, at one and the same time I am a university student, I work for a living and then I married quite abruptly-I have a husband and a child, I have a lot of customary entertaining that I am obliged to attend to. In short it's quite a crowded situation.
When I was twenty-eight, I received my bachelors degree. Mind you, I went
to university quite late and attended evening classes which was a six-year
programme. It was two years longer than for those who attended day school. So
then what I did was I summarily divorced my husband [yeh bar-e shoharam ro talaq
gereftam], I completed my degree at university-so two of my problems were
solved. My child and I rented an apartment along with my maternal cousins. It
was there that I began working on The Dog
and the Long Winter. I used to write at night and sleep during the day. This
is the period of my writing during my early youth. Then, I went to
So I can consider the period after I turned twenty-eight until the end of
my time in prison and when I left the country, as the second phase of my writing
career. Then I came to the
GB: Which still continues?
SP: Yes, still continues.
your writings I have noted that you are particularly interested in mythical and
ancient cultures and you have extensive knowledge about them, especially in
cannot pinpoint a date in which I can tell you when I became interested in
mythologies. The reason for my interest in mythology was a Chinese book called
I-Ching ...and this book is a
fortune-telling book. But it's a strange book as one of my American friends put
it-this is a book of strategy and tactic. This is a book that consists of
sixty-four tables, each consisting of six lines. Inside this six-line sixty-four
tables, the Chinese do fortune telling, the same thing we do with Hafez by way
of fortune-telling. The Chinese do the same however ordinary Chinese do not use
this book. This book is at the disposal of only the experts. At one point I
noted that these tables resembled a chessboard and chessboard also has
sixty-four squares on which the pieces move with the same logic of probability.
Exactly as in the book I-Ching. This
became very interesting to me, the similarities between these two cultures. I
wondered what kind of relationship could have existed between these two
cultures. Meanwhile I looked at an instrument in
GB: My question was the influences of...
SP: It was through my studies of these three instruments that I was attracted to mythology. I had purchased a book to translate-it was called Histoire de Croissance a Des Idea Religieux [The History of Religious Belief and Ideas], unfortunately I cannot remember its author. In that book, I read a number of Sumerian myths. One of which was the myth of Gilgamesh and other one was the Sumerian myth of creation. I was deeply influenced by them. From that point forward, I was deeply enmeshed in mythology and related matters.
GB: What has been the influence of these mythologies on your work? How does it manifest itself?
SP: These myths show themselves in part in my Women without Men, in part in Touba and Meaning of Night and in a considerable part in my Blue Intellect. Mostly in these three books.
GB: To move to a different subject, I know that you have written extensively about your prison incarceration. But I wonder if you could tell me now about the reasons and conditions of your time in prison?
SP: I have been to prison four times and I have extensively discussed them in my Prison Memoir [Khaterat-e Zendan]. It is very difficult for me to explain them again. But I will tell you...
The first time was because I publicly protested the execution of Khosrow Golsorkhi and Keramatollah Daneshiyan-they were both poets, on which occasion I resigned from the Iranian National Television. Because I believed the reasons of the state for the trial and execution of these poets were not sufficient and it was wrong. In the letter of resignation that I wrote, I indicated that I was not opposed to the government [hukumat] or monarchy [maqam-e saltanat], I still am not opposed to it. But that execution was unjust. At any rate, because of the circumstances surrounding this resignation, I was arrested and put behind bars for 54 days. I was incarcerated.
The second time it was in 1981. I had returned to
On two other occasions, I was arrested after the publication of my Women without Men, when a Hezbollah affiliated periodical attacked me, claiming that this story is anti-Islamic, unethical and contrary to this, that, or other things [zede behman]. I was arrested-I believe in the month of July of 1990. I was in jail for about two months and my family put my maternal aunt's house as collateral and bailed me out. After that I reported back to the prison in order to release my aunt's house from any collateral obligation. These are the four times I went to jail.
GB: Again you have written in considerable detail about your experiences in prison. Could you just tell me briefly how you reflect back on your prison experiences?
SP: During my second term in prison, many executions took place. Large groups of people were executed. Maybe six, seven thousand people were killed, which later in addition to the executions that took place in 1988, the number exceeded to ten thousand deaths. These were exceedingly frightful years. The atmosphere of prison was terrorising...
Among the books you have written since you came to the
Would you say that your presence in the
SP: Yes, right now there is a historicity to my writing. Because I no
longer am in touch with the daily realties of people in
GB: I see your point that there is now a certain element of historicity in your writing but do you also write about the exilic condition?
so far I have not written anything about the
GB: Well, I think they would be honoured...My next question concerns the visual adaptation of your work. Recently Shirin Neshat has adapted certain parts of your Women Without Men for a video instillation-in one of which you play a part and I understand that she is also working on a feature length adaptation of the entire book. I wonder what are your own thoughts on these visual adaptations of your literary work?
Well, you see, you write in a certain way and the filmmaker imagines and
portrays your work in a different way. I categorically like and endorse Shirin's
work because she is an artist par excellence and extremely talented and as a
result I believe in this particular work-she is also very successful. Of course
she has made some serious changes in my work but this is the prerogative of any
filmmaker to change the subject in a way that she can turn it into a film. As
for my acting in all honesty, I am not an actress (chuckles). Bringing actors
and actresses from
GB: So your consider this a positive development-I mean this transformation of your literary work into a visual work of art.
SP: Oh definitely.
GB: In your work, both in your fiction and in your memoir, you talk quite freely and frankly about moments of eroticism and sexual intimacy, i.e. you bring rather private and taboo subjects into the public domain. These I believe are liberating for your readers. Perhaps preventing women in particular from experiencing false guilt over these feelings. Where did you find the courage to write so publicly about these taboo issues?
SP: You see, Golbarg jan, from the time I was a young woman I discovered some secrets. And that was that unless you have sexual experiences you cannot enter the domain of public work and social activities. Those in power know this fact and thus transform women to sexual objects. I mean they first and foremost repress and denigrate women-then they direct them to put a wedding gown on and go to their husband's home and come out wearing the shroud. I mean to say that they train women in certain limited roles. So the most important barrier in front of a woman who has ambitions in creative work and wants to do something important is to overcome her fear of sexual taboos and matters. It is very funny that in our society you come across women who are more than seventy years old and still don't know what an orgasm is. You come across young girls who go to a public bath and are afraid to sit down for fear of getting pregnant by some semen that might be floating around. There are some strange fears around which must be overcome. The way to do so is to talk about sexual matters as much as possible openly and honestly. In order to make it possible for women to get to know their own bodies. So she knows who she is and where she stands. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe in sexual anarchy, not at all. But I completely endorse sexual freedom. This must come to pass so that women can become somebody. Having said all of this I hereby declare in this particular historical juncture that in my judgement the best thing a woman can do is having a husband, live with her children and carry on a quiet and dignified life!
you concerned that since you left
Well, my books keep selling rather well in
GB: So it has had an impact on the way you write now?
SP: That is true.
you have no idea how you are read and understood inside
SP: That is true.
GB: Right now two of your books have been translated into English...
SP: Three of my works.
GB: Women without Men...
SP:...I have a novella called 'Tajrubeha-ye Azad' that appears under the title of Trial Offers in the book that Professor Heshmat Moayyad has edited and is called Chicago Anthology of Modern Persian Literature published by MAGE in Washington D.C.
GB: That is right, so those two plus Touba and the Meaning of Night makes three of your works that have been translated into English.
SP: That is right.
GB: So, are you now conscious of your English-speaking readership and do you think this possible attention may have an impact on your writing in the future?
really don't know my dear-I am sixty years-old. When I write, still,
GB: In other words, you are still not conscious of what your English-speaking readership thinks or does not think of your work?
SP: That is true.
GB: But if you were to become conscious of that audience-it will have an impact on your work, right?
SP: Perhaps. I don't know.
GB: And that would lead you to write about issues in this country?
SP: Perhaps. So far I have not written anything about the place where I live.
GB: I would also like to ask you about the writers that you have read and admired, both in the past and right now, and been your inspiration?
writers more than anybody else have had influenced my work. One is Dostoyevsky
GB: Have you read all of these authors in their Persian translations?
SP: Yes, I have read them all in Persian.
GB: Who among Iranian authors have influenced you most?
SP: Sadeq Hedayat. His Blind Owl has had a tremendous impact on me. I have used Hedayat's Blind Owl in Touba and Meaning of Night. In my Blue Intellect, I have extensively used the Blind Bowl. There seems to have been a constant challenge between me and the Blind Owl in these two books.
know that you say that you are not a political person-but do you follow the
political news for example the issues concerning the women's movement inside
SP: Look, I read this news-but they don't touch me. In other words, I am not constantly engaged with them.
GB: But they do interest you, right?
SP: Of course they do.
GB: Thank you Ms Parsipur-sorry if I tired you.
SP: Well you know after so much grape juice...
[i] For a critique and
analysis of literature at the service of Empire, see Laila Lalami's The
[ii] The term "war of/on terror" belongs to Zillah Eisenstein, an American anti-racist feminist activist, professor and author. Her seminal book Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism and 'the' West is one of the most cogent feminist critiques of the US Empire.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in
academics, chiefly among them, Farzaneh Milani, Zohreh
Sullivan, Kamran Talattoff and Farzin
Yazdanfar have meticulously translated and analysed contemporary Iranian women's
literature but unfortunately their work is limited to academic circles. For a
foundational text on Iranian women's literature in English see Farzaneh Milani's
wonderful book Veils
and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women.
[v] Here Shahrnush
Parsipur is referring to a documentary film titled Sound of Silence directed by Amir
Hamz and Mark Lazarz that we saw together on the
evening after her book launch in
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