Q&A:"Longing for the Past Yet Belonging to the Present"
Interview with Niloufar Talebi, editor of Iranian literature, published on IPS News Agency
NEW YORK, Aug 1 (IPS) - Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, thousands of intellectuals, activists and poets have left Iran, many fleeing to Europe and the United States. A new book brings together the work of 18 Iranian poets from this diaspora to share their experiences with a wider audience.
"Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World" (North Atlantic Books, August 2008) is a bilingual (Persian/English) anthology, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, who is passionate about making contemporary Iranian voices heard in translation.
She founded the Translation Project in 2003, a nonprofit literary organisation and production company with innovative projects in books, theatre and multimedia.
Telebi takes translations beyond the text, creating multimedia projects based on translated poetry, drawing on the Iranian tradition of Naghali, or dramatic story-telling. She studied comparative literature and trained in theatre, now marrying the two skills to give Naghali (which traditionally dramatises Classical Persian poetry) new content, and fusing it with Western dramatic elements to reflect the Iranian-American experience in modern society.
IPS correspondent Omid Memarian spoke with Talebi about exile, censorship and the age-old relationship between literature and politics. Excerpts from the interview follow.
IPS: Can you tell us how the revolution and the political situation in Iran have affected these poets' work?
NT: The poets in "Belonging" left their home country, and are self-defined as exiles, expatriates, immigrants or refugees. So their perspective is naturally politicised, some having more of a political bent than others. So, for the most part, political themes were abundant in their work, depending on how you define 'political'. One can argue that any act of citizenry is a political act. Furthermore, three decades have gone by since the defining political event leading to their migration -- the 1979 Revolution -- and so they also reflect new themes in their work, themes that have to do with their recreating themselves, with their coming to terms with being citizens of the world. As the title of the book suggests, they live in the zone between longing for their past and "belonging" in their present lives. In selecting the poems for this volume, I decidedly featured a balance of political and non-political poems, including erotic, lyrical and humorous poems.
IPS: What are the main characteristics of Iranian poetry after the revolution?
NT: In my research for the anthology, I was able to find 140 poets living outside Iran and reciting in Persian. No doubt this is a partial list, from which I translated about 35 poets, and eventually featured 18 in "Belonging", six from each of the three generations reciting. What I noticed about the work of the poets I studied for "Belonging" is that poets practice a variety of poetic styles, and that the middle and younger generations take great advantage of the artistic freedom they have without the kind of censorship they would be subject to inside Iran, which is different than the ways in which writers inside Iran work around censorship.
IPS: How did you choose the poets and tell me about your criteria?
NT: The poetry was chosen based on poetic strength. The poets were selected with regard to the growth in their work over time.
IPS: Do you think reading Iranian poetry, at this particular time, can be a way to understand the Iranian diaspora better?
NT: Well for one thing, poetry is where the human experience is recorded. So to know a people, it makes sense to take a good look at their poetry. Contemporary Iranian poets are by and large unheard voices, whether they live in Iran or outside, and whether they recite in Persian or in other languages. We've read a number of memoirs by the Iranian diaspora, but seldom have we read their poetry. So I see Iranian poetry as an untapped source of information and illumination, with the power to connect people rather than divide them.
IPS: We don't see much Iranian literature in western countries like the United States.
NT: Bottom line, the literature in translation has to find readership in order to have presence and impact. So the questions to ask are whether enough work appears in translation, whether they are the 'right' works for the readiness of the receiving culture during a particular historical and aesthetic period, and whether the translations are effective. Then there is the question of the editor/publisher's willingness to publish and invest in works of translation (which compose only 0.3 to 3 percent of books published annually in the U.S.).
IPS: Why is such an anthology especially relevant now?
NT: Immigrant or exiled writers who continue to write in their mother tongue don't always have the opportunity to communicate their work to readers in their host countries, since language is the tool of their métier. "Belonging" opens a channel of communication between readers of English and Iranian poets who live outside Iran and recite in Persian. Being a bilingual volume, it also familiarises the Iranian diaspora with the next generation of Iranian poets. The diaspora tends to honour literary figures of the time of the 1979 Revolution and before. Their access to current information is compromised due to the scatteredness of the population, and their cultural knowledge is sometimes frozen in time. Even second-generation, foreign-born Iranians adhere to their parents' set of favourite authors, which is of course important and not to be taken for granted, but it's also important for them to be exposed to emerging voices.
IPS: What do you see as the relationship between literature and politics in Iran or elsewhere?
NT: Literature and art have always played a role in social protest, in political expression, in Iran and elsewhere. Accordingly, censorship is a factor in the relationship between artistic expression and the state. Though art and literature have been suppressed throughout history, works of art have nevertheless managed to be created, persisting under the worst conditions. The same is true of the arts in Iran. Over the past three decades, writers who stayed in Iran have continued creating literature under censorship, the number of women writers has multiplied, and a huge body of criticism about writers living both inside and outside Iran has emerged. Many banned works, or works that are not put through the Bureau of Guidance for publication permission are embedded in blogs, accessible to the whole world, until the blogs are discovered and shut down -- and then they are embedded in new blogs. So all in all, despite tremendous obstacles, Iranians have found ways to express themselves in their art.
IPS: Who is your audience? The Iranian diaspora? Or every literature and poetry lover?
NT: Both! American and Iranian-American readers. I hope the average reader, and not only the poetry connoisseur, is able to connect with "Belonging". Poetry should not intimidate; it should invite readers.