Reading My Shares, I always wondered how is the female author who wrote it. How does Parinoush Saniee live in Iran? How was she able to publish such a book? How did she manage to write such a complex story, on so many levels, which reflects perfectly an epoque from the woman’s perspective, one human being that, as we well know, doesn’t have a very happy fate in Iran?
So I took her an interview in which I asked her many things about women, Iran, rights, about politics, society, but especially about literature.
I visited Iran not so long ago. From an foreigner’s point of view, many women seemed sophisticated and educated. Some of them were talking about freedom of thought and some of them about true love and marriage. Do you think we are talking about a real change or is it still a superficial one?
You are spot on with your observation. Those you have come across are indeed todays’ typical Iranian women however, they are the children of the mothers I refer to in my book. For the past couple of generations women have been making similar and swift progress in their own advancement.
What made you write My Shares? What was your first intention?
I have worked for many years as a civil servant both before and after the revolution in Iran. I was the head of Research for 12 years and that was within a ministry that was in charge of pan governmental co-ordination of education from various perspectives. As you can imagine, I have worked with a large number of people and have gained experience that working specifically with women is better and far more fruitful. I noticed that we live in a very special era in which the generation of women, even though have not had the benefit of necessary facilities, nevertheless have had to bear heavy responsibilities. They have largely been the unsung heroines responsible for their own development as well as the progress and betterment of their families. I paid specific attention to their common traits and characteristics and concluded that it merits a specific research project of its own. With a lot of difficulties and many obstacles in my way, I eventually concluded this project and collected the necessary statistics and I must admit by the end, I was quite excited by the results.
However, even though the result were quite telling and conveyed much information, I was not sure what to do with all those statistical tables and figures. I was contemplating if I should write yet another technical report and file it with all the other ones I had prepared over the years and let it gather dust in one or two governmental library shelves and not be accessible by the public. That is when I realized that this time I really wanted to bring this report to the attention of the wider public to take heed of the cultural and traditional obstacles that face us. I also wanted to point out the disastrous consequences suffered by the Iranian women in the past five or six decades. So I decided to bring this report to a wider audience whom have not hitherto been my target readers by publishing my technical report in the form of a romantic novel.
How come your book is being published in Iran? I assume an author has some difficulties publishing a book, especially one that puts the official regime and its beliefs in not such a good light.
With great difficulties! In fact the book was not granted permission initially and was banned by the Ministry of Guidance. However, we live in a country where the slightest political change can and does lead to upheaval not only socially but also in personal lives. At that time, Mr. Khatami who is an open minded cleric became the president and ruled that selected publishers can publish one or two new books a year without first obtaining the necessary permits but at their own and authors peril. My publisher used this opportunity to quietly print and distribute my book to all the major book stores and by the time the authorities realized, the book had already been a sell-out.
Nevertheless, we needed permit for the second print which we eventually managed to obtain by making a number of amendments and thereafter it quickly reached its 13th print. In the other hand and soon after taking office, President Ahmadinejard banned scores of books including mine. I joined in with several other authors and publishers, including Mrs. Lahijani (Head of publishing centre for sage women) to lodge an appeal against this decision with none other than the Nobel laureate Mrs. Shirin Ebadi as our representative. Anyhow to cut a long story short, once again we managed to obtain the illusive permit without realizing that later on and in our absence we had all been found guilty! Perhaps such stories that are more reminiscence of hilarious fiction than facts, will be made public one day.
What happens to a book after the author has finished writing it? Do authors have to change their texts in order to get approval from the censors (in communist Romania, many of them had to do this in order to see their books published. Now, when we read books from that time, we sometimes wonder what the author really wanted to say).
Yes, it’s the same here. All books have to be vetted by the Ministry of Guidance and if not totally rejected, text is marked for removal, alterations or modifications by the ministry. Unless and until all such changes have been made and book resubmitted for approval, permission is not granted. For this reason almost all authors have great difficulties expressing themselves adequately and as one can imagine readers too find it difficult to grasp the essence of what is being narrated.
Who reads My share in Iran? Are your readers mostly women? What are their reactions to the book?
Well, of course a large portion of my audience are female many of whom see their own life stories in this novel. Also, as I had done my utmost to include as many social groups as possible in this book, many from a wide variety of back ground and socioeconomic tiers could see portraits of themselves in some part of this book.
I understand you live in Iran. How is your day-to-day life there? What are your daily challenges?
Human lives can be categorized into two sections of personal and social, i.e. who we are and how we appear to others. Naturally there is a reactionary impact if there is a large gap and the two sections are not coordinated. Happiness in the other hand, is when the gap is as small as possible and the two sections are aligned but sometimes society makes this impossible. One cannot escape the rules and regulations nor the norms and expectations and as the consequence the gap increases massively and the two parts of one’s life diverge uncontrollably. Such sick and difficult circumstances in a society have dire consequences. We have been living under such circumstances for many years.
Are you a socially and politically active person? Have you ever been in a direct conflict with the Iranian authorities? I think it’s not an easy job to handle.
Everyone in Iran is politically active one way or another for the aforementioned reasons and often have an encounter with an element of the regime in their daily lives. The more active one is, the higher likely hood of such encounters turning into confrontations. I am very active.
Have you used real stories and real people in your book?
As previously stated, I have expressive statistics that show 75% of marriages in that generations were prearranged and chance of a couple meeting up before their wedding was limited to once or twice and never alone on their own. We still hear of instances when husband and wife see each other for the first time on their wedding night. We hear of the destructive effect of interference of brothers into their sisters lives etc. In the other hand I’m also a qualified consultant psychologist and even though I do not professionally practice, nevertheless I have had a large caseload. So as a result I have many and varied samples of such cases with a wide array of case histories at my disposal. In this way, I built an imaginary character to base my story on but made sure that everything that this character went through, was based on real life experiences that I had witnessed. So whereas Masoumeh is a hypothetical character, none of the events in her life or experiences she endures are superficial but real events that have taken place to other women of her generation.
What is truly remarkable about your book is the ending. It left me a deep feeling of sorrow and the impression that traditions are very well settled inside people’s hearts and that we sometimes mistake love for conventions and caring for social norms. This way, we can become our loved ones’ prisoners, in the name of traditions, religion or society. Do you think there is a clear line between right and wrong in contemporary Iran?
As mentioned previously, based on my detailed statistical analysis I could determine every one of my character’s reactions to events. Unfortunately a large portion of the population would view a second marriage as a source of shame that brings dishonour and hence would not allow it in their families if they could prevent it. Today’s generation however, has changed a little and I would have dearly preferred if Masoumeh could, against all odds, hold on to her love. But the interesting point is that in real life, individuals in her situation would not allow themselves that right. Throughout their lives, they have had to pass on their rights and interests to others to protect that they can no longer remember if they have any rights of their own. Change to such behaviours is only possible through attitudinal and cultural change of direction which over here is extremely difficult and time consuming to achieve but nevertheless has to be aired to force the authorities to think over the negative aspects and the shortcomings of that culture. This however could be the very first step in pursuant and creation of a cultural change of direction. Many have criticised the ending of the book but then that was precisely my intentions.
Masum’s story really impressed me in a profound way. It’s a beautifully crafted character, with so many dimensions, which seem to represent many Iranian women. Was that your intention?
Yes indeed. I wanted to introduce a generation of Iranian women with all the difficulties they encounter which some saw as excessive and out of proportion to reality whereas others could note her luck for not losing any of her children as so many have had to endure. Ultimately however, no one could deny the reality of the conditions and processes that her life was subjected to.
More than any other country, Iran is really misunderstood and unknown. Do you think that your book (and other contemporary Iranian books) could help in truly understanding such a complex and contradictory country as Iran? Do you think a writer’s role could be to offer some insight into the reality of the country through literature
You are right since Iran is unique in that she has had to fight for centuries to protect her own culture and language against invaders and can fit only with difficulty in various global categorisation. For instance, Iran is an Islamic country and yet her Islam is quite different to others because she has managed to maintain her own linguistic and cultural traits and independence compared to Arab countries. Being called an Arab is an insult by Persians whom in the face of foreign invasions have learned to hide such assets but at the same time and over the years have felt touched and moved by their own actions and consequently have found themselves tangled in a complicated multi-dimensional cultural web. The best way of introduction to such a culture is through art such as writing, film, paintings etc.
It seems to me that your book is a clever and natural mix of many themes, such as forbidden love, family that puts social conventions first and doesn’t care about its own members’ happiness, the terrible inequity between men and women, the confusion of a revolution that ended in religious change, ideology and philosophy, hypocrisy, young boys sacrificing their lives in war in the name of religion and many, many others. Wasn’t it difficult for you to represent so many faces of Iran in a single story? (You sure managed it beautifully!)
Many thanks! I wanted to portray the life of a generation in this historical era with all its realities, good and bad and under the prevailing conditions. I therefore had to take a multi-dimensional view.
When talking to Iranian youngsters, I came across an unexpected fact. Someone told me that the vast majority of Iranian students are girls. But the person added that, even though they are more educated, it’s harder for women to get jobs after they graduate. Is that true? Does that mean that women gained their right to study but there are still preconceptions regarding work?
Iranian women pay more attention to their training and education than men for they have learned that unless they are aware, educated and articulate, they will not be able to regain their long lost rights. So first one must learn where the shortcomings lie before determining what and how to attain those rights. That is why we need education, training and discipline and only when one is strong in this sense and aware of her rights that one can no longer be ignored and her rights be trampled over by others. The next step would be the opening of opportunities for work and management.
It was weird for me to walk around with my head covered when travelling to Iran. In contemporary society, what is the meaning of the veil? Is it still a symbol of religion or is it becoming more and more a social convention?
Yes, having to constantly wear head scarves & veil is very difficult particularly in the summer. This has been the case for over 30 years and we are still not used to this foreign idea as can be seen by constant intimidation that women are subjected to in public by the various governmental agencies. Many opt to use every opportunity to demonstrate their disdain of such foreign Islamic rule by deliberately violating the dress code. Of course I don’t deny that some women are in favour of such dress codes because of their own religious believes. To determine the true size of each camp though, one needs to conduct an unbiased multi-faceted research into this phenomena.
As far as I know, you have other novels awaiting approval by the censorship board. Can you tell us more about them?
My second book is called “The father of the other one” to expose and consider an issue in educational psychology. It has been very well received in Iran and many have liked it more than my first book. My third book was written under a very special set of circumstances and after its second print, I requested it to be stopped. My fourth book which has been banned for over six years by the Ministry of Guidance and still awaits permission to print, discusses socio psychological factors in Iran. The new but wide spread phenomena in Iran which I have termed as “ripped families” discusses the case of many who have been ripped apart by the revolution and are now spread across the globe. After 30 years, what language and culture have such families in common to interact with one another globally? The story centres on a 10 day period and I have attempted to have a representative of every social group in the book. The subject matter was very novel and fresh at the time but now with the passing of time, many references have been made to this phenomena. Since then for various reasons I have left many threads of activities un-finished.