Not only has this series introduced me to writers who were new to me, it's also really expanded my knowledge of inspiring women in history. Today's interview is a prime example of that. As someone who writes mostly about 19th century America, I love having my horizons expanded into other times and places -- and when I came across the New York Times rave for Jasmin Darznik's SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD, I was instantly curious to hear more about its subject, the groundbreaking Iranian poet Forugh (while chagrined that I hadn't heard of her before). A snippet from that review: "A complex and beautiful rendering of that vanished country and its scattered people; a reminder of the power and purpose of art; and an ode to female creativity under a patriarchy that repeatedly tries to snuff it out."
I'm so pleased that Jasmin agreed to be interviewed for #WomensHistoryReads and share more about the meaning Forugh has for her, woman writers she admires, and the frustrating erasure of women from the historical record. Thanks, Jasmin!
Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.
Jasmin: When my family fled Iran in the late 1970s, my mother smuggled out a book of poems by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Forugh, as she’s known in Iran, influenced me enormously. Iran has a rich tradition of poetry, but most all the poets who are remembered and celebrated have been men. Forugh, though, was writing poems that dove deep into questions of what it meant to be a woman in her culture—not presenting this culture in an anthropological way, but engaging you with it through the truth of her life. In my twenties the poems I returned to most often were her love poems. I’d devoured Plath and Rich in college, but I wanted to hear a particular voice—a woman and an Iranian—in whom I could see myself reflected. Forugh wrote about desire, about pain, about courage; reading her was a revelation. The very existence of Forugh’s poems challenged the stereotype, so prevalent then, and prevalent still, that Iranian women were silent victims of fate. In those poems I found proof of everything America was telling me Iranian women were not and that Iran was telling Iranian women they shouldn’t be. Bold, lustful, angry, difficult. Those poems saved me. They still do.
Greer: Who are some of your favorite authors working today?
Jasmin: I love all of Sarah Waters’ novels, many of which are set in Victorian period and all of which feature women protagonists. The attention to historical detail is just spectacular—before turning to fiction Waters earned a doctorate in Victorian literature, and her novels are saturated with the sights, sounds, scents, and feeling of that era. She’s also writing about women in a way that feels both fun and cunning. In nonfiction, two writers I deeply admire for their bravery as well as the beauty of their prose are Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit. I will read anything they write.
Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
Jasmin: It’s enormously frustrating, not to mention infuriating, to continually encounter vast gaps in the historical record about women, and it’s not just that their stories are neglected, but that there is often a deliberate and sustained effort to erase them from history. In Forugh’s case, that erasure was achieved through her family and partner’s silences about her life, as well as decades of government censorship of her work. However, it’s precisely these gaps that energize and inform my writing. If there’d been a more ample archive available to me, I doubt I’d have written a novel about her. I would likely have had fewer questions about her life, and I would also have felt less of a sense of urgency about bringing her story to light.
My question for you, Greer: Imagine you could put two women from different historical eras in conversation. Who would you pick and what would you ask to get the conversation flowing?
Greer: That is such an awesome question and the possibilities are dizzying. While all my historical fiction is set squarely in the past, without a contemporary storyline, I don't think I can avoid choosing today as one of the two historical eras to connect with this hypothetical question. Not a day goes by that I don't think about what a terrifying and important time we seem to be living in. I have an urge to connect someone from an equally turbulent time in the past with the moment we're in right now. So I guess I'd choose Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, one of many women who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union in the Civil War. It must have been an unthinkable, shocking act to undertake -- but it must have been important to her to take that leap, given how her country, her community, her world was being torn apart. I'd put her in conversation with Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who has stepped up into the national spotlight and contributed so much passion and fire to the conversation around America's problem with gun violence.
I think I'd ask both of them how they find or found the strength to do what they'd never imagined themselves doing, and how the rest of us can stoke that fire. What does it take to truly make a difference? We all have a stunning amount of potential slumbering within us -- how do we bring it out, channel it, spin it into gold?
For more about Jasmin and her books: http://jasmin-darznik.com.
(And of course, tune in tomorrow for the next interview!)