June 2007

Michelle Risley


An Interview with Goli Taraghi

For five months after the Iran-Iraq War erupted in 1980, Goli Taraghi, then one of Iran’s few female writers and the daughter of a publishing magnate whose ascent she likens to Citizen Kane’s, slept in a dark basement with her two small children and lived, “in dread of the bombardment of Tehran.” They had just returned from a year in Paris, a dream that Taraghi, a single mother, decided to pursue when the Islamic Revolution broke out the year before. She assumed -- naively, she now says -- that it would last a spell. This time they fled by bus to Ankara: “three days and three nights in the cold winter. It was very, very hard and risky.” They then returned to Paris, where Taraghi, today one of Iran’s best-known and most critically acclaimed authors, continues to live. She visits Tehran often and continues to publish there, mostly short stories. Her incisive, often bitingly funny work is apolitical, but the calamitous Islamic Revolution seems omnipresent, forcing her characters into what Taraghi calls a double life, either in exile or in Iran.

While her novel Winter Sleep and some of her short stories, including the collection A Mansion in the Sky, have been published in the United States, the acclaim she has received in Iran and France has eluded her here. She was recently praised by Francine Prose as a gifted writer whose layered, communicative stories warranted broader discovery.

Taraghi was in New York this April to participate in several literary events, including a New York Public Library panel on literature in translation and in the PEN World Voices Festival. She met with me in a friend’s apartment on West End Avenue, where she was staying while in town.

How do you deal with the government as an author and what is the current publishing apparatus in Iran?

I have my own publisher. There are a lot of publishing houses in Iran, even more than before [the Revolution]. I’ll tell you something: before the Revolution there were only 15, no, 10 women writers. Today we have 50. It’s because you are forced, or you are not free, thus we have so many women who play musical instruments, they write, they translate, they publish, because they want to say that if [the government is] putting a scarf on my head, somehow I will assume my identity. This self-confirmation is very, very strong.

What happens with you and your publisher? Do you ever run into questions of censorship?

Oh, yes, yes. Every time I have to give a conference somehow I come to this subject, not only because it’s very important -- vital -- but it’s also funny. The thing is, I’m not a political writer. I’m not a militante, but those who absolutely refuse to give up writing against the government, they have difficulty. They cannot publish. Most of them, they send their books abroad to be published, so they lose their audience. For me, I am a famous writer -- one of the most famous -- and my books are bestsellers right away. If you read my stories, I write about problems of exile, I write about problems inside, but I don’t attack religion. Even before, during the [reign of the] Shah, I didn’t believe in social or political issues for a novel. For me, to go into the inner life of human beings is more important, to discover myself, to discover the other one, and by discovering the other one, discovering myself. But still I have difficulties publishing because the government as a whole is against me. My position is very bad. First of all I’m a woman. I’m divorced. I live in France and I come from a very big, famous family. Often they attack me in official journals. They call me a woman who has sold her soul to Western values. I am a bad woman, I am this, I am that. Still, my books come out.

They don’t prevent you from publishing?

Not definitely but you have no guarantee. The procedure is like this: you write your book, then we have this Ministry of Islamic Orientation. Ministry of Censorship, but it’s called Islamic Orientation. You have to get their permission. You never know what happens, because they don’t have established rules and regulations. It all depends on who reads your book. If your book falls into the hands of someone who has some brain, who may like your book, who believes somehow in literature, in art, he may give his permission. Then you’re lucky. If it falls into the hands of a Hezbollah or someone with very fanatic ideas...

Which it could...

It could. Then he says no, but you can always bargain. It may take one year.

How do you bargain?

It’s the publisher who goes and talks and again goes and talks to someone else, or maybe you have a friend who can help you. Some influential person can also help you, or it’s a game of seek-and-hide or mouse-and-cat, because you say nothing. You sit back. The doors are closed. Everybody knows that it’s a bad period. Suddenly, for example, there’s change. A change of atmosphere. Khatemi comes, for example, and he changes most of the people. We call this the Ershad Ministry. The Minister of Ershad changed. He was a man who, right away, gave a lot of freedom. During Khatemi’s period, suddenly there was a little door open and we got published and everybody got published and everything worked fine. Now, it’s a dark period for writers and for artists.

Since Ahmadinejad.

He himself maybe doesn’t know what’s going on but the person that he chose, the minister of this censorship department, this Ershad, he is a fanatic who believes that only religious books should be published and he has put up a ban. Even, for example, if my book has been reprinted six times, for the seventh time I have to [get] the permission, so they have to see it again. Then it takes a long time. My last book, I’ve been waiting two years. Neither yes nor no -- it’s just no answer. I don’t give up, because my publisher always says, “Wait, wait, wait, something will change. Someone else may help. It may come out,” but it’s not easy now. Or I had a book that came out, sold right away, it sold out, the second edition sold out, was finished, and suddenly they said,Why is it that this book is selling so much? Maybe there is something in it that we didn’t see.” There was an article saying, “AH! This book is dangerous,” because this was a story about a mermaid but I didn’t mean it for children. There were a lot philosophical elements in it. It’s about the migration of a mermaid, about a mermaid who comes to land, to a small village at the border of the sea, and about how she feels as someone who is displaced. It was taken from all the bookshops and for two years it was confiscated. My publisher didn’t give up and waited, waited until we got the permission. Again it’s banned now, under Ahmadinejad.

Do you have any interactions with anyone at the Ministry of Islamic Orientation?

Not this one, no. Not at all.

But previously you did.

Previously, during Khatemi. You could even talk to [the minister], you could even ask for a rendez-vous and go and see him or send him a letter. He was sort of a human person who would listen to you. Now it’s changed completely, absolutely. For me, I have to wait and see what happens. The difficulty with censorship is that you never know. If you attack the religion, forget it; if you attack the government also. Then you see that in your book you haven’t attacked anyone, anything, there’s nothing in it, and still they say no. You don’t know why. It’s a story I always tell: ... “No, you cannot publish this [book], because this professor of history, who is a Muslim, you have sent him to Paris.” “But I’m talking about exile, in this book I’m talking about the problems of [it] -- he is not happy. He is suffering... I’m talking about his problems. He doesn’t speak [French]; he doesn’t understand how he should adapt himself.” “No, no, no, this country is corrupt. This city is a corrupt city. He may be corrupted. He must come back.” I said, “I’m not writing about him [in] Iran; I’m writing about his adventure in exile.” “No, no, no -- why did you send him? You should bring him back.” I said, “OK, you don’t understand.”

Censorship has brought about a special sort of literature, which means that you say a lot of things symbolically, because you cannot directly say what you want to say. Most of the writers, for example, change the place. They change the time.

So it seems more allegorical, but it’s really not.

No -- they set it, for example, before the Revolution or 50 years ago, change the characters. They change the names, they change the time, or they’re forced to avoid actual issues. You see [artists do this], mostly with Iranian films. You probably know -- I hope you know -- that Kiarostami, who is the leader of Iranian cinema, started this [trend]. If he could make a film about a man and a woman, he would, but he started with children in villages. He absolutely wanted to be sincere. Then everybody followed him. We now... have a cinema of children, because with children you’re free. Especially boys. If you show the women [in public], naturally they wear veils, but there are a lot of films that become ridiculous. When I see a film, for example, which is set in Tehran, and the woman is wearing a scarf when she gets up out of bed or she’s in the kitchen, with her husband, but still she’s wearing a scarf, that’s ridiculous.

I’ll give you another example. I was a scenario for a friend Daryoush Mehrjuei, also a big sceneriste. It was based on my story, which is called “The Pear Tree.” The girl is 16 years old. I said, “No, no scarf. I wouldn’t accept.” He said, “How can you do that?” I brought the age down, down. Still, you would have to bring it to down eight years old. I can’t do that -- because there’s also a little boy who falls in love with her. She’s 15 years old. Okay. But what can we do about the hair? We found this beautiful, beautiful young actress with long, long hair, and I said, “If there’s a problem with hair, we’ll shave her head.” We asked her, “Do you accept, to shave your head and hair?” She said yes, because she wanted so much to play [this role]. Then we changed the character. We said that she’s a tomboy instead of a sexy girl. Remember the Charlie Chaplin film “The Kid”? She wears a hat like that. We made her like a little boy. No, it didn’t work. Why? Because: you could see the lobes of her ears. I said, “Can we cut your ears off?”

She didn’t agree.

Of course. We said, “What should we do?” First I said, “Let’s make her a very funny girl and she makes funny things,” so we put two big ribbons on each side but she looked so ridiculous that we said no. Then I said, “Okay, this boy of 12 is in love with her. She’s looking from behind the window, shaving her head, the tears are coming down her face and he goes to the garbage and steals the hair. He makes two big knots of the hair. Then, as a gift, he sews the knots onto each side of the hat, and gives these to her as a love gift.” It worked, but imagine how much I had to think of different things, how much I had to change her personality, how much I had to change the story to come up with these strange solutions.

You still, despite all these obstacles, want to continue to work and publish in Iran.

Yes, in Iran, because I have a big, big audience. Every day I have e-mails from people who say, “We love you, why don’t you have anything new? We’re waiting.” If I published in Europe, I’d lose my audience. I have a big audience in Iran. I want to publish in Iran. Three of my books are translated into French. Actes Sud is my publisher in France, which is one of the biggest publishing houses, and considered one of the best. I have many articles written about my work. Somehow I am known, but I want to publish here [in the United States]. I have published a lot in different anthologies, for example, in the PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature I have a story, but it’s hard here. It’s very hard.

Within publishing there’s a perception that the American literary market is very much financially motivated and that, rather than artistic, educational, or cultural considerations, drives it. Is that something that you’ve encountered?

Sure, definitely. Because I know that if I write a book with a political context...

...You can’t publish that in Iran.

I can’t publish that in Iran, but if I write something as a woman on my difficulties in Iran, attacking the government, on my life in exile, I have more of a chance, but I don’t want to. I want to write what I believe in. I believe in pure literature. I’m an artist. You cannot buy me. But [at a New York Public Library panel on translation], great great translators from the Spanish said that [in the United States] two percent of the literary works are translations. Even some publishing companies here don’t put the name of the translator on the front cover. They put it inside because people don’t like to buy or to read translations. Here publishers don’t like shorter stories, a collection of short stories, although Norton has been very kind with me and they have read all my shorter stories. I received very encouraging letters: lovely stories, high quality, but still we hope that you will give us a novel first. Then there is a dilemma with translation. I have one or two very good translators. One of them is the Zara Houshmand. She is very, very good, because she translates like a writer: she feels the sentence, the music, everything. And there is a second, also. Both of them said the same thing: “We don’t want to risk it... It’s very difficult for us to spend one year’s time translating 300 pages, but not having a solid, sure contract in our hands.” Then I would have to have the book translated, at least a few chapters of it, in order to go to a publisher. If I show the book like this to Norton, they wouldn’t know what is in it. It has to be translated. Translator says, give me the contract first. There is this dilemma.

And that doesn’t happen to you in France?

No. Because in France, even the rich, big publishing companies, like Gallimard or Actes Sud, they can get help for foreign books, for translations, and for publishing. Institutions in France give money to even big companies.

You were saying earlier that your writing has nothing to do with politics, despite the fact that many of your stories have this tension between before the Revolution and after the Revolution. Has your literary sensibility been affected by political events?

No. First of all, I have studied philosophy and I have always believed that social problems are very important but if your writing deals only with the political and social issues of today, it will not last. For me, the universal, primordial themes are more attractive, always, because as a philosopher I was always think in a philosophical way. Of course I pose this problem in an Iran of today, within the limit of censorship, but you can see that it is in Iran, the contradictions... A double life: these are also the materials to make background. In the [stories], there is a human and universal problem.