Iran's literary renaissance

After years in the shadows, a new generation of diasporic authors is coming to mainstream attention and bringing the nation's writing to a worldwide audience.

Author and actress Marjane Satrapi sits for photographs Friday, Dec. 14, 2007 in New York.The movie "Persepolis," based on the novel of the same name, written by Satrapi, is a hand drawn animated work about a young girl in Iran during the Islamic revolution. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
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Shahriar Mandanipour was 39 years old and a literary star in Iran when, in 1995, he was invited to address the Writers' Association of Armenia. Accompanying him would be 22 of Iran's most important novelists and poets, also invited by the Armenians in a spirit of literary brotherhood. The Iranian writers packed into a bus and set off through the Zagros mountains. In the early hours of the morning - when most were asleep - their driver jammed the accelerator pedal, directed the bus towards a deep ravine and jumped out of the door. The bus careened towards the edge of the ravine, then struck a boulder at the edge and came to a shuddering halt. The writers clambered out, were arrested by Iranian security forces, interrogated and released.

The events of that night have entered Iranian literary history: they were later revealed to be the result of a plot to assassinate an entire generation of Iranian writers, hatched at the highest levels. Today, speaking from his office at Harvard University, Mandanipour recalls this near-death experience with a disarming mixture of passion and bluntness; the same apparatus he brings, it soon becomes evident, to any subject under his consideration.

Now a visiting scholar at Harvard, Mandanipour - considered one of Iran's most important living novelists - has just published a new novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story. It was written in the US, where he has been living since 2006, and marks a watershed in his career: Censoring is the first of Mandanipour's novels to be translated into English. Taken alone, the introduction of such a novelist to English readers is significant (for perspective imagine that English readers had been deprived until now of the work of, say, Michel Houellebecq or Javier Marias). The critic James Woodhas already written a celebratory review of Censoring in The New Yorker. But Mandanipour's new novel is just the latest in a string of recent Iranian-diaspora fiction to take the publishing world by storm. This summer has already seen the Iranian-American writer Laleh Khadivi's The Age of Orphans win its author a Whiting Writers' Award, as well as Rooftops of Tehran by the Iranian-American writer Mahbod Seraji. In 2008 we got Dalia Sofer's Septembers of Shiraz, and Porochista Khakpour's Sons and Other Flammable Objects. And no such list can omit mention of the French-Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi's 2004 graphic novel Persepolis, last year adapted into a film voiced by Sean Penn and Catherine Deneuve.

So why, 30 years after the revolution that established the Islamic Republic, is Iranian diaspora fiction coming into such wonderful bloom? What does Mandanipour hope for the first of his novels to reach a western readership? And how does one of Iran's most famous writers feel now that he, too, has adopted the strange circumstance of the diaspora writer, forever gazing at his homeland from afar? Censoring is a multi-layered work that, Mandanipour says, aims to shine a light on both life and literature in contemporary Iran. It tells the story of a novelist - clearly Mandanipour's alter-ego - working on what he intends to be a simple love story between two young Tehranis, called Dara and Sara. In the Islamic Republic, though, this author must fight a constant, often frustrating, sometimes absurd battle with the censor over what is permitted in fiction, and what is prescribed. We are given, then, both the love story itself and the author's commentary on its creation; meanwhile we're reminded of the insidious, terrible influence of the censor via an arresting technique: sentences that are written and then struck out, so that we are made to feel party to the censorship of this story as it is happening, under our eyes.

It's easy to see why censorship is important to Mandanipour; back in Iran he was banned from publishing entirely between 1992 and 1997: "Censorship is emotionally crushing for the writer," he explains, "because it weakens the connection that he has with his readers. Readers become less trusting of the writer, because they know he is being censored. "Eventually, censorship enters every part of the writer's life; even the way that he thinks. The writer begins to censor himself."

That strange dance of speech and silence, Mandanipour says, came to overshadow his writing life in Iran: "I would write entire short stories on my computer, and then delete them. If my house was raided, those stories might be used as evidence against me. "With Censoring an Iranian Love Story, I wanted to show how it is impossible for a writer to write a straightforward love story in Iran. That story will always become something else, more complex."

But Censoring will also provide western readers with an insight into daily life as it is lived in Iran. In particular, we witness the ever looming presence of the Basij "morals police", and the ingenuity that young Tehranis exercise to circumvent their rules. The Islamic Republic decrees that unmarried men and women should not socialise together: in one passage, Sara and Dara meet in a hospital waiting room, where all those around them are too busy to notice their illegal encounter.

"Just as it is impossible to write a straightforward Iranian love story, it is impossible to live one," says Mandanipour. "Iranians no longer have the opportunity to have a romantic life, and that can destroy love." No surprise, then, that when Rhode Island's Brown University offered Mandanipour a one year fellowship in 2006, he jumped at it. By then, however, he'd been writing fiction in Iran - and navigating a route through the censor's office - for years. Now, he found himself at liberty to write whatever he chose. The result, for a while, was creative paralysis:

"In Iran, I'd become used to writing about my sorrows. When I arrived in the USA, for months I didn't know what to write. But then I realised that by telling this story, I could bring the voice of Iranian writers to the world. "Luckily, I found an excellent translator. Poor translation is one of the problems that keeps contemporary Iranian fiction from western readers." In that way, then, one of Iran's most significant literary sons found himself among the many Iranian writers who live and work outside their homeland. He became, in short, a diaspora writer. Via a succession of novels across the last few years, fiction of the Iranian diaspora has come of age, with writers such as Marjane Satrapi and Porochista Khakpour introducing western readers to the 1979 revolution, life in the Islamic Republic, and the Iranian exile communities that now exist in the USA and Europe. Many of these writers are second-generation immigrants to the west, the so called "hyphenated" children of Iranians who fled the country in 1979: Porochista Khakpour - whose 2008 novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects centred around an Iranian family in New York in the wake of 9/11 - was born in Tehran in 1978, but raised in Los Angeles; Marjane Satrapi, now 41, left Tehran for Paris aged just 14.

And this year's Iranian diaspora fiction star, 32-year-old Laleh Khadivi, was born in Esfahan but, following the revolution, moved with her family first to Belgium, then Canada, and finally the USA. Khadivi's debut, The Age of Orphans, tells the story of a young Kurdish boy, Reza, captured from the Kurdish region of Iran by the armies of Reza Shah in 1920s Iran. Already lauded by critics in the USA, the novel will be published in the UK in November.

Why, then, is Iranian diaspora fiction - a full 30 years after the Iranian revolution - at such a high point? Given the difficulties endured by writers inside Iran, has it fallen to the second-generation diaspora Iranians - now in their late 20s and early 30s, old enough to be publishing their debuts - to bring Iranian stories to the world? "It's partly that, yes," says Laleh Khadivi. "We have the freedom to write about the events of the last 30 years. But we're outsiders, so these works aren't being written from an entirely Iranian perspective."

So are these young diaspora writers - some of whom have not seen Iran since they were children - really in a position to write about that country? "Fiction is an imaginative act," says Khadivi. "It is not reportage, that is a reduced idea of what fiction aims at. But in general, there certainly are writers at work inside Iran, and they can write from a very grounded sense of that place; like Faulkner wrote about the Deep South. On the other hand, I have access to certain experiences - around exile, immigration, identity - that they might not."

The Age of Orphans is the first instalment in a projected trilogy that will see Reza's son leave Iran for the USA, and his grandson return. It's a story concerned with identity, exile, and homeland; a subject derived from Khadivi's own experience: "We've moved from a tribal, to national, to a post-national identity; my questions are: what has this done to our souls? What are we leaving behind?" "Yes, those are questions that have relevance in my life, but I approach them as an artist. Iranian diaspora fiction is big right now partly because readers are searching for cultural interpreters who they think can help them to understand Iran. But that puts the diaspora writer in a strange position; I think of myself as an artist, not a cultural interpreter, or an Iran analyst."

Khadivi's words are echoed by the most established translator of Iranian fiction into English, Iranian-American Sara Khalili, who translated Censoring an Iranian Love Story. She says that it would be wrong to let the success of Iranian diaspora fiction blind us to the fiction being written inside Iran: "Since the revolution a new generation of writers inside Iran have taken up their pens," she says. "But they often lack the means to get their work translated, so very little reaches a western readership.

"Even when Shahriar began writing this book, we had no agent, no publisher, and no idea if the translation would see the light of day. We were successful, but writers inside Iran lack our resources." So what, then, of Mandanipour? Having intended to be in the USA for one year, he decided to stay when President Ahmadinejad instituted a further censorship crackdown, and says he has no plans to return to Iran. Does he consider himself, now, an Iranian diaspora writer? And can readers of English expect more of his work?

"I've gained a new perspective, and my style of writing is changing; that's only natural," he says. "Of course I miss Iran, and I feel guilty that I have a comfortable life here while my fellow writers in Iran suffer. "It's for that reason, because of my circumstances - and also because of what I've seen - that I feel it is my duty to write. I volunteered to join the army in the Iran-Iraq war, so I could bear witness. Whenever there was an earthquake in some town, I was there in the aftermath. I even survived that assassination attempt, which was an attempt to silence Iranian literature. I've already written much fiction that deals with these subjects, and I must write much more."

Censoring an Iranian Love Story is published in the UK by Little, Brown on 23 July, £14,99.