The Chat with Nilofar Shidmehr

Nilofar Shidmehr
TREVOR-CORKUM-cropped_small

Nilofar Shidmehr’s short fiction collection, Divided Loyalties (Astoria/House of Anansi) is a rich and compelling collection of stories focusing on the lives of women in Iran and the diaspora.

In a blurb for the book, Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran, says, “Iran is a complicated country with thousands of years of history. In Divided Loyalties, with a deft hand, Nilofar Shidmehr takes us through the suffering of its people over the last four decades. An important book that sheds light on how a people can survive their darkest years.”

Nilofar Shidmehr is a poet, essayist, and scholar, and the author of six books in English and Farsi, including Between Lives and Shirin and Salt Man, a BC Book Prize finalist. She writes and delivers lectures on women’s rights, migration and diaspora, and social and political issues in Iran. A specialist in literature and cinema of modern Iran, she teaches in the Continuing Studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives with her husband.

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The Chat with Nilofar Shidmehr

Trevor Corkum: As a collection, Divided Loyalties spans many decades, telling the stories of women in Iran and the diaspora. Can you tell us more about how the collection came together?

Nilofar Shidmehr: Throughout the years, since I was a new immigrant in Canada and BA student at UBC, I wrote several short stories. My earlier stories were set in Iran and my later stories in Canada, emanating my reflections on lives of various characters in my homeland and my adopted land, as well as on my own life as the life of someone who was born and raised in Iran, landed in Vancouver at an adult age, became a Canadian citizen, and settled down to become an integral member of Canadian society and the Iranian diaspora.

To create Divided Loyalties, I chose those stories that featured female protagonists and spanned over four decades from 1978 to 2008. Of course, I have other stories which did not make it to this collection, because either their protagonists are male or their styles or themes didn’t fit in.

TC: Many of your stories focus on the sacrifices your female protagonists make for their families—husbands, parents, children. I’m thinking of Parvaaneh in “Butterflies on the Bus” and Pari in “The Gordian Knot.” At the same time, these women are fierce, independent-minded, and make choices that push back against the customs and restrictions imposed upon them by others. Why is it important to tell these particular stories?

NS: For several reasons but mainly to create a more subtle, detailed, and truthful image of Iranian women than the one projected by mainstream media which portrays them as docile, submissive to oppression, and waiting to be rescued. Unfortunately, this is also the image many from across the world hold in their minds. As scholars of Iranian studies indicate, however, Iranian women are at the forefront of struggle for social and legal change, individual and public freedom, and democracy.

Iranian women are at the forefront of struggle for social and legal change, individual and public freedom, and democracy.

Parvaaneh and Pari are not civil right activists but they also struggle for personal independence and freedom of choice. At some point during this struggle, they realize that they’d need to put their own needs before the interests of their loved ones and work towards building their own lives. This is the point where they deviate from full loyalty to a culture that demands them to be entirely selfless, although not necessarily docile. The point I am trying to make here is that, in Iranian patriarchal system, women are allowed to be fierce and powerful and make decisions but their power, knowledge, and skills are channelled towards homemaking, home management, motherhood, or any other end that serves the interests of family as the most fundamental social institution.

After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1980, another facet was added to Iranian women’s identity, when they were defined as Muslim women. While the Islamic Republic Constitution differentiates between female and male citizens and considers different roles, rights, and responsibilities for each group, it does not define Muslim women as oppressed, incapable, and pointlessly submissive. Women gain their identity through putting themselves willingly and actively in service of the greater good which is to raise an Islamic family. Respectively, for Muslim men, the highest social achievement is martyrdom. Iranian patriarchal tradition and Shia Islam ideology manifested in the Constitution go hand in hand in giving identity to women in limited ways.  

Going back to my characters, they challenge the social norms and the regime simply by deciding to take care of their own lives after a long period of sacrificing for their families.

TC: Your collection explores life before and after the 1979 revolution. In what ways has the revolution and its aftermath shaped your own creative and professional trajectory?

NS: Before answering this question, I’d like to distinguish between the revolution and its violent aftermath. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was a major event, heralding the determinate end of colonialism that had started to crumble after the First World War. It opened a new chapter in world history: the postcolonial, postmodern chapter where, like Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pari and Anoosh could become characters in English literature, characters who are neither “beast men” like Caliban in Tempest nor colonial subjects like the natives in The Heart of Darkness. Had I been born in colonialist times, I could not have become a Canadian writer, giving interviews about my new book.

Writing in English has given me advantages over authors writing only in Farsi. Unlike them, I don’t face censorship imposed by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. I can write freely about the revolution and its devastating aftermath that destroyed thousands of lives and forced nearly five million Iranians out of Iran. In addition to enjoying full freedom of expression, I also have much vaster readerships than my colleagues in Iran do.

A precursor of the emergence of global era, the Iranian Revolution has worked like a double-edge sword for me. It has sent me into exile to live in the diaspora but, at the same time, has given me an opportunity to be recognized on global scale. This is a great time for authors like me to publish our stories written in languages of the countries where we have settled down. At the same time, the process of settlement could be difficult and stressful as one has to change field of study and career, like I did from engineering to the humanities and education. It took me years to establish myself in Canada and get a decent job as a university instructor.

TC: Which artists and writers continue to influence and inspire you?  

NS: The list is long as I am both an avid reader of world literature and a fan of international cinematography.  

I mention a few fiction writers and filmmakers. Sadequ Chubak, Ahmad Mahmoud, Goli Taraghi, Zoya Pirzad, Salman Rushdi, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bolgakov, William Falkner, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Khaled Hosseini, Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marguerite Duras, Frantz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Asghar Farhadi, Yılmaz Güney, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Luis Buñel, Éric Rohmer, Louis Malle, Bernardo Bertolucci, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysoztof  Kieślowski, Ingmar Bergman, Lars Von Trier, Aki Kaurismäki, Woody Allen, Denys Archand.

TC: You also work as an academic in Vancouver, specializing in contemporary Iranian film and literature. Can you tell us more about your academic work, and how your various research interests dovetail with your creative pursuits?

NS: Teaching Iranian film and literature keep me connected to my homeland. Even though my roots are now planted in Canada, they also get nutrition from Iranian sources. As a result, my writing is hybrid and has complex, rhizomic roots.

For me, writing, teaching (including teaching life writing) and research are all ways of building bridges between me and some audience. My students are the audience I meet in person. I introduce them to Iranian culture and to writings by diverse Canadian and world authors. In return, they introduce me to multiple Canadian ways of life. We broaden each other’s imagination and horizons of understanding as we reach out to one another and tune ourselves with the global rhythm of our time. In this respect, all my pursuits contribute to enriching multiculturalism in this country.

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Excerpt from Divided Loyalties

I arrive in Tehran two days after my brother called to inform me about my father’s death. “A car hit Papa,” Milaad said, his voice cracking like phone static. “It happened close to his home. He died on the spot. The driver fled the scene — we couldn’t find him. There is also something else, which I’ll tell you when I’ll see you.”

Thankfully, Milaad accompanies Maman to meet me at the airport. Maman and I had a fight on the phone six months ago and we haven’t talked since. That was the night I came back from Paris, the last place I saw my father alive. Our squabble doesn’t matter now. I am here to be with my mother during the forty-day mourning period. I might even stay longer — for six months, a year, or, who knows, the rest of my life — if Maman and I can get along now that the source of our separation is gone.

Nor does it matter that my mother wrongly accused me of siding with my father. In truth, Papa and I had a row at the end of our trip and he accused me of the exactly the same thing: of supporting her. This is what our parents did to me and Milaad all our lives. Each wanted us in their camp when they fought with each other. And once they made peace, they would divide their children between them. Milaad was hers and I was his.

My situation was much worse than my brother’s during the times when our parents quarrelled. As a girl, I was supposed to side with my mother. This wouldn’t have been difficult, if her true reason for being angry was that my father was a miser. We lived very close to poverty because the only money that came into the home was from our mother’s meagre salary. Papa used all of his money to buy property. However, the real reason behind my mother’s anger was to control my father and keep him, like Milaad, under her thumb. I believed my father should have his independence as much as I wanted to have mine. I wanted to have freedom of association — to like, love, and assemble with whomever I chose, including my aunt Raazi, Papa’s younger sister.

Entering the arrivals area and dragging my suitcase behind me, I look around for my mother and see her, along with Milaad, walking toward me. In her black winter coat, slacks, and wimple hijab, she looks slim and miserable. I speed up and we meet halfway. She throws herself into my embrace and wails. “You see, Maana, your mother is a widow now.”
People standing nearby look at us with compassion. “Sorry for your loss,” they whisper as they pass. The other passengers laugh with joy as they reunite with their loved ones. Their families, dressed mostly in bright colours, shower them with flowers and kisses. I pass Maman a clean napkin I’ve saved for my own crying and hold her until her sobbing subsides.

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Excerpted from Divided Loyalties, copyright © 2019 by Nilofar Shidmehr. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press,

Toronto.www.houseofanansi.com

January 22, 2019
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