Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Jasmin Darznik, Novelist and Professor

By Persis Karim

Five weeks after her father’s death, Jasmin Darznik’s mother decided to move from the house where she’d lived for many years. While rummaging through boxes, Darznik found several photos that seemed to capture a frozen past—a time in her life that she only vaguely remembered, but with a pronouncing detail that surprised her. The photo that grabbed her attention was of young girl, her mother, as a teen bride. Beside her stood a man who appeared to be the groom—but she knew the man wasn’t her father.

This discovery was the basis of Darznik’s New York Times best-selling memoir, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, published to widespread acclaim in 2011.

“Nearly as astonishing as this revelation,” said Darznik, “was my mother’s expression in the photograph. “Eyes fixed on the distance and lower lip pouting, she looked as if the next shot would have shown her crying. I had never known my proud mother to look like that,” recalls Darznik.

Born in Tehran to her Iranian mother and a German father, Darznik came to California when she was five years old. Her parents decided to leave Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution to pursue a new life in the United States. Throughout Darznik’s childhood and adolescence, the family purchased, and her parents ran, a rundown motel in Marin County. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Darznik has several degrees: a Ph.D. from Princeton University in English, a Master of Fine Arts degree from Bennington College, as well as a Juris Doctorate—all suggestive of the influences of her mother, who Darznik says, had to reinvent herself multiple times throughout her life.

Darznik’s 2018 debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird, recently issued in paperback, reflects Darznik’s interest and passion for strong female characters in the Iranian context. Song of a Captive Bird is based on the life of the most acclaimed female poet of modern Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad. She says she was inspired to write this novel because her mother had smuggled a book of Farrokhzad’s banned poetry out of Iran when they left for America and she’d long been curious about the poet’s life and legacy.

“I wanted to hear a particular voice, a woman and an Iranian, in whom I could see myself reflected. Forough’s poems challenged the stereotypes and the perceptions about Iranian women. She was far from being a silent victim of fate,” says Darznik. “Her poetry is bold, angry, sexual, and sometimes difficult; those poems saved me. They still do,” she adds. Darznik came to this novel from the same place that motivated her writing of The Good Daughter: “I wanted to get at the silences, the omissions in Iranian history, particularly of women’s history, by writing about them.”

Darznik says that writing about Farrokhzad in Song of a Captive Bird had its own challenges. “I had to let myself take some liberties, but I also established some rules about what and how to fictionalize her life.” Invention, says Darznik, was necessary, since “for Iranian women so much of our history is absent or inaccessible to us.” It has been a rewarding, if challenging, reclamation of the past, one she links to the process of coming into an Iranian identity.

When Darznik describes the particular challenges of writing about Iran or Iranians she says, “I’m really writing for two audiences at the same time—for those who might be familiar with a figure like Farrokhzad, but also for those who don’t know her, those who don’t know the circumstances of her life, or the mystery of her death.” And because there is so much mystery and mythology around Farrokhzad’s untimely and premature death, many Iranians are attached to their own narratives about her. “You have to come up with a story and an ending that satisfies both kinds of readers,” says Darznik, who clearly understands how fiction and the writer can do more to “complete” a story than perhaps history and biography can.

Darznik’s most recent novel project, with the working title, The Bohemians of Telegraph Hill, takes place in 1920s San Francisco. The novel is about the friendship between two women—one white and one Asian. “It speaks to my own immigrant identity and also engages with some of the debates taking place today about immigration more broadly,” says Darznik. “It is my first attempt to tell a truly ‘American’ story—not one rooted in Iran—and I find it very liberating.” Although Darznik enjoyed writing her first two books and felt compelled by the location and subject of Iran and Iranian culture, she finds that many Americans still don’t want to read a story about Iran. “There is still so much prejudice and pre-conceived ideas about the country. After several years of working on a project, it’s hard to hear things like ‘I would have never read a book like this.’” Even when couched as compliments, such statements can be disheartening, says Darznik.

“But the longer I write, the more I believe that stories choose us, rather than the other way around, and that it’s not so much our work to make up them up as to let them be told through us,” she said.

Darznik, who is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and Literature at California College of the Arts, will be a panelist for the “40 Years & More” Conference taking place at SF State March 28-30, 2019. To learn more about her panel and the conference, go to: https://ids.sfsu.edu/conference.

To learn more about Darznik and her books, go to: http://jasmin-darznik.com

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