An Interview with Miranda Mellis
with Miranda Mellis
(This interview appears in Issue Five as part of a special feature of Iranian writers)
Miranda Mellis: Your story “Satan’s Stones” begins outside of the space of the story proper, in the city, from which our heroine, Maryam, the prodigal daughter newly trained as a doctor, returns home to her mother and village. She arrives and she walks—the story walks—a spiraling path to an unforeseen trial, from a modernity that exists outside of the pages of the book, on through the village from one portentous encounter to another, to end, finally, inside Maryam’s very body when her virginity is tested against her will by Nanny, the holder of tradition, in an ordeal Maryam’s own mother is powerless to prevent. In another story we meet a character named Jeyran who is a dancer. The shape of the story, the movement of the prose, seems to echo her movements as she dances her way through her abjection, her predicament, and her exclusion from the scene of celebration. In these and other stories by you, there is a muscular, compressed weave between the “plot” or central problem of the story—often women negotiating relationships, questions of exclusion, belonging, and loss—and the style of the prose. Reversals and transformations have the force of inevitability. In “Love’s Tragic Tale,” the woman writer, serially rejected by the object of desire, cathects entirely to her work and becomes a “fossil made of words.” Each story makes some kind of turn, or is heightened, towards the end. Your endings have a potent emotional logic; causes accrete, problems repeat, and rather than being resolved things fall apart as a result of entrenched, immutable patterns.
Moniru Ravanipur: What is supposed to be resolved in a short story? The short story for me is like a mirror that reflects different worlds—worlds that already exist, or worlds that could be or should be. I think this is the only mirror in the world of this kind, one that finds the subject that it wants to see. Honestly, I don’t know how stories are chosen to be written. Sometimes I think the stories are more alive than their writers, and it is the story that chooses a writer to narrate them. Only Márquez can write “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” because the story has chosen him to write it. I’d say the same thing about “The Oldest Tale of the World” by Romain Gary. Different communities have stories of their own. Raymond Carver could only write his influential stories here in the U.S. But if a writer in Iran decides to follow Carver’s path, she will face other issues. The relationship between the author and the story is like the relationship between the individual and her society. It is difficult to say whether the society builds an individual or an individual the society. To me, this question—whether it is the story that creates the writer or the writer the story—that is the perpetual question. Of course the interaction goes both ways, but which one has more influence? Maybe stories are written to show reality in a different light. Maybe they want to be written so that the story itself is not forgotten, to de-familiarize our everyday love and sufferings and passions. When a story is written, change occurs from the first sentence. The story of Jeyran, for instance, has imposed itself on its writer to attest to a very specific era of a woman’s life in a specific country. We get used to realities of life; this is a malady of the soul. But we don’t get used to fictional reality. In stories there is always room for wonder and awe.
Mellis: Your characterization of the basic tension in the stories in Satan’s Stones would seem to indicate that in a contest between tradition and modernism, as an author, you are arguing on the side of modernism? How would you describe this modernism? What are its attributes?
Ravanipur: For me modernism is breathing without fear, walking on the street, dancing, singing, living your life without shame, without feeling guilty, respecting human rights, having the right to choose your own path, having your own dream without any fear, having access to any information directly…kissing someone that you love without needing permission…seeing reality, and talking about it with your own magical point of view. Satan’s Stones# was banned after the third edition got published. It has been thirty years now since that happened. In this collection—in all my works really—there is a struggle between modernity and tradition. Defenders of modernity are mostly women, although the barristers of tradition could be from either gender. It’s not the author of these stories that punishes the defenders of modernity; it’s the society which undermines modernism and is very slow in its difficulty to accept it. Although the tradition is able to suppress modernity, at the end of each story something happens so that everything changes in favor of it. In the story “Satan’s Stones” Maryam’s virginity is examined, yes, but ultimately it is Maryam who is educated, and needed in the village. At the end of Jeyran’s story, Jeyran returns the money to the man, and with a simple sentence insists on her love and faith. In “Love’s Tragic Tale,” the man finally falls in love with the woman but he finds nothing except words. These stories convey the hatred and aversion caused by tradition. The heroes of the story, though crushed, never give up or doubt their beliefs. Although the opposite side starts to doubt and suffer, this happens almost beyond the stories. Now what is happening on the streets of Iran happened thirty years ago in these stories: war between tradition and modernism.
Mellis: Your work makes visible the extent to which emotional life—expressions of desire and feeling—are circumscribed and determined by legal, political, and social structures. Your stories intervene powerfully by means of the aesthetic and affective upon the religious-political status quo. And your work is banned; art, feeling, and expression are perceived, then, as threats. What excuse was given for the (inexcusable) banning of these powerful stories? What was the state’s rationale?
Ravanipur: They never gave an explanation for banning my book to me or to my publisher. We only heard that the book has been anonymously accused and that the plaintiff lives in Qom (a religious city). So there is no explanation, and we are a nation of people who, when not given an answer, rely on rumors. Or we rely on our speculations and imaginations. Until two weeks ago when I re-read my stories, my theory was that the book was banned because of the romantic sentiment and the fact that I wrote about a woman who is in love, and who is a dancer, because both dance and love are forbidden according to our rulers’ culture. But now I think that my unconscious use of Sham’a Ajin,# which has a distinct symbolism in Baha’i faith, could be the reason. But it is not possible for one to expect an explanation for the banning of her book from the same people who run protesters over in the streets and execute 4,000 political prisoners in one week. Those who own oil wells and control the citizens, even inside their bedrooms—what need do they have to give an explanation? There is a phenomenon in the modern world where one looks for a reason for everything, in the world in which the rights of citizens are valued and each person is defined by her own life rather than by a sort of herd mentality. The book was banned out of fear of individuality and freedom, fear of the debut of a writer who renders different portraits of women in society.
What could be more laughable than the fact that I, the author, for the purpose of answering these questions, have to beg my publisher to find a copy of my book hidden in his closet and photocopy it to send it to me? It may be strange for someone living in the West, but we are familiar with it. We are familiar, but not used to it. Many things in our homeland are like air—things that are present and moving around us—and the government can’t stop me from thinking about ShamA’ajin or make me forget Jesus with his crown of thorns or his passion. I’m neither Baha’i nor Christian, but I use their beliefs in my writing.
Mellis: For readers of your work in translation, there will be two layers of ambiguity: the poetic ambiguities of your compressed, multivalent style which all readers experience, and a secondary ambiguity for readers in translation, that of knowing that there are culturally specific references one will not get. “My Blue Bird is Dead” affected me quite viscerally. I thought I recognized in the story the despair of entrenched power differences, the closed circuit of a painful and threatening dyad, of a difficult, necessary, and inescapable pattern of exchange. A friend mentioned that she reads the story as describing, among other things, the ambivalence of a life lived in restricted, albeit luxurious, captivity, and she mentioned relating the color blue with royalty. It is a gift to encounter literature of such depth, that any single reading or reader cannot exhaust its meanings! I wonder if you would speak to the use of ambiguity and radical disjunction in your narratives. How do you theorize the politics of your poetics? What are your aesthetic commitments as a writer and from what lineages do they stem?
Ravanipur: I was born in the south of Iran where there exists a rich but very different culture from the rest of country. In the South, the characters from mythology are part of our lives; we live with mermaids, and with Ahl-e Hava and Ahl-e Ghargh.# This subculture is part of another culture that is the mainstream culture of Iran which in turn is part of a universal culture. All these combine to make my stories like the Russian dolls (Matryoshka), one inside another, and of course the stories take these forms with no prior intention for them to do so. Ten years of childhood in a village by the sea, seven years living in Boushehr, living in Shiraz, then Tehran, and constantly moving from one city to another meant living a peripatetic life which has impacted my writing. When you are influenced by different cultures you can’t escape them when you write. In each case, every moment of your life seeps into your story and gives it a different smell and color.
Mellis: Do you see your stories as ethical parables?
Ravanipur: Stories are a testament to their time, especially in countries like mine. When a writer is not indifferent to her surroundings, the story, a part of her life, cannot happen in a vacuum. However, a story has no ethical obligation, the writer is not an omnipotent deity who punishes the characters and sends them to hell. In “Satan’s Stones,” the main character’s name, Maryam, is associated with the Virgin Mary. If the people crucified the sinless Jesus, when the villagers open Maryam’s leg to test her virginity, it’s as if they are crucifying her from her legs. I haven’t read the translation, but in the original Farsi text, the story develops in a way that the reader feels nothing but loathing and pity for those who crucify Maryam. I hold a mirror up for the reader, and the reader decides for herself. In “The Tragic Story of Love,” the woman transforms into words to show how, according to the Bible, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” At the end of the story, the male character, the publisher, is standing against God, a God born from love.
Jeyran, in love with candles# and visiting the temple, is a saint who protests with her dance against the greediness of the society—she is a dancing saint. In her movements and behavior she has the nonchalance of those who never care about society’s obstructive norms. In this story, using Baha’i beliefs, Jeyran emerges as a saint in love, and she continues her life. The last sentence of the story references the history of Ghalandri and love# and has a profound meaning: it belittles those who are only after materialistic life. The honesty and intoxication of the character that utters this sentence mocks every “should” and “shouldn’t.” It’s pure selflessness.
The prose comes with the story. Words act like living creatures. A word that is a stranger to the story takes its way and departs. Therefore, if you read Jeyran in Farsi, even without knowing the words, you hear the beat Jeyran dances to, or in “The Tragic Story of Love,” the words prepare the fictional ground for the upcoming event.
Mellis: Who are the writers who have been important for you? As a young woman, who and what were the influences and exposures that brought you to your work? Will you talk about your childhood and your family?
Ravanipur: I had a wondrous childhood. I was lucky to be born in a discerning family who respected women, and also breathed between reality and fiction—a family with numerous stories to tell. When they were about sixteen years old, my maternal grandparents escaped overnight with a group of relatives from Fakseno Tangistan. The reason for this was that my grandfather’s sister, Tavoos (which means “peacock”), had fallen in love with a young man who was a stranger. When the villagers planned to kill Tavoos, because she had fallen in love with an “unearthly” man according to them, the family escaped from inland. They went on foot until they reached the sea and camped near Bushehr and established a village. Their village was close to the English hospital. My grandfather, sixteen years old, went to the hospital looking for a job and the major, the head of the hospital, offered him one. The migration from Fakseno and my grandfather’s job in the English hospital were the two extraordinary events whose effects resonated through the next generation of the family. Later my grandfather became the local physician and opened an office in Bushehr, without even being able to read and write a word in Farsi (though he could speak English fluently). Suffering that illiteracy caused him to stress education for his children and grandchildren. To him, whoever was a serious student was dear, no matter whether they were a boy or girl.
I was born a year before the 28 Mordad’s coup,# and my childhood was spent listening to tales of women, fishermen, and political debates during drinking and poetry reading parties of the men of our family. We lived in a vast house, like a colony, with all the cousins growing up together. My father was a member of the National Front; my cousin, a teacher who supported the Tudeh Party; and my uncle, a lawyer and nationalist.# During their late night drinking, they recited love poems (ballads) and also poems from activists, and they argued over politics. The fall of Mosaddegh had left nothing in people’s hearts except envy. And these men, drinking together and speaking about their heartbreak and hope, were my first experience of a literary gathering.
I first heard poetry from my father. He had a truck that he drove to remote villages and while working he secretly distributed the National Front’s flyers among the villagers. Returning home, his gift for me was poetry from the local poets, because he himself loved poetry and history. Then there was my mother, with her awe-inspiring pride, and my grandmother, who was full of mermaid tales. She was a woman who always gave the impression of being in love.
Living with political realities on one hand, and legends, myths, and fairy tales on the other, shaped me even up to now. I can’t overlook social and political issues, nor can I give up fairy tales. The first books that I saw and read were books published by the “Progress Press” in the Soviet Union and imported by the Tudeh Party. The first foreign story that I read was Maxim Gorky’s. When I was ten, I went to Bushehr and finished elementary school and entered high school. The same year I started writing my journals. The first western author that I came to know was Mickey Spillane. I read his books and was fascinated by Mike Hammer. In Bushehr they had a regular literary club, theater club, and poetry club. I participated in all of them and performed in the theaters. The first serious book for me was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which my teacher gave me when I was sixteen. That teacher also gave me M. Ilin’s How Man Became A Giant.
I bought Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. I paid for it on an installment plan from the bookstore. As I read these books, I discovered characters similar to the characters around me. I paid a lot of attention to the faces that were printed in these books, faces like classical paintings, especially Tom in The Grapes of Wrath. He looked very much like my grandmother’s sheepherder. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were two new friends whose books I lived with. I wrote my composition assignments and in that class I had some of the best hours of my life. At Shiraz University, I joined the student theater group and married a graduate student who ran the group. I read Beckett, Brecht, Sartre, Camus, and especially Shakespeare, in this period. One Hundred Years of Solitude particularly fascinated me. I thought of the matriarch of the novel, Úrsula Iguarán, as my grandmother. The bizarre similarity between the magical town of Macondo and my childhood village of Jofreh amazed me.
My first husband gave me a bible as a birthday gift and I became utterly intoxicated by Solomon’s songs. That same year I bought my first Brother typewriter and I began writing my journals with it. In our house we hosted gatherings where we discussed poetry and theater. There was no mention of fiction yet. It was after the revolution that I began writing fiction. During the first few years of the revolution my brother was executed. My second sister and her husband were sentenced to death, but they escaped from Iran. My older sister’s husband was jailed four times and my twelve-year-old sister was arrested and two other siblings, aged eleven and thirteen, were expelled from school. A cousin of mine was arrested and jailed as well. My father’s assets were confiscated and our house in Bushehr was looted. Most of my relatives and my own family moved to Shiraz.
At last, one day they arrested me too, on Poostchi Street in Shiraz. It was a difficult time. They were executing people in scores. It was on the first night of my arrest when I thought that they were going to kill me, like one of the extras in a war movie, and no one would notice. Not even a leaf would tremble.# I said to myself, if you were famous, foreign radio stations would have made a fuss about you and the government wouldn’t be able to eliminate you that easily. It was then I thought that if they let me out, I would take my writing seriously so that they can’t kill me.
For years I had completely forgotten about that night until I came to the U.S., and realized that when I’m not writing anything, I feel short of breath. I returned to these memories and discovered that I write so they can’t kill me, that I write to stay alive.
Mellis: Your readers can feel that intensity of purpose in your work, an intensity that never lets up, that quickens the heart. The writing is also tender. One feels empathy and anger mixed with sad joy. In “Kanizu” and “The Long Night” as well as other stories, friendship is passionate and exceptional, a space of honesty and revelation. Friendship is where clear seeing and mutual reciprocity is possible, in contradistinction to scenes of domestic and public life. In “Kanizu” a little girl, Maryam, befriends Kanizu who is trying to survive as a prostitute. She is tormented and disrespected by everyone, adults and children alike, and Maryam is beaten by her mother for even talking of her. By means of empathetic friendship these two characters, Maryam and Kanizu, are able to see each other clearly. Maryam perceives Kanizu as a deer and this perception inflects the reader’s sense of Kanizu because we see her through Maryam’s gentle eyes. A web of abuse encircles both of them, and yet when they interact with one another, there is a tremendous sense of connection and love. The reader wishes they could be left in peace to nurture one another through life. However Kanizu is doomed from the start. The story moves back and forth in time to build out from the opening scene where her body is desecrated in public. Kanizu is trapped, a condemned guide to this inferno her fate reveals to Maryam. In another story of friendship, “The Long Night,” her friends bear witness to the destruction of the child bride Golpar, raped and killed by her much older “husband.” When Golpar makes “the kind of face a child makes when she suddenly grows up and understands that she doesn’t have a say in what happens to her” the reader is confronted by an obscene distortion of childhood initiation. Rather than the exciting and unforeseen forms of agency she might have imagined, in that scene Golpar realizes that in gaining this husband, she has lost all power and freedom. The other children, her friends, wonder at her fate. Her friend Maryam tries to enlist her parent’s help in saving Golpar, when she hears the girl screaming on the night she is killed. But Maryam’s parents insist that the screams are just the sound of the wind. Here, parents are complicit in the destruction of the lives of girls and women. Their stories do not reveal, but rather obscure the truth, though they think they know the truth of things. At the same time, precisely because of her ignorance, Maryam does know the truth; she has not learned yet to give in to lies. As a child, she still trusts in her direct perceptions.
Ravanipur: In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud says that savagery in human beings has no limits. In my opinion, becoming habituated and fossilized by old beliefs can be a form of savagery. Whoever clutches to faulty traditions is unconsciously siding with those who oppose change and keep the world worn and tattered.
In “The Long Night” Golpar’s friend Maryam’s parents are habituated to what goes on, but Maryam has a fresh mind for discovering things. She hears Golpar’s screams of pain as cries for help. In Kanizu’s story, Kanizu, Maryam, and Maryam’s father don’t posses benumbed minds. The world around them has surprises for them. They see cruelty. They don’t need to defamiliarize. They still become astonished by what happens around them, and they see disorder.
A mind unable to discover and be surprised by its surroundings is a fossilized mind. A mind that is not curious wants the world static. Perhaps no war is more real than the war between a fossilized mind and a mind that is still child-like. In The Little Prince, the prince SEES. His mind is not habituated to anything. That is why he sees the drawings correctly and understands that while trees have roots, humans are rootless.#
But evil is not exclusive to a certain class or age. Children in “Kanizu” act cruel, they throw stones at Kanizu when she is alive. Adults treat Kanizu’s dead body like a toy that must be beaten up and broken. That the adults and the children play with Kanizu’s body, both when she is dead and when she is alive, is evil. This evil exists in the air of the society and gets injected into the society through that air. In a closed society, human beings take advantage of their fellow human beings like slaves, in order to save their own power. Right now, we witness how some governments haunt children’s souls and arm them to open fire on their own people. In my country, hunting people in the streets, praying on the lives of the citizens, and opening fire on them, is mostly done by thirteen and fourteen year olds, just as the Iran-Iraq war was fought by our children.
I’ve always believed that the willingness to keep slaves, or to become one yourself, begins within the family. The family is a core that sometimes serves fascism and dictatorship. Just like a political nucleus, it drives the dominant politics of the society. The household affects society, and the society affects the household, in a circuit of reaction.
Friendship has a different story; it has its own rules. It is even more free than love. We can question love and ask when it starts and how far it goes. But at the end of love we reach the meaning of friendship. Love that doesn’t contain friendship is selfishness. Slavery doesn’t exist in friendship. No friend takes advantage of the other friend. We enjoy each other’s presence without expectations. We’re lighthearted and concerned about each other’s being.
Friendship in closed religious environments and dictatorships are watched closely. Totalitarian governments draw people’s enthusiasm towards something else, towards Allah, towards political parties, towards something invisible and, according to them, worthy of worship. Maybe that’s why friendship—such as those in these stories, between Maryam and Kanizu; Maryam and Golpar; and Setareh and Maryam—appear as acts against tradition. For me friendship is a window from prison to the outside world—it means to exist.
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