Interview: Iranian novelist-in-exile Shahriar Mandanipour on love, censorship and wearing religiosity like a hijab

Mandanipour lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- image via the International Writing Program
Mandanipour lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts — image via the International Writing Program

Shahriar Mandanipour

Prairie Lights Bookstore — Monday, Sep. 14 at 7 p.m.

Iranian novelist-in-exile Shahriar Mandanipour published Censoring an Iranian Love Story in 2009, while a writer-in-residence at Boston College. The book, his first full-length work to be published in English, is strikingly layered; a metafictional novel set in contemporary Iran whose chief protagonists are not only the titular lovers Sara and Dara, but also the author and a censor at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In his review for the New Yorker, James Wood writes that Censoring an Iranian Love Story “thoroughly persuades the reader that a novel about censorship could not help also being a novel about fiction-making; and it thus brings a political gravity to a fictive self-consciousness sometimes abused by the more weightless postmodernism.”

In advance of his visit to the University of Iowa, I interviewed Mandanipour over webcam. For a writer caught between America and Iran, it seemed important that we spoke during a moment of transition. Mandanipour was at his new home in Boston, preparing to start a new teaching appointment at Tufts University. He will read from his novel at a special event sponsored by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program at Prairie Lights this evening.

Are you concerned that your readers might choose to read your work because it is politically interesting over being artistically interesting?

I am just a writer, but because of Iran’s situation, I am automatically political. In Iran, no matter what you are writing, your work as a dissident and not as a pen-mercenary would be political. I couldn’t and cannot escape political matters — in my mind and in my books. In Iran, writers are constantly being censored. I was the chief editor of a literary magazine for nine years, and at last it was banned. Willingly or unwillingly, I was in the heart of a political situation.

This is a caption -- image via the international Writing Program
Mandanipour’s work has appeared in PEN America, The Literary Review and The Kenyon Review. — image via the international Writing Program

How has your writing changed having lived in the United States?

I think it has undergone a transformation because of the experiences I have had living in a different country, one without censorship. Still, my writing style was born in Iran. I’ve always looked at the world through the Iranian/Persian language. I came to the United States late, in my late forties. I have never tried to write fiction in English, only nonfiction and lectures. My Persian prose and my story-writing style are my identity and my only precious possessions. This is all that I just bring into exile. Through this, I have found my dear readers in my motherland country. Then, depending on good translations, I can find readers here and there as well.

Who do you view as your audience now?

When I begin writing, I write for myself. I just write to try to narrate a beautifully narrated story in the prose and in the form that I like, or that I can write, which is suitable for that story and that narrator. The audience is the next step, somewhere else far from the story’s characters and their voices. There are times that when you write, you think about your elite readers: “What will they think about this scene?” But it is so dangerous if a writer writes toward making a bestseller.

I had no idea, while I was writing Censoring an Iranian Love Story, that it would be translated into 11 languages and published in 13 countries. I didn’t expect it. I had just felt that I must write it.

Even though you no longer face censorship, is it still in the back of your mind?

In Iran, I avoided self-censoring my work. I had many stories and two drafts of a novel with which I was sure the censors would take issue. Along with writing about political matters, suffering, suppression, darkness, it is also forbidden, for instance, for one to write about men’s and women’s bodies, as well as alcoholic drinks. There were years that passed where nothing of mine was published, but I never censored my work for the sake of publishing. Sometimes, when the censoring machine tried to show off its tolerance, some of my works managed to get published. It’s a much different feeling now, to know that I do not have to do this to my global audience.

Do you find it challenging trying to contextualize your characters and Iran itself?

In Censoring an Iranian Love Story, the metafictional form — which developed while I was doing a fellowship at Brown University and continued as I was getting ready to move to Harvard as a visiting writer — helped me address Iran’s literature, history and present context.

How is life in Iran for ordinary people? And for someone who is neither an artist nor a politically minded person, are things more tolerable?

When you are living in Iran, it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in your house watching a good movie through an illegal satellite, or having a small party with your friends. And even if you open your door and go to the street, all the time, you are thinking about your freedom. Because many organizations, like “Big Brothers,” were established to monitor and control your human, natural behavior and even the way that you think.

Even the most religiously devout?

No not those people; I mean the ordinary people. 

So fundamental Muslims are a minority in Iran?

Pretend religiosity acts as a kind of hijab for many Iranians. Everyone has to act, just like North Koreans do with Kim Jong-un. So many people pretend that they are real Muslims. Believers. But for most of the people, the first problem they face is their freedom. When you open your door and go outside, you don’t even have the freedom to wear the clothes of your choosing. Particularly women. You don’t have the right, as a girl, to wear boots, because they discovered that when a woman puts on boots and puts her trousers in them, this would be deemed sexy.

Going outside, you are thinking about your lack of freedom — even in your clothes, even in the way you talk, even in the way that a teenage boy cuts and styles his hair. So freedom is the most important thing in Iran. It doesn’t matter if a person is political or apolitical. All real people are the subject of suppression — in their clothes, in their behavior, in the way they live.

And more important than these things, think about the black list of writers who must not be published, hundreds of brave students who are in prison or banned from continuing their studying. And think about the people who are executed every day.

What’s in store for the next generation of Iranians?

In general, most young Iranians, like others in every part of the world, want to have a normal life. They want to be happy, to have a sort of secure life, and to have a job. Iran sits above an ocean of oil, but sixty or seventy percent of Iranians live on the poverty line. All Iranian people are struggling with freedom, even the fundamentalists. They are struggling to limit freedom. So when they wake up in the morning, they are thinking about freedom from another perspective — how to kill it even in the minds of people.

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