by Shoba Viswanathan
A primary joy of reading is getting to visit new worlds, and living lives that are different from our everyday realities. Then there are those moments when you realize that no matter how different the worlds, that pain or joy is entirely familiar and relatable. The more diverse the world we explore, the more profound those moments of connection. In her debut novel Song of a Captive Bird (Ballantine), Jasmin Darznik takes us to pre-revolution Iran and introduces us to the world of poet Forugh Farrokhzad, a young woman who defied social expectations and set out to be a writer and creator at great personal cost. Farrokhzad comes alive in this book; we get to see beyond the literary historians’ comparisons of her to Sylvia Plath and understand why she is often described as trailblazing. Darznik recreates the time and place with affectionate authenticity and delves into Farrokhzad’s psychological reality with empathy, making Song of a Captive Bird the best kind of historical fiction. It’s no surprise that it was in many of the Best of 2018 lists.
Recently, Darznik talked to Bloom about the why and how of Song of a Captive Bird, offering perspective on her role as translator, being a writer in the present moment in history and prioritizing creative goals.
Shoba Viswanathan: How did you decide to write about Forugh Farrokhzad?
Jasmin Darznik: The longer I write, the more I believe that stories choose us, rather than the other way around. Writing Forugh’s story was where I had to go to understand Iran and forces that shaped the 1979 Revolution and sent so many thousands of Iranians—my family among them—into exile. It was also my way of understanding what it meant for an Iranian woman to become free and independent, and what it has cost her—and still costs her—to do so.
SV: I loved the story of how a book of Forugh’s poetry was included in the two suitcases your parents packed when they left Iran at a time of turmoil. Given the recent social media “discussion” around the idea of when and whether it’s OK to keep books, this resonated with me. It’s a reminder that books stay and travel with us for so many varied reasons. What do you think prompted them to bring that book along?
JD: Forugh’s poetry has been such a touchstone in Iranian women’s lives—how she lived seemed an extension of the authenticity and daring they saw in her writing. I think my mother loved reading that book, but even more than that, I think maybe she loved the person it made her when she read it. A bolder, more expressive version of herself. It doesn’t surprise me that she brought it with her to America, but I do wonder why she kept it as long as she did. With so much that disappeared or was erased from her life as an immigrant, its value only rose over the years. It was a way perhaps of staying in touch with an earlier, freer, less encumbered time in her life.
SV: You are a novelist and a translator. Your translation of Forugh’s poetry has introduced many of your readers to her spirit and vision for the first time. How did your experience of her work change as you moved from reader to translator?
JD: Writing a work of historical fiction is actually quite similar to working on translations. You proceed with a certain fidelity to the truth, but you’re also bringing your imagination to bear on the work. That said, I felt a greater responsibility in translating Forugh’s poems than telling her story, particularly as reading my novel could be the first and only time an American reader might encounter her work. I didn’t show the manuscript to all that many readers before it was published, but the translations went through several rounds of quality checks, first with Iranian readers and then with American readers. The final and absolutely vital piece was showing them to my friend, the poet Rebecca Foust. Since I myself am not a poet, I relied on her to comb through the lines and help me make sure they were as powerful as they could be. It occurs to me what you’re striving for as a translator is to make yourself invisible. You want to get a piece to the point where it feels like it’s moving directly from writer to reader—meaning it’s skipping you entirely.
SV: There is a keen sense of the balance between the personal and the political in the way you’ve framed this novel. This was also a big element of Forugh’s own choices. As a contemporary writer, what insights did you gain looking into the work of this woman who lived through times of great socio-political turmoil and made a commitment to be vocal about her beliefs?
JD: Forugh lived in a time and place where writers and artists didn’t just hope they could affect social justice—they believed they were vital to its realization. When you read Forugh’s poetry or watch her films you can see she was thinking deeply about the political events of her day, and joining her voice to larger conversations, and yet, while they bear traces of their times, they’re also timeless. Certainly, you don’t need to know much about Iranian history to understand them and be moved by them. I do wonder how she would have responded to this historical moment. Would she have amped up the political aspects of her work? Would she have written poetry at all given the very different place poetry occupies now? Many writers today are preoccupied with making their writing “relevant.” I’ve felt that pressure—or rather, I’ve subjected myself to it. I do think when I write best, I’m forgetting any moral imperative except that of the need to be as honest and brave as I can. That’s very much how I think Forugh came at her work.
SV: Song of a Captive Bird felt like an illustration of the E.L. Doctorow quote, which you’ve referenced in your Author’s Note: “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” What was your process in understanding what it felt like to live in Forugh’s times?
JD: John Gardner has that often-quoted line about fiction as a long and continuous dream. I think to get the reader there you, the writer, first need to work yourself into a state of dreaming, a state in which the world of your imagination is as real or maybe even more real to you than the one you actually inhabit. To induce this dream state, I spent a long time reading all I could by and about Forugh. It was almost like an actor preparing for a role. Then at some point I just had to let go of the script and let myself inhabit her as a character. The basic arc of her life was already in place, so the challenge was in thinking how she might have felt and reacted in various situations. What helped quite a lot were her poems. They were like divining rods. I’d give myself a lot of freedom to imagine “what it felt like” to be Forugh, but eventually I’d go back to her poems and check my work against them, seeking to make the fiction consonant with the truth as she’d written it in her poetry.
SV: Forugh’s personal choices, where being an artist or a mother become an either-or option, are heartbreaking, and you’ve written these segments with great sensitivity. It’s awe-inspiring to register that Forugh made these choices as a 20-year-old in a very traditional cultural context. While the choices are not so stark for many creators, do you feel that the challenges of prioritizing creating over personal commitments continue to be relevant in other settings? Are they particularly relevant for women as writers, artists, and performers?
JD: Though the external barriers have eased quite a lot, the question of how to square life with making art, particularly as a woman and a mother, feels very relevant to me. I was in my thirties, a graduate student and a single mother when I started writing. Now I’m in my forties, teaching full-time and taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s. I’m hoping things will get easier, but I’m by no means sure of it! I truly think most everything in life contrives to stop you from writing—your own demons, other people’s judgments, the realities of making a living and supporting a family, and so on. Even success can undermine you because it sets up certain expectations. Being a woman, and maybe especially a woman from a more traditional background, can certainly amplify those challenges. It has for me.
I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth lately, and there’s something enormously appealing about the way he set up his life so that writing was at the absolute center. Could a woman do that? Would she want to? It takes not just selfishness but even a kind of ruthlessness to do that. I mean that with the greatest respect. I actually wish I could set my life up so that writing was at the center, but it’s just not feasible for me at this juncture, so the question is how can I make the best of what time I do have to write? Much of the time it has to do with getting out of my own way. Somehow you have to be fiendishly devoted to your work yet untroubled by how it will be received, or whether it will be received at all.
SV: Circumstances sometimes require that some of us come to writing later in life. What are some ways to stay the course? Can you share some of your strategies for keeping your writing alive?
JD: One advantage to coming to writing a bit later in life is that you feel a greater sense of urgency about it. As in: enough sitting around, wanting to write. It’s time to do this thing. I definitely feel that urgency now. The thing that keeps me going is the thing that got me started: reading. When I read something that I think is exceptionally good, it always stirs up a desire to write. Maybe not right away, but eventually. I also think a community, even if it’s a community made up of you and one fellow writer, can make all the difference. At this point I have about five people in my life who would definitely notice if I started to slack off. One or two of them would be seriously worried for me because they know that as much as I may complain about how hard it is to write, I am not quite well if I’m not at least trying to do it.
SV: Can you share something about your current or future writing projects?
JD: I’m writing a novel set in 1920s San Francisco, which is my first time not writing about Iran. I’m really enjoying it! I’ve had to learn about a time in American history I knew very little about, and it’s been fascinating and more than a bit eerie to see how many of the social and political issues have not changed, particularly around women’s lives and immigration. I also love the challenge of telling a story within the constraints of a historical framework. Maybe someday I’ll try my hand at “pure” fiction, but for now I love the feeling of traveling back in time when I sit down to write. I admire writers who can look around at what’s happening now and help us make sense of it through fiction. As for me, I need that backward glance, that leaping out of my life and into another time and place.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.