Published Spring 2007
Fiction in Exile
An Interview with Farnoosh Moshiri
Farnoosh Moshiri is an Iranian-born playwright, novelist, and essayist. She is the author of three novels, At the Wall of the Almighty (Interlink, 1999), The Bathhouse (Black Heron, 2001; Beacon, 2003), which won the Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction, and Against Gravity (Penguin, 2006), and a collection of short stories, The Crazy Dervish and the Pomegranate Tree (Black Heron, 2004). Moshiri's writing is infused with a sense of politics, induced by exile or literal imprisonment, especially relating to women. The Bathhouse, for instance, depicts the imprisonment and torture of a young woman during the Iranian Revolution of the 1980s and the recent Against Gravity explores the experience of displacement through the perspectives of three characters, a female Iranian immigrant, a philosophy professor suffering from AIDS, and a social worker.
Moshiri was born in Tehran in 1951 into an intellectual and literary family; her father was a Marxist writer, both of her grandfathers were scholars of Persian poetry, and her uncle was a nationalist poet. Moshiri received a BA in dramatic literature from the College of Dramatic Arts in Tehran (1974) and then came to the United States, where she earned an MA in drama from the University of Iowa (1979). She returned to Iran during the Revolution in 1979, but she and her son were forced to flee in 1983 after Moshiri refused to align herself with the new regime. Fearing for her life, she went first to India and then Afghanistan before settling in the US; she has lived in Houston since 1987, receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston in 1999 and teaching at various campuses in the Houston system since 2000.
This interview took place 29 March 2007 while Moshiri participated in the Western Carolina University Literary Festival in Cullowhee, NC. The interview was conducted and transcribed by Laura Wright, a scholar of postcolonial literature and an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina.
Wright: I was wondering how it feels to be from Iran, in the United States, at the moment.
Moshiri: It has never been easy, for different reasons. The reasons have changed. At first, I was a political refugee here, and my ideology was very different from the ideology of people who are here. I had a Leftist background. Americans usually were, at least in that part of America where I live, in Texas, not very open to it. So I wasn't comfortable very much. Now I'm uncomfortable in a different way because my country was pronounced an "axis of evil." What does that mean? To call a country "evil" and to single out certain countries only because the United States government has plans of expansionism and colonialism for the resources of other parts of the world, that bothers me. Also, ever since September 11, there are some people who just cannot distinguish between Iranians, Iraqis, and Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden could be Iranian?! Of course, I don't have much contact with that sort of ignorant people, but it's in the air, you know. Middle Easterners are a kind of target. And of course the media exaggerates and demonizes everything. So I am not feeling very comfortable.
And I am totally and absolutely against the Islamic Republic of Iran because of the nature of the regime—it's dictatorial, and even if it wasn't dictatorial, I would be against it because half of the population of Iran is women and they don't have the rights of other women. They don't have the rights that they deserve. There is really no reason to support that government, but I am not so naive to say, "OK, let's attack Iran, bomb it, change the regime." I don't want a regime change by America in Iran. If any regime change happens, it has to boil up from inside the country by the people of Iran. I think about what happened in Iraq, although the whole thing was just an excuse to go there. But even if you assume that they were honest about it, that they just wanted to remove a bad dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein, it's not your business to go and remove him. Let the people of Iraq come to that conclusion. So I never feel comfortable, yes, that's a fact.
Wright: I mentioned before that I've taught your work, and I'm trying to find a body of literature written in English from this part of the world because—I'm not trying to lump these cultures together, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran—I feel like one of the best things that can happen for students is that they see the world represented from the perspective of the people who are being demonized in our media. Is there a community of writers that you feel a part of in the United States?
Moshiri: No, I'm not part of any community of writers. I complain a lot about misunderstandings and misconceptions of Americans about the Middle East, but, on the other hand, I have to say that there are a group of very open-minded Americans, especially women, who, ever since the invasion of Iraq, are trying to find Middle Eastern writers and artists and activists. And just recently one of them contacted me; she has a website and she asked me to send pictures and excerpts and stuff , which I did. That's the kind of community that I enjoy being a member of, the open-minded Americans, feminists, political Americans who know the essence of what is going on behind all of this. They support the women and they support the exiles and they try to give more voice to them. This is as close to a community that I can talk about, more than a group of Iranians. You know, we have Iranian Republicans, for example, that I don't feel any affiliation with at all, or we still have monarchists who are hoping that the son of the Shah will go back and start the monarchy again. I feel a lot closer to these American friends than those Iranians.
Wright: I was wondering about your experience publishing. I know you publish with Beacon and Bluestreak, which I think is a cool imprint. Can you talk about your experience of getting published?
Moshiri: Well, at first it was very difficult for me to get published. That was 1995-6, around the time when I finished my first book, At the Wall of the Almighty. I couldn't find a publisher. I couldn't even find an agent. I would send my book and they would praise it and say, "Wow, good, but we don't have a market for it." So it took a long time, and finally without having an agent, I sold the book to Interlink, which is an international publishing group. And some people, like my present agent, believe that the book was murdered, because, first of all, they published it softback first, which kills a book because there's no possibility of another publisher buying it for a softback. Second, that publisher, although it's not very small, is more for international writers, and their customers are from all around the world rather than just the United States, so the book was not very well known inside the country. Then, after I found an agent, The Bathhouse had a better chance because first it was published by Black Heron Press in hardback, and then the agent could find Beacon and Bluestreak. That opened the way for Against Gravity, which went with Penguin.
But then again, Penguin didn't want the next one. I have two novels right now unpublished, for years with the agent. You may say that in this political atmosphere when Iran is on top of the news, "Why, they should grab your novels." But what they really want is autobiography, nonfiction; the market wants a memoir. There are several memoirs of Iranian people from different groups—Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of them, Funny in Farsi is another. Some of them are humorous, and some of them are against the idea of revolution. But they don't want fiction, especially if the fiction is kind of literary and kind of dark. I'm still having problems publishing. It has never been easy.
Wright: Did you say before that you were the first published female playwright in Iran?
Moshiri: Yes, I was the only woman at that time who was writing full-length plays. I wrote four full-length plays and only one of them got published outside of the country. My bad luck was that I was writing at the threshold! When I was getting to be known, it was the time that a "bomb" fell in the country and I had to leave, so one of my plays got published in Germany and the rest never got published. If nothing had happened and I had stayed in Iran, probably I would be the first woman playwright in a world of men.
Wright: The play that was published, what's it about?
Moshiri: It's about a family that loses children during the revolution.
Wright: That's similar to The Bathhouse, where the character Leila is a revolutionary. The narrator in that novel also starts out not political at all, but it seems that just by virtue of existing, one becomes political.
Moshiri: At the end, there's that scene where she marches with the revolutionary women and she becomes one of them. She grows in a way, and she changes. How can one just close one's eyes on what is going on around?
Wright: I was going to ask you about the connection between the personal and political.
Moshiri: It's one! There is no line, no difference. For example, I didn't really intend for my next novel to be political because I was fascinated with this woman who killed her children in the bathtub, and I wanted my character to have a nervous breakdown and have a temptation to do that, but just a passing temptation and then not do it. But as I was writing, the biography that I created for this character became political. How is it possible for her not to be?
It's coming out of my experiences. Where I'm coming from, the urgencies are very different. The war that is going on right now, people in my country are living in fear that what if tomorrow they invade our country and drop a bomb there? I think about the beautiful cities that I've lived in—what if they're destroyed? Didn't they destroy Baghdad? Who cares if the museum was looted and thousands of years of culture and art were destroyed?! Nobody cares. And they can do the same thing anywhere else. So my urgencies are different, which doesn't mean that I don't pay attention to problems here. They are also very important, and writers must write about those.
Wright: One of my graduate students did a presentation on you and gave a lot of information about your life. One of the things that really interested me is that you said the United States is colonizing the Middle East. I'm wondering if you can say a little more about that because, since I study postcolonial literature, I'm interested in the connections between occupation and colonization.
Moshiri: If you think about why they invaded Iraq in the first place, what did the September 11 incident have to do with Iraq at all? Kind of like taking advantage of some Americans' blurred mind about what is Iraq and what is al-Qaida, taking advantage of that and lying to American people that we are going to Iraq because of September 11. So what was behind that? If you think about it, it is for the resources of the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, in a condescending way, says that we want to take civilization there, or civilize them, which is the most insulting thing that they can say about anywhere in the world.
What is really at stake is not only oil, but all the investments, all the corporations that are benefiting there, all these millions and billions. Dick Cheney is benefiting, and the war industry itself is benefiting. If you want to call it neocolonialism, if you want to call it changing the map of the world, there are some differences with the classic colonialism, but in many ways it's harsher—even looking at the images on TV of the ways that the soldiers bang on the doors and break into the houses and women scream and children scream. And with all the censorship that is going on in the media—I call it censorship because they choose, they pick the images to give American people that don't say much about the violence—but in spite of that, you see all those doors breaking and machines guns on tops of the tanks. What is this if it's not colonialism? What are they doing there? Let's say that now they realize that they shouldn't be there because they're admitting that Saddam Hussein wasn't friends with bin Laden. But why don't they return then? They want to go on with the plan. They want to go on—then it's Iran, then it's Syria. They want to go to the borders of China. It's the plan of an empire to expand.
And there's the fact that nobody does anything. I don't think that the demonstrations that are happening in Washington are enough. And the media doesn't show what is going on. I'm not sure why the kind of demonstrations that you had here at the time of the Vietnam War are not happening.
Wright: Maybe there's a distance between what's happening "over there" and here. People need more information. That's why I think it's so important that they read your work.
Moshiri: How did your students react, by the way?
Wright: They liked it a lot. They were graduate students who read The Bathhouse, and they said it was very depressing but very necessary for them to read. I had my undergrads read one of your short stories, "The Bricklayer" [from The Crazy Dervish and the Pomegranate Tree]. They liked that quite a bit. They were confused by it, and we had to have a lot of discussion. I have a student who is Iranian-American, whose parents came over in the early 80s at about the time that you did, and he was very interested. I had them read that story because it dealt with coming to America and that class is about coming to America, and they liked it. They can be very open-minded; they just need information and they need it from sources other than the news.
Moshiri: And there are so many distractions for young people. I'm not saying it's done intentionally, but that's the way that the technology is right now. So many things to watch, who wants to read anymore? And after they leave college, what? We try to give them something to read, but then they're not here forever.
Wright: I have a couple of questions that my grad students wanted me to ask you. The student who did the presentation on you said that she found a lot of information—speaking of technology—about weblogs that people are writing in Iran to get the word out about their culture through the Internet, and she wanted to know if you knew anything about that.
Moshiri: I don't have any detailed information. I know that Iranian youth right now are doing blogs, they're using the technology to the maximum. A very good thing also is that they read a lot. Charles Baxter was just telling me that his works have been translated into Farsi and they're reading them in Iran. In the former regime, everything would be translated into Farsi, so that wouldn't be amazing, but right now works of his are being translated and they're reading them.
Wright: But not yours?
Moshiri: They wouldn't be published. If ever mine would be translated, they would go through censorship. Definitely. And for the translator it would be dangerous.
Wright: Another student is interested in motherhood in The Bathhouse. We talked a lot about the ways that torture for women, the way that women are made to confess, seems to have a lot to do with their biology in ways that it doesn't for men.
Moshiri: Probably she's referring to the part where there's a prisoner and they use her baby to get a confession from her. By taking the baby away from her, they want her to confess, and then suddenly they bring the baby back. It's a kind of torture to take the baby away. Our protagonist finds the baby alone crying, and although she is just seventeen years old and her breasts are small, she tries to breastfeed the baby. And that's really the trigger for her, just a few nights stay in prison becomes permanent, because they catch her doing that and they say, "you're helping a communist." The mother finally repents to be able to get her baby back, and this girl also feels that protectiveness to that baby.
Wright: Doesn't she dream when she's having her period that she's giving birth?
Moshiri: Yes. It's very natural in any prison that females, because of their biology, experience a different torment than men. In that regime, because of the laws that they claim are Islamic laws—who knows really? at the time of Mohammed nobody would take political prisoners, and these are all man-made laws—I can say that women suffered more than men because of the belief that we shouldn't send virgins to heaven. So they had to be not-virgins. They never say that it's rape, they recite a prayer and they make one of the guards the temporary husband of that virgin prisoner, but it's rape, and they execute her after that.
Wright: I was curious about your writing process. I read that At the Wall of the Almighty took you four years and that The Bathhouse took forty days. Since I just found out that you have a heavy teaching load, how does writing happen for you?
Moshiri: It's getting more and more difficult instead of easier! At the Wall of the Almighty took four years because it's a long novel—it's 400 pages. Had I had the experience that I have today, it would have been a smaller novel. I wish one day they would give me the chance to edit it and cross out some sections of it.
It's getting more difficult because my load never gets lighter. Some writers have the good luck to find some sort of relief. I have been very poor since I came to this country. From being a middle-class person in Iran, I fell into the lower class. I was a single mother; I had to work very hard. Part of Against Gravity is really autobiographical, at least the parts that have to do with struggling for survival. I was really feeling gravity sucking me down because I had to do so much work so there would be no time for writing. What I've been doing so far has been juggling, and as I'm aging, it's getting more and more difficult. I need more sleep now! When I was younger, I would stay up until morning.
The book I'm working on, it's been four years, although it's not as big as that. It got interrupted so many times—I had to relocate, to Syracuse University, come back, and I lost the thread. I think Raymond Carver said that in writing, chance and good luck play a role. But I'm still hopeful.
Wright: Let me ask you one last question. You mentioned Raymond Carver. Who else do you read?
Moshiri: I like American literature a lot. I always tell my students that the first thing that I admire about this country is American literature. I'm more in the line that came down from Hemingway—that kind of clean, minimalistic prose. I admire it. It's like a clean spring of water. That's why I like Raymond Carver; that's why I like Charles Baxter. I also read international writers like J. M. Coetzee.
Wright: I wrote my dissertation on him.
Moshiri: Waiting for the Barbarians I read three or four times. I admire Coetzee. Again, if you look at Coetzee, the language is stripped down. On the other hand, I admire Latin American writers. When I was younger, I devoured all the García Márquez novels. It's good for the imagination. I always tell my students that magical realism is necessary for writing. And I love James Baldwin and all these writers with strong and clean prose. Fitzgerald's prose just drives me crazy. That's one of my joys. I always think that if one day I can't write anymore, at least I can read.