Posts Tagged ‘Persian literature’

The unstoppable Twain industry … and the Iranian people’s struggle

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

"Is He Dead?" on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Some familiar names surface in the June 4 The Times Literary Supplement — the most recent one to land in American mailboxes.

UC-Santa Cruz’s Susan Gillman comments on the “over-the-top spirit of the Mark Twain industry,” which is working itself up to a fever pitch this year — did you know that there was a petition drive “respectfully requesting Pres. Obama to designate 2010 ‘the year of Mark Twain'”?  I didn’t, either.

Gillman contributes to the “all Mark Twain, all the time” spirit with her lengthy cover piece on the unstoppable Twain industry (with a mention of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! which visited here very recently).

Holbrook as Twain

Gillman’s through-line:  “Is He Dead?”  Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s revival of the play of the title, directed by Michael Blakemore in 2008, gets a mention.  So does Twain’s famous line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  Gillman writes: “As we return to and repeat his words, it is a joint venture in which we, author and readers together, bring him back to life, again and again.”

Some time ago, I discussed Fishkin’s insightful Library of America Mark Twain Anthology of writers and thinkers on Twain.  I had excerpted Dick Gregory’s essay here, and received a correction from Fishkin herself:  The term “Nigger Jim” never appears in Huckleberry Finn.  Who knew?  Apparently not Norman Mailer, writes Gillman:

“Mailer stepped right into the racial hornet’s nest with his phrase ‘Nigger Jim’, which Fishkin notes was used by Hemingway, Ralph Ellison and others but never by Mark Twain.  African American parents who in 1984 were worried about the reading aloud by teachers and students in classrooms of the word ‘nigger’, which is used many times in the novel, would surely not be comforted.  … Those apocryphal Twainisms just won’t go away … Scholars may tear out their hair over it but Mailer, Ellison and others collected in The Mark Twain Anthology keep the phrases alive.

Fishkin edited the mega-volume The Oxford Mark Twain, but Gillman notes that she got one thing wrong, in every single volume:  “the Editor’s Note in all 29 volumes reverses the birth and death dates: ‘the year 2010 marks the Centennial of Mark Twain’s birth and the 175th anniversary of his death.'”  That’s what second editions are for.


Also in the TLS: Dick Davis doesn’t care for Homa Katouzian’s The Persians (Yale University Press).  Davis, the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right) writes:

“One would be hard put to say anything positive at all about the political culture Katouzian describes as perennial in Iran, and yet the artistic sensibility that produced the great works of Iranian culture, the majority of which were produced in or for a court milieu, was clearly highly civilized, cultivated and humane.  Given hat this sensibility must have come from somewhere, that it cannot have existed in a cultural vacuum, it would seem that we are not being given the whole story.  And even if we restrict ourselves to the modern political sphere, the Iranian people’s struggles to establish a just and representative government, from the moment of the country’s constitutional revolution early in the twentieth century up to the disputed election last June, constitute a record that for its combination of idealism and sheer dogged determination is incomparable anywhere else in the Middle East.  The simultaneous difficulty and necessity of marrying ethics and politics is a major theme of medieval Persian literature, and it is one that still resonates within the culture.”

“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another”

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Abbas Milani (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Philosophers have said writing is a pharmakon, a cure and a curse, a poison and an antidote,” writes Abbas Milani in Tale of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir.  The book, first published by Mage in 1996, when he was a professor in “the hospitable atmosphere of a small liberal arts college run by the Sisters of Notre Dame,” has been reissued in paperback.

Milani’s book is peppered with references to the way language, thought, and politics mix:

“Language is the source of problems for all revolutions. The structure of language, its ability to conjure memories of the past, interfere with the leveling goal of revolution.  Revolutions invariably strive to erase memory.  Memory, after all, defies the fiction of a totally new beginning. And so the Islamic Republic encouraged a new Arabicized lexicon. Everyday speech became a political act.  …

Revolutions are also about silence. Through a coercive reign of terror, the Islamic Republic milanicoverhad, unwittingly, enriched our language of silence and our society’s lexicon of gestures.  Literary language became more metaphoric and the language of gestures became textured with new layers.  Glances, brow movements, intonations, body language became pregnant with new precise meanings and possibilities. The faces, the crowd, the gestures of Khomeini’s frenzied burial can, I think, only be understood in light of this new vocabulary.”

Iran, after all, is the original home of ketman, which Czesław Miłosz limned in Captive Mind.  It’s not surprising that Shahryar Mandanipour discussed the same topics during a recent visit, with his friend Milani in the front row.  Milani’s remarks also bring to mind another writer’s immortal words on politics and language.

Milani’s remarkable rise to international prominence was described in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle profile here.  It is hard to exaggerate the importance of Milani in mobilizing the Bay Area Iranian diaspora. I interviewed him last week, but not all questions made it into the final cut. Here’s one, in which Milani modestly neglects to mention his own role in unifying the Iranian diaspora he praises:

How is this Iranian diaspora in the U.S. supporting the movement for democracy in Iran?

The events since last June’s contested presidential election and the participation of millions in disciplined, peaceful, and profoundly uplifting protests have invigorated, and in some ways unified the hitherto divided, often dormant Iranian diaspora.

The first quarter century of Iranian-Americans lives in America was primarily dedicated to establishing for themselves and their families new lives and developing new roots. Just as the community was beginning to look into becoming more politically and socially active, the emergence of the singularly impressive and inspiring democratic movement in Iran acted as a catalyst for this politicizing process. The Moghadam Family’s endowment of our Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, Bita Daryabari’s generous endowment that allows us to vastly expand our ability to teach Persian literature and culture here were clear indications of the community ‘s success and new sense of social responsibility.

Much more can and needs to be done by this diaspora to help with the inevitable transition to democracy in Iran—from helping enrich the debate about Iran here in America to sending a strong message of support to those fighting for democracy inside the country. Many community leaders are working hard to map out a strategy for this auspicious beginning.

Here’s another exchange that didn’t make the final cut:

Some fear that any reaction from us at all to support Iran’s democracy movement will backfire on the dissidents – that they be seen as foreign stooges, and the U.S government further demonized as the great Satan.

The Iranian regime is bent on accusing the West of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, and on dismissing dissent as nothing but a concoction of the West, or America. Before them, the Shah too accused his critics and opponents of being “agents” of foreign powers. Ironically, when leaders of this regime were part of the opposition to the Shah—1963-1979—they consistently demanded that the West, and America in particular, cease their support for the Shah and offer political and moral support to the opposition. Now when the Iranian opposition asks the world for the same kind of moral support, the regime accuses them of “serving imperialism.” It also accuses the Obama administration of “interfering” in Iran’s domestic affairs when it offers any support for Iran’s suppressed democrats.

A melancholy sweetness hangs over many of his memories of Iran, inviting inevitable comparisons from his second city on the West Coast:  “Here, lovers are lonely monads, guarding turfs, who quickly ‘get on with a new life’ when the old love proves impractical.  In English, we ‘fall’ in love, whereas in Persian we ‘become’ in love.”  (Translator Dick Davis echoes many of the same sentiments — I’ve written about him here.)

“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another,” writes Milani. “I am now a permanent exile.  I write in both English and Persian.  Persian connects me to my past, English is the language of my future.”

Crème de la crème

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

fishkinTo be one of 700 honored by a prize may not seem like that big of a deal — until you realize that you had about 25,000 competitors.

Choice, which reviews book for the American Library Association, publishes a list of outstanding academic titles reviewed during the previous calendar year in its January issue.  It reviews about 7,000 works each year out of 25,000 submitted.  The list of “Outstanding Academic Titles” is selected from the reviewed books.

Two authors already appearing in the electronic world of the Book Haven have been awarded:  Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin (who appeared here and here) was awarded for Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan) and Abbas Milani (he’s mentioned here, and there’s a ABC report about his inclusion on Iran’s “enemies” list here), for his acclaimed Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (Syracuse).milani2

Both are on the Stanford faculty, but so are a few other winners:   physicist Leonard Susskind, with his intriguingly titled The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (Little, Brown); pediatrician Donald A. Barr, author of Health Disparities in the United States: Social Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Health (Johns Hopkins) and Richard G. Klein, the biologist/anthropologist author of The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (Chicago).

Another winner is Stanford University Press, whose honored books included: Joel Andreas’s , Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class; Andrew Elfenbein’s Romanticism and the Rise of English; Hiromi Mizuno’s Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan; Diane Perpich’s The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas; Sultan Tepe’s Beyond Sacred and Secular: Politics of Religion in Israel and Turkey, and Muthiah Alagappa’s The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia.

Iranian writer speaks of “the insanity of censorship”

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Mandanipour (Photo by Elena Seibert)

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 www.randomhouse.comheaviest 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.