Posted by: gatheringwater | 2009/01/24

Jailed Iranian Author Proves Power of Imagination


Shahrnush Parsipur

Perhaps the best way to feel nostalgia for a place you have never been is to listen to an exile.  Shahrnush Parsipur is a kind of exile–legally, a political refugee–who was imprisoned four times by the government of the country she clearly still loves. She talked about her life in Iran and why she left it during a reading this week  at Peninsula College’s branch campus in Fort Worden.

Parsipur was first jailed for speaking out against the execution of two poets. She was later jailed, along with her mother and two brothers, when her brother was discovered with a banned publication. Although she was never officially charged, she spent over four years in prison. She was incarcerated twice more after the publication of her own book, Women without Men, which had been attacked as “anti-Islamic” in a Hezbollah-affliliated publication. She eventually had to leave the country, but she continued to write and publish imaginative works of fiction and a memoir of her time in prison.

Women without Men is a novella describing the lives of five Iranian women of very different backgrounds and circumstances in modern Iran. What set off the controversy regarding the book, Parsipur explained at the reading, were portions of it in which the women discussed virginity. She said that a culture of silence about women’s bodies and sexuality in Iran meant even mothers and women of mature years could be ignorant about basic issues of anatomy and function and that her book was an attempt, in part, to both break the silence and demonstrate its consequences.

Although Parsipur’s books have been banned by the Iranian government, she is a well-known and popular writer in her home country. However much money people pay for her books, Parsipur doesn’t see any profits. She laughed ruefully when she explained her sales figures in Iran suffered less from attacks by the government than by dishonest brokers.

Parsipur was only the second woman to publish a novel in Iran and according to her Web biography she is the first and perhaps only Iranian to publish science fiction (Shiva, not yet translated into English). When asked at the reading what had attracted her to the science fiction genre, she explained that her take on science fiction is less about technology than about philosophy and attitudes toward science in Iran. An Iranian Henry Ford, she explained, would probably have had to produce his Model T in another country and Shiva is an exploration of why. The book was also inspired by Persian storytelling, particularly The Thousand and One Nights, and Parsipur’s interest in the mytholgy of China and India.

An interest in mythology is apparent in her other books, too, and the way Parsipur weaves these tales into inventive and non-literal narratives have led critics and enthusiastic readers to describe her writing style as “magic realism” and compare her to Gabriel Gárcia Márquez and Gorge Louis Borges, whom she cites as influences.  She also said she was inspired by Sadeq Hedayat, particularly his book Blind Owl. Hedayat’s uncensored books have also been banned in Iran.

Despite her years of imprisonment and exile, Parsipur still speaks kindly and longingly of Iran. Her family is there, but does not expect to go back. In an interview with Goldbarg Bashi she explained, “I have become too old to walk in the streets and [to have] a fifteen-year-old girl to come and tell me “Hey Sister, fix your veil.”


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