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
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
"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,
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
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
Farrokhzad tried hard to define for herself a new life as a woman
and ended up paying dearly for her attempt.