Beyond Black There Is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener

I’m often on the lookout for the little known female voices outside the mainstream, some will be in translation, titles and authors I haven’t heard of, women who have lived a different experience, shared their insights, who might have left earlier lives behind, who illuminate stories that deserve sharing.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Books We Burrow

The Story of Forough Farrokhzad

And so I stumbled across the Iranian writer Maryam Sachs, whose book Without Saying Goodbye (2009) had been translated into English from French Sans te dire adieu, about an Iranian exile living in Paris working in a bookshop.

I then learned her name had changed to Maryam Diener and she had written a book about the iconic feminist Iranian poet and film maker Forough Farrokhzad, Beyond Black There is No Colour (2020).

So here is one writer who left an earlier life, writing about another who was pushed from hers, but who enabled through her poetry and film, other Iranian women to dare to express their own sincere thoughts and words.

Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life and loves and losses, in a way that no woman before her had ever dared.

She sought expression for her depth of feeling, wanted to talk about it with others, and would also follow that same passionate way of being in the world into film making, casting aside more structured plans, to again follow her heart and allow others to have voice through her work.

Forough Farrokhzad, The Rebel Poet of Iran

Rebel Poet of Iran feminist revolutionaryFarrokhzad (1935-1967) published poems that radiated sensuality, plunging depths of emotion, challenging the patriarchal conventions of society and transcending the acceptable boundaries of women’s expression, let alone commit to paper and public record. She wrote of love without shame, removing the invisible but ever present mask the culture adorned women with.

It brought her into the limelight very early on, but also exposed her to jealousy and judgement as her work sparked controversy inside and outside intellectual circles, with dire consequences on her marriage and family relations.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

Book Review

This slim 150 page book is split into 7 parts, part one taking up the first 50 pages encompassing her childhood, her marriage, her early success with poetry and its role in the dissolution of her relationship. What really brings the entire book alive is the use of the first person narrator, the “I” voice.

Diener has raised the voice of Forough Farrokhzad and rather than talk about her, steps aside with the utmost respect and allows her to speak to us of her life.

The book opens on the day Forough is on her way to the UK Embassy to pick up her visa. She is wearing big sunglasses and an old dress that belonged to her sister Pouran, one that makes her feel protected because it belonged to her closest sibling. As she pauses in front of her favourite shop and admires the notebooks and pens displayed in the window, writers will recognise the yearnings of a lover of words.

At the sight of the notebooks lined up in the window I feel the same flurry of anticipation for clean pages, fresh ink and new beginnings. If only I could crack myself open like a new book, and know that there were hundreds of blank pages waiting to be filled.

Alarmed, she suddenly sees her ex-husband and forgets her task and begins to follow him, leading us to a moment of humiliation by a man exhibiting his power and revenge over a woman and thus we learn of the terrible estrangement and loss of custody of her little boy, whom this man forbids her to see, ever.

My sin was to pursue a career as a poet and to desire an identity beyond that of wife and mother. As a result, I am not worthy of being a significant part of my son’s life anymore. I was written off for daring to believe I could exist as an individual rather than simply an extension of my family.

Family Influence Can’t Stifle Creativity

Her father was an army colonel and managed his family like a troop of soldiers, including the morning exercises. However it was he who attached great importance to education and inspired her love of literature.

I had an urge to mark myself as different, and to say exactly what was on my mind. I constantly wanted to show my father that I was an individual with thoughts and feelings, rather than just a soldier following his orders.

Her sister was two years older and married at 18 and it was at this wedding that she met Parviz. Their meeting, connection and early period of being together seemed so promising, despite her father’s reluctance towards the match.

It was this transfer of her affections to this man she would marry that inspired her early poems, however once married and living in her husband’s family home she would encounter the disapproval of her mother-in-law who thought she ought to give up personal ambitions and literary expression. The poems rapidly found an audience, acclaim in literary circles but also attracted malevolent gossip, which her husband began to listen to (along with his mother) and eventually resulted in divorce.

My poems spoke the truth – they were how I lived – whereas other poets tried to apply the morals set by society and religion. I saw new possibilities for Persian poetry.

The Poet Becomes Film Maker, A New Medium for Her Message

The middle parts are often only a few pages long, marking various transitions in her short life, her nine months in Europe when she flees Iran enable her to gain a different perspective but also make her realise she can’t be away from her family and her son.

Her return and a job interview with The Golestan Film Unit introduces her to her great (but complicated) love; her moving from secretarial work into the creative aspect of film making bring her the opportunity to direct and produce a documentary about a colony of lepers, her award winning film The House is Black (1963). (It won the Grand Prize for documentary film in the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1963).

While the men wanted a film to break down people’s fear of leprosy and awaken the governments responsibility to them, Forough had additional ideas.

Although it would be about the leper colony of Bababaghi, the film would also explore the fact that great trouble and suffering is caused when we reject certain parts of ourselves and bury our unwelcome feelings, rather than facing up to our problems and searching for a solution. The story of a community being rejected due to a lack of access to proper medical help would draw wider attention to how societies are willing to condemn anything that is different to themselves, rather than to confront their fears of the other.

Once they walked around and engaged with people her ideas continue to evolve, abandoning the script and deciding instead to dedicate their time to just that, meeting and engaging with people, experimenting with editing and expressing social upheaval in a documentary style, creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, allowing for flexibility. Her experience at the leper’s colony became even more personal when she adopted a boy from one of the families living there.

She achieves a level of social critique in the film by never directly staging or directly naming an image in the text. The absence of the words leprous, leprosy or leper is turned on its head when coupled with photography. While leprosy is never directly named in the poetry, its symptoms are: inertia, indecision, stagnation, empty desires – in short, the same symptoms she sees plaguing her society. Social ills are shown by way of visual metaphor. Roxanne Varzi

Thirty-one years after its release in 1962, in 1993, The House is Black would win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival. The following words of her poetry accompany part of the film, heard/seen here in the trailer.

There is no shortage of ugliness in the world

If man closed his eyes to it, 

There would be even more.

Who is this in hell

Praising you, O Lord?

Who is this in hell?

Our being,

Like a cage full of birds

Is filled with moans of captivity.

Like doves, we cry for justice…

And there is none.

We wait for light

And darkness reigns.

Forough Farrokhzad Beyond black there is no colour

Photo by Cliford Mervil on Pexels.com

It is in this film that darkness sets the mood of isolation, beyond the closed door where these people live, far from everyone else, disconnected from society, out of reach of people’s understanding.

Blackness will be a leitmotiv that thread and echoes between different scenes. There is an expression in Farsi that says, ‘Beyond black there is no colour.’

The Joan of Arc of Modern Persian Poetry

The book is absolutely wonderful, a heartfelt tribute to an astonishing woman, one of those souls whose life was cut short, just as she was making headway, but also with that characteristic of certain extraordinary beings who come into their human lives for a short period, who work prolifically from a young age, creating an abundant output, as if they know that the window of opportunity for them is short, and there is no time to waste.

Highly Recommended.

Forough was the Joan of Arc of modern Persian poetry. Many worshipped her, but at the same time her bold rebellious voice angered male critics. She talked openly about her feelings and desires, challenged the repressive norms and expressed her despair about the social system of Iran. For more than a decade, she was the centre of controversy. The day she was killed in a car accident at the age of 32, the whole country mourned her loss. She became a cultural martyr, a myth, a sacred figure, the most beloved, respected and popular modern poet. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

Purchase a copy from an independent bookstore in the UK here

Further Reading

Interview: A 4 minute introduction to Forough Farrokhzad by Sholeh Wolpé

The Paris Review: Feminize Your Canon: Forough Farrokhzad by Joanne Scutts, Nov 19, 2020

Guardian Article: Former lover of the poet known as Iran’s Sylvia Plath breaks his silence by Saeed Kamali Dehghan

New York Times: Overlooked No More: Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian Poet Who Broke Barriers of Sex and Society By Amir-Hussein Radjy

Film Review: The House is Black -The Other Face of Beauty by Karthik Keramalu

Pictura Poesis: The interplay of poetry, image and ethnography in Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black by Roxanne Varzi

 

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

In yesterday’s post I mentioned I had just finished reading this book, a wonderful, if challenging work of translated fiction by the Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar, who lives in exile in Australia. This novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2018 (a literary award that celebrates Australian women’s writing and an organisation promoting cultural change).

I was very quickly pulled into this book and for the most part seamlessly travelled between the realistic part of the story and parts where the author shifted into the character’s imagination.

Azar uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling to tell the story of a family of five in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the story is narrated by the spirit of the 13 year old daughter. When fire takes their daughter and much that have till then valued, the family flees Tehran in search of a place as far away as possible from conflict and interference, making their home on a hill above the sleepy village of Razan.

One day Beeta tells Bahar: ‘When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality to liven it up?’

The story shifts between the quiet lulls where it appears they have realised such a utopia and flights of the imagination, where we are temporarily protected from exposure to the harshness and brutality of reality, just as this family attempts to do to preserve their way of life and life itself.

Azar says she wrote the story, in an attempt to answer this question:

Can we survive without passion and hope in a religious dictatorial system?

By letting go of the need to have all of the story narrated in the realistic voice, we hang loosely onto the storyline and then detach, like a kite being given more length of string, flying high above, sometimes so high we no longer recognise where we are, before being pulled back to ground.

I managed to stay with the narrative until Beeta’s metamorphosis around page 178, where I felt my mind spinning, trying to stay with it, wondering what was happening. I almost felt defeated, and then arrived that wonderful moment of clarification, when without giving anything away, the father is forced by the dictatorship to write a statement, and as readers we are given insight into the reality we have been protected from and how the imagination has carried us through it. And though we might question what was real and what wasn’t, it no longer matters, because we have been made to understand why.  As if the universe is making a point here, this realisation ironically appears on page 222.

Dad wrote everything again. This time he cut out all the parts he had realized were incomprehensible to their stale minds, and embellished here and there to make it thoroughly believable.

This made me very curious to understand more about the Persian style of storytelling, whether this was the author’s imagination or something that was inherent in the culture she came from. And this is one of the reasons I love reading translated fiction, because of the gift of this kind of insight into another culture’s storytelling and way of thinking, how they cope with the often harsh reality of life.

Asked in an interview with the LARB (LA Review of Books) about her use of magical realism, Azar said:

Magical realism comes from an old or ancient deep-seated insight. It is more than a literary style that you can learn at university or from the books. I did not learn it only by reading magic realism modern fictions, but I also learned from mythic texts, Persian classic texts, and my own people’s culture. People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems. And it has nothing to do with superstition or religion. If you learn to look at these beliefs in the right way and deeply, you can find the roots of myths, and important and beautiful meanings in these beliefs.

I highlighted many passages, too numerous to include, but leave you with this one:

Persian Greengage Plum Tree

I looked at the eyes of the ghosts sitting around the fire and at Beeta, and suddenly I realized that we dead are the sorrowful part of life, while the living are the joyful side of death. And yet, Beeta was not joyful and it was the sad side of life that she didn’t even know she should be joyful in life because there was nothing else she could do. I wanted to tell her this, but was afraid of bringing her damaged spirit down even further. Fortunately, she herself eventually spoke and said, “It seems that from among you, I am the more fortunate because nobody killed me. But I don’t feel happy at all.”

She looked at we who had died. The dead who had been the first to meet her in the world of the living outside Razan. An old man in the group responded, “This is because you don’t yet realize how beautiful, young, and healthy you are.” Beeta smiled and her cheeks reddened by the light of the fire in silent emotion; and all of us who were dead saw how good the smile looked on her. But as she recalled dark memories, her smile faded and she said, “But the man who loved me simply turned his back on me and married a young girl.” The middle-aged man said, “All the better! It means you were lovable enough but he wasn’t smart enough to realize it.”

This is one of those books that demands perseverance, for which we are warmly rewarded when we do so. I am pleased to read that she is at work on a second novel in a similar style asking the question:

Can true love exist in a religious dictatorship in which the body and love are censored? When you are not allowed to love your body and mind, can you truly be in love with another’s body and mind?

Further Reading:

Deep Into the Heart: An Interview With Shokoofeh Azar by Robert Wood, LARB

The Stella Interview: where she discusses the experiences that informed the novel, the writers that inspire her work and how writing is a means of resistance

Thank you to Daniela at Europa Editions for sending me a review copy.