BY NIMA NAGHIBI
Associate professor of English at Ryerson University, Toronto
In this first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, diasporic Iranians, many of them women, are deploying the autobiographical form to narrate their personal experiences of life in post-revolutionary Iran and in the diaspora. The explosion of life writing in North America since the 1990s, and the growing market demand for such autobiographical narratives, has been referred to as the “memoir boom.” At the forefront of what we can now call the diasporic Iranian women’s memoir boom are two texts, both published in 1999: Tara Bahrampour’s To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America and Gelareh Asayesh’s Saffron Sky: A Life between Iran and America. These autobiographies are the first among a now substantial corpus of texts by a generation of diasporic Iranian women, many of whom experienced the 1979 Iranian revolution in childhood and then immigrated to the West with their families. The predominant sentiment in these texts, nostalgia for a lost childhood, is thus deeply bound up with nostalgia for a lost (pre-revolutionary) nation.
These authors pen nostalgic reflections of their past inflected with a keen longing for “home.” For diasporic writers, unlike travel writers, it is the return that is the fantasy, not the departure; for them, there is little romance in being elsewhere. These life narratives emphasize the importance of memory, and of a careful re-membering (in the dual sense of recall and piecing together) of personal stories of families and friends that have remained half told, lost in the frenzied shuffle between nations, between an Iran of their past, and a North America, or Europe, of their present and future.
Nostalgia has tended historically to be regarded in negative terms: initially viewed as a curable medical ailment, it was later considered to be a form of psychological trauma. Once it was no longer diagnosed as a medical—and therefore treatable—condition, nostalgia was recast, in cultural and literary contexts, as an emotional wound. In popular discourse, nostalgia is often seen as a sentimental indulgence which market-savvy entrepreneurs have easily attached to consumer goods. These negative connotations have contributed to a view of nostalgia as implying movement backward, but as scholars of nostalgia have argued, nostalgia is as much about projecting a future past as it is about claiming an irretrievable past. In other words, nostalgic remembrances of pre-revolutionary Iran do not simply amount to mourning a past life, they are also an expression of mourning for one’s future self that might have been. In the nostalgic desire to reclaim an irretrievable place (Iran) and irretrievable time (pre-1979) lies an articulated grief for a future that could have been. At the level of the individual nostalgic, the desire for another place and another time involves a mourning for that (imagined) future self—who the diasporic subject imagines herself to have become, had a particular event (in this case, the revolution) not taken place.
Diasporic Iranian memoirs are particularly interesting in their mediation of the diasporic experience through the authors’ memories of pre-revolutionary Iran, thus placing the concepts of memory and nostalgia, and questions of testimony and witness, at the heart of these narratives. These memoirs are deeply emotional, and deeply affecting in the stories that they tell. What, then, is at stake in the circulation of such affects as nostalgia, empathy, and compassion?
The prison memoir is part of a growing wave of testimonial literatures that foreground suffering, and impel the reader to take up a compassionate stance. The emotive power of these prison narratives is particularly significant for generating ethical and moral responses to the suffering body, and asks us to consider how suffering is expressed in narrative. What do narratives of suffering do? How can we, as privileged readers, bear witness to the traumatic experiences endured by political prisoners in a meaningful way, in a way that goes beyond merely expressing sympathy in the face of another’s suffering? How can we, as readers located in the West, read and engage with narratives of violence, torture, and imprisonment particularly when these narratives depict experiences in cultural and national locations—with which the West has a compromised, and often vexed, relationship?
In considering this relatively recent proliferation of diasporic Iranian women’s testimonial narratives we need to try and make sense of how certain narratives are received in the West, particularly since these texts do not have a readership in Iran: how do some narratives become more popular or more palatable to a Western or diasporic audience than others? How can we understand the far-reaching compassionate responses elicited by some popular prison narratives such as, for example, Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran (2007)? How can we understand the expression of compassion in relation to Nemat’s text against a marked lack of affective response to those unrepresentable subjects of trauma whose narrative reach does not extend as far, whose sufferings do not register as deeply upon readers in the West?
These testimonial narratives of suffering and pain impel us to bear witness and to feel the suffering of those represented in these texts, and also presumably the suffering of those lives that are not represented. How do we engage with testimonial literatures, with stories of suffering, without reproducing inequities between compassionate readers and suffering subjects?
The prison memoir as testimonial literature makes claims on the reader to respond to narratives of suffering in politically responsible ways. Prison narratives such as Shahla Talebi’s Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (2011), extend a significant challenge to readers. They require us to self-reflect in ways that can be deeply uncomfortable, asking us to imagine not only others’ suffering when they are at a safe distance, but also to reflect on the disturbing affinities between the cruelties to which human beings subject each other in their daily lives and the torture and betrayal of cellmates in a harrowing context such as in prison. Talebi’s memoir, in particular, compels us to contemplate and acknowledge, in profoundly unsettling ways, the limits of our own humanity.
A powerful genre with a far reach, the diasporic Iranian memoir can work to generate feelings of empathy for the suffering of others. As a mode of expression that humanizes an other, diasporic Iranian prison memoirs afford us an understanding of the memoir genre both as a testimonio that bears witness against injustice, and as a humanitarian narrative that asks us to rethink our capacity for empathy and compassion.
Nima Naghibi is author of Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora (Minnesota 2016) and Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran (Minnesota 2007). She is associate professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Women Write Iran is a Great Summer Read recommendation from Ms. Magazine.
—Gillian Whitlock, University of Queensland
—Shahla Talebi, Arizona State University