Literary Miracles: Meet Iranian Author Shahrnush Parsipur

In the debut of the new She Writes column Women in Translation, Jean Casella writes about the obstacles many international women must overcome simply to write--and offers one stunning example.


Research into the American book industry’s publishing practices has revealed that just 3 percent of the books published in the United States each year are translations. Consider only literature (as opposed to, say, scientific treatises and self-help books), and the figure drops to .3 percent. In other words, about one in three hundred of the volumes on our bookstore shelves represents the entire literary output of the world that lies beyond our borders.


Add to this the enormous obstacles that women face, in much of the world, simply to write—educational disadvantages, social oppression, and state-sponsored censorship—as well as the fact that women writers are even less likely than men to be translated into English. With all this in mind, the fact that we have the opportunity to read even a handful of literary gems by the world’s women becomes little short of miraculous.


The purpose of this monthly column, edited by Heather Hewett and myself with the enthusiastic support of She Writes, is to introduce our readers to just a few of these literary miracles. In the coming months, we’ll be asking writers, editors, and translators—many of them leaders in the uphill battle to publish and promote international literature in the U.S. market—to share with you the work of their favorite women writers from around the world.


To get things rolling, I want to introduce one of the writers whose work I cherish most. Shahrnush Parsipur is among Iran's most distinguished writers, author of a dozen novels as well as short stories, articles, and memoir. Her dramatic life story epitomizes the challenges faced by women writers in some parts of the world—and the courage with which they meet these challenges.


Shahrnush was first imprisoned in 1974 by the Shah’s intelligence service after she protested the regime's execution of two Iranian writers. In 1980, following the Islamic Revolution, she was once again arrested and imprisoned, without trial or charge, for four and a half years. She continued to write, both in prison and after her release, and her novels’ frank depiction of women’s sexuality earned her yet another prison term.


In 1994, Shahrnush finally fled her homeland. Today, at a time when Iranian authors and journalists are once again being confined in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, she lives in exile in California. All of her books are banned inside Iran, yet underground editions are published, sold, shared, and coveted by Iranian readers.


Despite this compelling backstory, and the obvious brilliance of her work, no commercial publisher showed any interest in publishing Shahrnush Parsipur’s novels in the United States. I had the honor, when I worked at the Feminist Press, to introduce Shahrnush’s work to English-language readers by publishing two of her books. Her masterpiece, Touba and the Meaning of Night, traces 80 years of turbulent Persian history and explores social mores and spirituality through the life of its remarkable protagonist. Her short novel Women Without Men—perhaps the best introduction to her work—integrates elements of magic realism in telling the story of five very different women who come together to live in a garden outside Tehran. Women Without Men was made into a beautiful, haunting film by the Iranian woman photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat.


For a little taste of miracles, watch the film trailer and read this excerpt from Women Without Men. And be sure to watch for more Women in Translation in the coming months.



Well, there was no alternative. Mahdohkt decided to stay in the garden and plant herself at the beginning of winter. She had to ask the gardeners what was the best time for planting. She didn’t know, but it wasn’t important. She would stay and plant herself. Perhaps she would turn into a tree. She wanted to grow on the riverbank with leaves greener than the slime, and fight the battle of shades of green in the pool. If she became a tree, she would sprout new leaves. She would give her new leaves to the wind, a garden of Mahdohkts. They would have to cut down all the sour and sweet cherry trees so that Mahdohkt could grow. Mahdohkt would grow.

She would become thousands and thousands of branches. She would cover the entire world. Americans would buy her shoots and take them to California. They would call the forest of Mahdokht the forest of Mahdekat. Gradually they would pronounce her name so many times that it would become Maduk in some places and Maaduk in others. Then four hundred years later the linguists, with their veins standing out in their foreheads like twigs, would debate over her and prove that the two words come from the root Madeek which is of African origin. Then the biologists would object that a tree that grows in cold climates would not grow in Africa.

Mahdokht banged her head on the wall again and again until she broke into tears. Between sobs she thought that this year she would definitely take a trip to Africa. She would go to Africa so that she could grow. She wanted to be a tree in a warm climate. She wanted to, and it is always desire that drives one to madness.

© 1989 by Shahrnush Parsipur. English translation © 1998 by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet

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Comment by Anahita New on February 3, 2011 at 10:42pm
Fantastic. Thank you for this!!
Comment by Padmavani Karkera on January 30, 2011 at 8:20am

All power to the voices of thousands of women writers all over the world. And with this, She Writes has in the truest sense of the word become global. Thank you!


Comment by Joyce Evans-Campbell on January 29, 2011 at 5:34pm
Great connection. We need this awareness and this new knowledge. Thanks.
Comment by Amalia Gladhart on January 26, 2011 at 10:15pm
Thank you for introducing me to this writer, whose work I don't know (but will now read) and for beginning this column. I look forward to more!
Comment by Deborah Batterman on January 26, 2011 at 2:42pm
What a wonderful idea for a column, and an equally powerful jump-start!  Can't wait to read more of Shahrnush Parsipur's work.
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on January 26, 2011 at 12:04pm
I have chills, I am SO grateful to Heather and Jean for contributing to this column to She Writes.  Just ordered Touba and the Meaning of Night and Women Without Men.  THANK YOU.


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