The Perils of Writing | An Autobiographical Voice | Recollections and Afterthoughts |The Authenticity of Forugh Farrokhzad

 

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL VOICE - M i c h a e l H I L L M A N N

Women's Autobiographies In Contemporary Iran

The dearth of biographies of Iranian literary figures is startling, especially in light of the centrality of literary biography in those western literatures from which twentieth-century Iranian writers have drawn inspiration. For example, despite continuing fascination on the part of Iranian readers with the life of Sadeg Hedayat (1903-1951), the most influential Persian prose writer since Sa'di (c.1215-c.1290), no biography of him exists forty years after his death. The same is true of Nima Yushij (1895-1960), the most influential poetic voice in Iran since Hafez (c.1320-c.1390), despite the fact that hundreds of letters and other archival materials have become available in the three decades since his death. Neither are there biographies of the prominent modernist poets Ahmad Shamlu (b.1925) and Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales (b.1928), or any other living Iranian literary figure.
Responses to attempts in the 1980s at a biography of a major Iranian literary figure intimate the culture-specific significance of the issue of biography. The literary critic and novelist Reza Baraheni (b.1935) reacted to a 1980 biographical sketch of himself by worrying that its review of political issues in his life might jeopardize his academic career, if not his political freedom. A 1986 biographical sketch of the expatriate poet Nader Naderpour (b.1929) evoked puzzlement on the part of an Iranian reviewer, who confessed that he had not previously seen, and was unsure how to respond to, a candid and dispassionate sketch of an Iranian writer's career. The poet reacted by passing along to the biographer a friend's advice to delete everything from the sketch except for the poet's dates of birth and current marriage. The expatriate writer and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan (b.1922) took issue with almost all of the biographical data in a book-length study of his employee and mistress, the modernist poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1934/5-1967), expressing the view that only invasion of privacy or titillation of readers could be behind such biographical inquiry. In any case, according to one Iranian reviewer, that study, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (1987), was "the first biography of an Iranian literary figure ever published."
Reasons for the lack of biographical writing appear to be more numerous in the case of literary women, because of a distinction between the terms mask and veil. While masks apply to both men and women writers, veils (the chador coverings that Iranian Muslim women wear) are designed exclusively for women. An Iranian writer whose voice is veiled is either one whom society keeps from view or one who acquiesces in response to societal pressure. The traditionalist poet Parvin E'tesami (1907-1941) is the classic case of a woman writer raised and taught by her literary father and encouraged by her brother and her traditionalist literary acquaintances to remain hidden behind both domestic walls and a poetic persona unidentifiable as female. 
In 1955, Forugh Farrokhzad published the first volume of verse in the history of Persian literature exhibiting a poetic speakers recognizable throughout as a female. Called Asir (Captive), it was also the first book of poetry ever published in Iran by an Iranian woman on her own. It and Farrokhzad's four following collections of poems- Divar (The Wall 1956), Esyan (Rebellion, 1958), Tavallodi Digar (Another Birth, 1964), and Iman biyavarim beh aghaze- fasle sard (Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, 1974) remain the most discussed books of original writing by an Iranian literary woman.
As if unprecedented publication of Captive and succeeding volumes were not enough, Farrokhzad's own life drew much attention because of its equally unprecedented features. In 1952, she married at the age of seventeen out of love and a desire to escape from a stern father. The following year, she had a son called Kamyar. Not long thereafter, she had a brief affair with a magazine editor in Tehran. At twenty, she sought divorce in order to have the freedom to develop as a poet and person. Accordingly, she was obliged to give up her son to the custody of her ex-husband's family. She later entered into relationships with a number of men. She spoke her mind on whatever topic came up in private or public. In mid-1958 she fell in love with Golestan, a prominent and controversial Tehran intellectual, and spent the last eight years of her life in a relationship with him, conducted openly in the same circle of persons of which Golestan's wife and children were a part. In short, from 1955 onward, Farrokhzad faced considerable antagonistic social pressure and community opprobrium and was the subject of much gossip, even in print. Her unconventional life ended prematurely in a fatal automobile accident in Tehran in 1967 not long after her thirty-second birthday.
Farrokhzad always asserted a special connection between her life and her poems, which signals their potentially autobiographical character. Early in her career, Farrokhzad wrote: "If I have pursued poetry and art, it has not been as hobby or amusement. I consider poetry and art my whole life." This attitude implies that the poet would put much of her life into her poetry. In 1964 , Farrokhzad stated: "Poetry is a serious business for me. It is a responsibility I feel vis-ˆ-vis my own being. It is a sort of answer I feel compelled to give to my open life. I respect poetry to the same extent that a religious person respects his or her religion." If she were to be true to this view, Farrokhzad's poetry would have to be honest, unposturing, and reflective of her innermost thoughts and feelings. She went on to say: "Poetry for me is like a friend… with whom I can easily unburden my heart. It is a mate who fulfills me, satisfies me, without upsetting me." The comment implies that her poetry would be open, frank, and intimate. The fact is that Farrokhzad's poetry reflects and mirrors her life, often directly.
In Farrokhzad's poetry, readers learn about her childhood (playing with her sister, shopping with her mother), her youth (puberty, interest in romance), her young adulthood (love, marriage, motherhood, divorce), her love relationships (concern about the price she had to pay for living an independent life), her world view, her conception of poetic art, and her politics. Readers are apprised of moods, doubts, fears, beliefs, and dreams that are as explicit and detailed as what they might learn from their closest relatives and friends.
A further problem or issue arises in treating Farrokhzad's verse as autobiography. Although in her poetry Farrokhzad rejects or discards the veils that her society and culture wove for her and refuses to use the sort of mask that serves to hide personality from view, her poetic voice is a persona or mask and not the actual person of Farrokhzad. Therefore, Farrokhzad's attitudes toward her personal life must be distinguished from her attitudes toward her persona in her poetry. Her persona wears a mask, to be sure, but an almost unique mask among Iranian writers, which highlights the autobiographical point of Farrokhzad's poems and her distinctive perspective as an intellectual. 
The point is that even if Farrokhzad's life had been conventional, she would still have become more directly autobiographical than other literary women merely by discarding the veils that her culture planned for her to wear, and she would still have become more directly autobiographical than literary men by removing the masks that Iranian literary artists routinely utilize. As it is, she tells readers in unequivocal terms that her poetry is for her a mirror and a mate, two metaphors for situations where one wears neither veil nor mask, where one appears naked and expects to be seen thus by oneself or another.
In her poetry, there are significant autobiographical details that need to be appreciated as such to understand a poem's point. Readers cannot imagine any hypothetical "you" as the person addressed in "She'ri baraye To" (A Poem for You); they need to know that the person addressed is a woman poet in a particular cultural environment who has been obliged to give up her son to pursue her art. In "Bazgasht" (Return) a child character called "Kami" appears. In "Shekufeh-ye anduh' (Blossom of Sorrow), the city of Ahvaz, where Farrokhzad lived when married, the Karun River there, and Farrokhzad's "first love," Parviz Shapur, are pictured almost as in a snapshot. In "Qahr" (Breaking Off), she appears to be giving Nader Naderpour a piece of her mind.
It may even be difficult for a reader to appreciate fully the last stanza of "Tavallodi digar" (Another Birth) without knowing that her employer and lover, Golestan, may have spent much time at the house he put at Farrokhzad's disposal but presumably went back to his own nearby home at night, leaving the poet alone to await a kiss in the morning:

I know a sad little fairy
who lives in an ocean
and ever so softly
plays her heart into a magic flute
who dies with one kiss each night
and is reborn with one kiss each dawn.

What Farrokhzad brought to the Iranian literary scene was a dramatic and challenging individuality. In contrast, her literary contemporaries, except for Al-e Ahmad, were unprepared to unmask themselves enough to allow their individuated via-ages to become visible or, in the case of women, were also unable or unwilling to remove their veils. The significance of this development to Iranian literature is underscored by the fact that in the West autobiography came center stage only with the age of Goethe when, according to Weintraub, intellectuals began to feel that "each life, as a time-time and one-time-only actualization of …indefinitely variable human potential is marked by an irreplaceable value." A lack of conviction as to the worth of nonroyal, nonimamic individual life has long seemed endemic in Iranian culture.
Given such a cultural context, Farrokhzad's unswerving commitment to the integrity of her autobiographical voice-unlike Taj os-Saltaneh, she had no royal refuge or protector and was not about to wait sixty years for her thoughts to be read-was revolutionary in the annals of Persian literature and Iranian culture. Appreciation of her achievements is still impeded by the kinds of sexist bias found in much critical writing about women poets, including, to use the terminology of Joanna Russ, the denial of agency, pollution of agency, double standard of content, various sort of false categorizing, myth of the isolated achievement, and anomalousness.
Farrokhzad's poem have been more often labeled confessions than autobiography. Farrokhzad the poet has more often been called Farrokhzad the individualist, Farrokhzad the kept woman, Farrokhzad the whore. Among the first serious commentaries on Farrokhzad's poetry were two features in Khandniha magazine. The artwork accompanying one article consisted of a silhouette sketch behind the printed text of a naked female torso. The text of the second article included a photograph of Brigitte Bardot, with a caption quoting her views about appearing nude on the screen. Critics refer to Farrokhzad by her given name, while referring to other modernist poets by their surnames or pen names (Farrokhzad never used a pen name, as have Ahmad Shamlu, Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales, and others). Traditionalist critics, challenged by Farrokhzad's later poems, are quick to accept her early poems, Some modernist critics, including feminists, call her early work "juvenilia" while applauding her later work. Some of those who accept Farrokhzad as a great modernist argue that Goleatan's influence on her was crucial (although he has never published a poem. Nor has his wife of forty-five years, nor have his close friends in England during the last decade). The fullest praise for Farrokhzad in the Khandaniha articles came in the declaration hat her verse was reminiscent of Bilitis's. But Bilitis was a fraud, the product of the imagination of a Frenchman who wanted to create a competitor for Sappho of Lesbos. Farrokhzad was thus praised for resembling what a European scholar thought a Greek poetess of the sixth century BCE would have been like.
Even as sensitive and sympathetic a critic as Farrokhzad's friend Karim Emami may fall prey to a conventional bias in opining that Farrokhzad's greatest contributions are her love poems, thereby assigning her to a less central niche in the pantheon of Iranian poets. More relevant male poets, it is assumed, would deal with history, as in Akhavan's "Shush-radidam" (I saw Susa), politics, as in Shamlu's "Dar in bombast" (In this Deadend), and grand philosophical issues, as in Sepehri's "Water's Footsteps." These poems are appealing and revealing, to be sure. Yet a century hence the unveiled and relatively unmasked verse of Forugh Farrokhzad, which uses images of love to bring alive issues of her life and her art, will likely have the more secure place in the minds and hearts of lovers of Persian poetry. Farrokhzad's unveiled and unmasked poetic modernism and individuality have opened the way for Iranian poets henceforth to choose without inhibition specific poetic modes for their poetic effects and not to feel conventional fear of social, political, or cultural consequences. A neoclassical Persian poem may make it in the next century, not because it is blessed by convention or displays a stylish veil and a sophisticated mask, but only because it works in a particular poetic situation.
More important, Forugh Farrokhzad has unveiled personal individuality in the Iranian arena. Iranian establishment leaders-whether religious, leftist, or royalist, whether in Tehran, Paris, or Los Angeles-can have few greater fears than that other Iranian will sooner or later emulate what she has done.

An Autobiographical Voice:
Forugh Farrokhzad
Michael Hillmann

Afsaneh Najmabadi
Editor

Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990

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