Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reza Baraheni Interview in Hart House Review 2007

Note from the Editors:

A few years ago the self-exiled Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, came to the University of Toronto to give a talk. His most memorable anecdote had to do with the writing of a Gĩkũyũ novel in prison on prison-issued toilet paper. It was so stiff, he joked, that it actually made for a good writing surface.

Exile is a heavy-handed theme for the Hart House Review. And it's not really a theme either, as none of the student submitted pieces really deal with the theme directly, nor does the Review have a history of putting out themed issues. But since it is our 15th anniversary, we, the editors, wanted to illuminate these pages with a contribution of a different kind.

Through Anjula Gogia at PEN Canada we found Reza Baraheni within our own university community. Eloquent and unrelenting, he is a voice of exile. We hope that his voice inspires you as much as it inspired us.

Veronika Izabela Bryskiewicz and Ramya Jegatheesan

An Interview with Reza Baraheni

HHR: As a writer in exile, and one whose writings explore the subject, what meaning does the written word hold for you?

RB: I have always been in exile, only the degrees of exile have varied depending on the situation I have found myself. I was born to an Azari-speaking family in the Iranian Azarbaijan and my mother tongue was a dialect of Turkish. But I was forced to study everything in Persian, the only language considered to be official by the government of Iran. About thirty-seven percent of the whole population of Iran is made of Azari speakers, but they are not allowed to read and write in their own mother tongue. When I was eleven years old and wrote the elementary school’s monthly journal in Turkish, I was forced to lick the ink off the paper. […] So, the destiny of languages, formed and formulated my own linguistic destiny, resulting in the creation of the exilic notion; and historical and political repression created a linguistic whirlpool in which I learned to float, swim, and learned to make a comeback after every closeness to a final drowning.

Both my imprisonment and torture in the monarchist and Islamic regimes were caused by my advocacy of freedom of expression for the speakers of all nationalities in Iran, equality for women with men in all spheres of life, and the promotion of the life of the downtrodden sectors of the society. But I was not ready to do this by enlisting in political parties. I have always believed that the writer is a unique personality, and under no circumstances should he carry with him the heavy burden of a political program which would limit the free expression of that unique personality.

However, I am a founder of the Writers Association of Iran. I worked for many years as a member of the Freedom to Write Committee of the American section of the International PEN (other members being Edward Albee, Donald Barthelme, Richard Howard, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and others), because the aim of these and similar people and organizations was to promote the “unhampered transmission of thought.” […] PEN Canada was instrumental in bringing me to this country, and Massey College and its great master Dr. John Fraser gave me all the support an exilic writer required to get settled down in Canada. But exile never leaves you, it is a composite ghost, rising from different roots and different languages, and expressing spaces which are created as a result of what I had called in the sixties of the last century “double alienation,” being alienated from one root, never completely reaching another root, but staying between two or several identities, as a composite ghost in a hanging space, invading what later Homi Bhabha called in his great book The Location of Culture, the “third space,” the space of “liminality” or “interstitiality.”

HHR: What is the experience of being a writer in Iran?

RB: Iran is certainly a great country, one of the most ancient countries of the world. It has been the crossroad between the ancient East and the ancient West. […] It is the seat of the first democratic revolution in the East, about a hundred years ago, and its ancient prophet Zoroaster and its great poets, Rumi and Hafez, have been major sources of inspiration for many poets, philosophers and religions all over the world, particularly, in the West.

The Iranian writer of the modern period draws on these cultural roots. The Constitutional Revolution, a century ago, modeled more or less on the Western concept of the nation state, was a fresh breath, but in a matter of twenty years, the forces of Persian nationalism, supported by chauvinists who were taking their lead from what was happening in Germany and Italy, which would lead to the rise of Nazism, led to the rise of the dictatorship of Reza Pahlavi, who crowned himself king and closed multilingual schools which had started with revolution. This sent all the languages of the country, except Persian, into the dustbin of history. […] The writers of the country, being either democratic-minded on the reformist agenda, or belonging to the left, have tried very hard during the Islamic regime to get rid of the new censorship belonging to the Islamic platform, but it has been a very difficult uphill battle.

However, we are living in one of the greatest periods of Persian literature, because of the more profound historical transformation that has taken place. The 1979 revolution was, on the surface, Islamic, but deep down there were other more historical phenomena involved, the most important of which was the change of the Iranians’ view of history. […] The revolution introduced a more dynamic view of time, things changing in time, more or less like the effects of the shining sun on the shadows of the walls of people’s cities and homes. Temporality being an inherent part of any fictional strategy suddenly became the most dominant element of contemporary literature, relegating poetry to a less prominent position than it had traditionally enjoyed in Persian literature. Other events assisted the movement: the imprisonment of most of the writers of the country, the war experience of the younger generation, and the change in the position of women in society.

Poetry could not cope successfully with all these events, and fiction, for the first time in Persian literature, stepped forward to accept responsibility by adjusting its muscles to carry a greater burden than any other form. The novel of the revolution, the novel of prisons, the novel of the war, and the novel dealing with the plight of the oppressed nationalities, were born. […] And all of this took place, in spite of the censorship, in spite of the harassment of the writers, and in spite of their imprisonment. This does not mean that poetry did not change after the revolution. It did. But the change was to move away from the narrative aspect to the more linguistic aspect of poetry. Since the burden of story-telling was relegated totally to the novel, poetry regained its own ground, by moving away from the meta-discourse of realism and modernism in the direction of an Iranian version of post-modernism, where language and linguistic transgression plays a very important role.

HHR: Do you feel that political repression influences the creation and consumption of art? And how have your experiences informed your creative process?

RB: I would like to add to whatever I have said before in this relation that political repression is a very strange phenomenon. At first you feel it consciously and then, as you go on, you see that it is trying to supplant your consciousness, and even your subconscious, and create the mechanisms and styles of your writing and even the forms you use. What patriarchal structure does to the conventional family, repression does to the creative mind. Patriarchy turns the mother into the solution of the absence of freedom. We are always drawn towards the mother, because in the patriarchal family it is generally the father who is the dictator. Within the framework of the patriarchal structure of the society, the mother and freedom appear contiguously, metonymically. One may not actually be against the father, and there are fathers, even in the patriarchal society, who are democratic, but we are speaking of the rule, not the exception. In my concept of the emancipation of women and men, it is the female that stands for freedom and after the female in general, it is the youth.

HHR: In what way do you see the exilic writer interacting with the writing already being done here in Canada? Do you feel world literature, as in translated works, receives enough attention in the English-speaking world?

RB: The exilic writer is not published in his own native country because of censorship. But something which is not called by its proper name in Canada does exactly the same thing to the writers of the exilic brand. They are given lip-service; we see them reading their work here and there to very limited, however enthusiastic, audiences, but with one or two exceptions, major writers in exile are not published here, [...].There have been many discussions on these matters, and in some of them I have participated, but the plight of the exiled writers in this country is more or less what Matthew Arnold once said about his own time: “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” Since the British and the Americans publish translated works from other languages, Canadians, with their genuine interest in world literature, have easy access to those books in the bookstores and libraries in Canada, so those foreign writers in Canada can easily be bypassed.

HHR: In the West there is sometimes such ambivalence about literature. In places like Iran, literature seems to have the power to evoke both fear and reverence. So, the question is: does fiction matter? Is it an effective medium for expression?

RB: I noticed when I was working with PEN in the U.S. that all of us in the Freedom to Write Committee, or in general, were working mostly for freedom somewhere other than the U.S. […] When 9/11 took place, I was President of PEN Canada, and our response to it was immediate, and we said that we stood with our American colleagues in the U.S. PEN. But when the so-called Anti-terrorist legislation passed, thinking that it would limit freedom of expression in the Western world and in Canada, we showed reaction and stood by the content and the intent of our charter, the main motto of which was: “the unhampered transmission of thought.”

When it comes to places like Iran, you are quite right, literature, particularly fiction, evokes both fear and reverence. One of the main difficulties in Iran at present is that the clergy have their own notion, or, rather, their own theory of literature, which is completely the opposite of what free writers would like to have of literature. It was that theory of literature that created the Rushdie storm. In Iran we still deal with that problem. It exists and you cannot escape it, so whoever can push in a more liberal view of literature into his writing, he is respected by the public, but at the same time threatened by the authorities. Fiction is a great asset, because generally it moves through a process of metaphorical substitution or metonymic contiguity, and the gist of this matter is that straightforwardness and directness belong to either theory, social sciences or politics, and not to creative literature. So imagination starts to work in a double function: you create a new field of imagined reality and you place your opinions on that location of culture, rather than the location which is easily decipherable by the censorship. And sometimes, the censorship understands the mechanism of this strategy before the public becomes aware of it, and the work is suppressed. But literature can never stop, even if everything else, such as democracy, is destroyed in a country. […]

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