Iran at the door

BOOKS in Canada


Iran at the Door
by Victoria Rowe

Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s Iranian writers experimented with the short story and free verse poetry. The ornate flowery poetry of the past was thought inadequate to express the changes both in society and in the role of the writer. Iranian literature of the twentieth century has moved into prose and free verse poetry; women writers have emerged; and authors have tried to depict social reality. In this new writing, language is plainer and sentences are shorter. Mehri Yalfani’s stories and poetry in Parastoo reflect this economy of language, as her writing is clear and direct. Though she writes in Farsi, her mother tongue, one of her goals is to be able to translate her work into English. Parastoo’s transformation into English is a collaboration between Yalfani and several assistants.
In the 1960s and 1970s Iran’s economy was being modernized, and society was in a state of transition; the middle class was exposed to greater educational opportunities, more wealth, and contact with new types of thought that challenged traditional modes. This was a period of innovative literary activity. The first novel by a woman writer was published in 1969. It was in 1966 that Yalfani published her first short story collection. The writing of Simin Daneshvar (born in 1921) and Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) introduced strong female voices and perspectives, and were a model for other women writers. Yalfani continues the tradition established by Daneshvar of looking at the plight of ordinary women, but she takes her characters into post-revolutionary Iran (that is, past 1979) and through the experience of emigration.
The influence of Farrokhzad’s poetry on Yalfani is evident in this collection, through her numerous references to the poet, either by name or through allusion to the titles of her poems. Farrokhzad’s poetry explored self-discovery and sexuality, and advocated honest communication between men and women.
Parastoo is a collection of poems and short stories set in both Iran and Canada. They address a wide range of themes, including fears about imprisonment and political repression following the revolution, frustration with male-female relationships, and alienation from Canadian culture. “Someone at the Door” is a powerful story that demonstrates how no-one can stay detached from political events in times of violent upheaval. A woman, alone at home with her children, is faced with a moral dilemma when she answers the door one day and discovers on her doorstep a young woman, heavily covered in a black veil, begging for asylum from the revolutionary guards who are following her. She slams the door in the suppliant’s face but is forever haunted by the girl’s image and by her own action. “My life had shattered when I drove her away, a moment when I didn’t recognize myself. When my real self, mean and cruel, emerged from behind a mask of generosity. Fear that lived in me like a monster overcame me, tossing away my values like so much scrap paper.” “Someone at the Door” is not a comfortable story, as it confronts us with the unheroic aspects of human behaviour and the fragility of altruistic values when faced with suffocating, all-consuming fear.
The stories “Dead End Alleys” and “The Woman and the Mirror” explore intimate relationships between men and women. In the first of these two, Yalfani probes into the mind of a young woman whose family continually humiliates her because she is not married. Finally, in desperation, she accepts the proposal of a man she has never met, and journeys to the United States to face an uncertain destiny.
“The Woman and the Mirror” is the story of a woman who knows her husband is having an affair with another woman but does not confront him because she fears that he may take the other woman as a second wife. Her decision to “stay with her husband for the sake of her children” has particular resonance in a country where women are not granted custody of children in cases of divorce.
A number of the stories take place in Canada and explore the challenges immigrants encounter when adjusting to life in a new country and language. In perhaps the most poignant story in the collection, “Newcomer”, while sitting in an ESL class, Sussan vividly recalls her life in Iran before the revolution. Her expressive thoughts are contrasted with her inability to communicate them in English and the pain this causes her: “Sussan wished she could talk, but there was a piece of wood in her mouth instead of her tongue, a lump in her throat. She turned her eyes away from the blackboard and looked at the floor to hide her tears. The whole class was talking. Words were vague sounds playing with her thoughts and memories. And she could not understand anything. She was quiet.”
In the last story, “Without Root”, Yalfani begins to look at the conflict that arises when children start to adopt the practices of the new country and abandon old-country traditions, through the tale of a teenage girl and her boyfriend. The father of the girl cannot cope with his daughter’s awakening sexuality and abandons the family. This is perhaps the weakest story in the collection, because its treatment of the girl’s, and her father’s, emotions is stereotypical. The poetry in this collection is full of the raw emotion that is more subtly hinted at in the short stories. In “Homa” Yalfani commemorates a woman who set herself on fire in protest of compulsory veiling in Iran. While “Roots” expresses the poet’s sense that her past is buried in another land, her present is represented by a number, and her future in a new country is uncertain.
Parastoo is a well-written and poignant collection that explores human emotions and responses to events outside the individual’s control. Yalfani offers no solutions to the dilemmas her characters face; instead she tries to reveal how women as individuals, mothers, and wives respond when faced with the challenges of revolution and immigration.

Victoria Rowe is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. Her area of interest is women authors in modern Middle Eastern literature.


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