Shahryar Mandanipour’s debut at Stanford this week was decidedly understated: about 70 people gathered in Lane Hall, most of them apparently Iranian.
His topic was, perhaps, the obvious one: censorship. The chief symptom of censorship is the “corruption of language,” he said, echoing Orwell. He noted that his “poor language” has been commandeered to tell “thousands of lies.”
“It’s not important to write a political story, but it is important that you write an artistic story,” he said. In such circumstances, the job of the writer is to remind readers that “the word tree means tree.”
What he called “the insanity of censorship” was not always his topic of choice: Mandanipour recalled that the subject was raised so often that his interviews in America became bland and predictable. He waited, in vain, for the question he wanted to hear: “What is this literature, and what has it achieved?”
His own has achieved a great deal already: his novel was accepted for publication by Knopf on the basis of only 50 submitted pages. Censoring an Iranian Love Story has been named one of the New Yorker‘s top books of the year. No mean feat for the writer who arrived on this side of the Atlantic only three years ago.
The novelist from Shiraz cut an appealing figure: a ruggedly handsome man in a black shirt and jacket, with a shock of frizzled gray hair. Another shock: a surprisingly light, breathy voice that was often inaudible, sometimes incomprehensible, in its heavily accented English.
Occasionally, as his English faltered, he would turn tentatively and murmur, “Help me, Doctor,” to the man sitting in the front row. Abbas Milani, head of the program in Iranian Studies, reminded Mandanipour of his youth in Teheran, he said, when Milani was “the youngest and best teacher in political science.” The program Prof. Milani directs is too little known — it’s startlingly top-drawer. I’ve written about its visiting scholar Dick Davis here, and its Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom, which honored eminent poet Simin Behbahani, here.
Following Mandanipour’s reading, the question-and-answer period took an interesting turn when one man observed that fundamentalist regimes reserve their heaviest artillery for literature, since these religions preach certainty, and the novel thrives on doubt and uncertainty within its characters, motifs, and plots.
Mandanipour warmed to this theme. These regimes, whether or religious or political, share an underlying fallacy: that “people are the same, there is no difference, no individuality.” The work of authors is an obvious target because “literature tries to show that there are many points of view in the world.”
“Democracy, the novel — they both come together.”
Nevertheless, Iranian literature, with its “layer of dark, bitter humor” is “complicated, personal,” he said. “For this reason, it’s not easy for this literature to have a dialogue with the world.”
He spoke movingly of writer’s block in his early days in the U.S., looking at the flowers whose names he did not know, and his mind would return to those who had “burned their memories so that only the flames would read them.” He also thought of those who were still fighting — “brave students beaten with bottles,” facing interrogation and torture in their struggle for human rights.
“There are times the Iranian women are braver than the men. I think so,” he said softly.