Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing: Canada Reads Edition, with Marina Nemat

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Marina Nemat

Marina Nemat gained international attention in 2007 with the publication of her striking memoir, Prison of Tehran (Penguin Canada), now a contender for the 2012 edition of CBC Canada Reads.

The book relates Marina's experience in Iran's notorious Evin prison, where she was sent as a teenager after protesting the repression and human rights violations in her home country.

Marina talks to Open Book about the value of non-fiction, her Canada Reads experience and champion for the competition, entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book and when you wrote it.

Marina Nemat:

My book, Prisoner of Tehran, is mainly about the 2 years, 2 months and 12 days I spent in Evin prison in Iran as a political prisoner from 1982 to 1984 when I was a teenager, but it is interspersed with stories from my relatively happy, middle-class childhood before the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979: our cottage by the Caspian Sea, my school and my friends and my first love. People who have read my book in the West have told me that they were astounded to discover that much of my life as a child was very similar to theirs. My father was a dance instructor and my mother a hairdresser. I wanted to become a medical doctor, and before the revolution in Iran, women could become anything they wanted, even judges. Growing up, I watched Little House on the Prairie and the Donny and Marie Osmond Show, and I read C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen. I wore bikinis on the beach, listened to the Bee Gees and went to dance parties.

Then, after the revolution, my world turned upside down. Not only did the revolution not deliver its promises of freedom and democracy, but it also took away many of the personal freedoms that we had enjoyed during the time of the shah. Dancing, singing, wearing bright colours in public and wearing makeup became illegal. Wearing the hijab became mandatory. Many young people, including me, protested, and we were arrested and taken to prisons. Most of us were tortured and many were executed. Iran is still a dictatorship, and dissidents are still imprisoned and dealt with severely in that country. What I went through is not just a memory from the past; it’s current reality for many Iranians.


What was most difficult about writing this book and what was most pleasurable?


After my release from Evin prison in 1984 when I got home, I sat at the dinner table with my parents and watched in astonishment as they talked about the weather. I wasn’t ready to speak about the horrors I had witnessed, but it would have been nice if someone had said, “When you’re ready to talk, we’re here to listen.” But the offer never came. One of the reasons that dictatorships use torture is to terrify their populations and silence them. People, including my family, were afraid to talk about Evin, because this could lead to their own arrest.

We escaped Iran in 1990 and came to Canada in 1991. I did my best to be normal and have a normal life, but it eventually became evident that past trauma cannot be buried forever, and it would eventually resurface, which happened to me in 2000. I began having psychotic episodes and realized that I had to deal with my past. That was when I began to write, and Prisoner of Tehran, which is my way to bear witness, was published in Canada by Penguin Canada in 2007 and has so far been published in 28 countries in 25 languages. Writing the book was very difficult, because it was like reliving my prison days, but it released me from the silent prison that I was in. I have now dedicated my life to speaking and writing about my experiences in Iran and helping and encouraging others to do the same. I don’t think “pleasurable” is the right adjective to describe how I feel about what I do, but my work gives me satisfaction and gives meaning to my life. The Iranian regime claims it has never had political prisoners. The truth needs to be known.


Tell us about the experience of meeting the CBC Canada Reads panelist who will be defending your book.


It was a pleasure and an honour to meet Arlene Dickinson. I had watched Dragon’s Den a few times, and I had been in awe of Arlene as a successful and intelligent woman who has worked very hard to get where she is today, so I was delighted when I heard that she would be defending my book. She’s tough but she’s also compassionate, and she’s funny and kind and beautiful.


In your opinion, what unique reading experience does non-fiction offer?


Non-fiction offers us a direct narrative about the world and about things that have truly happened. Of course, human beings are not camcorders; when an experience is filtered through a writer, it is affected by his/her way of seeing the world. This is why two authors who write about the exact same event would give us two accounts that have a lot in common but are most probably different in some ways. We all have our perspectives and see the world through our unique lenses. This is the reality of the human experience. It is only when we read about an event from different perspectives that we get the opportunity to get closer to the truth and see the larger picture. Creative non-fiction is much more than a soulless retelling of events, and it allows the writer to add his/her human experience to the story.


If your book wins the competition, how will you celebrate?


I’ll celebrate whether my book wins or loses! The government of Iran tried to silence me, and they failed. They have threatened me and have tried to stop me from bearing witness, but they cannot torture or kill my books. My books will live on long after I’m gone. This is worth a celebration! I will invite Arlene and her fiancé to my house for a Persian dinner. Persian food is absolutely amazing!

Arrested at age sixteen in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, Marina Nemat was imprisoned in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison for two years. She emigrated to Canada in 1991 and lives with her husband and two sons near Toronto.

For more information about Prisoner of Tehran please visit the Penguin Canada website. For more information on CBC Canada Reads, please visit their website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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