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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Shahriar Mandanipour and Sara Khalili

“There have been times when we have spent hours discussing a single phrase and how to give it the same life and soul in English.”
Left, author Shariar Mandanipour; right, translator Sara Khalili
Left, Shariar Mandanipour, photo © Danial Mondanipour; right, Sara Khalili, photo © Miriam Berkley

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Seasons of Purgatory came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Shahriar Mandanipour (SM): Some of the stories were among those I could publish in Iran when the censoring machine opened a window under pressure. A couple of them were censored in Iran, and a few were written in the US and Germany. Each of the nine stories in Seasons of Purgatory was previously published in US literary journals and anthologies such as the Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature.

Sara Khalili (SK): The first story I translated was “Shatter the Stone Tooth.” It was for the anthology Strange Times, My Dear, which was published in 2005. It was actually my very first translation. The editor took a chance and sent me several collections of Shahriar’s short stories and asked me to choose one. I fell in love with “Shatter the Stone Tooth” and its dark and haunting complexity. The other stories I translated over several years, often when Shahriar was writing his novels Censoring an Iranian Love Story and Moon Brow. Some he suggested, others I chose.

I find a certain indescribable air in stories such as “Mummy and Honey” or the title story. I sink into it and can’t it shake off.


WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

SM: There is one of my love stories, “East of Violet,” that is popular in Iran. From its title to the text, it doesn’t work in translation because so much intertextuality refers to Persian culture and our great poet Hafiz’s poems. It is not in Seasons of Purgatory, but it was reborn in another form in my novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

Sara’s beautiful and faithful translations of my stories and novels have been acclaimed in all critiques. She has done a tremendous job.

SK: Shahriar’s stories are intricate, complex, and heavily nuanced. They sometimes read like poetry in prose. Capturing them in English without altering their character or diluting their richness is difficult. At times I have treated his writings as a puzzle, unraveling them in Persian and re-raveling in English. And he chooses every word deliberately, focusing not only on the word, but its shadow as well. There have been times when we have spent hours discussing a single phrase and how to give it the same life and soul in English.

Another challenge for me has been to delicately make certain elements of Persian culture understandable to the English-language reader. Even traditional Persian architecture required deft explanation, such as in “Mummy and Honey,” where the structure and layout of the ancestral home plays a large role in the narrative.


WWB: It’s great to see Seasons, along with Seven Empty Houses, representing story collections on the NBA longlist. It’s also thrilling to see another collaboration between the two of you. Your first collaboration, the novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, follows a pair of young lovers who must use coded messages and internet chat rooms to conduct their love affair. Questions of censorship, and creation, in the telling of their story also feature. Seasons, meanwhile, is described as a collection of tales of tender desire and collective violence, the boredom and brutality of war, and the clash of modern urban life and rural traditions. Can you talk about how the multiple characters and narratives of the collection allowed you to explore and expand these topics?

SM: When I look back to my past, I see various experiences. Not only fighting against Saddam’s army on the frontline or rushing to cities completely ruined by earthquakes and being among the people while aftershocks occurred daily. I also took many trips to all corners of Iran, which gave me pure pictures of the people and the country’s rainbow of subcultures.

But those experiences are just raw materials. I believe that the existence of story characters precede their essence (somehow, according to Sartre’s Existentialism) and are defined through the events and conflicts in each story. In other words, I don’t believe in “flat or round characters.” Instead, I think human beings and fictional characters are a set of behavioral possibilities based on their situations.

Moreover, I love the synesthesia technique to create relationships or dialogue between things, feelings, characters, and words. If we do well in this approach, the result of the synesthesia will be infinite. Of course, translating these kinds of stories is more challenging and more complicated.

In my fiction-writing workshops, I teach that literature is inventing relationships between phenomena and innovating new desires of being connected among meaningless things. And I always try to do it in my way.

SK: With each of the stories in Seasons of Purgatory, Shahriar brings texture and clarity to life in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Indirectly or directly, at times symbolically, they examine war, revolution, totalitarianism, and dogmatic beliefs that in “Mummy and Honey” are safeguarded by a viper “with its gilded scales glistening, gently coiled around the bitter orange tree.”

“King of the Graveyard” portrays how grief is stifled and mourning the death of loved ones defiant of the state is prohibited. Their unmarked graves hold not only their corpses, but the pain of the bereaved who dare not openly mourn.

In the title story, an Iraqi soldier trapped in the no man’s land becomes a target for both sides of the war, with “no way forward and no way back.” His death and decaying remains become symbolic for the soldiers of their own fate. “We carry with us the image of what he lived through that day.”


Shahriar Mandanipour and Sara Khalili’s
Seasons of Purgatory is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Seasons of Purgatory came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Shahriar Mandanipour (SM): Some of the stories were among those I could publish in Iran when the censoring machine opened a window under pressure. A couple of them were censored in Iran, and a few were written in the US and Germany. Each of the nine stories in Seasons of Purgatory was previously published in US literary journals and anthologies such as the Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Words Without Borders, and Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature.

Sara Khalili (SK): The first story I translated was “Shatter the Stone Tooth.” It was for the anthology Strange Times, My Dear, which was published in 2005. It was actually my very first translation. The editor took a chance and sent me several collections of Shahriar’s short stories and asked me to choose one. I fell in love with “Shatter the Stone Tooth” and its dark and haunting complexity. The other stories I translated over several years, often when Shahriar was writing his novels Censoring an Iranian Love Story and Moon Brow. Some he suggested, others I chose.

I find a certain indescribable air in stories such as “Mummy and Honey” or the title story. I sink into it and can’t it shake off.


WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

SM: There is one of my love stories, “East of Violet,” that is popular in Iran. From its title to the text, it doesn’t work in translation because so much intertextuality refers to Persian culture and our great poet Hafiz’s poems. It is not in Seasons of Purgatory, but it was reborn in another form in my novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

Sara’s beautiful and faithful translations of my stories and novels have been acclaimed in all critiques. She has done a tremendous job.

SK: Shahriar’s stories are intricate, complex, and heavily nuanced. They sometimes read like poetry in prose. Capturing them in English without altering their character or diluting their richness is difficult. At times I have treated his writings as a puzzle, unraveling them in Persian and re-raveling in English. And he chooses every word deliberately, focusing not only on the word, but its shadow as well. There have been times when we have spent hours discussing a single phrase and how to give it the same life and soul in English.

Another challenge for me has been to delicately make certain elements of Persian culture understandable to the English-language reader. Even traditional Persian architecture required deft explanation, such as in “Mummy and Honey,” where the structure and layout of the ancestral home plays a large role in the narrative.


WWB: It’s great to see Seasons, along with Seven Empty Houses, representing story collections on the NBA longlist. It’s also thrilling to see another collaboration between the two of you. Your first collaboration, the novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, follows a pair of young lovers who must use coded messages and internet chat rooms to conduct their love affair. Questions of censorship, and creation, in the telling of their story also feature. Seasons, meanwhile, is described as a collection of tales of tender desire and collective violence, the boredom and brutality of war, and the clash of modern urban life and rural traditions. Can you talk about how the multiple characters and narratives of the collection allowed you to explore and expand these topics?

SM: When I look back to my past, I see various experiences. Not only fighting against Saddam’s army on the frontline or rushing to cities completely ruined by earthquakes and being among the people while aftershocks occurred daily. I also took many trips to all corners of Iran, which gave me pure pictures of the people and the country’s rainbow of subcultures.

But those experiences are just raw materials. I believe that the existence of story characters precede their essence (somehow, according to Sartre’s Existentialism) and are defined through the events and conflicts in each story. In other words, I don’t believe in “flat or round characters.” Instead, I think human beings and fictional characters are a set of behavioral possibilities based on their situations.

Moreover, I love the synesthesia technique to create relationships or dialogue between things, feelings, characters, and words. If we do well in this approach, the result of the synesthesia will be infinite. Of course, translating these kinds of stories is more challenging and more complicated.

In my fiction-writing workshops, I teach that literature is inventing relationships between phenomena and innovating new desires of being connected among meaningless things. And I always try to do it in my way.

SK: With each of the stories in Seasons of Purgatory, Shahriar brings texture and clarity to life in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Indirectly or directly, at times symbolically, they examine war, revolution, totalitarianism, and dogmatic beliefs that in “Mummy and Honey” are safeguarded by a viper “with its gilded scales glistening, gently coiled around the bitter orange tree.”

“King of the Graveyard” portrays how grief is stifled and mourning the death of loved ones defiant of the state is prohibited. Their unmarked graves hold not only their corpses, but the pain of the bereaved who dare not openly mourn.

In the title story, an Iraqi soldier trapped in the no man’s land becomes a target for both sides of the war, with “no way forward and no way back.” His death and decaying remains become symbolic for the soldiers of their own fate. “We carry with us the image of what he lived through that day.”


Shahriar Mandanipour and Sara Khalili’s
Seasons of Purgatory is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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