The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Fariba Hachtroudi
Iranian writer and women’s rights advocate Fariba Hachtroudi lives in Paris, France. She is the author of The Twelfth Imam’s a Woman? (2009) and The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (2014), among other books. In February of 2016 she visited City of Asylum to read from The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, her English-language debut.
In this interview with Sampsonia Way, Fariba Hachtroudi discussed how exile informs her writing and the unwritten stories she carries with her.
How does your family legacy influence your work? Do you think about your family and where you come from when you write?
I am from a family of scholars. My father, Mohsen Hachtroudi, was a university professor, but he was also a very great mathematician and philosopher. He was considered to be one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century of Iran. I was very impressed by him; I loved him very much. My mother was a professor of humanities. My grandfather, my father’s father, was also a high ranking religious man, but very democratic and open minded, and again, a personality represented in the constitution. He was one of the leaders during the constitution’s revolutionary period in 1900. He died before I was born, but he was always in my imagination. In some pieces he comes into my writing.
Statelessness figures prominently in The Man Who Snapped His Fingers. How does the status of statelessness influence a character and his or her development?
I think every writer is obsessed with a few topics. Mine are women, and the place of feminism. Love is another topic with which I’m obsessed, but love in a very large way: I am interested in the question of what is love exactly. And, if I can name it in a succinct way, I am obsessed with the topic of exile, including interior exile, or exile of the mind.
I really do believe, like Aristotle said, that we are the only political animals in the world. Whether we want it to or not, politics has an influence in our lives. It’s there. It’s very funny for me when people say, “I don’t care about politics. I don’t want to get involved in politics.” Politics makes you what you are; whether you want it or not, it’s involved in you.
A homeless and stateless people is just one sort of exile, but of course it’s the most obvious one and it’s perhaps the most terrible one. We are living the drama of Syrian and Libyan people, Iraqis and Afghanis.
As an exiled person, of course, I have empathy towards other exiled people. But, as I said, statelessness is one sort of exile. Sometimes, in my own land, whether it is France or Iran—because both the countries are mine—I feel exiled as well. Actually, I feel really exiled in France because I don’t understand the policy of the so-called socialist politics. I don’t recognize myself as a leftist in France.
When I went back to Iran for the first time, I felt like finally I was back home. Even though there are a lot of problems, for the first time I felt okay. Iran is my land, especially because I have some projects there. But most of the time I am in a state of exile, wherever I am.
Why do you think people choose to not get involved in politics?
A part of it is fear, another part of it is ignorance, and another part of it is most people think they are powerless. They ask, “What can we do?” They don’t believe how much power they have. They have a lot. And between being selfish and having fear, most of the people give up. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have any interest in following politics.. They follow politics because they have to follow. It’s impacting their life.
How did you decide to use first person while you were writing The Man Who Snapped His Fingers?
I met a colonel who ran away from Iran and his story is quite similar to the colonel in the novel. When he talked the first time about his love for his wife, I was really puzzled. Then I thought: Okay I have to write something about him. In the beginning I wanted to just write his story, but I wasn’t really happy with it. Then I thought I should mix two stories together, his story and stories from interviews I had collected with Iranian women in jail.
The story of Vima is the story of a lot of young women in Iran and elsewhere. But again, I didn’t want to put it in a frame of Iran because I think this drama has been going on in so many parts of the world, unfortunately. I decided to write a story that could happen anywhere.
The story was inside of me for about a year, but I didn’t want to write it in a narrative. Then as soon as I found that it should be two voices, then it came very quickly and the writing took me very little time.
Do you find that you often carry stories around with you for a long time before you get them out?
As I always used to say—and it is true for most of my stories and my books—when the writing becomes a necessity, I write. I have a hundred stories in my head, and some of them are very funny, but they are not a necessity.
I’ve been working on the book I am writing now for about ten years and in between I wrote some other books.
After that book is finished, I promised myself I’d give myself a little bit of time to write the other idea I have in my mind. Maybe a light story, in an exercise of style. I would love to write a crime story or that sort of thing. I hope there won’t be another necessity novel, but writing those novels is in my DNA.
Can you talk about the past feminists that you admire and how they influenced this book?
I am influenced by are a lot of feminine figures either in ancient times — queens in Iran, queens in Egypt – and contemporary figures, as well. Writers like Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison, are English-speaking writers I admire. Of course, Simone de Beauvoir is an influence of mine. There are a lot of figures that are within me when I write. A fabulous figure, Qorrat Ol Eyn, who was Iranian fighter for women’s rights, and a poet — a great, great poet– is another influence.I’m going to write about her soon. I also am inspired by male figures, political men like Mandela and Gandhi.
What was you revisions process like for The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, and was it different from other revision processes that you’ve gone through?
The revision process depends on the book. Let’s say it is a short book, like The Man Who Snapped His Fingers: as soon as I have the framework, I go on writing. I don’t write to the end. I write, I correct, I edit, and then I continue. Most of the time, my page must be clean before I can go on with the rest of the story.
When the structure of a book is more complicated, like my first novel, I might change the structure as I am writing it. In this novel I have at least fifty characters. Some of them are passing through, but there are a lot of characters and a lot of stories and a lot of various times and spaces. I have to clean and work on the language step-by-step. Because on my own, if I read it and I feel like it is not readable, then I can’t go on.
Do you ever worry about your projects being opened up too much to other peoples’ influence, or their voices getting in your head and changing the story?
When I have an idea, I know exactly where I want to go and how I have to get there. I thought the book I’m writing right now was finished. There was a part of me doubting that it was complete but for the first time I needed feedback.
I gave it to my publisher and he said, “It is not finished.” He asked me to edit the book down, saying that it was too wild and there are too many characters. He said, “Why don’t you take the part where one character talks about herself, and forget about the rest?” For me, it’s the story of a huge family and cutting it down would have been impossible.
The publisher suggested cutting the length of the book. And I said, “Instead of trimming the book, I’m going to add.” From my publisher’s feedback I knew I had to clarify the whole book. For him, if I had just cut off half of the book and kept the part that he was interested in it could have worked, but not for me. That wasn’t my purpose at all.
My publisher was interested in a love affair of one of my characters. The French are very intimate. They are not big story tellers. We have fantastic writers, but in contemporary French literature some of them are intimates interested in looking at their little lives and nothing else around them. The publisher was interested in making the novel a story like that, and I wasn’t at all.
It took me some time to make everything clear without taking anything out and I knew I had to add to the manuscript to make the story clear.
I listen to people, but ultimately, I am the one to know what I am talking about and what to do.
Was that a skill you had even when you were a young writer or did you have to develop it over time?
I started as a journalist. I didn’t have any idea of becoming a novelist. And it was after my first book, which was nonfiction, when I switched to novels. It was a big step for me and not very easy. As I still wrote novels and essays, I switched again because of necessity. I can tell you that I didn’t really think about it.
Even in life I am quite stubborn when I have something in my mind. I go to the end and pay a very high price sometimes, but that is my character. I am the same with my writing. The process is unconscious. Sometimes when I read my books again I think: My god, how did I make this mixture? The process behind it is not very obvious to me at all.
I think the word “unconscious work” is tremendously important, and one doesn’t know how it comes — or at least I don’t know how it comes — and how it mashes together.
What advice do you have for writers who are reading their work in public?
Usually I don’t like to read any book out loud. Silence is the best for me. I hear everything better in silence: the concepts, the words, the music emerge. I cannot read when there are voices around.
However, when there are voices around, I can close myself off and write, but to read I have to be in total silence, and I don’t like reading out loud very much. The only piece I like to read aloud from time to time is my poetry. Poetry is like a song; it is fabulous to hear the music, especially when someone reads it well.