Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Goli Taraghi

Nahid Mozaffari spoke with Goli Taraghi on the telephone in October 2013. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Nahid Mozaffari:  Ms. Taraghi, you are one of the very few Iranian writers who has had the experience of exile as well as the experience of living in Iran after the revolution of 1979. You spend much of your time in Tehran, publish your work in Persian, teach, and have a large readership in Iran. At the same time, you frequently travel and spend time in Paris, where you also write and publish. This ongoing dual experience—if we can call it that—is unique and distinguishable in your work. Can you tell us about the experience of writing at home and writing in exile? Is there any difference in your state of mind, in your choice of genres, in the creative ideas that come to you in each space?

Goli Taraghi: Most of my life I have lived between two worlds. I left Iran in 1979, at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution. And since then my life has become a perpetual journey between Paris and Tehran, from one reality to another. Naturally this dual existence has marked my literary imagination. I need to go back home since the source of my inspiration is there.  Iran is an ocean of contradictions, a world full of contradictory tragicomic characters, full of absurd happenings and surrealistic situations. Where in Paris could I have met Pomegranate Lady, or Delbar the Maid or the Gentleman Thief?   At the same time living in Paris has been an enriching experience. The fresh breath of freedom gives me the strength to write. The rich cultural atmosphere of Paris, Rome, or New York, and contact with French or American artists or men and women of ideas, stimulates my intellect, whereas in Iran stimulus is rather visceral; inspiration comes from the center of my being—wherever that may be.  As an immigrant living in Paris I have come to know a lot of exiled Iranians who cannot go back home. Their longing and hidden anxieties have become a theme of several of my stories. “Exile” in itself, as a human condition, is a phenomenon that can be questioned from different angles.

Now, returning to your original question about my ongoing dual existence, allow me describe my bifurcated manner of literary creation. As soon as I start to formulate my ideas and select the words, the face of the man from the censorship department appears before my eyes. He has come with his sword to cut certain words, or sentences, or paragraphs in my book. I freeze and become a frustrated, limited writer, one whose imagination is constantly threatened. I write a self-censored version for the man in the department of censorship and a second version for myself. In the latter, I become a free writer, choosing whatever subjects, images, or words I want. I let my thoughts fly and my inner desires float to the surface.

N.M.: Talking about two worlds, the title of your new book in English, a collection of short stories published by W. W. Norton, is taken from one of the stories, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. The sense of nostalgia, of loss, of separation, of exile, and the resulting incongruence of lives and realities is poignantly present in this story. There is incongruence and contrast, for example, between the narrator and Anar-Banu (Pomegranate Lady), between the characters of her two sons. This is a theme that runs through many of your other stories as well. In the case of Amir Ali in the story “In Another Place,” the incongruence refers to inner contradictions within one person.

G.T.: There is a social and cultural difference between the narrator, who is a modern woman, and Anar-Banu, who comes from a village. But they share the same destination and destiny.  Both are deeply affected by the Islamic Revolution.  Anar-Banu is in search of her fugitive homeless sons who have run away from Iran, and the narrator is in search of a lost home that she cannot find either in Iran or in Paris. Their destinies are interwoven. They are victims of the same historic tragedy. Anar-Banu’s sons represent two different categories of Iranian youth. One is political minded and the other one is the superficial comic imitation of Michael Jackson (you see many of them in Tehran), who wants to be free and fashionable. But they too share the same destiny; they are homeless and alienated.

They have come to Sweden to make a life for themselves but they are lost and unhappy. They dream of America, another home they can never find.  Amir-Ali's case is the same, meaning that he too is in search of an ideal home where he can be true to himself. His home is not a geographic place but a home he must find inside of his being.

N.M.: When did you start writing?

G.T.: I believe when I came out of my mother’s womb, the loud cry that announced my arrival in the world was the first sentence of my first story to be written in the future.   My father was a writer and head of two weekly journals.  I loved to go his room and watch him writing.  I saw that he put his pen in an inkpot and drew strange little ants or flies, and all sort of tiny animals on a paper.  He said, “Look: this and this and this when put together becomes a chocolate or a big cream cake, or your name.”  I was mesmerized. It was magic. Everything was hidden in that inkpot. All the stories I wanted to write.

When father was gone, I went back to his room, climbed on a chair—I was four years old— and put my finger in the inkpot. With my fingers and his pen I started to draw ants and flies and write a story. I licked my fingers and I had ink all over my face and my white dress. I was in heaven. I was a writer, till suddenly I heard the angry cry of my mother: “You dirty brat, take off that dress and go wash your hands.”  Nobody understood that it was my first story,  perhaps the best one I have ever written.  It was washed away, and I can say that it was my first painful experience of censorship.

N.M.: Can you tell us about the writers who have inspired you most? 

G.T.: I have my own style of writing, and way of thinking.  But, it is true that I love certain passages in the books of Nabokov and Salman Rushdie. Nabokov is the master of describing a scene or a person in details.  For him language and details are the true essence of literature. Rushdie invents words or a new language. He mixes Hindu, Persian, English, old Latin words, all together. He is not afraid of language and gives his pen and his imagination absolute freedom. He definitely inspires me. He is a diabolical magician.  I also love the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad, the famous Iranian poet.  She is the master of putting an ordinary word, heavy and not poetic at all, like “sewing machine,” next to a most imaginative poetic word. From the juxtaposition of these two entirely different words she creates a new poetic language.  But of course, every writer has his own sensibility and personal relation with the music and the life of his language.

N.M.:  We both know that since the revolution, there has been an immense growth in the number of women writers in Iran, and many have become prominent writers. How do you explain this fact?

G.T.: When the Islamist Revolution occurred, artists and intellectuals, writers and painters, not knowing its true intentions, were overexcited. I was in Tehran at that time and saw how many girls wearing the chador were carrying musical instruments and rushing to a music class.  Soon enough, that euphoria of a golden time gave place to a deep disappointment. But something had happened which was irreversible. During the revolution, many girls or young women, especially from the lower class, joined the mob in the streets. They felt important and emancipated. They sensed their new identity.  They couldn’t go back to their previous existence, assuming the status of being nobodies. A famous female writer told me that she used to be a guard in a women’s prison. Before the revolution she didn’t dare to write. Now, even her husband encourages her to. The same is true with many others. Thus the emergence of woman painters, photographers, nurses, taxi drivers and so on.  And let us not forget that 65% of the students in universities are girls.  And a great part number of them come from middle-lower-class families.

N.M.: In the current atmosphere of writing in Iran, where do you place women writers and their work? Do they write about different subjects, do they write in different genres? Do you think that male writers have been influenced by the perspectives of women?

G.T.: I take the work of women writers seriously. There is a humble sincerity in their writings that you don’t find in the writing of a male writer.  Iranian literature before the Revolution was dominated by communist ideology, and one can define it as a sociopolitical literature.  Iranian writers mostly came from lower-middle-class families and wrote about the misery of the poor peasants or the oppressed laborers. Even if there were two or three well-to-do writers among them, they too, being Marxists, chose their characters from among the deprived classes of the society.  Women writers have created a new genre of literature: an intimate and personal one. They remain true to themselves and speak openly of their personal problems, their loneliness in their unhappy married life. Due to official censorship, family censorship, or their own shame of revealing all, they cannot speak out frankly, but they say what they want to say with a delicate feminine cleverness, by hints and symbolism. They speak about love.  And they dream of love, but in a very quiet shadowy way: As if nothing has been said.  For example, one of them writes, “If my husband knew what thoughts pass my mind, he would kill me.”  It is obvious that she is referring to erotic fantasies. Men cannot write like this. Or even take this type of literature seriously.

N.M.: You have a fantastic imagination, which is clearly palpable in your stories. But you also have a great talent in seeing the actual absurdities in life, whether in Iran or in exile, and you craft and weave these absurdities exquisitely into your stories, such that the reader can sense the tragic and the comic at the same time.

G.T.: This way of writing is the way I live.  I am a born storyteller. Ordinary, flat events bore me. I reinvent them. I give them some blood and flesh, some color. My children often tell me, you are lying, that is not the way things are. You are making it up. Yes of course. Things as they are, are dull, and colorless. By showing its tragicomic reality, its real essence comes out. We need fantasy and dreams.  Every person that I meet enters into my mind and sits in a waiting room till his turn comes to play his part in a story. Life is a mixture of tragic and comic happenings.  Comic in the sense of being absurd, being surreal, being contradictory, being exaggerated and yet real.  Gogol is a perfect example; I believe he is one of the greatest Russian writers. The whole idea or theme of his Dead Souls is absurd. An array of characters appear to buy the dead souls. Each one represents the true soul of a Russian; the whole book is Russia itself. And it is comic, even funny, funny in being so exaggerated yet so real. But, they all have that tragic side of the Russian character too, which is, at the same time, human and universal. You can see this everywhere—especially in Iran.  I like to bring these two sides into my stories. To put them side by side.

N.M.: What is your understanding of how censorship works in Iran now? Has the atmosphere changed since the election? Is it too early to tell?

G.T.: Yes, it is too early to tell.  President Rouhani claims that he has come with a key to open the closed doors.  In regard to the good faith of the new President and the magic power of this key, Iranians are either too pessimistic, or too idealistic.  Some of my writer friends are among the optimists, and my publisher, too, is excited. It seems that a very small door is slightly opened. The opening, at present, is very tight, enough for a skinny hand holding a book, to pass through. But, this unpredictable door may, at any moment, be abruptly closed, breaking your trembling fingers. I remember that during the presidency of Mr. Khatami a window was opened and stayed open for a while. We grabbed the opportunity and rushed to present our books. Unfortunately, that period didn’t last long. Dealing with censorship is a game of hide and seek. You have to sit in a corner and wait.  Sometimes you have to wait a lifetime and, heaven forbid, you may leave this unjust world with your book under your arm.  Two years ago I presented my last novel to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in order to obtain permission to publish it.  Up to this day I haven’t received an answer.  This is one of their frequent tactics to torture you.  Some books are declared “conditional.” It means you have to negotiate and cut half of the book or take out as many “unacceptable” words or names as possible.  They are very sensitive to names. Finally they may give you the permission to publish your mutilated book.  The book sells well, it is well received by the critics, and then, for some obscure reason, it is hurriedly confiscated.  This happened to one of my books.

N.M.: What effect has publishing your work in Words without Borders had on you and your audience?

G.T.: Words without Borders has been immensely effective in exposing not only my writing, but also the work of a large number of international writers to the American and international reading public. Their work has also helped facilitate getting published in the US as an international writer, which as you know is very difficult. I particularly like the fact that they reach young readers as well as those who are generally interested in world literature.