Saturday, October 20, 2018

Writing the Historical Novel: An Interview with Jasmin Darznik, author of Song of a Captive Bird

I recently read the wonderful novel Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik, about Forugh Farrokhzad (1935­–1967), one of Iran’s greatest poets. It’s a fascinating and beautifully written story. I asked the author several questions about how she wrote the book and the challenges of writing a historical novel about a real person.

Jasmin Darznik
For those who are not familiar with Forugh Farrokhzad, could you give a very brief summary of who she was, what she accomplished as an artist, and what she represents to those who revere her?

Brought up in Tehran during the 1940s and 1950s, Forugh Farrokhzad, was the first woman to transcend the label of “poetess” without the support or patronage of a man. She was not yet twenty when she wrote “The Sin,” a poem so candid and daring that its publication in 1955 made her the most notorious woman in the country. Her five books of poetry cemented her reputation as a rebel and a powerful voice for women’s rights and social justice.

Her poems still offer an extraordinary reading experience more than half a century after they were first composed: the subject matter is daring, the language unfettered, and the point of view direct and unapologetic. More than perhaps any other writer, Forugh Farrokhzad gave Iranian women permission to be bold, furious, lustful, and rapturous. She remains an icon in Iran—one of the most influential women in the country’s history.

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967)
Why is her story so compelling to you?

The longer I write, the more I believe that stories choose us, rather than the other way around, and that it’s not so much our work to make up them up as to let them be told through us. Art, if it is art, will tend to go its own way, and in the words of Theodore Roethke, we learn by going where we have to go. To be less elusive: 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.

Why write a novel about her life as opposed to a biography?

A biography was impossible, at least for me. Given Iran’s tumultuous history, and its ongoing complexities, so many stories have been buried or obscured. Forugh’s is one of them. By the time I got to her, she was more myth than woman. There is so much that’s unknown and perhaps even unknowable about her. When she died her papers and letters went missing, those close to her were, and in some cases remain, circumspect. All that proved useful to me as a novelist because it opened the way for my imagination.

Could you give examples of some things that your research did not or could not reveal that you had to make up in the novel? How were you able to imagine those scenes or characters?

Song of a Captive Bird opens with a scene in which a fifteen-year-old Forugh undergoes a virginity test, with traumatizing and disastrous results. I didn’t know if Forugh had ever undergone such a test, but it was consonant with the other facts I was able to discover about her and, more broadly, about young women of her generation. The more I thought about it, the absence of any evidence only strengthened the possibility she had experienced something of this kind. This is precisely the kind of story that would have been repressed or suppressed, and also the kind of experience that could explain the dramatic rupture that occurred in her life when she turned sixteen.

Another example: It’s likely that Forugh, like many artists and progressive people of her era, was closely watched by the monarchy then in power. What shape that watching took was a mystery, and one I decided to solve through writing the book. I didn’t expect it would be such a central part of the book, but the more I wrote the more it felt impossible to disentangle Forugh’s story from the story of what was happening in the country in the 1950s and 60s.

Were there moments in the plot where your own experiences helped you identify with Forugh? Could you mention one of those and how your own story helped you write more deeply about a particular incident?

I left Iran when I was a child and haven’t been back, but the cultural taboos and prohibitions Forugh faced are deeply familiar to me from my upbringing. This is what so enraptured me about her writing when I discovered it. She was writing about a world I knew, and doing it with an honesty that still felt risky decades after her death. I found myself profoundly moved by the feeling that her poems weren’t just telling me a story, they were telling me who she was. Having grown up in a family where telling who you were could be, and often was, regarded as a betrayal, her poems were both a revelation and a provocation. The obstacles I’ve faced have been negligible compared to what she experienced, but I know well the voice that tries to keep Iranian women silent.  

You chose to translate the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad in the book yourself. Could you tell us about that process? At what points in the story did you feel it was important to insert part of a poem?

I chose poems that were critical to my composition of the book. Many scenes grew directly out of my reading of Forugh’s work, for example her poem “I Feel Sorry for the Garden.” In the novel I imagine the literal destruction of her childhood garden, an experience I imagine might have inspired her vision in that poem. Later in the novel there’s a scene that envisions the origin of her radically transgressive poem, “The Sin.” That poem totally changed her life—I couldn’t not include it. In other instances I was working less from what the poem expressed than what it implied. A mood, say, or frame of mind. The book’s final scenes are very much infused with the feeling of her late poems. I think that for American readers the inclusion of the poems does two things: introduces them to a writer they likely don’t know and, secondly, stages a dialogue between Forugh’s voice and mine.

You made an artistic decision at some point to have Forugh speak “beyond the grave,” so to speak, rather than to locate the narration of this novel at a point in her actual life. How did you decide to give her knowledge of events that occurred after her lifetime and what are the pros and cons of that choice for a writer?

In early drafts, the novel actually began with Forugh speaking “beyond the grave.” My editor helped me see that wasn’t the best choice for the opening since it gave away certain secrets. That said, I always knew that the story would embrace not just Forugh’s life—extraordinary as it was—but her legacy, and though there might have been other ways of capturing that legacy, it felt right for her to have the last word. I see the novel as her story, but also Iran’s. I wanted the reader to leave with a sense of the enormity of her influence as well as the ways the terrors and beauties of her Iran survive into the present-day.

What do you hope readers of the book will come away with, in terms of the life and work of Forugh Farrokhzad, and also the larger issues that her life brings into focus?

What Forugh’s life represents to me is the possibility of a woman becoming free. Free in her art, free in her life. She never achieved it, though she came close in some ways. Despite the seeming distance between her life and ours, between her country and this one, I think that in discovering her courage we can fortify and amplify our own.


Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Influence of Islamic Poetry on Western Poetry

It is so common these days in the West to stigmatize and stereotype the culture of Islam that we don’t often think about the fact that much of what we identify as Western culture was actually borrowed from Muslim peoples. Poetry provides several good examples of this.

We often think of rhymed verse as being characteristic of Western classic poetry. Actually, the opposite is true. Neither ancient Greek nor Roman poetry rhymed. Homer’s Odyssey was chanted to a strummed lyre, but the lines did not end in rhyme. Catullus, Virgil, Horace—none of the classic Roman poets wrote in rhyme.

Rhyme actually came into European verse through the influence of Arabic literature and the Qur’an on medieval Provençal poetry. Almost all of the Qur’an is written in rhymed verse. The oldest Arabic poetic forms, such as the qasiyah and the ghazal, dating from the 7th century C.E., use rhyme in their structure.

Rhymed Arabic poetic forms were sung and flourished in Spain during the Moorish period that began in the early 700s C.E. These forms influenced poetry in neighboring Provence, where the troubadours created and sang the first lively vernacular literature in Europe. There is more than one scholarly work that documents this legacy, including “The Impact of muwshah and zajal on troubadours poetry” by Ziad Ali Alharthi and Abdulhafeth Ali Khrisat, which claims that even the word “troubadour” derives from Arabic. These authors also maintain that the tradition of courtly love, so central to Provençal and modern Western poetry, came from previous traditions in Hispano-Arabic verse. They show that courtly love was originally a Sufi trope, equating the beloved with the divine. What could be more central to European literature than Dante’s love of Beatrice? And yet that too can be traced back to a Muslim tradition.

The influence of the rhyme schemes of Islamic poetry appears in some of the most unexpected places. What poem is more quintessentially American than Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

My little horse must think it queer  
To stop without a farmhouse near  
Between the woods and frozen lake  
The darkest evening of the year.

Do you recognize the AABA BBCB rhyme scheme? It’s not at all a typical pattern for English-language verse. 

Omar Khayyam (1048–1131 C.E.)
This is the rhyming pattern that Omar Khayyam used for his famed Rubaiyat in twelfth-century Persia:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

This rhyme scheme is actually called the “Rubaiyat stanza” because it was most famously used in Khayyam’s poem. So, even in one of our most American poems, you can find the influence of Islamic poetry.

The fact is that all of global culture is as intricately interwoven as Omar Khayyam’s rhyme scheme. Every culture has evolved in dialogue with the others it has known. The world is as interconnected culturally as it is ecologically. To pretend otherwise is to miss the one of the most important points about the arts.  


Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Power of YES: Why Community Matters in Your Writing Life, guest blog by Joan Gelfand

Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono?

While visiting an art gallery—Lennon himself was a sketch artist as well as a Beatle—he spotted Ono on a ladder installing her one-woman art show: a huge sculpture of the word YES.

Joan Gelfand, guest blogger, poet, writing coach
There is a children’s book called Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You. The book is an object lesson in teaching children the consequences of their actions with the help of a cast of lovable characters—Lowly Worm, Pig Will, and Pig Won’t.

Pig Will does what’s asked of him. Lo and behold, guess what? Pig Will gets the goodies. He gets to participate, have fun, and be an all-around happy guy.

Pig Won’t, of course, always finds a reason to say no. You guessed it. Pig Won’t doesn’t get the goodies.

Simple as this sounds, Pig Will has power.

When people see that you help out, not only because you want to build your reputation, but because you are a team player, you are also cheerfully having a “Pig Will moment.” You are “paying it forward.”

Not all of our Yeses or positive actions are immediately followed by fabulous outcomes. But haven’t you found that taking positive action—on balance—has benefited you?

The Big, Scary “Yes”

In 2004, I quit my corporate job to write a novel, had a setback, and was just starting to establish myself as a poet. Like many writers, I was busy! I still had a daughter at home, I was running a small business, and my writing projects had projects.

When a writer friend told me about the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), I was thrilled to meet colleagues and friends who were in the same boat! Soon after joining WNBA, members received an email. The current president was stepping down and, if someone didn’t take the reins, the chapter would fold. Wow. Okay. I was new to the group, but with the support of another member, we said “Yes,” and took on the presidency. Boy, did I get an education! I learned how to plan events, communicate to a group, and get things going. Together, we doubled our membership! Somehow, I found time in my busy life to help WNBA.

Two years later, I was asked to be the incoming national president’s vice president. Now, that was a serious ask! It meant two years as VP, two years as president, and two years as Immediate past president. I was loathe to take on a six-year commitment. I wanted to get back to my novel. My husband strongly advised that I take the position.

Since that time, I’ve had five more books published, four of which were directly related to my leadership role in WNBA. The other one certainly took into account that I had a national platform.
The point here is not about happy endings, it’s about why community matters in your writing life. 

Community

Doesn’t it seem to happen that just when you are feeling stretched thin, crunched for time, and really not in the mood that opportunities to say YES! present themselves?

What I want to say is that it isn’t always so obvious when the right time is to say “Yes.” Building your platform is not exactly like party planning.

Sometimes you need to say “Yes” exactly when you would be inclined to say NO!

Sometimes you make that extra effort to build your platform at exactly the time when you want to pull in your oars, hibernate, isolate and…. WRITE!

But winning writers, remember, are a breed apart. Winning writers who follow the “4 C’s” are  firing on all burners; building community, working on craft, maintaining commitment, and moving forward with confidence.

A note on teams: Remember that you don’t have to go it alone. When I took on the presidency of WNBA, I had mentors. Past presidents, executive board members, and chapter members were all sources of great inspiration and encouragement for me. “Yes!” 

Joan Gelfand’s new book, You Can Be a Winning Writer: The 4 C’s of Successful Authors: Craft, Commitment, Community and Confidence, published by Mango Press July, 2018 is on Amazon’s #1 Hot New Releases. The author of three poetry collections and an award winning book of short fiction, Joan is the recipient of numerous writing awards, commendations, nominations, and honors. Joan can be found writing and coaching writers at EcoSystms co-working space in SF. http://joangelfand.com 



Other recent posts about writing topics: How to Get PublishedGetting the Most from Your Writing WorkshopHow Not to Become a Literary DropoutPutting Together a Book ManuscriptWorking with a Writing MentorHow to Deliver Your MessageDoes the Muse Have a Cell Phone?Why Write Poetry? Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe VillanellePraise and LamentHow to Be an American WriterWriters and CollaborationTypes of Closure in Poetry

Monday, August 13, 2018

The American Scene in Literature


There was a lively movement in the visual arts in the United States in the mid-twentieth century called The American Scene. This celebration of North American culture, landscapes, social life, and work reached its peak around 1930 with such paintings as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, the jazz-age cityscapes of Archibald Motley, and the Midwestern regional canvases of John Steuart Curry. The paintings and sculptures of this period boldly celebrated American life in a realistic style.

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1943 (detail)
There were parallel developments in all the other arts in North America, and literature was definitely part of this movement. But this artistic focus on the New World was something of a revolt against what had previously prevailed in U.S. art. Again, literature was very much involved in this rebellion.

Before the rise of American Scene writers, literature in the United States was very much dominated by the sensibility that all that was typically North American was provincial, backward, and conservative. In novels such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, everything that is Continental is sophisticated and forward-looking, while everything American is backward and narrow-minded. 

Henry James and Edith Wharton

Undoubtedly James and Wharton were accurately portraying the Puritanical sensibility they found in bourgeois American life. But the only alternative they could envision to that chauvinism and small-mindedness was the Old World sophistication of Europe.

The visual artists of The American Scene, on the other hand, were inspired by the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who embraced the imagery and revolutionary history of their country over the abstractions of modernism.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, Detroit Institute of Arts (detail)

A parallel surfaced in North America writing, where authors began finding complexity and depth in local stories and in uses of language that were distinctively American. This movement was sparked by Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of coastal Maine in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); and by Willa Cather’s earliest novels of the Midwest, including O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). African American writers began celebrating the music of Black English and the beauty of Black culture, initially in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose volumes of poetry, notably Majors and Minors in 1895, were some of the key works in this movement to celebrate North American life.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

So what do these literary currents mean for writers today? These two movements seem like polar opposites: the one exposes North American provincialism in favor of European savoir faire (Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc.), and the other lifts up specific U.S. regions and cultures (Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, etc.). But in some ways these currents that flow in opposite directions bubble from the same source. Both are seeking authenticity and freedom. The pro-European-sophistication writers seek these values by rejecting the narrow-mindedness of the Puritan worldview. The American Scene writers are praising more or less the same qualities in what is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As writers and literature enthusiasts today, we can appreciate both the revolt against provincialism by James and Wharton, and the truths and dynamism of regional and multicultural expressions in the writing of Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, and those who came after them.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry