I recently read the wonderful novel Song of a Captive Bird
by Jasmin Darznik
, about Forugh Farrokhzad
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.
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
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
Song of a Captive Bird
opens with a scene in which a fifteen-year-old Forugh undergoes a virginity
ith 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
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
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
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.
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