In her debut novel, Children of the Jacaranda tree, Sahar Delijani is using her own story as a starting point: she was born in 1983, in the Evin prison in Tehran, where, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, her activist parents were jailed. The book is a touching and meaningful testimony about a country full of contradictions. I’m very passionate about Iran and its stories and it was a great pleasure to meet Sahar Delijani at the International Literary Festival in Iași where I talked to her about the book and about the real Iran and its paradoxes, about the transition from personal experience and literature, about religion and its influence in society and politics and about the changes that Iran is going through.
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I don’t think it was easy for you to write this book. How did you make the transition from reality, with those traumatic experiences, to literature?
I think that there is probably no difference, from the book or reader’s perspective, between me having had those experiences personally or sort of coming up with a story to tell. You always have kind of a structure; a foundation and you start from that. If was definitely difficult emotionally because some of the characters were people who were very close to me. Even I was fictionalizing things, although I knew about whom I was talking about. I was talking about my mother and I couldn’t pretend that I’m not. There were many moments when I needed a break or to stop for a while, to keep a distance from the characters, from the book, because I didn’t want to get too sentimental. There were many up and down moments.
When did you first find out you were born in Evin prison?
I’ve always known. It wasn’t a secret in my family. My parents had a lot of “prison friends.” There were dinners, trips and always, at a certain point, they started to talk about their memories. Us, the children, were always around them, hearing those stories. In order to write some of these experiences, for example about the birth, I asked my mother about the details. But, more or less, I always knew.
Right now, half of my family is in America, half in Iran. My parents are very happy, proud and enthusiastic about the book.
Tell me about your writing habits. How do you write? Also, I’ve heard something about three novels that never got published.
I write mostly in the morning and in the afternoon again. I’ve been doing this for the past 7 years. Yes, I wrote three novels before this one, they were no good, so I never published them.
I realized that they were not the stories I wanted to tell. They were interesting, but I was not passionate about them. It wasn’t until I started to write this story that I realized how passionate I can be about it, almost obsessive. That’s when I realized that I can do both – I can take reality, mix it a little bit with my imagination and that’s how I can get the best result.
This book took me 3 years to write, from 2009 to 2013. I wrote the first draft in three months, more or less. I revised it for three years. I’m a big editor, I look at every word. It’s work, work, work and read. I read a lot. If I don’t read, I can’t write.
I’ve read many books about Iran, most of them written by women. Why do you think this is happening?
In totalitarian systems, women are always the first victims, because they’re a minority. Also, they are the first to fight against it because it’s not the life they want to live. You know, women are a little bit ahead; they understand things earlier than men, in a way.
Iran has two sides – it has a side where you’re being repressed, where you are covered, but it also has another side, of active, modern, energetic people who want to make a difference. I think that now, especially people in my generation, who are raised in this situation, are finally adults. So we are finally starting to make our voices heard.
There is also a very strong underground movement in Iran. I met so many people “trafficking” books, music; there are so many illegal parties and concerts.
Absolutely. Did you go to those parties? Good! That’s Iran!
Yeah, you don’t see that on Iranian television. J
I always tell everyone: please, if you go to Iran, make sure you go to those underground events. Because, you see, it’s an exciting, unusual experience.
What do you do when you go to Iran?
I used to go back to Iran very often before the book, now I decided to wait and see how the situation evolves. Last time I went to Iran it was in 2011. I just party! I visit all of my friends, my family; I go from one house to another. Sometimes I do some sight seeing but, you know, there are so many people I want to meet.
Why did you use the symbol of a jacaranda tree? It’s not that common in Iran.
It’s actually quite rare; it’s a tropical tree. For me, it was sort of an utopian image of something very beautiful, desired by so many, just like the Revolution was in Iran. When it was the Revolution, people wanted an open, democratic society and then something else happened. It was desired but they were not able to accomplish their dream. Children of the Jacaranda tree are children of the Revolution, especially children of those activists who fought for it, sacrificed a lot, risked their lives, and then became the first victims.
Did you talk to other children of the Revolution? What’s their perspective? What do you have in common?
A lot of my friends in Iran are children of activists. It’s not only that the experiences are similar, but also the objects. When I wrote the story about the bracelet made of date stones, I thought my dad had made it for me and that it was very special. One day, I saw that a friend of mine, whose parents were also imprisoned, put a picture on Facebook of a bracelet made of date stones. The caption was: “My dad made this for me in prison”. And I was like… what? And not only that, there were lots of comments of friends, some of which I knew, who were saying: “oh, my dad too, my dad too.” I realized that it was a mass production of bracelets in the prison and that I wasn’t that rare. It was so amazing, I really wanted to tell the story of objects, not only stories that I’ve heard, but to look at the photo and tell the story behind it, to look at the bracelet, tell its story.
While visiting Iran, there were many people who stopped me on the street to tell me their stories and to discuss openly about their problems, about social and political situation. They were not afraid to talk.
Yes, it may seem strange. It’s been like this for some time, since the 90s. I think that Iranians just have had enough. They can’t take it anymore. They just say whatever comes to their mind. My generation doesn’t know anything before the Islamic Republic. As it grew up, it was constantly flashing with the regime, it was a constant back and forth, we know how to resist the regime and the regime knows how to repress us. It’s a constant battle going on for 30 years and I think they know each other very well, the two enemies, and also because Iran has always been a country of resistance. We always wanted to make a better future. We haven’t been successful yet but the fight for democracy actually started in the fifties, when there was a coup orchestrated by the Americans and the English, then we came back to the Shah; it’s a constant battle that’s been going on for a long time.
Do you think that things are changing? There is a new government in Iran. First I went to Iran about four years ago and the second time was this year, in March. As far as I saw, it changed a lot in those four years.
I’m optimistic about the future of Iran but, from what I see, I think the process will be slow. It’s not only the regime, but also we have a very fragile position on the international scene, I think that people are afraid of military attacks. People want to avoid military interventions. Culturally, the regime was defeated a long time ago. It’s only about the political discourse now.
It’s true that many things have changed. It’s incomparable to when Ahmadinejad was there. Things have lightened up a little bit. Four years ago it was in 2010, right after the Green Revolution. It was the worst period of the Iranian recent history. We couldn’t think those things could happen again: torture, death, fights. We thought those were in the 80s and that that was over.
But still, even now people are being arrested for dancing Happy…
Yes, it’s the regime. The revolutionary guards are still there. There is a war between the reformists and the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists don’t want to lose their power; the conservatives don’t want to push it too much.
I felt that Iran is a really misunderstood country. Do you think there is a gap between a foreigner’s point of view of Iran, who is influenced by media stories, and the real Iran?
The media is lazy. They just like to stay with the labeling and the stereotypes not only in the case of Iran, but also for the whole Middle East. If you think about the media exposure, it’s either the bloodthirsty dictator or the fundamentalist Islamism. There is nothing else. In between all of that are activists, young people, writers, artists; it’s just that, for some reason, for the Western media it’s easier to talk only in those terms. It’s easier to justify attacks.
What about the huge influence, at least theoretically, of the religion in Iran? Actually, I met lots of atheists, people making jokes and discussing in a relaxed manner about religion.
I’m not and I’ve never been a religious person. Iran truly knows what it means when religion interferes with politics. The effect is that it gave birth to a nation of non-believers, where everybody hates religion. That’s also too much, you must be able to have a relationship with religion. But, because of the government of the past 30 years, we became exactly the opposite. It’s because of the laws. You need to cover your hair because of the law, you cant party, drink alcohol because of the Islamic law. Anything you want to do as a young person is prohibited. Of course they start hating it!
And they start finding very innovative ways to do what they want.
Exactly. Iranians can be very creative in avoiding the regime’s rules.
What are the reactions to your book in Iran? I suppose many young people read it.
I received lots of reactions! It’s being translated into Farsi right now, but at a publishing house in Sweden, for sure it won’t officially get to Iran. People have seen me on television, in the media, and I received so many messages; everyone is thanking me!
You said you read a lot. Can you mention some writers you love?
Everything. For example, I like Herta Muller a lot. She is one of my favorite writers, I have her books on my desk all the time; I sometimes look at how she writes to get inspiration. I like very much Milan Kundera, Arundhati Roy and so many more. There is nothing in the world that gives me as much pleasure as reading Persian poetry does, especially modern poetry. One of our most important poets is Shamloo—I read him a lot.
Your book is truly an international success. What do you think is the main reason people read and love it?
Iran is living something that some countries have lived in a very recent past, so they identify with it. Dictatorships are always the same. Some of my readers, such as you, Romanians, maybe remember their own past. There are also people who are afraid that their countries would become what Iran has been for the past 40 years. For example, in Greece I felt that they were worried that the country would slip into Fascism again; I felt the fear in the questions they asked me. People either look at their future or their past through my book.