AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL VOICE - M i c h a e l H I L L M A N N
In Contemporary Iran
The dearth of biographies of Iranian literary figures is startling,
especially in light of the centrality of literary biography in those
western literatures from which twentieth-century Iranian writers have
drawn inspiration. For example, despite continuing fascination on
the part of Iranian readers with the life of Sadeg Hedayat (1903-1951),
the most influential Persian prose writer since Sa'di (c.1215-c.1290),
no biography of him exists forty years after his death. The same is
true of Nima Yushij (1895-1960), the most influential poetic voice
in Iran since Hafez (c.1320-c.1390), despite the fact that hundreds
of letters and other archival materials have become available in the
three decades since his death. Neither are there biographies of the
prominent modernist poets Ahmad Shamlu (b.1925) and Mehdi Akhavan-e
Sales (b.1928), or any other living Iranian literary figure.
Responses to attempts in the 1980s at a biography of a major Iranian
literary figure intimate the culture-specific significance of the
issue of biography. The literary critic and novelist Reza Baraheni
(b.1935) reacted to a 1980 biographical sketch of himself by worrying
that its review of political issues in his life might jeopardize his
academic career, if not his political freedom. A 1986 biographical
sketch of the expatriate poet Nader Naderpour (b.1929) evoked puzzlement
on the part of an Iranian reviewer, who confessed that he had not
previously seen, and was unsure how to respond to, a candid and dispassionate
sketch of an Iranian writer's career. The poet reacted by passing
along to the biographer a friend's advice to delete everything from
the sketch except for the poet's dates of birth and current marriage.
The expatriate writer and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan (b.1922) took
issue with almost all of the biographical data in a book-length study
of his employee and mistress, the modernist poet Forugh Farrokhzad
(1934/5-1967), expressing the view that only invasion of privacy or
titillation of readers could be behind such biographical inquiry.
In any case, according to one Iranian reviewer, that study, A Lonely
Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (1987), was "the first biography
of an Iranian literary figure ever published."
Reasons for the lack of biographical writing appear to be more numerous
in the case of literary women, because of a distinction between the
terms mask and veil. While masks apply to both men and women writers,
veils (the chador coverings that Iranian Muslim women wear) are designed
exclusively for women. An Iranian writer whose voice is veiled is
either one whom society keeps from view or one who acquiesces in response
to societal pressure. The traditionalist poet Parvin E'tesami (1907-1941)
is the classic case of a woman writer raised and taught by her literary
father and encouraged by her brother and her traditionalist literary
acquaintances to remain hidden behind both domestic walls and a poetic
persona unidentifiable as female.
In 1955, Forugh Farrokhzad published the first volume of verse in
the history of Persian literature exhibiting a poetic speakers recognizable
throughout as a female. Called Asir (Captive), it was also the first
book of poetry ever published in Iran by an Iranian woman on her own.
It and Farrokhzad's four following collections of poems- Divar (The
Wall 1956), Esyan (Rebellion, 1958), Tavallodi Digar (Another Birth,
1964), and Iman biyavarim beh aghaze- fasle sard (Let Us Believe in
the Beginning of the Cold Season, 1974) remain the most discussed
books of original writing by an Iranian literary woman.
As if unprecedented publication of Captive and succeeding volumes
were not enough, Farrokhzad's own life drew much attention because
of its equally unprecedented features. In 1952, she married at the
age of seventeen out of love and a desire to escape from a stern father.
The following year, she had a son called Kamyar. Not long thereafter,
she had a brief affair with a magazine editor in Tehran. At twenty,
she sought divorce in order to have the freedom to develop as a poet
and person. Accordingly, she was obliged to give up her son to the
custody of her ex-husband's family. She later entered into relationships
with a number of men. She spoke her mind on whatever topic came up
in private or public. In mid-1958 she fell in love with Golestan,
a prominent and controversial Tehran intellectual, and spent the last
eight years of her life in a relationship with him, conducted openly
in the same circle of persons of which Golestan's wife and children
were a part. In short, from 1955 onward, Farrokhzad faced considerable
antagonistic social pressure and community opprobrium and was the
subject of much gossip, even in print. Her unconventional life ended
prematurely in a fatal automobile accident in Tehran in 1967 not long
after her thirty-second birthday.
Farrokhzad always asserted a special connection between her life and
her poems, which signals their potentially autobiographical character.
Early in her career, Farrokhzad wrote: "If I have pursued poetry and
art, it has not been as hobby or amusement. I consider poetry and
art my whole life." This attitude implies that the poet would put
much of her life into her poetry. In 1964 , Farrokhzad stated: "Poetry
is a serious business for me. It is a responsibility I feel vis-ˆ-vis
my own being. It is a sort of answer I feel compelled to give to my
open life. I respect poetry to the same extent that a religious person
respects his or her religion." If she were to be true to this view,
Farrokhzad's poetry would have to be honest, unposturing, and reflective
of her innermost thoughts and feelings. She went on to say: "Poetry
for me is like a friend… with whom I can easily unburden my heart.
It is a mate who fulfills me, satisfies me, without upsetting me."
The comment implies that her poetry would be open, frank, and intimate.
The fact is that Farrokhzad's poetry reflects and mirrors her life,
In Farrokhzad's poetry, readers learn about her childhood (playing
with her sister, shopping with her mother), her youth (puberty, interest
in romance), her young adulthood (love, marriage, motherhood, divorce),
her love relationships (concern about the price she had to pay for
living an independent life), her world view, her conception of poetic
art, and her politics. Readers are apprised of moods, doubts, fears,
beliefs, and dreams that are as explicit and detailed as what they
might learn from their closest relatives and friends.
A further problem or issue arises in treating Farrokhzad's verse as
autobiography. Although in her poetry Farrokhzad rejects or discards
the veils that her society and culture wove for her and refuses to
use the sort of mask that serves to hide personality from view, her
poetic voice is a persona or mask and not the actual person of Farrokhzad.
Therefore, Farrokhzad's attitudes toward her personal life must be
distinguished from her attitudes toward her persona in her poetry.
Her persona wears a mask, to be sure, but an almost unique mask among
Iranian writers, which highlights the autobiographical point of Farrokhzad's
poems and her distinctive perspective as an intellectual.
The point is that even if Farrokhzad's life had been conventional,
she would still have become more directly autobiographical than other
literary women merely by discarding the veils that her culture planned
for her to wear, and she would still have become more directly autobiographical
than literary men by removing the masks that Iranian literary artists
routinely utilize. As it is, she tells readers in unequivocal terms
that her poetry is for her a mirror and a mate, two metaphors for
situations where one wears neither veil nor mask, where one appears
naked and expects to be seen thus by oneself or another.
In her poetry, there are significant autobiographical details that
need to be appreciated as such to understand a poem's point. Readers
cannot imagine any hypothetical "you" as the person addressed in "She'ri
baraye To" (A Poem for You); they need to know that the person addressed
is a woman poet in a particular cultural environment who has been
obliged to give up her son to pursue her art. In "Bazgasht" (Return)
a child character called "Kami" appears. In "Shekufeh-ye anduh' (Blossom
of Sorrow), the city of Ahvaz, where Farrokhzad lived when married,
the Karun River there, and Farrokhzad's "first love," Parviz Shapur,
are pictured almost as in a snapshot. In "Qahr" (Breaking Off), she
appears to be giving Nader Naderpour a piece of her mind.
It may even be difficult for a reader to appreciate fully the last
stanza of "Tavallodi digar" (Another Birth) without knowing that her
employer and lover, Golestan, may have spent much time at the house
he put at Farrokhzad's disposal but presumably went back to his own
nearby home at night, leaving the poet alone to await a kiss in the
I know a sad
who lives in an ocean
and ever so softly
plays her heart into a magic flute
who dies with one kiss each night
and is reborn with one kiss each dawn.
brought to the Iranian literary scene was a dramatic and challenging
individuality. In contrast, her literary contemporaries, except for
Al-e Ahmad, were unprepared to unmask themselves enough to allow their
individuated via-ages to become visible or, in the case of women,
were also unable or unwilling to remove their veils. The significance
of this development to Iranian literature is underscored by the fact
that in the West autobiography came center stage only with the age
of Goethe when, according to Weintraub, intellectuals began to feel
that "each life, as a time-time and one-time-only actualization of
…indefinitely variable human potential is marked by an irreplaceable
value." A lack of conviction as to the worth of nonroyal, nonimamic
individual life has long seemed endemic in Iranian culture.
Given such a cultural context, Farrokhzad's unswerving commitment
to the integrity of her autobiographical voice-unlike Taj os-Saltaneh,
she had no royal refuge or protector and was not about to wait sixty
years for her thoughts to be read-was revolutionary in the annals
of Persian literature and Iranian culture. Appreciation of her achievements
is still impeded by the kinds of sexist bias found in much critical
writing about women poets, including, to use the terminology of Joanna
Russ, the denial of agency, pollution of agency, double standard of
content, various sort of false categorizing, myth of the isolated
achievement, and anomalousness.
Farrokhzad's poem have been more often labeled confessions than autobiography.
Farrokhzad the poet has more often been called Farrokhzad the individualist,
Farrokhzad the kept woman, Farrokhzad the whore. Among the first serious
commentaries on Farrokhzad's poetry were two features in Khandniha
magazine. The artwork accompanying one article consisted of a silhouette
sketch behind the printed text of a naked female torso. The text of
the second article included a photograph of Brigitte Bardot, with
a caption quoting her views about appearing nude on the screen. Critics
refer to Farrokhzad by her given name, while referring to other modernist
poets by their surnames or pen names (Farrokhzad never used a pen
name, as have Ahmad Shamlu, Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales, and others). Traditionalist
critics, challenged by Farrokhzad's later poems, are quick to accept
her early poems, Some modernist critics, including feminists, call
her early work "juvenilia" while applauding her later work. Some of
those who accept Farrokhzad as a great modernist argue that Goleatan's
influence on her was crucial (although he has never published a poem.
Nor has his wife of forty-five years, nor have his close friends in
England during the last decade). The fullest praise for Farrokhzad
in the Khandaniha articles came in the declaration hat her verse was
reminiscent of Bilitis's. But Bilitis was a fraud, the product of
the imagination of a Frenchman who wanted to create a competitor for
Sappho of Lesbos. Farrokhzad was thus praised for resembling what
a European scholar thought a Greek poetess of the sixth century BCE
would have been like.
Even as sensitive and sympathetic a critic as Farrokhzad's friend
Karim Emami may fall prey to a conventional bias in opining that Farrokhzad's
greatest contributions are her love poems, thereby assigning her to
a less central niche in the pantheon of Iranian poets. More relevant
male poets, it is assumed, would deal with history, as in Akhavan's
"Shush-radidam" (I saw Susa), politics, as in Shamlu's "Dar in bombast"
(In this Deadend), and grand philosophical issues, as in Sepehri's
"Water's Footsteps." These poems are appealing and revealing, to be
sure. Yet a century hence the unveiled and relatively unmasked verse
of Forugh Farrokhzad, which uses images of love to bring alive issues
of her life and her art, will likely have the more secure place in
the minds and hearts of lovers of Persian poetry. Farrokhzad's unveiled
and unmasked poetic modernism and individuality have opened the way
for Iranian poets henceforth to choose without inhibition specific
poetic modes for their poetic effects and not to feel conventional
fear of social, political, or cultural consequences. A neoclassical
Persian poem may make it in the next century, not because it is blessed
by convention or displays a stylish veil and a sophisticated mask,
but only because it works in a particular poetic situation.
More important, Forugh Farrokhzad has unveiled personal individuality
in the Iranian arena. Iranian establishment leaders-whether religious,
leftist, or royalist, whether in Tehran, Paris, or Los Angeles-can
have few greater fears than that other Iranian will sooner or later
emulate what she has done.
An Autobiographical Voice:
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990