The Perils of Writing | An Autobiographical Voice | Recollections and Afterthoughts |The Authenticity of Forugh Farrokhzad


THE PERILS OF WRITING - F a r z a n e h M I L A N I

It is not surprising that given the social and symbolic constraints on women's self-expression, exceptionally few women could or perhaps even wanted to opt for breaking this ancestral silence. Our glorious classical heritage yields not numerous successful women writers. Even those few who, against all odds. Managed to nurture their creativity were denied any readership. Layla, the cherished beloved of classical literature, was an accomplished. According to the twelfth-century poet Nezami Ganjavi, "now Layla was not only a picture of gracefulness, but also full of wisdom and well versed in poetry. She, herself, a pearl unpierced, pierced the pearls of words, threading them together in brilliant chains of poems." Yet, these brilliant chains of poems were delivered to the wind, which remained Layla's sole privileged audience. "Secretly she collected Majnun's songsÉ. Committed them to memory and then composed her answers on scraps of paper which she entrusted to the wind." If Majun's poems could be collected and committed to memory, no such destiny awaited Layla's poems. Neither Majnum nor anyone else for that matter ever saw the "body" of her writing. Composed and written on little scraps of paper, her poems reached no one. They became dust in the wind.
Deporting the imposed silence foisted upon her, Layla lamented the many restrictions placed upon her verbal expressiveness. "He is a man, I am a womanÉ He can talk and cry and express the deepest feelings in his poems. But I? I am a prisoner. I have no one to whom I can talk, no one to whom I can open my heart: shame and dishonor would be my fate." Centuries and many suppressed voices later, the contemporary poet Forugh Farrokhzad could reiterate the same grievance. "I say that I too have the right to breathe and to cry out. But others wanted to stifle and silence my screams on my lips and my breath in my lungs. They had chosen winning weapons, and I was unable to laugh anymore. Or again, in a poem from the Rebellion collection, Farrokhzad writes:

It was I who laughed at futile slurs,
The one that was branded by shame
I shall be what I 'm called to be, I said
But, oh, the misery that "woman" is my name.

Both the fictive character, Layla, and the poet, Farrokhzad, talk of Sharm as an obstacle to their public expressivity; they talk of the Sharm that accompanies their voice heard in public, the shame of transgressing feminine proprieties.
For artistic talent to blossom, certain conditions are required. Iranian women lacked the two essential conditions for creativity that Virginia Woolf insisted on: a room of one's own and five hundred pounds a year.
An overview of the lives of the better-known contemporary Iranian women writers indicates that the choice of literature as one's vocation is one that requires a drastic shifting of priorities and, ultimately, of one's entire way of life. So far, social conditions and expectations have made it difficult for women, especially women with family and children, fully to develop artistic gifts. Tahereh Qorratol'Ayn abandoned her husband and her three children. Parvin E'tessami remained married for only a few months. Taj-os Saltaneh "was unhappy in her married life, which soon ended in divorce. She then had to face many difficulties and anxieties. Her daughters were taken away from her to live with their father's next wife. Simin Daneshvar didn't have a child. Mahshid Amirshahi, Goli Tarraqi, and Shahrnush Parsiur are divorced. Tahereh Saffarzadeh, now remarried, was divorced for many years. Farrokhzad, after a short married life, lost forever the custody of her only son. 
Virginia Woolf confessed she had to kill the "angel in the house" that ideal Victorian Lady who was immensely "sympathetic", "charming", "unselfish", who "excelled in the difficult arts of family life", who " sacrificed herself daily". She had to kill her in self-defense and in order to save the writer within her, or else the "angel" would have killed her and "plucked the heart out for her writing". Art demands constant toil, incessant work, and undistracted time. "Until you reach your liberated and free self, isolated from the constricting selves of others," said Farrokhzad, "you will not accomplish anythingÉ. Art is strongest love. It avails itself only to those who thoroughly surrender their whole existence to it. 
In "Captive" Farrokhzad explores the nature and the magnitude of the problems she faces as a woman and a poet. If she denies her poetic impulses, she is not living up to her own standards and ideals. If she pursues her poetic career, she is not living up to the traditional female roles. Within herself between the poet who defines herself in her vocation and the traditional woman who defines herself only through her relationships with others, especially her husband and her son. 

Every morning from behind the bars
My child's eyes smile at me
As I begin happily to sing
His kissing lips near mine.

O God! If I need to fly out one day
From behind these lonesome bars
How will I answer this child's crying eyes?
Let me be, a captive bird am I!

Slowly and painfully, the devoted artist triumphs. The poet resolves the duality of commitments and decides to pursue a poetic career. Neither doubts, nor fears, nor ingrained beliefs in, nor nostalgia for the comforts of dependent femininity stop her from making poetry her vocation. In one of the last poems of Captive, Farrokhzad explicitly acknowledges her determination fully to dedicate her life to poetry:

I know happiness has been driven
From that distant house
I know a weeping child mourns
His mother's loss.

Yet, fatigued and despaired
I set off on a road of hope,
Poetry is my love, my lover
I leave here to go to it.

The high price she had paid to tend her poetic impulses occupies the foreground of Farrokhzad's poetry and agonize her to her last days. The poem "Green Delusion" is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent statements of the sacrifices she had to make for her art. It is an intense and agitated poem, an excruciating evocation of a woman who knows only too well that the price she has paid for her success has been her most valuable emotional bond. It is the tormented cry of a woman who, despite passionate involvement with her profession and despite the recognition accorded her writing, is still left with a barren feeling. It is the embodiment of a yearning for the life of all "simple whole women" whose singleness of commitment saves them from the agony of ambivalence, guilt, or loneliness. It is the agonized expression of failed femininity, linked to home and mothering. The poem is striking enough to warrant quoting in full.
"Green Delusion" is a window thrown open to spring but also to the miseries of a woman poet. Although a hymn to motherhood, to woman's body as a source of nurturance and creativity, the whole poem resounds with frightful contradictions and contrast: an inner autumnal melancholy against an outer regenerative spring, forces of song against silence, gestation against 
decay, success against failure. Here, in this mirror, a poet's long-cherished dreams are slain by facts. Here, in this jungle of regrets and retributions, a woman has to surrender to shattered ideals. Silent and listless, she has to awaken to the bitter reality of her betrayed dreams, the sacrifices she has to make, the loneliness she has to face. Trapped in the cocoon of her own making, all she can do is very all day to mirror.
Not that Farrokhzad regarded maternity as the only destiny for women. She never viewed art as a liberation from the demands of motherhood or as an incomplete substitute for it. She rejected the notion that giving birth is the hidden generator of woman's creativity. She did defend, however, the rights of motherhood, childbearing, and child rearing when they are a woman's choice. 
Was Farrokhzad, the poet or the poetic personae, asking for too much? Was it because she demanded something so spectacular, so much larger than life, so inaccessible, that she needed to cry all day to her mirror, experience nervous breakdowns and attempt suicide? Apparently all she wanted and could never accomplish was the joys and comforts of family life and complete fulfillment of her talents. In contrast, in reading more than a thousand years of Persian literature, I have rarely come across men who have complained of the clash of their commitments between being a husband and a father and an artist. A man can choose marriage, fatherhood, and art. Women have not traditionally had such an option.
Farrokhzad tried hard to define for herself a new life as a woman and ended up paying dearly for her attempt.


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