Freedom Chat: Iranian Marina Nemat, Author of Prisoner of Tehran
“If you took writing out of my day, all that would be left would be a corpse.”
Last week Sampsonia Way released its fourth installment of The Freedom Chat, which shares the voices and stories of journalists from around the world through video chats. Our video featured Iranian writer Marina Nemat who, in 1982, was imprisoned for criticizing the Iranian Revolution. In 1991, she and her family immigrated to Canada, where she has published two nonfiction books about her life: Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran. The interview was conducted by Sampsonia Way intern Raina Bradford-Jennings. You can watch the video here.
When did you start writing? Was it a response to what was happening in Iran?
When I started writing I was only 14 years old, and I was responding to this desperate need in Iran after the revolution. We needed to define ourselves. My generation was the generation of the revolution. We had this very passionate belief that you could make Iran a better place, and this couldn’t be done by accepting the status quo that was being forced down our throats. If you weren’t writing, you were protesting or having discussions. I never ever saw myself as a writer. I just did this as sort of a hobby. I wanted to become a doctor.
Can you talk about coming of age during the Iranian Cultural Revolution?
The crackdown on activists and students began to intensify in the spring of 1981, when the new political system was trying to establish itself. It was very strange, especially for students, and at the time I was in high school. During that time no form of dissidence would be tolerated.
Women’s rights were being taken away, personal rights were being taken away. There was a new school dress code: we had to completely cover our hair and body. Under the Shah, we had dressed the way we wanted. We wore mini skirts and bikinis. But after the revolution, our principal stood at the door every morning and if you had even a little lip gloss on, she would wash your face in a bucket of dirty water. They were intolerant toward everything, not just towards political outspokenness. We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t dress how we wanted, say what we wanted, or even think what we wanted. It was a hellhole. I’ve talked to people in Iran now, and things are only slightly more relaxed. For example, women show their protest by not wearing the proper hijab, by wearing some make-up. There is some “cosmetic freedom,” but at the same time, when you get to the serious stuff, like criticizing the government, questioning the role of the chosen leader, or questioning the election process, people can be put away for a very long time and, in many cases, are never heard from again.
When I was 16 we were assigned a new math teacher. She was a 19 year-old revolutionary guard who wasn’t qualified to teach. I said to her, “This is a math class not a propaganda class, so could you just teach math?” She filed a report saying that I had stepped out of line, and I was arrested and put in jail.
Did you continue writing in prison?
I stopped writing when I was arrested. I was in Evin Prison, and the only place you could write was the interrogation room. They would ask you questions, give you a pen and paper and say, “Write your answers.” They would beat you if you didn’t, or if they didn’t like your answers. For me, writing became synonymous with “Confess your sins.” If the guards found smuggled pens or in your belongings, you could get into serious trouble. I didn’t even try, but I had friends who did. When I was released in 1984, I wasn’t even 19. The issue was still survival. I was psychologically and physically damaged, and if someone had handed me a pen and paper and told me to write anything I would have felt like I was holding a grenade. For a long time I didn’t read or write. I lived my life, got married, and had kids.
Then when I came to Canada, one of the first things that happened was I was invited to a book club. I joined simply because I wanted to fit in, but it did make me go back to writing. I started having psychotic episodes from PTSD, and I had to respond to the trauma that was still buried in me. That is when I began to go back to my roots and started writing again, not to get published, but to express myself in some way. Then it became a book, Prisoner of Tehran, which was published in 2007, and then came a second book, After Tehran, in 2010. After that, I realized that my passion was writing fiction. I recently finished an early draft of my third book, which is historical fiction. I just sent it to my publisher, so I’m waiting for them to respond.
When you published Prisoner of Tehran, were you concerned that it would have consequences for friends and family in Iran?
No, not really. First of all, I don’t have a lot of family left in Iran. I have a couple of cousins who I’m not in touch with. I cut my communication with them a very long time ago because I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. If someone in Iran has a problem with me, I don’t think they will go after my distant cousins. I’m right here. I don’t have a bodyguard. If they were going after anyone, wouldn’t it make sense to go after me?
How does exile affect your writing?
My gift is that my English is very good. I think I communicate really well in English, sometimes better than Farsi. But most of my Iranian writer friends don’t have that luxury. I mean they come here, their language is Farsi, so they write in Farsi, but because of this their publicity is very limited. The only way to access readers in Iran is online. I translated my first book into Farsi and put it online for Iranian readers to download. I don’t charge money for it, but I want it to be out there.
Who is your audience?
I don’t have a target audience. When it comes to writing I’m extremely self-centered. My need to write comes from having this trauma trapped in my chest that I needed to get out. In a way, it was like a bomb. It just exploded out of me. It wasn’t until later on in the editing process that I considered that most of my readers might be Westerners. I had to go into more detail to give some background, but that was a much later thing that came in after my writing. I wrote After Tehran because I had been shocked by the way the world had responded to me. The best way that I make sense of things is on paper. After that book I began to think about writing fiction. I needed to explore my faith and identity through historical fiction. Again, it is an exploration of my own issues, of my own desires, of my own wants. I personally believe that is the most honest form of writing.
Are there any Iranian authors that you think people need to read?
Iran has amazing writers. The problem is that inside Iran, they cannot get published. I have friends in Iran who are writers, and their books have been sitting on a minister’s desk for more than ten years. They never get permission to publish. One of them whom I have read since I was a child is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. I read his latest book, The Colonel, in English because there is no Persian version because it’s been banned in Iran.
George Simenon said, “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.” Considering the circumstances in which you started writing, what do you think about that?
I would go a step further. Writing is not a profession; it doesn’t pay the bills. But it seems more than a vocation. To me writing is who I am. If you were to take away my arm I would probably be better and happier than if you told me I cannot write. You can probably take both my arms because I can still type with a voice recognition software. You don’t need your arms to write. Writing is like being in love. If for some reason I couldn’t write, it’d be like somebody took away my soul. It would be very hard for me. It takes some balancing to find the time to write, but when my time is my time, I write even when it’s difficult. If you took that out of my day, all that would be left would be a corpse.