Bus Drivers and Fire Walkers: A Conversation between Niloufar Talebi and Amir Ahmadi Arian

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Niloufar Talebi (NT): Yunus the Tehran bus driver, the protagonist in your Then the Fish Swallowed Him, is as memorable a character as any in canonical fiction: Maugham’s Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis.

Amir Ahmadi Arian (AHA): I’m very flattered. It’s funny you say that, because quite a few editors in the US rejected this novel, and most of them pointed to the protagonist as the problem. I thought a lot about it later and have concluded that my protagonist is a very non-American one. He is frustratingly passive. Things just happen to him, and he follows along or falls victim without putting up a fight. Also, because of what he has gone through in life, he is emotionally dead inside. When you think back on canonical American novels, characters like Ahab and Huckleberry Finn and Isabel Archer and Joe Christmas, they are all passionate and active and involved in every situation through the story. They have a goal, and they seem determined to fulfill it at any cost.  Yunus has a European pedigree, most notably Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger.

In expressing interest in Yunus, also by examples mentioned in your question, you just outed yourself as someone who didn’t grow up in America, which is, in fact, partially the subject of the first chapters of your book, Self-Portrait in Bloom. Tell me about your reading life growing up. Did you experience shock as a reader after you migrated to the US? 

NT: Ha! You are right in that I read a lot of European literature when I was a youngster in Iran. But I also read Russian, and American literature, including almost all of Hemingway, Emma Goldman (yes, the anarchist), Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, for example. I even played Tom Sawyer in a 5th-grade school play in Iran. And I came to the US when I was 10, then returned when I was 15. So, I had been exposed to American literature my entire life, but your Yunus’ inner life and the train wreck of his life lighted up my European references. By the way, I had mentioned Meursault in my initial comment but decided to keep the analogues down to three.

I don’t recall a moment of literary shock upon my move to the US. Rather, as I write in my book, my discomfort came from the encounter with southern California mainstream culture—quarterbacks, cheerleaders, surfers, wearing flip flops in public, the generally lax attitude. I went on to study Comparative Literature around Jacque Derrida, another European milieu, concentrating on European Modernism. But America, the Empire, has always been a part of my psyche. Hasn’t it been yours? We all watched Sesame Street and second- and third-rate American TV shows for export on Iranian TV before the revolution. How did you fare after moving here? (When did you migrate?) When did you read American literature? In which language(s)?

AHA: I moved to America in 2016, having spent four years in Australia. The US is a peculiar country, in that it is all about outward projection. Other cultures usually preserve something only “their people,” whatever that means, are privy to. They have something they protect, in some cases obsessively, often to their detriment. But the US, as far as I have seen, doesn’t really have that. It’s wide open for anyone out there to observe and dissect. That quality has helped it expand its cultural empire. Wherever you go around the world, people are watching American TV and Hollywood movies, reading American novels, talking about American politics, which is now the biggest reality show on the planet. No other country enjoys this attention outside its borders. American culture even permeated my relatively isolated and desolate childhood in Ahvaz, south of Iran. When the sky was clear, our rooftop TV antenna picked up the Kuwait TV. They frequently showed American sitcoms. The actors spoke in English, and the subtitle was in Arabic, neither of which I spoke at the time. Still, there was a lightness to those shows, a painstakingly constructed display of happiness, that kept me transfixed all along. Later on, I fell in love with Mark Twain and read everything available in Persian translation, which was quite a bit. The usual suspects followed: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner. But two American novels possessed me as a teenager: Pearl Buck’s Good Earth and Alex Haley’s Roots. I haven’t read them in more than 20 years. I should reread them to understand why they struck such a deep chord.

NT: I recently read The Good Earth and the first 80 pages of Roots! I love generational sagas. 

You dissected the factional politics within the Iranian regime, something most readers are unaware of. How much did you (feel you had to) contextualize recent Iranian history, the backdrop of the novel, for non-Iranian readers? 

AHA: I tried to avoid that. When you write in English about a country like Iran, which is so widely discussed and so little known in the West, people deliberately or subconsciously read your work through an anthropological lens. Instead of reading your novel as a work of art, they seek information about how people in Iran live. I tried to dim that lens by giving as little context as possible, but I ended up putting in more than I thought I would.  

NT: Sometimes, I feel that we hyphenated writers are expected to “speak for our people,” to explain things. I spend most of my energies educating and developing audiences for my “culturally-rooted” (what isn’t?) projects. So explaining, contextualizing, situating, familiarizing is essentially my metier. Sometimes, I wonder why I insist on creating projects that build on Iranian cultural references so little known here. It would be the path of least resistance to base my work on known Western identifiers. (I’ve found the solution in connecting the commonalities of the two in order to tap into familiar references on both sides.) In the years I was developing my book, Self-Portrait in Bloom and its operatic companion Abraham in Flames—both projects that are inspired by the great Iranian poet and cultural figure, Ahmad Shamlou—I did dozens of cultivation events, lectures, house talks, and concerts, salons, articles, interviews, newsletters, and more to introduce the poet and his legacy toward creating a new audience base for my projects, one person at a time, it seemed. In the end, the opera, mind you, a deliberately self-commissioned and produced opera (because the opera world is insular and white), inspired by a cultural figure from Iran who is virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences, was sold out and favorably reviewed, but, if I’m honest, though I know this is an effort for posterity, I secretly wish I did not have to do all that leg work.

AHA: That’s impressive. I hear you on the extra leg work and spoon-feeding people with context. I used to be frustrated with that too, but I have come to terms with it. There are many countries in the world I know nothing about, and if you give me a book or show me a piece of performance art from those places, I might need a good deal of context to be able to appreciate them. There is no reason for me to think other people should know more about Iran than I do about eighty percent of the world.  

NT: Yes, cultural context helps with appreciating things on a deeper level. It’s like paratext, which I sometimes love more than the primary text.  

Yunus’ relationships with the women in his life are complex, unrealized (to their full potential), and unfulfilling. How did you conceive of these non-stereotypical women? Your novel un-pedantically breaks many of the stereotypes Westerners have of Iranians.

AHA: I’m very glad you thought that. This is a very masculine book, with Yunus and the interrogator taking up almost the entire narrative space. I had left myself not much room for female characters, and I was nervous about developing Homa and Yunus’ mother. I am relieved that at least one reader thinks they work.  

NT: I stumbled upon a transformative shift about four years ago when I began reading nearly only women authors, after which I realized that I had internalized the distorted reflection of me—as a woman—in the male canon. Now, the male protagonist has, by and large, stopped mattering to me. You remember my chapter on reckoning with The Master and Margarita in my book, right?

You say this is a very masculine book. But I didn’t experience it as such. Yunus’ predicament captured me, regardless of his gender. And even as you say you had little space to devote to the women, they did not seem diminished, but rather elements that revealed Yunus’ unfortunate un-blossoming, his unrealized life. In fact, Homa seemed to be very much in control of her life, picking Yunus to fulfill her own agenda. 

You write beautifully in English. How did you make the transition between writing in the Persian language to writing your first literary book in English? 

AHA: With a lot of difficulties. I am lucky that I learned English as a child and could read and understand it fairly well early on, but writing novels is a whole different story. I worked hard on my English for a long time before writing fiction with the intention of publication. It took me about two to three years to make that transition, and before that, a couple of years to simply make up my mind about it. So I spent about five years of my thirties, which is some of your best years as a writer since you are both young and mature, transitioning from writing in Persian to writing in English. I wrote thousands of pages and threw them away, spent long hours polishing and finessing my sentences, reading English poetry out-loud to internalize the rhythm and develop what I call the third ear, the ability to hear the silent music of the written word. I did it only because continuing life as a writer in Iran had become impossible, mainly due to censorship and political pressure. I love my mother tongue, and I was perfectly happy writing in it, so abandoning it as my writing language was an excruciating process. It felt like self-amputation. It’s a long and complicated story. I should write about those five years at some point. 

How about you? Tell me about your linguistic transition. We live in a world where millions of people grow up in one language and live and work in another, yet the stories of migrations across languages are rarely told.

NT: Yes, that linguistic migration usually comes with a huge sense of loss. I was born in London, so I started speaking English right away, and in a sense, grew up bilingual. My language education was supplemented by weekly lessons with my wonderful tutor in Iran, Mr. Rajan, whom you read about in my book. In school in Tehran, I was always called upon to recite English language poems, and I even played Tom Sawyer in my school play in English. But my English was not what it is today when I migrated to the US during my high school years. When I was in college, I considered being a writer in Persian, but knew deep down that English was always the language in which I was going to be a writer. And being a translator is a gift that allows me to indulge and engage in sweet Persian without writing in it. As a multicultural person, you know that our whole selves are an amalgam of our multiple selves and languages. Our native metaphors, images, and expressions find their way into our creations targeted for the West, if not act directly as their source. This is what I call cultural translation.

As a cultural translator, bridge-maker, and someone who studies and writes about Ahmad Shamlou, a master connector of Western and Eastern canons, I appreciated the clever bridge your Biblical metaphor of Jonas (Yunus in Persian) and the Whale made for your Western readers.

AHA: I never thought of that story as a Western or even a Biblical one. A detailed version of the story of Yunus and the whale is in the Quran. That is where I read it the first time. Then I read a stunning rendition of it in Nayshaburi’s Qasas ul Anbia (Stories of Prophets), which is a medieval Persian text that collects stories of prophets from the Quran and rewrites them in superb prose. For many years I didn’t even know there is a version of it in the Bible. I think it’s just a great story, like almost all stories of prophets, and a perfect metaphor for solitary confinement. 

NT: I meant, Abrahamic metaphor, which would include the Quran…

AHA: Speaking of structure, reading your book, Self-Portrait in Bloom, I wonder why you chose the hybrid form. I am not quite sure what to call your book. I hesitate to call it a memoir. It reminds me of the title Aleksander Hemon chose for his book of personal essays: The Book of My Lives. This is the book of your lives, with emphasis on the plural. The untold premise of the book is that the pieces of your life, from growing up in Iran and all the years you spent reading and analyzing Shamlou and your career in performing arts, cannot be coalesced into one seamless whole. But writing such a book is a tall order. It is a formidable structure to pull off. 

NT: The hybrid chose me. Perhaps precisely because there was so much to cover, and because, like Hemon—whose Nowhere Man was an influence on me—I have an aversion to memoir and to depicting myself as a personage. I harbor an even greater aversion to declaring my “identity” or to defining or justifying myself, so writing a “conventional” memoir (if it does the above-mentioned) is antithetical to my core beliefs. Hence my un-categorizable book that readers say sits at the intersection of autobiography, biography, lyric essay, cultural meditation, literature of witness, translation studies, experimental writing, and photo essay.

Finding the structure of Self-Portrait in Bloom was an arduous task. The structure didn’t reveal itself to me until only a few months before the manuscript was due. It felt that I had been gathering pieces for it, composing it, and preparing for it for many years, since college. I read through dozens of handwritten journals, piles of notes, very old writings, letters I had sent friends who then called my voicemail and read them back to me (because they could not scan and email them, which I then had to transcribe—so very 20th century!), as well as the writings I had started while getting my MFA at Bennington, and the new work I was generating, particularly the challenging chapters in the end about the silencing. I did all this to decide which of the thousands of elements could connect by a through-line to end up in this book. And because this book was as much about Ahmad Shamlou as about me, I knew I was splitting the focus, building two parallel characters. So I was gathering and eliminating at the same time for a few years, and very intensely in the last year while also translating Shamlou’s poems for the book, widening and cross-checking the ongoing research on Shamlou, and producing and presenting Abraham in Flames opera. I see the book and the opera as one project, each a different and complementary expression of the theme of walking through fire for what you must do, of blossoming out of a crucible. 

This is very different than how Yunus lived his life. He had no such convictions. He fell into a raging river and, in the end, was made inert by its torrent. 

AHA: He is remarkably passive, as I already mentioned. Sometimes to an annoying degree. To go back to the start of our conversation, I said that it must have been the result of reading too much French literature as a youngster. But there is another side to it. If you don’t know Iranian politics and the stories of Evin prison, it is hard to believe that there is no exaggeration in the book, that an absolute nobody can fall into the vortex of Iranian politics like that. In the West, you choose to be political, and that choice has near-zero consequences. In Iran, sometimes only by mere association, you get dragged into the belly of the beast and stay in jail for years. So the raging river is a very apt metaphor. 

NT: And where would we be without metaphors?