Interview: ‘I like to be reminded that literature has the power and mystery of a dragon,’ says Australian-Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar
The writer whose book The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize speaks about the kind of books she likes to read, and about Iran and the Islamic RevolutionUpdated: Sep 11, 2020, 20:33 IST
The literature that has always fascinated Australian-Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, 48, is the kind that has the pulse of its time in its hand. “The kind that grabs my heart, slaps me in the face, captures my soul, wakes me up from ignorance and reminds me that literature has the power and mystery of a dragon,” says the Melbourne-based author, whose own novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (Europa Editions) does exactly this as it captures the zeitgeist of Iran following the establishment of an Islamic state.
Set in Tehran during the first decade of the 1979 Islamic Islamic Revolution, Azar’s novel is a fine example of the ingenious use of magic realism. Narrated by the ghost of a 13-year-old girl, Bahar, it tells the story of an intellectual family of five compelled to flee their home in Tehran for Razan, a remote village, in the hope that they will be spared the religious madness engulfing the country. They eventually succumb to the atrocities perpetrated by the fundamentalist regime.
Peopled by the living and the dead, humans and jinns, fireflies and dragonflies, spirits and soothsayers, magical creatures and mermaids, the novel opens with Roza, the mother, attaining enlightenment atop the tallest greengage plum tree in the grove of their house on a hill overlooking the 53 houses of the village. She does that at the exact moment on August 18, 1988, when her son, Sohrab, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, is hanged without a trial after being in captivity for many months. The next day, he is buried with hundreds of other political prisoners in a long pit in the deserts south of Tehran, “without any indication or marker lest a relative come years later and tap a pebble on a headstone and murmur there is no god but God.” As the novel progresses we discover how the family’s destinies are deeply entangled in the events that unfold over the decade and get a glimpse into the reign of terror unleashed by the mullahs at the behest of Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who came to power after overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Pahlavi dynasty.
“A month after the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, in the summer of 1988, more than 5,000 opponents of the Islamic regime were executed in the prisons without trial or by speedy and unfair trials. From that date until today, the regime has never officially acknowledged the massacre. And, due to censorship, it has never been a part of the Iranian literature,” says Azar, underlining that wrong political systems take more lives than the corona virus.
Written in Persian but never published in Iran though it is available on some websites, the novel captures the tumultuous social and political realities of Iran through a delicate blend of its classic storytelling styles — myths, legends and folk traditions. It was translated into English and published in Australia in 2017 by a small publisher, Wild Dingo Press. After it was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, the US, UK and Italy rights were sold to Europa Editions and the book was published overseas in January this year.
This is the first time that an Iranian author has been nominated for the International Booker Prize. However, it is unlikely that the novel will ever be published in Iran. The American translator of the novel, who often travels to the country, has chosen to remain anonymous. Azar, who worked as a journalist in Iran and covered social affairs, was put behind bars several times until she was compelled to flee the country and move to Melbourne in 2011. For Azar who is also the first Iranian woman to have hitchhiked the entire length of the Silk Road, the Booker International nomination was a dream come true. And though the award eventually went to Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, the novel’s availability and recognition in the West means English readers will discover afresh the depth and significance of Iran’s rich history of classic literature and culture.
Azar’s focus is on highlighting the fate of humans under dictatorial regimes. For the novel, she drew on the stories of many of her friends who lost several family members and it is full of incidents and scenes that describe the atrocities of the regime in gruesome detail. In a paragraph following Sohrab’s hanging, Azar writes: “In the following days, the number of people executed increased so much that corpses piled high in the prison back yard and began to stink, and Evin’s ants, flies, crows, and cats, who hadn’t had such a feast since the prison was built, licked, sucked and picked at them greedily. Juvenile political prisoners were granted a pardon by the Imam if they fired the final shot that would put the condemned out of their misery. With bruised faces, trembling hands, and pants soaked with urine, hundreds of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds, whose only crime had been participating in a party meeting, reading banned pamphlets, or distributing flyers in the street, fired the last shot into faces that were sometimes still watching them with twitching pupils.”
For the mothers, just like Sohrab was to Roza, their sons were “the culmination of heartbeats, desires, loves and hopes” that they had endured their entire life only to lose them in the end. When Sohrab is hanged, the family sees “a sense of hopelessness” seeping into the very cells of their being. Their father, Hushang, asks them to write anything to come to terms with the tragedy. But with each word they commit to paper, they understand that, contrary to what their father believed, “culture, knowledge, and art retreat in the face of violence, the sword and fire — and for years after remain barren and mute.” Bahar tells us: “It had happened many times before, during the years following the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century, for example, a period the scholar Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub called ‘the two centuries of silence.’”
Azar says that a small minority in Iran, including her own family, believes that the Shah’s regime was much more reformist, modern, and patriotic than the Islamic regime. “History has practically proved the same to the Iranian people,” she says, adding how, for the past 20 years, since the first large-scale demonstration, known as “University Dormitory Demonstrations” (Kouy-e Daneshgah) in 2000, people across the country have held thousands of peaceful demonstrations against injustice, discrimination, politicised Islam, economic corruption, political corruption, repression of dissidents and censorship. “But not even in one case has the regime responded positively to these protests and the people’s share of these protests has been only arrest, imprisonment and execution,” she says.
In the novel, Azar intended to be a narrator of a tiny percentage of Iranian dissidents in the 1979 revolution who voted “No” to the Islamic Republic in the 1980 referendum; the families that were very similar to her own. “These families opposed Islam, Khomeini, and the Revolution, and considered the Islamic Revolution as an irreparable deviation in the development of modern Iran,” she says. Even the dissidents, who were later arrested and executed in the summer of 1988, had voted “Yes” to this regime in the 1980 referendum. She says: “If this novel had been written in the 1980s, a large population of Iranians would have opposed the story. But, today, 40 years after the regime formation, nearly 90 percent of Iranians have understood that the Islamic Revolution was an irreversible mistake in the process of development and democracy of Iran.”
In the novel, the fictional Khomeini is tortured by the ghosts of those executed, imprisoned in the palace of mirrors they force him to build. Trapped in the palace, the dictator meets his ugly end, having been forced to understand that while delivering monologues he may have been a fierce ruler, but in dialogue he was nothing but a “bearded, illogical little boy, stubborn and pompous”. The dictator whispers a single sentence in his last moments: “It took 87 years to understand that the intellectual and formal rules of the monologue are fundamentally different from those of dialogue.”
Azar, whose novel has brought the story of the political excesses of the Islamic regime in Iran to the attention of readers in the West, feels that there is a “linguistic disconnect” between the intellectual and literary products of Iranians and the world. “Excellent books, mainly non-fiction, have been published in Farsi (inside and outside Iran), but have never been translated into another language. Thus, the West has little idea of the evolution of Iranian thought,” she says.
Magical realism gives Azar the possibilities that realism does not. “In my opinion, the best style to show the height and depth of real human feelings and emotions is magical realism. In this novel, I have tried to present that fantasy and magic in magic realism can be used in the service of factual events. Therefore, the magic realism in this novel has been used to document the real political, social and religious issues in Iran. That is, magic serves realism in this novel,” she says.
It was magic realism that helped her write the kind of novel that Azar herself likes to read: one that belongs to the category of literature that reminds us of “human conscience and morality” amid the collapse of social morality; literature that believes in humanity; literature that comes from “reckless, exploratory, critical, creative and pioneer minds”. It is the kind of writing that has shaped Azar’s own mind and writing, as it has the minds and work of many other Iranian theatre writer-directors, mythologists, philosophers, music composers and painters.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent journalist, translator and poet. He lives in New Delhi.