PEN 2013: Not Writing from Exile

Censorship Literature Review


Shahrnush Parsipur’s writing career began in 1974 with the publication of her first novel, The Dog and the Long Winter. She's been in trouble with Iranian authorities ever since. Today, with more than twenty novels, short story collections, and translations under her belt, Parsipur lives in California. While she has always written in Persian and her fiction has always been about Iran, Parsipur does not consider herself to be a writer in exile. "I'm not in exile because I am a person of the world," she stated at last night's PEN World Voices Festival event. She does, however, identify herself as being Iranian-American.


Iranian Artists who run afoul of religious and government authorities have a nasty habit of being censored, exiled, arrested, and imprisoned. Take, for example, the case of Mohammad Rasoulof and fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi who were sentenced to six years in prison for making The White Meadows (review). The Iranian government also banned the pair from filmmaking for 20 years. Or consider the rock band the Yellow Dogs, whose guitarist Obaash wrote for The Mantle about his band's joy at playing their first legal gig—in Istanbul. For her part, Parsipur was arrested four times, at one point spending almost five years in prison (alongside her family). She was never officially charged with a crime. Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir (Feminist Press, 2013) describes these penitentiary experiences, which the author says were both horrible and formidable.


None of Parsipur's works are legally available in Iran. "I am simultaneously rich and poor," she said with a laugh. "My books are everywhere in Iran, but because they are on the black market I do not get paid."


Exile is both a noun and a verb. To be in exile is to be in a state of separation, often by force, from one's home or native land. To be in exile is to be banished, expelled, removed. Parsipur, by her own admission, does not live in a state of separation. After all, a person of the world cannot be banished from the only (physical) world that exists. Exile for a worldly person, then, can only be achieved through death. Parsipur is very much alive.


To exile is to banish, to force away, to separate. Iranian authorities have banished Parsipur's art, and therefore exiled her product, but the person remains. The humanist (as she calls herself) stubbornly endures.


A quandary emereges.


If you cannot communicate with your (mostly) Persian-speaking audience, and your books sell poorly in your adopted English-speaking home, who is your audience? When it comes to Parsipur's writing, who, exactly, is in exile: the author or the audience?


This isn't to say that Parsipur finds the idea of exile alien. On the contrary, she has strong opinions about the existential state, but for a specific demographic: prostitutes.


Separating prostitutes from other women, which is done in Iran (and, let's face it, most of the world), forces the prostitute into an "internal exile," says Parsipur. Prostitution, while rampant, is illegal in Iran; for religious authorities, the subject is taboo. Inwardly, the shunned prostitute must come to terms with a difficult psychological reality. Outwardly, the ostracized prostitute lives in a state of exception: she exists simultaneously in her society, but is not a part of it. She is a "woman," but not a woman.


In a state of exception, the individual's rights are severely diminished, if not outright taken away. Iranian authorities have discussed creating a camp in the Jajrud region, northeast of Tehran, where "street women" "can come to an understanding of their problem and reform themselves spontaneously," according to Morteza Tamaddon, governor general of Tehran. The camp, he reassures us, is not a prison, and yet what rights might a prostitute have in such a place? What say does she have in going there in the first place? This is the internal exile to which Parsipur speaks..


Despite the American attitude toward democracy and the rule of law, we are not unfamiliar with people living in states of exception on our own territory. The case can be made for many, but none more clearly right now than the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who, just like Parsipur in Iran, are held without charge, without trial, and without rights due to them under the Geneva Conventions.


At least with Parsipur, exiled, repressed, and otherwise estranged Iranians have a voice. Despite her state of exception, Parsipur remains exceptional.



Here is the trailer for the film adaptation of Parsipur's Women Without Men (Feminist Press, 2011), a movie unlikely to be shown in Iran anytime soon:



Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol



Freedom of Speech, Iran, PEN 2013, Shahrnush Parsipur, Prison