Iranian author Sahar Delijani created ripples in the literary circuit with her debut novel, Children Of The Jacaranda Tree, about the untold stories of the Iranian Revolution. Born in Tehran’s Evin prison, Sahar’s conversations with her mother found their way into a poignant tale of despair and hope. By Jayeeta Mazumder
The first chapter in Sahar Delijani’s much talkedabout debut book, Children Of The Jacaranda Tree,
is the hardestto get through. You feel the sharp stabs of pain as Azar twitches in agony—the first time when her water breaks in the back of a prison van, and then later when her little girl is taken away from her. Azar’s anguish is drawn from Sahar’s mother’s experience and, on many levels, the untold stories of several prisoners who were a part of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. While it resulted in the downfall of the Shah’s regime, the coup turned out to be a miserable failure. The regime carried out gruesome mass executions of political prisoners in 1988. Sahar, who was born in Tehran’s Evin prison in 1983, documents some of the most heartrending moments in literature in this book. She weaves in personal stories of loss and pain, mainly about the imprisonment of her parents and the death of her uncle and thousands of revolutionaries. Her novel has been published in 75 countries, translated into 27 languages and has earned her praise from author Khaled Hosseini, who described the book as a “poignant tribute to those who bearthe scars of it (the tyrannical regime).” The author, who grew up in California and moved to Italy, felt the need to tell the world her story—about the secrets of post-revolutionary Iran—and it’s a story of hope and despair that stemmed from a longing for freedom. Edited excerpts from
an interview with Sahar.
What triggered the urge to tell the world your story?
I had the story in me for a long time. I just needed to prepare myself as a writer before telling it. Sometimes we have the stories but we are not ready yet, or we don’t yet have the skills or the courage to tell them. In the end, it all started with a short story about a bracelet of date stones my father had made for me while he was in prison. I saw the bracelet by chance again when I had gone back to the US to visit my family. I asked him to tell me what the story behind it was. That’s how it started.
What did you keep in mind when you were sketching Azar’s character in your novel?
Of course I knew that I was writing a story based on my mother’s experience. But at the same time I had to keep in mind that once the story started being written, the character would begin to claim its own independence and I have to give it air and space to breathe and take shape. I had to keep in mind that this is not my mother but a character based on my mother, and so I had to keep my distance as a writer. But that was difficult. There were times that it was just too painful to go on. You left Iran when you were young.
Did that give you more objectivity as a writer?
I don’t know about objectivity. But one thing that is certain is that I write better about places when I am not there. It is easier for me to convey places as memories. May be because I’ve moved around so much in my life that I trust my memories more than what I see on a daily basis. And I wanted to give life to the Iran I knew, the Iran I remembered and loved. At a certain point, Iran became quite personal.
Do you think you would have written the book if you had stayed on in Iran?
I have been asked this question a few times, and I have never had an answer for it. It is hard to imagine what we would be if certain changes in our life had not happened. The choices we would make, the fears and obsessions we would have. The only thing I know is that even if I would have written the book, it would not have been published in Iran. It would have never come into being.
When you started writing the book, did you have an audience in mind? Were you writing for your country?
I wrote the book when I did not have an agent or a publisher. So in a way I wrote it not knowing if it would ever be published or read. It was like I was writing it for myself. But authenticity was important to me. I didn’t want to write only to tell the world, but also to tell Iranians what happened and is happening in Iran. So even though I was writing in English, I remember thinking that I should tell these stories as if I was writing in Farsi, and the English words are just a translation. Keeping this thought in my mind gave me a degree of freedom and brought a genuinness that I was hoping to convey in the stories.
What was the initial reaction from the people you know in Iran?
Happiness, excitement and relief. A sense of redemption, perhaps, that their painful experiences were not forgotten.
When you are writing about a painful past, what are the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is trying to keep your distance as a writer. (To) Be emotionally involved but not too much, that the writing verges on sentimental rhetoric. It (the challenge) is in respecting the dignity and independence of the character and your loved ones.
I read of an interview that your mother had a lot of difficulty recounting those memories. As an interviewer, was it difficult for you to listen to her?
It was perhaps one of the most difficult moments of my life. Trying not to break down while she was speaking to me, because if I had she probably would not have continued.
You said that the younger generation has forgotten about the political turmoil in the ’80s. Is it because of general apathy or the result of a propagandist system that doesn’t allow one to remember Iran’s troubled history?
Hard times are not yet over in Iran. Fear, intimidation, imprisonment and repression continue to be part of the lives of Iranians. It’s not only the younger generation, but also people from my parents’ generation who do not know what happened in Iranian prisons in those years after the revolution. This is the consequence of a
despotic regime that is set to destroy any present its people seek to build for themselves.
Did you make any self-discoveries through your research?
The most important self-discovery was that I was quite angry. I was full of rage and I did not know it. I thought I could keep myself detached throughout the writing process. And yet, once I got to the last chapter, I realised
the anger in me was as alive as it was in some of my characters.
In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi talks about the changes in her life when she moved to the West. Did you also notice any transition when you moved to California at 12?
Of course, the transition was quite striking. My world in Tehran was very different from my new world in California. At school, I did feel a bit like the odd one, but I think it was more of an age and character issue. I was one of those quiet, isolated teenagers who would spend lunchtime at the school library. I did not, however, feel odd when it came to my race or nationality. My school was quite multi-racial/multicultural. We were all odd!
Would you ever consider going back to Iran?
I have always wished to experience life in Iran as an adult, and there is nothing for meas beautiful as (the thought of) going back to Iran. Unfortunately, at the moment, I am not able to go even for a visit, so we will have to see what time has in store for me.
Do you find the thought of going to Iran intimidating?
I have never received any sort of threat. The Iranian regime rarely bans anyone from going back, but the problem is when you want to leave the country. There have been many instances of writers, filmmakers, and activists who have gone back to Iran for a visit and have had their passports taken away. Some of them have been taken for questioning and others have spent weeks in prison. I do not know whether any of this would happen to me, but due to the sensitivity of the subject matter of my book, I have decided not to take the risk. This is one of the fundamental problems of dictatorships— you’re afraid and, most of the time, you don’t even know what you are afraid of.
What is your next book about?
In Children Of The Jacaranda Tree, I wrote about the aftermath of the revolution,imprisonments and executions of politicalactivists, and the impact it has. In my second book, I will be telling stories about life after prison. I will be following the lives of some of the characters from my first book, from prison to freedom.