| Iran's literary giantess is defiant in exile... but missing home
Shahrnush Parsipur fled Iran in the 1990s rather than face another spell in jail for her writing. Now her bestselling masterpiece Touba and the Meaning of Night is being published In the UK for the first time
Touba and the Meaning of Night
Published by Marion Boyars (19th April)
THERE'S something spellbinding about this woman in red. One of Iran's most revered authors, she's been translated into several languages and is feted internationally, spent years in a political prison and now lives in a self-imposed exile. Only the third woman to have been published in modern Iran, it wouldn't be gilding her lily to dub her one of the mothers of Persian literature. In the flesh she radiates charisma but has a reputation for guarding her privacy and confounding all assumptions of Iranian feminism.
It's been almost 20 years since Shahrnush Parsipur published her bestselling masterpiece Touba and the Meaning of Night, sparking a storm in Iran and wooing European critics. Now with the first British edition just out we are at last properly introduced to one of the giants of Iranian literature and to a book that took two decades to arrive.
"This is the first time I've worn red," the 61 year-old says of her new shirt and matching camisole-top. "I bought it in Oxford Street. When I saw it I had to have it! In Iran it's a habit for women to dress in black or grey: we don't want to attract attention to ourselves so red is out of the question. Even in America I dress mostly in black and grey."
But Parsipur shows few signs of ever having been cowed by convention. Neither Islamist nor nationalist, she's expert in Eastern philosophies and describes herself as spiritual and "a woman of the world". She cites Dostoyevsky and Dickens as her main literary influences. Of Dickens she decided to only read Great Expectations but, with typical eccentricity, read it 34 times and the masterpiece with helping her through prison.
Since she started writing in her teens she's had 12 books published. In her teens she married "abruptly" and had a son. She went to university and took evening classes, graduating in her late 20s. It was a "crowded situation" resolved when she divorced on friendly terms, moved out with her son and began working on her first novel, The Dog and the Long Winter. In France she wrote her second, Small and Simple Tales of the Spirit of the Tree. When she returned to Iran in the mid-1970s she protested against the Shah and was imprisoned. A few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution she was again jailed for political dissent though she still asserts her innocence.
It was a terrifying time in which thousands were executed and she suffered harsh treatment during four-and-a-half years inside. She counts herself lucky however to have spent formative years with other intellectuals and fellow travellers and to have found the inspiration for Touba and the Meaning of Night.
It's a masterful curate's egg of a novel mixing mysticism, history, philosophy and personal tragedy. Set against the backdrop of occupation, war, revolution and social transformation in Iran, it depicts the last century with more pathos and insight than any mere history book. It is the story of a girl who begins wanting to marry God, searches for the meaning of life but encounters death, marries a royal but falls on hard times and in her last moments has revealed to her the meaning of womanhood.
Written at a crossroads in Iranian history and in Parsipur's life, the story has special significance for observers of Iran as well as the author. Touba's character is the embodiment of Parsipur's women: a web of contradictions and complexities, socially repressed yet relentlessly pursuing the meaning of life. Touba's life is also linked with two other women who symbolise different stages of women's history from ancient times to modern Iran.
It's a book that stirred such strong emotions in Parsipur that when she finished it in jail she tossed the manuscript onto a bonfire only to rewrite it from memory when she was released.
It was an instant hit in Iran and Europe but when in the early 1990s she faced another prison spell for her next novel, Women without Men, she chose self-exile in America.
Now she lives hand-to-mouth renting a room from a friend in Berkeley, California. Her books sell in huge numbers in Iran but are confined to the black-market from which she cannot claim royalties and she has a natural reluctance to chase up her European agents for money she's owed.
In America she chose to sign up with a respected independent feminist publisher rather than a corporate book giant - even though her first royalty cheque for Touba was for just $90.
Parsipur has a complex relationship with America. It has been a safe haven, she admits, but has never been a home-from-home. In fact she confesses to feeling unsettled - a feeling made worse by the recent war hysteria. A "wanderer by nature", she said the only place she's ever likely to feel at home is back in Iran with her son.
She also finds herself instinctively swimming against the political tide. There is a new interest in Iranian women writers, in particular those who condemn Iran, but Parsipur voices ambivalence and unfashionable ideas that have brought howls from the politically correct. Femininity is her central theme but, while exiled Iranian writers like Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) have made a name for themselves as feminist opponents of the Islamic state, Parsipur scornfully declares: "I am not a feminist!"
But neither is she a stick in the mud - far from it. Her views, she said, are shaped by her study of ancient philosophies. Toying with her elegant Ying-Yang ring, she explained there's a bit of femininity and masculinity in all of us. The problem is that we're too often ruled by our masculine side, she said: Technology, war and social upheaval are symptomatic of our masculine urge to rip things up and start again. Whereas we need to get in touch with our feminine side, the creative instinct in tune with our environment.
Her views on marriage are also bound to set feminists' teeth on edge: Despite several relationships since her divorce she said marriage is a cornerstone, meeting our sexual needs and "making a nest for children. For this you need a man and a woman ... The woman needs a man to help elevate the children."
To further confound the mainstream, she refuses to toss brickbats at Iran. That may appear counter-intuitive considering she has been suffering bouts of serious depression since prison and sees her son only every few years when he can leave Iran to meet her. That is until you realise she still has a complex love-affair with the country she left 17 years ago, which is home to her family and ex-husband - a film-maker she is close to, and which continues to tug on her heart strings.
So when she discusses Iran she naturally reaches for a philosophical and historical view. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was, she stated, a "manifestation of an ancient matriarchy". When I raised a quizzical eyebrow she replied that the roots of Iranian Shia Islam lie in the ancient Sumerian religion that worshipped feminine icons, while examples of female iconography appear throughout Shia history. Though the Ayatollahs may not have realised, "the basis of [their] religion is matriarchal. The roots are very old, thousands of years old and are pregnant with matriarchal ideas that have remained alive under the earth as it were, among the lowest levels of society". The clerics may have tried to set women back centuries but, "inevitably Iranian women have arisen".
Iran is undergoing tremendous social change with women a rising proportion of university students - already about two-thirds, and despite restrictions unprecedented numbers are occupying top jobs in law, science, medicine and arts. But Parsipur has no truck with suggestions she's been a political beacon for Iranian women. "I'm just an observer not an activist," she said.
Now in middle-age she said she has pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will: She gloomily predicts more wars in the Middle East but pins her hopes on the birth of socialism with a dash of Islam; she despairs of ecological destruction but hopes we find a green solution in our feminine side.
Yet she still has the air of a woman searching for her own private place in the world. She admits she's in a "more masculine" stage of life - unsettled and in search of a missing piece. It's not hard to imagine peace of mind might lie in a permanent reunion with her son. In the meantime she is working on her next novel in the German countryside where she is living as guest writer-in-residence of the prestigious Heinrich Boll Institute and looking forward to her next meeting with her son.
"When I was in prison," she said, "I was fascinated by some of the women there. They could have been freed, or led different lives, married and been with their families but instead they died for their ideas ... I didn't believe in all their ideas but I believe in their spirit and that their spirit is in the women of Iran." With an optimistic laugh she added: "Iranian women have a tendency to change themselves ... I hope they too will be wearing red in the future."