Gender and the creative impulsive in the works of Iranian writers


Ludmila Yaneva

Sofia University

(on Farideh Kheradmand`s I just Wanted to Write a Story, Zoya Pirzad`s The Story of the Rabbit and the Tomato, Zahra Hakimi`s One Day from the Life of a Very Busy Writer and a Happy Woman and Other Stories and Moniru Ravanipour`s The House of Ghosts)

In the last two decades the works of women writers have a leading place among the best literary works in Iran. One of the reasons for this success, as Farzaneh Milani states, is that these works unveil the women`s world, jealously kept secret for centuries. In them the women are depicted the way they are, not the way men see them. Women`s books are outselling men`s by far, thanks to the simple and straightforward language and the diversities in themes. One of the themes women write about is the conflict between family duties and the creative impulse. Such is the theme in Farideh Kheradmand`s I just wanted to write a story, Zoya Pirzad`s The Story of the Rabbit and the Tomato, Zahra Hakimi`s One Day from the Life of a Very Busy Writer and a Happy Woman and Other Stories and Moniru Ravanipour`s The House of Ghosts. The women writers of the four stories feel somewhat guilty because the urge to write will diminish the time, they are traditionally supposed to dedicate to their family.
It seems that starting even from the title Farideh Kheradmand wants to justify herself that she is not committing a crime – I just wanted to write a story. Then from the beginning of the narration, while watching from the window her children heading for school, she expresses her firm determination: “Right now, yes exactly right now is the time for writing a story!” After clearing away the breakfast table she ascertains that everything in the house is in good order, in other words the necessary conditions that would permit her to dedicate herself to writing are at hand. She had coped with her main obligations – the order and comfort in the house. Now with a free mind she can take the notebook, the one she bought the week before especially, to write in it. But obviously since then something has kept preventing her from writing. This time when everything seems all right, she finds out that she does not have a pen, and starts looking for one. Instead she finds a pencil and on the point of putting “pencil” to paper, the telephone rings. Her husband informs her that he had arrived safely at the destination of his business trip. So with a more relaxed mind she can start writing. But then one of her neighbors comes to visit her and later – another. All of them waste her time talking about trivial things from the everyday life, even repeating one another. But she cannot afford to be rude and tell them she is busy writing and the social obligation to be polite enrages her more.
Generally speaking Zoya Pirzad`s story begins almost like Kheradmand`s:
Every single day I would tell myself that today I will write a story. But at night, after washing the dishes I yawn and say, Tomorrow, tomorrow I will definitely write.

The period, depicted in the story is late at night, when everybody is asleep, the dinner dishes are washed and she can be alone with her thoughts. And while Kheradmand wants to write a story, but does not know what she is going to write about, Zoya Pirzad has a clear idea what her new short story is going to be about. It will be a story about a rabbit, who has fallen into a trap, dug by a hunter. The trap is very deep and the rabbit cannot get out. His friends find out they are helpless and cannot do anything to take him out of there. They keep bringing him water and food, talk to him, try to entertain him. And thus day after day he stays in the trap. At first glance he has everything: food, water, bed but he keeps dreaming of getting out.
The writer herself does not know how she can set the animal free and hopes she will find a way. But first of all she has to decide what she is going to cook for lunch the next day, so that she could spare more time for writing the story. And she begins to feel guilty, since the dish should be dami gojehfarangi1 – children`s favourite even though her husband dislikes it and his reaction at the table is fully predictable.
He will drop his head, eat without saying a word and then get up and leave the table.
That is why the day after she will make up for this inconvenience and she will cook for him his favorite dish ghormeh sabzi2. She will perform her domestic duties of a perfect housewife like her mother. She is overwhelmed by the guilt that she is not the good wife and mother everybody is expecting her to be. The creative impulse takes a back seat. Although she states that her story will be for children it is not hard to guess that in fact she herself is the rabbit, trapped in her daily routine, limited to being a wife and a mother. Looks like a paraphrase of Erica Jong words from Fear of Flying: “If you are female and talented, life is a trap no matter which way you turn”3.
And her role of a wife and a mother outweighs this of a writer, since at the end of the story instead of jotting down brief notes about the story as she plans at the beginning she writes “tomatoes”, because she has noticed that she does not have enough tomatoes for the dami gojehfarangi. The title The Story of the Rabbit and the Tomato suggests that this is a story is about the woman writer`s split personality between being a writer and a perfect housewife.
As the title suggests Zohre Hakimi`s story follows the events from a single day of the life of a very busy writer, whose time is compartmentalized like a railway schedule. This fact is supported by her succinct style of writing thus describing more authentically the stressful daily routine: 6:30 a.m. in the morning; – in the kitchen; 7:30 a.m. in the morning – seeing off the children to school; 8:30 a.m. in the morning – washing the breakfast dishes, etc.
During her busy day her thoughts about household chores mingle with the thoughts about her creative works she is planning to write, whenever she is free from duties. The short unfinished sentences describe more expressively her stressful life and her change of moods. Early in the morning she hopes that this very day she will be able to write:
Luckily enough today I do not have much work. I must definitely start writing one of the stories that I intend to write for quite some time.
In the morning she is optimistic and in high spirits and determined to write not just one but several stories: The Story of the Happy Woman, The Story of a Woman Gone with the Wind, The Story of the Mice who Wanted to Climb the Top of the Mountain.
And again like in Pirzad`s story it is not difficult for the reader to perceive that these protagonists have a lot in common with the author herself. The woman from The Story of the Happy Woman is:
The woman that everyone, even she herself, consider a happy one. During the day she performs the domestic work, goes shopping, chats with her mother and husband on the phone; at noon when her children and husband are back, they eat together. The happy woman is an excellent cook, no doubt about it. Late in the afternoon she helps the children with their lessons. Then they all go for a walk in the park, to the movies or sometimes pay a visit to her mother or to her mother in law. Once a week they dine out and once a month they have guests or visit friends. The woman is happy indeed. Just one small thing is tormenting her. Late at night when she is putting a cold cream on her face in front of the mirror it seems to her that the woman in the mirror is sitting in an empty room and is crying.

The writer is planning to send her protagonist to meet psychiatrist because it does not seem normal to be so happy and yet to cry.
The woman protagonist from the second story the protagonist has planned to write carries heavy buckets full of water and wistfully looks at the birds in the sky. But it does not occur to her that she may leave her burden on the ground and let the wind carry her away.
The third story she is planning to write is about a mouse which dreams to climb the white peak of the mountain but every day something is preventing her from doing so and every evening she decides that the next day she will climb the mountain no matter what. She keeps saying to herself that she is not a mole and that she belongs to that peak. The mouse and the writer have very much in common.
The women protagonists of in the short stories by Farideh Kheradmand, Zoya Pirzad and Zohreh Hakimi cannot devote themselves entirely to the creative process because they can not shut themselves from the outside world and part of them always worries about the members of the family. As Hakimi states:
The telephone… Let it ring, I will not peak it up. It don`t know who might be calling, it will take an hour. Let it ring. Let it ring forever. Could it be from the children school?… May be my husband has had an accident… Yesterday I think, he mentioned about a problem with the brakes…
Among the other difficulties they face, the women protagonists in Pirzad and Hakimi`s stories have to compete with their mothers, representing the traditional model mother and housewife, who they are striving to emulate. Pirzad`s protagonist tries to chop herbs exactly as her mother does. „She does it very fast and she never cuts her finger“ – an expertise she proved unable to match despite trying for 15 years as her husband teases her.
The pressure exerted by the older generation of women on the younger one is evident also in the compliance of Hakimi protagonist with her mother`s urging to go buy cheap cherries for jam. In spite of her reluctance she ends up doing what is expected from her and comes back with twelve kilos of cherries. On the top of everything she has to cook another dish for lunch since she had forgotten to switch off the stove, when she went out in a hurry and the meal has burned to a crisp. And at the end of the story after a hectic day the woman from the story, like her happy protagonist, is finally alone with her thoughts in front of the mirror, when she also hears a women crying. The mirror can not be fooled.
The story The house of ghosts by Moniru Ravanipour, whom prof. Talattof calls the literary advocate of women rights4. Though at first glace different from the above mentioned stories, hers is also about the conflict between family and the creative impulse. There is no hint in the story that the protagonist is a writer, but it is not hard to guess. In a typical manner for Ravanipour magic realism she starts the story as her female protagonist comes back home with 12 kilos of eggplants and is severely criticized by Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf, who are her guests. Sylvia Plath is at a loss how she can waste four hours of her time on a queue for eggplants! The female character does not find sympathy in her guests. They do not praise her for bringing such a heavy burden home. Katherine Mansfield asks for something strong to drink. Virginia Wolf wants to see her cabinet, and Katherine mocks her saying that the kitchen is her office.
Ravanipour chooses three famous women with different cultural background from her protagonist, but with similar problems: their lives as it is well known, did not have a happy ending. The three women have been chosen to represent the fate of the female writers, who under similar pressure surrendered to a different fate. When Virginia Wolf sees the woman’s life, she asks her if there is a river nearby, and in fact she is looking for a river to commit suicide (this means the protagonist also thinks about suicide)5. Moreover Moniru Ravanipour explains that the eggplants symbolize the male genitalia. The three women except KatherineMansfield rip them apart with a knife, and the tub is a symbol of femininity. At the end of the story the protagonist is trying to destroy the tub, when her son comes and asks her what she is doing. It is obvious she cannot bear any longer the pressure she is subjected to as a woman.
Later on turns out that the protagonist not only has bought eggplants, but also plums, to make lavashak for her son – a time consuming dish, since being as a good mother she cannot imagine her son eating ready-made food. From time to time her son appears at the head of the stairs impatient when his lavashak will be ready. This enrages Katherine Mansfield, according to whom “a true woman can not let a child boss her around.” Meanwhile the neighbour has prepared lavashak and brings some. The tacit competition to prove oneself as perfect housewife in this short story, unlike the previous two, is carried out between the protagonist and the neighbour, whom the author calls Mrs. Ant – a symbol of industriousness and insignificance in literature.
Although generally speaking the author and her guests have different understanding of life, they are being categorical on one thing, that the family is an obstacle to their development as writers. It is expressed in an unfinished sentence, since in Iran such statement voiced out loud and clear, would sound as sacrilege.
They are always between me and…
But it is not hard for the reader to finish it.
These four short stories once again point out that the works of Iranian women writers cannot be understood in isolation from their restricting contexts – the hardships, sufferings and anxieties that have dominated their lives.
I think that Iranian women writers will continue to write and express their thoughts and views in their works, no matter how difficult it might be for them, no matter the price they will pay and this is a reason to admire them deeply.

The speech was delivered at the Eighth Biennial Conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies held on 27-30 May 2010 in Los Angeles

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