Written by Nika Jonas
Our Reading Between the Headlines series looks at hot-button issues, people, and places ubiquitous in the news, and goes a little deeper. This week our bookseller & events coordinator Nika takes us into the world of Iranian literature. The US’s relationship with Middle-Eastern countries has not been particularly supportive for a long time, but with recent attacks that targeted government official Qassem Suleimani, and threatened attacks to Iranian cultural centers, the tension is higher than ever. This is a great time to discover the diverse and vivid history, art, and people that have made Iran such a unique place in the world.
Rabeah Ghaffari, To Keep the Sun Alive
In her debut novel To Keep the Sun Alive, Rabeah Ghaffari offers a window into Iran on the eve of the 1979 revolution by way of multigenerational narrative centering on a family whose matriarch, Bibi Khanoom, lives on an orchard in the city of Naishapur. Ghaffari artfully slips past the generality of the historical, bringing readers straight to the personal, with vivid language that conjures an unforgettable portrait of a country and a family on the brink.
We’re also hosting Rabeah January 30th at the store!
Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs
Looking for something more historical? Ryszard Kapuściński’s fascinating book about the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran toppled in the 1979 revolution, is a great place to start. A veteran of revolutionary reporting, Kapuściński’s ability to capture and relate minute details bring Shah of Shahs to life. Looking at a photograph of a crowded bus stop, the tilt of a man’s head transforms the image from an unremarkable scene to one evocative of the ever-present threat of the secret police’s eavesdropping.
Solmaz Sharif, Look
Like many countries in the region, Iran has a rich poetic tradition. Whether you want to dip into the classic poetry of Hafez and Rumi or something a little more modern, there’s a lot to choose from. However, there’s also a lot of great poetry to come out of the Iranian diaspora. Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection, Look, is a stunning book that navigates the roles of language and power in war, erasure, and loss. Sharif’s clear-eyed political urgency and poetic voice make this an illuminated unforgettable reading experience.
Dina Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee
For another take on the diaspora, Dina Nayeri’s powerful book The Ungrateful Refugee provides a sharp interrogation of the notion of “good” immigrants. Combining her own memories of fleeing Iran at eight years old with stories of other asylum seekers and refugees, Nayeri challenges the language surrounding the refugee crisis with her signature intelligence and insight.
Afshin Molavi, The Soul of Iran (travelogue)
Iran-born Ashfin Molavi’s wonderful travelogue The Soul of Iran details his return trip to Iran, where he visits various cities across the country speaking with everyone from government officials to taxi drivers. As a native Persian speaker with a broad base of historical knowledge, Molavi paints a colorful and nuanced portrait of the country. If you’re more interested in a political take, Hooman Majd book The Ayatollahs’ Democracy gives an astute analysis of the Iran’s contemporary political landscape.
This list is woefully short, but it’s a great place to start. Iran has a rich history and literary tradition, and there is so much more to explore and discover! If you’re interested in reading more from, and about, Iran, here are a few more authors to check out:
- If you’re looking for classics: anything by poet Forugh Farrokhzad or the writer Mahmoud Dawlatabadi, both of whom are giants of Iranian literature. Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl is another classic 20th century work of fiction.
- If you’re looking for contemporary writers: Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is as engaging as it is unique, and we love poet Kaveh Akbar’s unforgettable Calling a Wolf a Wolf. And look out for Porochista Khakpour’s Brown Album in 2020!
- If you’re looking for non-fiction: Abbas Amanat’s tome Iran: A Modern History is exactly what it sounds like: a definitive history of the country for the history fanatics out there. Another great option is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet, which is a fascinating tale of revolutionary Iran based on first hand accounts.