Jasmin Darznik’s new book, The Good Daughter, was released last week. In January, I was delighted to have a chance to sit down with the charming Jasmin and have a candid talk about her marvelous new book and the moving stories within:
One thing that is quite impressive throughout your book is the ease with which Iranian rituals, concepts, and colloquialisms were explained and defined. In fact, I believe your book will be used for years to come as a good reference for demystifying Iranian culture for some! It is that "ease" which leads me to believe that extensive and deep research has gone into writing this book. What sources did you use, other than obviously talking to your mother and grandmother?
I’m glad it came off looking so easy, Nazy jan! And yes, as you surmise, the memoir is informed by a good deal of research. I wrote my dissertation on the literature of the Iranian Diaspora, and in the course of that project I read dozens of accounts, fiction and nonfiction, about Iran, and also much modern and contemporary Iranian literature as well. However, many of these books, especially in the Diaspora, focus on revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran. I was quite interested in an earlier period of 20th century, a lesser-known period for even many of us Iranians but one that I feel informs more recent Iranian history.
Two books that I found especially helpful in fleshing out the historical record were Iran Between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian and The Mantle of the Prophet by Roy Mottahedeh. Another useful reference was a six volume encyclopedia in Persian titled Tehran-e Ghadim, or Old Tehran, that a friend found for me. I have to confess, though, that my sense of scholarship is somewhat fluid, and I’d absolutely count short stories and novels as “research,” too. Gina Nahai’s Cry of the Peacock has always been an inspiration to me. Though it’s fiction, she conducted extensive oral histories for it, and it would become an important model for The Good Daughter, both in its methods and subject matter. Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Dear Uncle Napolean, Simin Daneshvar’s Playhouse, and Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men also helped me conjure the Iran of The Good Daughter.
I'm really impressed that you wrote this book without having gone back to Iran since you left it as a child. There are parts in your book which I could never guess were written by someone who has not seen Iran as an adult. How did you manage that? I'm not talking about the research now, I am talking about a texture of emotions and thoughts which I doubt very much you could have developed in diaspora. Here's a passage that I found thoroughly amusing and so familiar from my own childhood, which was quite some time before you were born! "They came for her one day with a droshky, a horse-drawn cab, to buy fabric for her wedding dress. It was late afternoon on a Thursday, the busiest shopping day of the week. All up and down Avenue Moniriyeh, chador-clad housewives were bustling home from the bazaar, gripping their veils between their teeth so as to leave their arms free for their baskets, packages, and infants." (page 59)
The texture of emotions and thoughts, as you describe it, came to me directly through my mother and grandmother. Even though I left Iran as a small child, the world I grew up in was very much an Iranian one, perhaps in some regards even more Iranian than it would have been in Iran. Of course there was the world of school and work, that greater American world, but if anything immigration made my mother more Iranian, not less. Also, since I was an only child, and a girl, I spent hours and hours of my childhood at her friends’ houses. Tea parties, dinner parties, wakes, weddings--they were such a part of my life growing up. Persian was the language of my home and it’s still the language of my memories. The image you mention of the women gripping the veil between her teeth derives from my mother’s recollections of 1950s Iran and my own memories of my grandmother rushing to perform her namaz, or daily prayers. In writing the book I was often braiding together my memories with my mother’s and grandmother’s stories.
Some of the things that happened to your family were typical. Yong girls were routinely forced to marry men a lot older than themselves back then, for example. Or the patriarchal structure of the Iranian families, which, in many families, still rules today. But things like divorces, mistresses, and second marriages were major taboos; some remain so to this day. Was it hard for your family to part with that information? Did they set boundaries for you for how much you could write about certain events? Were they, or are they worried about what others might say reading about some family secrets?
As you know, we Iranians are awfully masterful in keeping family secrets. There are just so many taboos, so much worry about saving face or maintaining our aberoo. We’re not supposed to speak ill or intimately about relatives, even the ones long-since deceased! It’s not a part of our culture that I especially love, but The Good Daughter is a particular kind of memoir, a family memoir, and I could never have written it without my mother. I don’t mean that just in terms of having her blessing, but in terms of the richness of her memories and the generosity with which she shared her life story with me. There are secrets that my mother’s closest friends don’t even know and will only learn about by reading this book. This book simply would not exist without her collaboration. That said, some tough negotiations went on behind the scenes. In the end it went like this: if there was a section that related directly to her and depended solely on her telling, I deferred to her version of events, but if I was writing about myself or drawing from my memories or other accounts, I gave myself license over the story.
Your half-sister's presence introduces some of the most haunting developments in the story. In fact, you wrote some of the most emotional dialogue of your book, between Lili and Kobra discussing her (pp 212-213). Do you regret not having had her as a part of your life? Does your mother have any regrets about her?
The scenes about Sara were for me some of the most painful moments to write. When my mother divorced her first husband, her family told her to forget her daughter. “Don’t even speak her name,” they warned her. Given the stigma attached to divorce in those years, her family thought a complete break would be best both her and her child. But it’s impossible to ask a mother to forget her child. Even though my mother created a remarkable, independent life for herself after her divorce, she never fully recovered from giving up her daughter. Nor did her daughter ever recover from the experience. It’s beyond words, really, that pain, and yet it’s part of our story, and I’ve tried to give it words.
In answer to the other part of your question, the part about my own feelings, I feel such sadness about never having known my sister. I also feel it’s impossible to begin to know her without going to Iran and meeting her in person. I hope to do that someday and to write that story as well. In some ways, this memoir is written to her from what still sometimes feels like an impossible divide between Iran and America.
One of the biggest taboos your book tackled was the issue of your father's alcoholism, a subject which would frighten so many Iranians, even today. You described it with so much love and respect for your father. Did you ever have a chance to talk to him about your memories of him in that regard?
My father passed away eleven years ago and one of my deepest regrets is that he died before I could sit down with him and talk to him about his life. We certainly never spoke about his alcoholism. My whole family maintained total silence about his drinking. I remember when he went away to rehab. I was eleven or twelve years old at the time and my mother told me I could not tell anyone about it.
Two decades later there’s still such secrecy about it. In fact, this is one part of The Good Daughter that my mother and I argued about the most. It’s an American attitude, you may say, but for me his drinking was not a moral failure. It was an illness, and it affected all of us. He suffered and we suffered. I couldn’t not write about his drinking, but I hope I did so in a way that conveys my love for him and my respect for what it took for him to finally become sober.
The threat of an attack on Iran remains present. Your book went a long way to present a human side of Iran and Iranians, families, brides, babies, and elders, especially when you talked about the Iran-Iraq war and the carnage in its wake. Was this an effort by you to, even indirectly, deter such an attack on Iranians through neutralizing the dehumanization of Iran that occurs in the media all too frequently?
As an Iranian, and one with many relatives still living in Iran, the idea of such an attack horrifies me. To answer your question, though, I didn’t set out with any particular intention apart from telling a true story, and telling it as well as I could. It’s hard for me to gauge what political effect my book might have, if any. I am not a political analyst and I am not a historian. I’m a writer. I will tell you, this, though: as a reader, I know books can make us care about people and places that are strange and maybe even outright frightening to us. As someone who teaches literature, I’m doubly sure of that power. It don’t see it happen daily, but I see it often enough to want to believe it’s true.
I felt that your voice's presence in the book was too short! I know this was a memoir mainly about your mother, but I really wanted to know more about you, to see more of your weaving the old and the new, the new being you! What are your future plans, your next book?
That’s interesting, that you wanted more of my voice. Initially I didn’t set out to put myself in the narrative at all, but friends and editors convinced me to write myself into the story. What engrossed me so fully were my grandmother’s and mother’s stories, stories I feel have not been told before and stories that they themselves could never have told in this particular way. But of course I’m there all along. Even when “Jasmin” is not in a scene, I’m the one telling the story and shaping it with my sensibilities and values. Everything I feel about our culture, about being Iranian and a woman, is in this book. It’s the book I had to write, the book that felt necessary to me, but I definitely plan to write others. The novel I am working on now is set in 1950s Iran, but I already feel myself inhabiting that world, perhaps even more candidly than I have in The Good Daughter. This is of course a great lure of writing a novel: you can tell all the truth, call it a fiction, and no one’s necessarily the wiser for it. Call me Iranian in this regard, but that’s something I like very much.
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