A Conversation with Ghanoonparvar

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Perhaps no one has been more responsible for introducing modern Persian prose to Americans than Mohammad Ghanoonparvar. Everyone who teaches modern Persian literature or reads Persian novels in English translation is indebted to his work as a translator, scholar, and teacher.

Dr. Ghanoonparvar, affectionately known as Moh, is also an exceptionally supportive and generous mentor. When I was teaching my first course in modern Iranian literature, I asked him for suggestions and he not only shared his syllabi, but also sent me one of his books, which was unavailable.

Ghanoonparvar and his students have produced a significant portion of modern Persian literature in English. His own translations have won awards, such as the Lois Roth Prize for Literary Translation, and include seminal works like By the Pen (Jalal Al-e Ahmad), The Patient Stone (Sadeq Chubak), and Savushun (Simin Daneshvar). In addition, he has translated important essays and writings, such as the letters of Nima Yushij, as well as plays by Gholamhoseyn Sa’edi.

His critical works include Prophets of Doom: Literature as a Socio-Political Phenomenon in Modern Iran (1984), In a Persian Mirror: Images of the West and Westerners in Iranian Fiction (1993), Translating the Garden (2001), and Reading Chubak (2005). He has collaborated on a number of anthologies and has even written a Persian cookbook.

Ghanoonparvar recently retired from the University of Texas at Austin and is now Professor Emeritus. In celebration of his long service to Iranian literature, I took this opportunity to ask him some questions.

Sample Covers from his Prose Translations

Sample covers from his prose translations

Q: Why should Americans read Persian novels? I am especially interested in the reading of the works as great literature and not as a way of understanding “the enemy” or the exotic Other. Can we consider writers like Sadegh Hedayat, Houshang Golshiri, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Shahrnush Parsipur, and Simin Daneshvar in the same way as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison?

A: Good works of literature, as well as other arts, belong to everyone regardless of nationality. It is true that many readers read novels from other countries as a way or a window to other foreign, sometimes to them strange and exotic, cultures; but since good novels, in addition to being about people from a specific culture, more importantly are about human beings, people all around the world, not only Americans, should be able to enjoy them.

Obviously, the reason or reasons that Persian novels do not have as wide a readership as American novels has little to do with quality. I think the modern Persian novel has now reached maturity within merely a century, and in terms of aesthetic quality, the Persian writers that you mention stand shoulder to shoulder with prominent writers in other parts of the world.


Q: What Persian novels or collection of short stories should Americans read, and why? Unlike Iranian-American writers, Iranian writers are not writing with an American audience in mind, and their works may not be properly contextualized for the American reader. Moreover, based on my teaching, I wonder if reading some of the modern authors, like Hedayat or Sadeq Chubak, with their difficult texts and harsh critique of Iranian society, reinforces the American reader’s prejudices.

A: I think the works of the writers that you mentioned as well as others can be included on the list. Among the works available in English, Daneshvar’s Savushun, Esma’il Fasih’s Sorraya in a Coma, Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch, and Jaafar Modarres-Sadeghi’s Horse’s Head are basically traditional narratives that appeal to general readers and also convey the trials and tribulations and joys and sorrows of people and communities you can find everywhere, on every continent. These works can be classified as “readerly,” to borrow Roland Barthes’ terminology.

Works such as Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, Chubak’s The Patient Stone, Golshiri’s Prince Ehtejab, and Parsipur’s Women Without Men are experimental, or in Barthes’ terms, “writerly.” These works appeal to smaller audiences who, rather than wanting to be entertained, want to be challenged and to participate in the production of meaning. In fact, once it is institutionalized in any national literature, this type of fiction usually helps in the advancement of narrative technique and other aspects of fiction writing. The works of writers such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce are such examples of the English novel, and those of Hedayat, Chubak, Golshiri, Ravanipur, and Parsipur are examples in Persian fiction.

Regarding the question of whether or not such writing “reinforces the American reader’s prejudices,” that should not be a concern, and generally is not a concern for a true literary artist. Self-criticism (if we regard these works as such) does not necessarily reinforce negative notions about oneself. All literature in some way is a critique of societies by their writers. People who live in democracies, including American readers, are too sophisticated to use a literary work as evidence against the society that produced it.


Q: I have a number of novels that I wish were translated, like Ghazaleh Alizadeh’s The House of the Edrisis, so I can give them to others or teach them. What great Iranian novels are there that you wish you had time to translate or hope someone will translate? And Why?

A: I agree with you about Alizadeh’s The House of the Edrisis. It is a novel that I recommended to one of my doctoral students to translate a long time ago, because I knew that she was capable of it, but unfortunately, due to unforeseen events, she could not complete it. Among many works that I wish someone would translate are Dowlatabadi’s Kelidar and Golshiri’s Jennameh.

Despite all the negative criticism of both novels, I consider Kelidar to be a masterful narrative and an epic work. This is a great “readerly” work. The prose resonates like music when you read it out loud, and by the way, like the Shahnameh, it should be read out loud. Try the first couple of pages and you will agree.

I consider Golshiri’s Jennameh to be the greatest accomplishment among Persian novels to date. I have described it in an article as the Persian Ulysses. Like Joyce’s work, it mainly happens in one city, and it captures the spirit of a culture and its components, the dilemma of a people at a given moment in history, but also their entire history.


Q: If you feel comfortable talking about Arabic literature, can you compare Persian and Arabic modern prose? Are they similarly responding to colonialism, modernization, urbanization, nationalism, Islamic heritage, etc? Or are there significant differences? For example, I find it interesting that the most influential Arabic writer is Naguib Mahfouz, who is known especially for his elegant writing and realistic novels, whereas in Persian literature we have Hedayat who is known for his experimentation and dark works.

A: Literary comparative studies of modern Persian and Arabic literatures seem to be a topic to which little attention is paid, both in Iran and in the Arab world. In American universities, because these literatures are usually housed in Middle Eastern departments, some attention has been paid to this, although not enough.

With regard to comparing the development of modern Persian and Arabic literatures, there are similarities. Modernist writers in both literatures had to battle against the traditional forces, and both were able to create changes. But thematically, they are different. While the social and political themes of Arabic literature are often direct responses to colonialism, in Persian literature, such responses are indirect. In other words, the two main demons against which Persian writers fought were the dictatorial regime and religious superstition.

Another difference between the two literatures is that while Arab fiction writers have paid more attention to language and prose style, mainstream Persian writers have been more interested in experimentation and novelistic aspects, such as structure, narrative voice, point of view and so on. This does not mean that the Arab writers have not been experimental or that the Persian writers have totally disregarded language-related aspects. All of these differences also stem from the fact that many Arab societies were exposed more directly to European languages and literatures as a result of colonial rule, while the exposure of Iranian writers to Western literature was mainly through a relatively small number of those who went to Europe for education, as well as translations of Western literatures.


Cover of Prophets of Doom

Q: In Prophets of Doom, you do an astute review of Iranian committed literature and discuss how the writers felt an imperative to be politically engaged and to be “social prophets … who warn and try to guide the people” (xii). The book however was written only a few years after the Islamic revolution so it didn’t discuss the post-revolution period. I was hoping you could talk about the role of committed literature in post-revolution. For example, I am thinking of the fact that the committed writers of the pre-revolution were mainly writing against the government and monarchy while the Islamic government has actually been promoting political writing as the Literature of Sacred Defense. This prescribed writing of course impacts your role as a writer, what you may write, and how your work is considered.

A: In fact, I have been somewhat preoccupied with the topic of “literary commitment” and have written about it (see for instance, “Post-Revolutionary Trends in Persian Fiction and Film,” Radical History Review, No. 105 (Fall 2009):156-162. Briefly, the situation has changed, but in some respects, it has remained the same.

I would not consider the writers of the so-called Literature of Sacred Defense as committed writers in the sense that the phrase was understood prior to the revolution. These writers, many of whom are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, can generally be divided into two groups: the ones who have remained faithful to the idea of keeping the memory of the “sacred defense” and the “martyrs” alive in their work, such as Habib Ahmadzadeh, and those who have gradually changed their views and whose work can be described as anti-war, such as Ahmad Dehqan and Mohammad Reza Bayrami.

Regarding literary commitment in the pre-revolution sense, one story that was published soon after the revolution is Golshiri’s “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi.” Other works of this nature are those that are disguised in the form of such genres as magic realism, which I regard to be political, for instance, Parsipur’s Women without Men, Modarres-Sadeqi’s The Marsh and Appointment in Aleppo, and short stories such as those in the translation collection by Mehdi Khorrami and Shouleh Vatanabadi (A Feast in the Mirror: Stories by Contemporary Iranian Women), among others. Although these stories might not be regarded as political to many readers, they are political in the sense that they are meant to challenge the foundations of a theocracy and its religious morality.

Let me also add that in societies with strict censorship, all literature is prescribed in one way or another. Writers who support the rulers obey what is dictated to them, and those who do not, engage in self-censorship.


Q: What role do Iranian-American authors writing in English play in Iranian literature? Should they be seen as American writers or Iranian writers, or both? Do you think they are in a dialogue with Iranian writers?

A: For many years, I taught courses on Iranian-American writers, and together with my students, who were often Iranian Americans, we discussed these and similar questions. My short answer to the question of whether such writing should be considered a part of American or Iranian literature is that since the language is English, we should categorize them as American. But, of course, the question is far more complex.

First, with the exception of Taghi Modarresi and Bahman Sholevar, who immigrated to the United States decades before the Islamic Revolution, I cannot think of any other prominent first-generation writer who writes in English. Modarresi’s work can be considered a part of Persian literature, since he wrote his novels in Persian and later translated them into English. Other older first-generation writers, such as Majid Amini and Manoucher Parvin, wrote in English, although often their stories are about or are related to their country of birth, similar to those of most immigrant writers.

I think that the younger, usually second-generation, writers whose first language is English, and many of whom are barely fluent in Persian, should be regarded as American writers, again, similar to other second-generation writers whose parents immigrated to this country. About this group having a dialogue with Iranian writers, naturally, the aspects of culture and history that the two groups share would facilitate such dialogue; but it depends on the interests and efforts of individual writers.


Cover of In a Persian Mirror

Q: In your book In a Persian Mirror, you go through a number of major Iranian works, identifying how they present the West and Westerners. How do you see the Iranian-American writers from this perspective? How do they represent Iranians and the West and how is it different from the writing that is coming from Iran?

A: Many of the writers whose work I discuss in that book did not have first-hand knowledge of Western societies and cultures, and hence, they often fictionally construct their own West, as it were. The case of the Iranian-American writers is obviously different. And their concerns and interests are also different.

Their “identity” is one of the major themes in the works of these writers; and in dealing with this theme, they also provide us with images of America and Americans from their own perspective as individuals who have grown up in homes and families who still are trying to hold on to their old country values and culture, and at the same time, they have been raised in a society with a different, often conflicting, set of values and culture. The America, for instance, that the Iranian writers portray is an alien place that does not belong to them and they do not belong to it; but the America that the Iranian-American writers present to the reader is a place that belongs to them and to which they belong.
Cover of Translating Garden
Q: In Translating the Garden, you painstakingly record the process of your decision-making while translating Shahrokh Meskub’s text. You also compare translating to compulsive gambling that one does for the love of the process (121). Can you talk a little about some of the highlights of this process? Could you give some examples of the challenges that translating Persian produces? And maybe ways they can be addressed?

A: I think responding to this question would require many hours, and I am sure would be beyond the patience of your readers. As native speakers of any language, we are often not conscious of the layers of meaning in the simplest phrases. It is when we translate even a simple phrase into another language that we realize that we have merely transmitted one layer, even if accurately.

A helpful analogy regarding what a translator does is that he is like an artisan who tries to make a replica of a bronze statue in plaster or some other material. No matter how skillfully the artisan executes his or her task, and no matter how well he or she succeeds in making the replica resemble the original bronze statue, the handiwork of the artisan is merely a reproduction in plaster and not the original bronze. If the artisan, or in our case the translator, fails to accurately duplicate and represent the original, what he or she has produced, in other words, his or her translation, is merely a failed attempt.

In contrast, if the replica or the translation is better than the original, it cannot be called a replica, or a translation. Some translators are tempted to tamper with various aspects and features of a literary work to supposedly “improve” it and provide a “more artistic” translation than the original. This is precisely the pitfall and the point at which the translators depart from their role and function, in other words, the rendition of a specific work into another language.

Keeping a balance between providing a good translation and taming the translator’s artistic ego is often the most difficult task. In addition, translating literary works, which are full of cultural nuances, requires the translator to initially internalize the work in the original language within its own cultural context, and then try to recreate a replication of the work in the target language in a different, and usually incompatible, cultural and linguistic context that is often an alien environment for that literary text. In this process, various factors such as the possible multiple interpretations of the text, careless reading or misreading of the original, culture-specific ideas and notions, lack of equivalent terminology in the target language, and so on can result in either the success or the failure of the translation. Giving you an example would require contextualizing it and is, as I mentioned, beyond the scope of our conversation.


Q: While the 1979 revolution, the hostage crisis, 9/11, and the nuclear debate seem to have sparked the interest of the American readers and resulted in the publication of many books on Iran, these events also have influenced what gets translated? Is Iranian literature in English a beneficiary of the political condition of the past few decades or is the condition limiting what books are being translated and how they are read? For example, of the eight or nine anthologies of Iranian short stories, five are dedicated to Iranian women writers. What do you think of this political influence?

A: I am not sure at all if those events are directly responsible for the number of anthologies devoted to women writers. I think more directly related to this phenomenon is the focusing of the attention of American and other academics on women’s issues in general in recent decades. Of course, we should also remember that in post-revolutionary Iran, among the best-known writers, the number of women writers has increased significantly for various social and economic reasons.

About the first part of the question, my experience has been that these events have actually had a negative effect on the field of Persian literature studies. Subsequently, with regard to works chosen for translation, attention was drawn to those with little literary value, while prior to these events, translators chose works that they considered as having literary merit. Fortunately, in the past decade or so, some academic translators have refocused their attention on more artistically meritorious works, such as those translated by Khorrami and others.


Q: You have taught Iranian literature for many years. How has the field of Iranian studies in America changed in the past few decades, especially in regards to the study of literature? Besides having more financial support, what areas of improvement do you want to see? What suggestions do you have for those who want to study or teach Persian literature?

A: Prior to the Islamic revolution, the field of modern Persian literature began to be taken seriously by some of the major universities, sometimes benefitting from a few already-established programs in classical Persian literature. For a couple of decades, despite the negative image of Iran, new programs were established that nearly always included not only Persian language but also literature.

Unfortunately, however, in recent years, universities have decided to operate like businesses, and many have terminated national literature departments, even in such important fields as Slavic, French, and German. A few years ago, I was advised by my university that I should avoid using the term “literature” in the title of my courses, and the reason for this was that students steer clear of a course that has this word in its title. The fact is that even though nowadays the number programs that offer Middle Eastern languages has increased, unfortunately, the teaching of these languages seems to be for utilitarian rather than academic and cultural reasons.

My suggestion to those who want to study modern Persian literature is to do it through comparative literature programs. I think this will help make Persian literature become a part of the mainstream literary studies in this country. This already has been happening with regard to Arabic literature because of the number and size of the programs, and I think it should be the mission of the next generation of Persian literary scholars to make this happen for Persian.


Q: You have been studying the influence of cinema on literature. I have watched a talk you gave at University of Arizona and found it very interesting. Can you talk more about your findings and the book in progress?

A: My main focus in this study is to investigate the reciprocal relationship in the art of storytelling between Iranian cinema and Persian fiction, as well as the narrative strategies employed by a select number of influential modern Persian fiction writers and filmmakers. In the first two chapters, I provide historical and theoretical backgrounds to the two media of storytelling, film and fiction.

In another chapter, “Fiction in Film,” I examine the movie adaptations of literary works and show how early (and to some extent later) filmmakers struggled with adapting the written word for pictorial presentation. “Film in Fiction” is another chapter, in which I trace the influence of cinematic narrative on written fiction, especially since the second half of the 20th century.

In the subsequent two chapters, I examine a relatively large number of novels and films about the Iran-Iraq War to show how the strategies of fiction writers and filmmakers overlap in many respects in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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