by Alexa Barger
Dr. Marie Ostby’s appreciation of literature – and of the world – comes in part from her upbringing. Born in Oslo, Norway as the child of a parent who worked for the United Nations Development Programme, Ostby found herself moving through various corners of the world, from Islamabad to Copenhagen. “My other parent is a novelist and former journalist,” she notes; her study of world literature is a product of her heritage and her upbringing. “While Iran was one of many stops along the way” for Ostby’s family, “it’s been my intellectual focus for about thirteen years now.” After a series of extended trips to Iran – where she visited her family, volunteered with UNICEF Iran, and explored the cultural heritage of the country – Ostby became fascinated with the place of literature in Iranian life. Visiting the tomb of the 14th century poet Hafez, she bore witness to “how poetry is both quotidian and sacrosanct in Iranian culture;” she redirected her interest towards contemporary Iranian literature.
Ostby was determined to read everything she could get her hands on – from the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad to Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Touba and the Meaning of Night. “I read Farzaneh Milani’s Veils and Words, which would eventually lead me to apply for a Ph.D. [in English] at the University of Virginia, where she leads the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures;” there, she wrote her dissertation with Milani as her mentor, and Jahan Ramazani, a scholar of postcolonial poetics, as her dissertation director . Now an Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College, Ostby finds herself most at home among Iranian and Iranian-diasporic scholarship and literature.
Ostby’s current book project, The Global Genres of Modern Iran: From Travelogues to Twitter, especially looks at the circulation of Iranian literature from the 19th century to the present day. “Focusing on hybrid genres, flexible forms, and evolving literary expressions [influenced by] Iranian and Euro-American cultures, my book explores how these modern histories of literature, art, and film are intimately interwoven, despite the isolation within which popular US media would have us perceive Iran exists,” she notes. To move beyond these confines, it is essential to look at all forms of expression that have developed in Iran – from travelogues to graphic novels, visual art, and film.
The project looks both at the importance of the dynamics of genre and at the role of reception. Ostby observes, in part, that Western readers have maintained a hyperfocus on memoir – a genre that often transforms to conform with readers’ expectations. “Readers in the Global North cannot hope to understand the multicultural, interfaith, cosmopolitan, and progressive foundation of modern Iranian society without looking beyond mainstream media narratives,” says Ostby, as they often focus on “the stories of individuals told out of context within a genre that can be culturally biased.” To get the full picture of Iranian and diasporic narratives, she says, it is essential to look at traditional and emerging modes of storytelling and expression – from the rhyming couplets of the ghazal to the succinct structure of modern-day tweets. All of these forms are informed by history and power; “each new hybrid form is a new creative modality that resists potential hegemonies of national or transnational political power,” constantly informed by past and present forms of literary and social expression.
“The project addresses a gap in the field of world literature in the US academy, where Middle Eastern texts have generally been marginalized,” she says. Just as Iran “existed in a politically and diplomatically volatile climate for most of the twentieth century,” genres and modes of storytelling have historically been in constant flux; as they continue to transform, Ostby believes it is essential to take a closer look at Iran’s literary history and traditions. “The isolated position of Iran has made it more difficult and more urgent for modern Iranian literature to gain scholarly and popular attention.”
Yet Ostby has felt anything but isolated as a scholar of Iranian literature. She relates feeling honored, humbled, and inspired by the scholars around her. “Jasmin Darznik’s 2009 class on Iranian Literature and Human Rights led to my first publication,” she recalls, “and literature of the Iranian diaspora was the subject of my first MLA panel alongside Jasmin, Persis Karim, Amy Motlagh, and Babak Elahi.”
At the “Forty Years and More” Iranian Diaspora Studies conference at San Francisco State University, which took place in March 2019, Ostby sensed that she had participated in “a moment in intellectual history—like the shift of a field from ‘emerging’ to ‘established.’” In a climate where Islamophobia and anti-Iranian sentiment have become more prevalent, Ostby describes the conference as “a powerful antidote to the hateful times in which we live, in America and elsewhere—the consecration of a field as much as a fierce declaration of love for what we study, and for one another.”
“Wherever we are in the world,” she says, “we live our lives atop and within a palimpsest of colonial violence, economic exchange, and power relations. White European and American women have often tried and failed to write about Iran. Iranian women have often written about Europe and the US, and their writing has been erased and forgotten, or stereotyped, packaged, and commodified. Ultimately, I hope my book can at least propose a framework for undoing some of that epistemic, and very real, violence.”
We would like to thank Dr. Ostby for her paper, “The Green Wave: Iranian Cinema, American Life, and Global Dissent,” presented on the panel “Songs of the Second Generation: Iranian Diasporic Literature and Film in the 21st Century” co-organized by Ostby and Kamran Javadizadeh at the Forty Years and More Conference. To take a look at the program, go to https://ids.sfsu.edu/content/conference-program.
To learn more about Dr. Ostby’s work, go to https://www.conncoll.edu/directories/faculty-profiles/marie-ostby/.