INTERVIEW with me at AWP Writers Chronicle

An Interview with Nahid Rachlin
Sheila Bender
The Writer’s Chronicle, May/​Summer 2008

Sheila Bender: What prompted you to be a writer in a male-dominated culture that didn’t value women’s self-expression?

Nahid Rachlin: I was always asking questions about why I was “given away” by my mother to my aunt, and why me in particular. My aunt, Maryam, whose husband was twenty-five years older than her and died soon after they married, yearned for a child. My mother was very fertile (she gave birth to ten children). Maryam always begged her sister if she could adopt one of her children. So when I was six months old, my grandmother took me to Maryam who lived in Tehran, faraway from Ahvaz, where my parents lived. But when I was nine years old, my father came and forcefully took me back from my aunt. In his eyes, I was a woman now, and he felt I needed his supervision. I couldn’t accept my aunt’s explanation that it was destiny that I was given to her. I reached to books for answers. I read everything I could get hold of, hoping for some insights. That interest in reading led to a need to write myself. As an adolescent, I went into a room and wrote sketches and short stories. The process of writing and giving shape to what seemed puzzling and chaotic had a calming effect. I was most at peace when I was writing, even if what I wrote wasn’t necessarily cheerful or relevant to my own situation. One of my composition teachers in high school liked the pieces I handed in for assignments. She was unusual in that she believed women should have a voice and not settle for prescribed roles. She was a big influence on me, both in her encouragement of my writing and my development as a more independent person. And of course there was my older sister, Pari, who I became close to when I came back to live with my birth family. She was full of praise for my writing. She too, like the teacher, didn’t accept the limited prescribed roles for women. She wanted to be an actress and, like me, didn’t want to give in to the idea of arranged marriage at a very young age and settle for domesticity. Even though my parents were modernized Muslims, they still believed education was for their sons. Their daughters should aim for marriage as soon as they found a suitable man. We wanted to use the arts to escape what we felt deeply as the oppression of our beings.

The students I have taught come with such a variety
of goals and motivations. Some of them write for
the glory of it… Some want to express themselves
in reaction to certain figures in their lives—a father
or mother or husband or boy friend they hate…
There are some who write because they feel they
have a message, political or cultural… Then there
are some like myself who find it “necessary”
to their happiness to write.

Bender: A girl in one of your stories is strongly attracted to the writing of an author in a current magazine. Were there early influences on your own writing?

Rachlin: When I was in high school, I found a bookstore with books by European and American writers in translation. I read almost everything I found in translation—work by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Hemingway, Balzac. Of course, I also read books by Iranian writers. I probably absorbed some of the techniques used by the writers I read. I can’t say I was influenced by a particular writer.

Bender: In your newest work, the memoir, Persian Girls, you describe how stories you heard about women and their children and questions you had about your mother and her life as a younger woman inspired you and led to stories you kept hidden under your mattress. You also write about your father searching your room for material that could get the family in trouble with the Shah’s secret police.
Reading your stories to your sister Pari was important to retaining your identity as a girl who could find the freedom to use her imagination and stay true to her goal of getting from Iran to America. There, lack of censorship meant you could read and write the literature that you had to keep under wraps in Iran.
Now that you teach others who are writing, do you have some thoughts about the need for a special audience?

Rachlin: Not really. I write what comes naturally and is important to me, and I give the same advice to my students.

Bender: But it seems that knowing Pari would want to hear your work meant a lot. Having someone for whom our writing will be a treasure is rewarding as we begin. Have you ever found yourself encouraging your students to think of an audience they would like to share their work with as a way of honoring its importance?

Rachlin: The truth is I haven’t done that. The students I have taught come with such a variety of goals and motivations. Some of them write for the glory of it—expecting to make a lot of money, their name becoming known to everyone, movies being made of their work. Some want to express themselves in reaction to certain figures in their lives—a father or mother or husband or boyfriend they hate—and want to reveal these significant figures’ evil in their writing. There are some who write because they feel they have a message, political or cultural, to give to the world. Then there are some like myself who find it “necessary” to their happiness to write. Some of them have a sister or a boyfriend or someone close to them they get pleasure out of showing their work to.

Bender: Do you believe that childhood trauma and unhappiness are important components in making a person reach out to writing, to becoming a writer?

Rachlin: I think they are helpful because such experiences make a child more introspective and therefore, perhaps drawn to writing. But then there are writers who have had other influences to motivate them to write, such as growing up in an environment that values and encourages writing.

Bender: In what ways was becoming a writer symptomatic of being an outsider, a foreigner, a woman looking for her place?

Rachlin: I always felt like a foreigner in my own country, and then I felt that way in the small, provincial, all-women college I attended in America. The process of writing helped me understand my situation.

Bender: After so many years of writing short fiction and novels spun from your experience growing up in Iran, of longing to come to America and then once in America longing for some of the texture of life in Iran and for the connection disrupted by oppressive rules, revolution, and war, what freed you to write nonfiction?

Rachlin: For many years I wanted to write a memoir, straight from my life and with a particular emphasis on my sister, Pari, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I had too many conflicting feelings and unresolved questions about my family, and too much grief about losing Pari, the sibling with whom I was closest. She was the victim of a supposed accident. Knowing how depressed she was about her life, I suspected suicide. I went to Iran to talk to those who had been in close contact with her towards the end of her life. But for years it felt too raw to write about her. Finally, I managed to put it all on paper—I just needed the passage of time to be able to do that.

Bender: Can you describe what you mean by “too raw”? What is prose like when it is “raw”?

Rachlin: What I mean by “raw” is that the pain I felt was too intense and the wounds felt too open. It took a long time for me to digest the pain of being torn away from my aunt’s home (and her falling into deep depression that lasted for over a year), and witnessing tragedies in Pari’s life, and then learning about her death from falling down the staircase in her house. Gradually, I managed to put those experiences in perspective, among other, more positive life experiences.

Bender: Is it hard to see shape in real life experience without distance? If so, then why?

Rachlin: Yes, for me only the distance of time enables me to see shape and have perspective on various, hard to explain, events and experiences. When things have just happened, it is hard to see them in the wider context of all life experiences. For instance now, after many years, I can see that Maryam led a life that was still rewarding, even after the trauma of my father taking me away from her. She was very close to her sisters, women friends, other nieces, and also she still had contact with me and knew I loved her. The same with Pari. True, she had many tragedies, but she also experienced rewarding times and had joy—she appreciated going to movies, plays, and good restaurants. She had a winning personality and made friends easily. She knew I loved her, and we stayed in contact throughout her life, though much of it long distance by letters and occasional visits.

Bender: What is the opposite of “raw” for writers?

Rachlin: The opposite is not to “gush,” or ramble on, but to understand the nature of what we are trying to convey and put it in scenes that make it interesting and meaningful to the reader. With some distance, we understand better that we aren’t writing a diary to just record things for ourselves, but we are trying to create something for the reader, in terms of story line, emotions, meaning, and point of view. It is hard to do all this when things have just happened. We don’t have the perspective that time gives us to select and shape.

Bender: You have succeeded in shaping a memoir that allows me to enter your experience. I feel that the shape of your life was to be one of exile from the moment your grandmother carried you to your aunt’s house. You began evaluating words and experiences early and gave full voice to the idea of going to the U.S. to study. In reading your fiction about young women who return to Iran to reconnect with loved ones but suffer because husbands, the state, and roaming crowds all want to enforce strict religiously motivated codes, I am haunted by the injustice done to women while you were growing up. I was worried about Jennifer, a woman married to a man from Iran in The Heart’s Desire. She encourages him to take her and their son to visit his family and she is caught up in difficulties. Does it take a lot out of you to write from these kinds of experiences?

Rachlin: I find that writing, even about difficult situations, gives me satisfaction in that it gives them meaning for my readers and myself. I hope that the more such things are exposed, the greater the possibility will be for a change for the better. Growing up, I witnessed women I was very close to being subjugated by discriminatory laws. For instance, when Pari decided to leave her abusive husband, she automatically lost the custody of her son and all rights to any money she had brought into the marriage. She went home penniless and childless. By law, if a woman initiated divorce, she lost everything. If the husband initiated the divorce, he kept the children and all the money. He was only obligated to give what the wife had brought into the marriage as a dowry. Girls inherited half as much as their brothers when their parents died. These are only a few examples of how women were, and still are, considered second class citizens in Iran.

Bender: What advice do you have for those writing from painful political and family backgrounds?

Rachlin: My advice is that they should give themselves time to understand it all and not be in the state of grief with open wounds or anger before they attempt to write about such situations. Otherwise, the tendency would be to just pour out words without sufficient shape for the reader. To be able to write effectively about a situation, it is better to be somewhat calm about it.

…such experiences make a child more introspective
and therefore, perhaps drawn to writing. But then
there are writers who have had other influences
to motivate them to write, such as growing up in
an environment that values and encourages writing.

Bender: Most often, and certainly in Persian Girls, your characters, whether oppressed or oppressors, do come off as individuals, fully drawn. What helps you find that dimension?

Rachlin: In both my fiction and the memoir, I tried to understand my characters well—what makes them act and behave the way they do—that helps me become aware of all the dimensions of their characters. An example is my father. I was afraid of him because of his authoritative nature and was angry that he made Maryam and Pari and myself suffer in one way or another. But after hearing certain exchanges between him and my brothers, I realized he was conscious of social issues, had the capacity to empathize—with workers being underpaid, for instance—and was capable of great generosity. So he had both a good and bad side. Another example is my aunt Maryam—she was a staunchly observant Muslim, and a rigid follower of Islam’s rules, and yet she didn’t impose her set of beliefs on me. She let me go my own way.

Bender: In Married to a Stranger, your protagonist is a woman who can’t believe her good fortune in marrying her teacher, a writer she admires. Once home in his city, she finds that he is carrying on a long-term affair with the wife of a doctor, who’d been his friend in college. The protagonist puts out a literary journal, gains confidence, and wins a divorce from her husband, including funds to start her new life. In your sister’s life, divorce was finally granted but with no funds and with the loss of her baby son. The terrain for women in Iran seems very slippery. Yet, many of your female characters want to return. In Foreigner, the married Iranian-born, American biologist protagonist visits her estranged family in Iran, locates her biological mother, and decides to stay because she feels at home and wants to awaken the self that connects with Iran.

Rachlin: Though these women come here to escape all the limitations and oppression in Iran, they begin to miss what they can’t find in this culture. There is the richness of certain sights and sounds unique to Iran—gurgling of water in joobs, the vendors selling hot beets and corn roasted on braziers in front of them on sidewalks, the ancient historical sights such as gardens, palaces, and mosques. There is the richness of human interaction. People have great curiosity about each other, which allows intimacy and closeness. Also, the fact that men and women are forbidden to mingle before marriage draws the members of the same sex closer to each other. People are less focused on work and don’t value privacy as much as people do here. They are more interested in endless daily interaction with family and friends. All day long people knock on friends’ and families’ doors and come in. Tea is always brewing on the top of samovars, and fruit and pastries are on platters ready to serve to guests. Women sit together for hours and talk; confiding and sharing news. There is a sense that you can always reach out to friends and family members, and their doors are wide open for you.
When I was attending a small, all-woman college in the U.S., I was shocked by the fact that the students would cancel plans with a girl friend, if a boy asked them out at the same time. They had such definite commitment to the idea of having dates with boys that their girl friends became secondary to them.
In my own case, that yearning for Iran is only an abstract, in that I would never choose to live there. I feel that the oppressiveness of the system overwhelms all the advantages.

Bender: By abstract do you mean something you can write about and feel but something you wouldn’t act upon?

Rachlin: That is right. I yearn to return to Iran to experience the richness of the culture, but when I am there I become aware of all the limitations. The moment I am on the plane coming back to America, I feel a sense of relief and liberation. For instance, I can immediately take off the mandatory headscarf; more importantly, I can make critical remarks about the American government without the fear of being thrown into jail, as I would be if I openly criticized the Iranian government.

…for me only the distance of time enables me to see shape and have perspective on various, hard to explain, events and experiences. When things have just
happened, it is hard to see them in the wider
context of all life experiences.

Bender: Do you enjoy reminiscences of home as part of an expatriate group?

Rachlin: Not really. I don’t have a community of Iranians around me, so I rarely have the chance to reminisce. The only time I do that is with some family members, such as cousins I was very close to as a child. Then we reminisce about our childhood experiences with nostalgia.

Bender: I understand that leaving one’s homeland means great loss. I am wondering, though, how a woman might overcome fear of oppression to return for the sake of a relationship with family. I know from Persian Girls that you have made many trips back to Iran and discovered much about your family and the fate of so many loved ones. How do you muster the courage to enter a country that you have written has rules that change continually and rules that endanger a woman’s ability for legal recourse concerning her right to speak, be seen, and keep her own children?

Rachlin: Each time I go for a visit, I am apprehensive that I may be detained there and not be able to return to America. However, my desire to see certain loved ones enables me to overcome my fears and go there. I am willing to take the risk.

Bender: Have you worried that your reputation as an author will endanger you?

Rachlin: Yes. So far, nothing like that has happened, but I feel it could. I am not sure if any of my work has been translated into Farsi. Iran isn’t a part of international copyright agreements, so people can translate any book without asking permission from authors or their publishers. They do have to get permission from the censorship committee in Iran, to be able to publish any book there. I saw a little article in an Iranian newspaper about my novel Foreigner having been translated and published there but when I asked my friends to go and find it, no one could. So I am not sure what happened. If it was translated, I am sure it has changed a great deal in order to pass the censorship.

Bender: Do government officials look for writing about Iran to translate? Do they do anything beyond just not translating work they feel is anathema?

Rachlin: I am not sure about that. But I do know that individual people decide to translate certain books. They submit the translated versions to the authorities, and a censorship committee decides if they can be published in Farsi. Sometimes, the committee gives permission but only if the translator agrees to do a lot of cuts and changes so that taboo subjects can be avoided. Under the Shah, the censors were sensitive to anything that could be construed as a criticism of the government. The new regime is sensitive to that too, and, in addition, to anything they consider to be immoral. For instance, men and women can’t be described as kissing or holding hands. They can’t be drinking alcohol.

I yearn to return to Iran to experience the richness
of the culture, but when I am there I become aware
of all the limitations. The moment I am on the
plane coming back to America, I feel a sense
of relief and liberation.

Bender: When you write about the American wife Jennifer accompanying her son and husband to Iran, she is in trouble—her mother-in-law kidnaps the American born grandchild to have him attend religious instruction, her husband becomes easily swayed to spend the night with a prostitute, which is okay in male Islamic eyes since an aghound marries them for one night, and Jennifer is at one point jailed in a village because her makeshift chador falls away exposing her hair; later she is held captive by the Iranian doctor who helps her and doesn’t want her to leave for America. Does this portrayal of the Iranian culture draw criticism, not just by the Iranian government, but also by the average Iranian reader?

Rachlin: Many Iranians identify with my characters. But some are sensitive to the negative image that Iranians have in this country. They believe my mission as a writer should be to correct that. I can understand their sensitivity, but on the other hand, I am writing about what I perceive as truth. In all my books, there are both positive and negative aspects to the situations and characters I present, real to life. The characters in Heart’s Desire came to me because I wanted to demonstrate how an American views the Iranian culture and how an Iranian views the American culture; how each deals with problems in cultures that aren’t their own. It fascinates me how people interpret cultural cues and situations. I also wanted to show how the husband in this novel, because he had felt prejudiced against in America during the hostage crisis, is eager to embrace his own culture, which he had left behind. He is even able to accept the temporary marriage to the woman (who isn’t really considered to be a prostitute because becoming a sigheh, marrying for a brief period of one hour, two hours, or a few days, is sanctioned by the government as a way of avoiding prostitution).

Bender: How has the experience of being a pioneer of Iranian American writing—a term which didn’t exist until very recently—both give you a niche as a writer and also perhaps peg you in a certain way? Are there advantages/​disadvantages you see?

Rachlin: The only advantage is that it makes it easier for others to reach to me for certain, specific reasons, finding out about Iran, or just another culture. The disadvantage is that people then come to expect certain things from my writing that may not be there. Having lived in the U.S. more than half of my life, I have created many American characters, and the Iranian characters I have created are painted with the somewhat objective eye of an “outsider.”

Bender: How can someone tell if they might be better off writing fiction than a memoir? What are the differences to the writer?

Rachlin: I always thought I preferred to write fiction so that I would have the freedom to base each character on a conglomerate of several characters, and each situation on a combination of many incidents. I wouldn’t have that freedom in memoir. But at the same time, I began to have a desire to tell the story of my life and those of other women I grew up with as they were. It was like I had to tell it all and get it out of my system and to bring such situations to life for others. Another problem I anticipated about writing a memoir was that my family members wouldn’t agree with the way I viewed things. But then I decided to take that chance.

Bender: One similarity I see in all of your work, fiction and nonfiction alike, is the sharing of Persian poetry among characters and the prominence of song lyrics they listen to, all incredibly romantic and incredibly inflammatory for women in a culture that arranges marriages—sometimes of girls less than ten years old. Though their destiny is in their father’s hands, the young girls you portray are very romantic and hopeful. The men they marry use romantic words to coerce them into thinking they will be well loved and cared for when they are later emotionally and mentally and sometimes physically abused. How do you explain romanticism in this culture?

Rachlin: The ancient Iranian poets such as Omar Khayaam, who still have a great deal of popularity there, weren’t influenced by the Muslim religion, which prohibits romance before marriage. In addition, Iran has always had Americans, the English, and other Westerners living there because of the oil business, and spreading their values. So people are aware of romance and falling in love, and they experience it, though they are forbidden to act on those feelings unless the object of their romance happens to be someone they will marry.

Bender: Speaking of romance, Jumping Over Fire is a novel that’s stayed with me. The plight of a girl who falls in love with her adopted older brother and the ways in which that effects their young adult lives moves me. How did this particular plot occur to you?

Rachlin: In this novel, as in Heart’s Desire, I was interested to see how a girl like Nora, who views herself as an American, copes in Iran and then how Jahan, so all-Iranian, copes in America when they emigrate with their parents here. Nora, with her American looks and inclinations, blends well in America, and Jahan is treated like a foreigner and is unhappy. Their situation was the reverse when they lived in Iran. I also wanted to show how a girl like Nora feels the limitation of the Iranian culture particularly when she is an adolescent. She has no freedom to go out with boys so her fantasies all get attached to her brother, and when she finds out he is adopted, something they didn’t know until he was fifteen and she fourteen, she can justify her attraction.

Bender: I empathize with Nora; her honest nature, the agony of keeping a secret, the worry about her parents’ and her brother’s feelings, her desire to find the right life for herself, and her ability to work hard. I think Nora and all of your female characters embody qualities and concerns all women are familiar with. When you bring a character to life in a book, what are you aware of in their nature?

Rachlin: I believe people aren’t aware of what they are capable of doing or not doing until they are put to the test. And so I put my characters in difficult situations and see how they will behave, how they survive and overcome obstacles. I never know the outcome myself until I have gone through several drafts. For instance, in Foreigner, Feri, the protagonist of the novel, doesn’t realize how much she had missed about her own culture until she actually returns to Iran. Only when she is there and is looking back at her life in America, does she realize how sterile it was, how unhappy she was with her cold husband and her work. Iran is a place she had always wanted to get away from and come to the “free” America. But when in Iran, she realizes that the circumstances of her life in America made her a prisoner. By the end of the book, she isn’t even sure if she wants to return to America. But the realization and awareness become possible because she is actually in Iran and is put to the test about how she really feels and what she is capable of doing.

In all my books, there are both positive and negative aspects to the situations and characters I present,
real to life. The characters in Heart’s Desire came
to me because I wanted to demonstrate how
an American views the Iranian culture and how
an Iranian views the American culture; how each
deals with problems in cultures that aren’t their own.
It fascinates me how people interpret cultural
cues and situations.

Bender: Devising tests for your characters leads to plot and character development. What else helps you do that?

Rachlin: Ideas come to me as I go about my life. I might be taking a walk or looking out of the window and suddenly a solution comes to me about a character’s choices or directions and how to create scenes or a plot that would best represent the characters’ personalities and capabilities.

Bender: Your stories are set against political events in Iran. How much research do you do? How much is staying in touch with events in Iran a part of your work?

Rachlin: I do very little research just for the sake of my writing. I regularly read Iranian magazines and newspapers, as well as any news about Iran in American ones. I talk to Iranian friends and relatives who pass through New York. The Iranian newspapers and magazines report details, not just about the large political issues but also the daily events—certain publications closing down, others coming into existence, art exhibitions, movies and plays, restaurants opening up or closing, crime, prices of certain things going up. So I get glimpses into the texture of life there.

Bender: Do you have advice for those writing fiction or memoir that involves knowledge of world events about how to keep the story from having too much exposition that might take the reader out of the story?

Rachlin: I think character development should be the emphasis, and the political situation should be in the background, used to the extent that that the characters’ actions, choices, decisions, can be put in context. For instance, in Foreigner, I focus on Feri’s personal dilemma rather than the political situation around her in Iran or America. She has begun to sense certain sterility about the American way of life, and sees Iran as a spiritually richer culture. People find out about world events in broad terms by reading or listening to news. Only in fiction or memoir do you have the chance to get into the complexities and nuances of a culture and people living in it.

Bender: After reading your work, I see Iranian culture as complex, its people and families diverse in their ways of connecting with the dominating culture, and the state of humanity. There is a lot of sadness about how life turned out from the ’70s to today. There is contradiction in the way so many love worldly pleasures, others shun them and feel their values are compromised, and still others seem to have a foot in both worlds—not practicing religion, but adhering to traditional roles for women and men. How do you think things are going now for the people of Iran?

Rachlin: Most young Iranians are particularly unhappy about all the restrictions imposed on them—the widespread censorship of everything. There are few sources of entertainment for them—boys and girls aren’t allowed to mingle, to drink, to dance; nightclubs are closed down; most movies deal with limited subjects. What happens is that they are forced to lead an underground life—they obtain things from the black market and carry on many activities covertly. When I visited Iran last, my relatives’ young children watched American movies on videos, listened to American music on tapes, and drank alcohol; all these were obtained from the black market, which is practically as large as the legal market. They went to parties with boys taking place in far away houses where the “moral” police weren’t as much on the look out. The more modernized older generation is also unhappy about some of those rules. But then there are people, the younger as well as the older generation, that approve of those restrictions because they are religious themselves and their values are similar to ones the government is imposing on people. Iran has always been a mingling of traditional and westernized, religious and nonreligious—values that create contradictions and complexity.

Bender: Are there themes and/​or topics you want to explore in fiction and nonfiction based on what you know about Iran today?

Rachlin: For my next project, I am planning on writing a novel set in present day Iran. I will mainly focus on identical twin sisters and how their lives are affected and how they go in different directions as they reach adolescence and they have more complex interactions with the outside world. In it, I want to catch all the nuances of the “double” life people are forced to lead, often with tragic consequences.

Bender: Is it hard to begin something new after succeeding at finishing so many stories? How do you allow yourself to feel comfortable getting back to unknowns again?

Rachlin: Writing is a necessity for me. I get depressed when I take too long a break from it. I am happiest when I can spend several hours a day writing. It is as if experiences don’t have full meaning unless I channel them into scenes in fiction or memoir.

Bender: We haven’t discussed your teaching life. How does teaching affect your writing?

Rachlin: I find interaction with students stimulating—we have similar interests and questions. I also learn from them in that pointing out what works and doesn’t work in the pieces they hand in helps me to look at my own writing the same way. I become a better editor of my own work because of teaching.

Bender: Are there trends you are seeing in the work of today’s young writers that excite you? Any that irritate you?

Rachlin: What excites me is to see students being willing to write openly and honestly about their experiences, not afraid to reveal themselves. What irritates me, mostly when I teach at the undergraduate level, is the limited range of the students’ preoccupations. They can be overly concerned in their writing with subjects like dating, grades, and such matters. Older students have wider range of experiences and that reflects in what they choose to write about.

Bender: Are there any words of advice you find yourself giving frequently?

Rachlin: I tell students that they should write what they are passionate about rather than trying to calculate the market. I have found that calculations rarely work. If they write something that interests them, they will be more willing to work hard on it, shape and revise, face and overcome obstacles.


from Persian Girls: A Memoir
by Nahid Rachlin

At the end of the evening Manijeh and Javad left for a hotel. The next day they would go on a week-long honeymoon in Shiraz. After that they would settle in Abadan, where Javad had his practice and was affiliated with the oil refinery’s hospital. They would live in a modern apartment in a modern area, where many of the American employees of the hospital and oil refinery lived as well.
“Next is your turn,” Father said to me at breakfast. His smile was hesitant, as if he was unsure if he wanted to be gentle with me.
“I don’t want to get married.”
“Do you want to be an old maid?”
“I want to go to a university in America,” I said.
As if my not wanting to give in to marriage signaled to him other kinds of trouble from me he replied by saying, “Are you careful about what you say in public? SAVAK is tightening up its grip. The Shah is afraid of the mullahs. He can’t count on the CIA again if he’s forced out.”
Though Father was preaching at me I was flattered that he was talking to me the way he used to with my brothers. Was he seeing me differently? Would he soon change his mind and let me go and join my brothers?
That flicker of hope was rudely extinguished a few days later. I was sitting in a shady corner of the courtyard and reading the novel, Mother, by Maxim Gorky, another white-jacket book, I had bought from the Tabatabai Bookstore. I was usually careful to do my reading alone, but because Father wasn’t home, I was sitting in the open with it. I saw a shadow pass behind me, then Father standing over my shoulder, looking at the book.
“Let me see that,” he said. I handed it to him. “Where did you get this communistic book?”
“I found it in an empty classroom,” I said, not wanting to give away the bookstore man. I had been drawn to it because of its title, preoccupied as I was by the issue of motherhood.
“Don’t you know communism is outlawed?” he said. “Your brothers never gave me trouble like you do.” His voice escalated as he said, “If I’m caught with that book in my home I’ll lose my license and be sent to jail. Three years for owning that book.” Like an interrogator investigating a crime, he asked, “What else have you been reading?” Without waiting for an answer he began to pull out the pages from the book and tear them into pieces. He was in a frenzy. He collected the pieces that fell on the ground and walked away with them. I remained frozen in the same spot I’d been when he’d appeared.”


review: Chicago Tribune: In "Crowd of Sorrows Nahid Rachlin weaves a story of displacement and loss, centered on the idea that we build our homes around the people we love. Newly separated from her husband, Zora moves to a seemingly idyllic apartment complex to raise her daughter Anar. From the courtyard, they can see through the wide back windows to the building's young families. Zora imagines play dates and companionship, a place for the family of two to find their footing as the divorce is finalized. Instead, she discovers life at the complex is dominated by jealousies and petty scandals. Just when everything begins to settle, disaster strikes: Anar goes missing. In the search and its aftermath, Zora must come to terms with her ideas about security, independence and motherhood. The writing captures the gasping panic of Anar's disappearance beautifully. In a way, it's a story about the flipside of love: the consuming fear of loss.
REVIEW: NPR: The World, selected as ONE OF THE BEST FOUR BOOKS OF the year, by Christopher Merrill, Director of Iowa International Writing program: "If you want to know what it was like to grow up in Iran this is the book to read. Rachlin, the author of five previous works of fiction, including the much acclaimed Foreigner, begins her story at the age of nine, when she was taken away from the only mother she had ever known—her aunt, as it happens—and returned to a family in which the prospects of her becoming a writer were, at best, dim. But her portrait of the artist in an Islamic country on the verge of dramatic change is filled with light."
"If, as Aristotle reminds us, we are our desire, then who are we if the object of our desire is forbidden? What becomes of us if we are born in one world yet long for another? These are just two of the complex and difficult questions Nahid Rachlin explores and ultimately illuminates in this brave, engrossing, and timely novel. I recommend it highly!"--Andre (Dubus III),author of House of Sand and Fog, and In the Bedroom
"... a rare intimate look at Iranians who are poorer and less educated... I have read (this book) four times by now, and each time I have discovered new layers in it. The voice is cool and pure. Bleak is the right word, if you will understand that bleakness can have a startling beauty."
--Anne Tyler, New York Times Book Review

Interviewed by Jessica Blau, author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties