Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Echoes from the Other Land: Stories of Modern Iranian Women

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Echoes from the Other Land: Stories of Modern Iranian Women

TSAR Publications, 2011

Iran is isolated and yet active in the world. It is ruled by religious tradition and yet is in many ways modern and sophisticated. Echoes from the Other Land emphasizes the considerable diversity in Iran, a country with a rich history and variety of ethnicities. While I wish to highlight diversity, to represent such a diverse nation is not the objective of this collection — nor is it, I believe, an achievable goal. In Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative Mary Burger says “narrative is the tool for exploring being in time” (9). So too, my narrative explores being in time. This is meant to resist representations enforced by both the Western accounts of Iran and those of the oppressive regime. Writing is a tool of empowerment that I use to resist both national and international oppressions, misrepresentations, and censorships.

Echoes from the Other Land is set in Iran, but in different regions of the country. Three stories happen in Tehran, the capital, where twelve million Iranians from various ethnicities live cramped together. The dominant culture, particularly in the northern part of the city where wealthy people live, is less religious compared to other cities in Iran. That, along with the fact that people don’t know each other as much as they would in smaller cities, offers relatively more freedom to everyone — especially women. Azar in “Wind through My Hair” is a divorced woman who has moved to Tehran where divorce, she thinks, is less of a taboo than it is in her hometown. The story never specifies where she is from because divorced women are among the most oppressed groups in the country.

Anis in “Fountain,” originally from the south of Iran, has moved to Tehran to attend university and free herself from a fiancé arranged for her by her father, only to find herself the property of a new man, a husband who wants to use his legal powers to deny Anis higher education. “Silk Shawl” is also set in Tehran because the story happens at the kind of party that is strictly banned by the government and Tehran is a city where underground parties are more common than in other cities.

“Just Like Googoosh” and “A River of Milk and Honey” are set in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province where the majority of Kurdish-Iranian people live. We are among the most ostracized and marginalized of minority ethnic groups in Iran. Kurdish people have their distinct language, history and culture (including dress, music and dance). “A River of Milk and Honey” is the story of a Kurdish girl whose disabled body is a result of what her pregnant mother went through during the war. The protagonist has an uncle who like many other Kurdish people was hanged by the government after the war. The cultural references in the story — to the war; to the cause of the uncle’s death — are subtle and what is predominantly portrayed is how abled and disabled female bodies are perceived in the patriarchal culture.

Qeshm is the setting for “I Am One of Them,” an island on the border of Iran and United Arab Emirates where the most native of Iranians live. However, in terms of culture, Qeshmi people have more in common with the Arabs of the UAE than with Iranian peoples. The level of oppression for women on this Island is shocking to Persian people who already live in a patriarchal culture. What happens in “I Am One of Them” cannot happen in any other city in Iran. Female circumcision is an open secret in Qeshm where everybody knows it but nobody mentions it. Therefore, people from other cities might live on the island for years but never hear about that custom. “I Am One of Them” recounts what happens when a young Qeshmi girl discovers that her best friend and fiancé (both from other cities in Iran) do not know about her open secret.

 Qom, the religious heart of Iran, is where “Glass Slippers,” is set. In the story, the excessively pious culture of Qom denies and suppresses homosexuality and forces marriage upon a gay man. Yousef’s wife, after living with him for two years is totally unaware of his cross-dressing habits. Generally, the stories in this collection have sustained dramatic moments and their plots unfold very gradually. The major issue of each story is kept from the reader until the end; the story only slowly discloses what is going on. My stories are meant not to end when reading is finished; rather, they should keep living, growing and manifesting in the reader’s mind. Therefore, the simplicity of the language aims at drawing the reader to the depth the author hints at but does not state.
Despite my acute awareness of Iran’s cultural flaws, it is not easy to express them, because criticizing a nation that is already severely demonized in the West creates an uncertain response in Iranian readers. I strive for a balanced perspective. We have to stand up against both domestic and foreign prejudices, “a position sustained by resisting both internal and external fixities” (Kamboureli, Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in Canada English). But this increases the sense of homelessness, of belonging neither to a homeland – which is currently run by an autocratic government – nor to a margin such as the one inhabited by many immigrants in the Western world. Such internal and external displacement raises the question: What is the claim of difference? Is difference’s claim “an empowerment for [the] minority? Or a prison policed by [the] majority?” (Kamboureli 127). Is sticking to ethnicity a self-“other”ing? Or is it a source of attraction and excitement? These are questions that some of the characters in my collection encounter.