For D.C. based author and illustrator Juana Medina, learning English in her native Columbia was a requirement she resisted as a child, yet appreciated later as an adult.
Goli Taraghi is a best-selling author in her native Iran whose work has been anthologized around the world. A selection of Taraghi’s stories is out now in English, featuring sharply drawn characters who land in situations both absurd and poignant. She draws on her childhood in Tehran during the upheaval of the 1979 revolution, as well as her expatriate life in Paris. We speak with the author about her life and her work.
- Goli Taraghi Author, "The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories"
Reprinted from “The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories” by Goli Taraghi. Copyright © 2013 by Goli Taraghi. Translation copyright © 2013 by Sara Khalili. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1979 the Shah of Iran was deposed in a revolution that established an Islamic Republic in that Persian nation. That's the era in which many of Goli Taraghi's stories are set. But her fiction doesn't dwell on politics, religion or ideology. Instead she explores the state of mind of people who find themselves in situations often absurd and often heart wrenching. Joining us to discuss her work is Goli Taraghi. She is a best-selling author in her native Iran. Her new collection in English is titled "The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHer work has been anthologized around the world and she has been honored with numerous literary prizes. This latest collection was translated from the Persian by Sarah Khalili. Goli Taraghi, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. GOLI TARAGHIThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIIn one way or another, your fiction centers on the Iranian revolution or its aftermath. How and why has that been the defining moment for you and for your fiction?
TARAGHIWell, you know, this is because this has changed my life completely. This is affected my complete being way of thinking, the way of writing, the way of living. I'm exiled in Paris. I live in Paris so it's not something, you know, easy and it's not something simple. At the beginning, you know, we all believe that it's nice to have a revolution. How fun. How exciting, especially a spiritual sort of revolution.
TARAGHIAnd at that time I was teaching at the University with my students. I was also in the streets, you know, running and asking for freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of everything. And how naïve we were, I must say.
NNAMDIDo the stories in this collection span your career in terms of when they were written?
TARAGHIYes. For example, "The Great (sic) Lady of My Soul" was written at the very start of the revolution. And the other ones, you know, continued and then I have the stories that I just wrote two years ago before, you know, that this book was published.
NNAMDIYou avoid overt politics in your work, even though you're writing about the revolution and its aftermath. Why is that?
TARAGHIYes. Well, because I'm not really interested in politics, especially political literature. I don't believe in it because political or social literature is not something that will last. It's something that it takes place in history. And with history going forward, it also was forward and fades away. But I'm interested in eternal things, you know, the real human condition, the pains and turmoils and love and loss, which are always, you know, will be with human beings no matter when and no matter where. They're primordial, you know, or universal themes and this interests me, you know.
NNAMDIDespite avoiding overtly political themes, your stories definitely poke fun at extremists no matter their politics. Can you talk a little bit about the absurdity you take on in many of your stories?
TARAGHIYes. You see that that Iran is an ocean of contradictions even today, you know. A very modern Iran suddenly is mixed with something which comes from so backward, you know. So years ago, years ago, years ago, you know. And these two, of course, when they are mixed, they become absurd and they become funny and they become tragic, you know. It's very -- it's obvious. And so I pick up -- I look and I pick up these absurdities, these contradictions, these characters, like characters of (word?) which are at the same time, you know, comic and tragic.
NNAMDII'd like to read a little from one of the stories, the story you mentioned earlier called "The Great Lady of My Soul." "They have shut down the university, and professors are being put on trial in absentia. My students shout down with philosophy, down with reactionaries. They beat their young fists against the walls and run along the university corridors searching for the meaning of freedom. Sir, what does 'unity in words' mean, they ask? Which is more valid, matter or idea? Which bears the truth? God or history?
NNAMDI"My wife believes in the jihad for reconstruction. She has donated her silver bangles to the nearby mosque and on clean city days she swept the dirt road in our neighborhood. In Islam, revenge is permissible, she says, and with fear and awe, she looks at the pictures of those who have been executed. At night she rushes off to the women's guidance and religious education classes. She believes in the dictates of good and evil. She has cleaned and cut her long, red nails, and wiped off her green eye shadow.
NNAMDI"She covers her hair with a black headscarf, and she is especially careful that people don't see her earlobes. She is restless and excited, and her newfound faith makes her heart race. She sits next to me, looks at me, and tells me all about blasphemy and sin, about the devil's temptation and the need for punishment. Don't you believe in heaven and hell she asks? No, I don't. She often stays up at night and quietly prays. Her breath is cool and her skin smells of rosewater.
NNAMDI"Every time I look at her, she is smiling and gazing up at the sky outside the window. Listen, she says, can you hear the angels singing? No, I can't. I bury my head under the pillow in search for sleep. I can hear shots being fired and people shouting, "God is great" on the rooftops in the neighborhood. Friends say we should leave. Friends say we should stay and fight. Friends are in a frenzy to start a newspaper and to organize a political party." Can you talk a little bit about that story? It's my understanding that you wrote it while the revolution was going on.
TARAGHIYes. It was at the very beginning, I went also to Kashan myself to see a poet friend, and there the -- Kashan, you know, at the same time, one was beautiful, away from the ugliness of all that mob and turmoil and slogans and, you know, confusion and chaos, and as you see there in character in my story was a writer who goes to Kashan. He sees all that beauty at the same time, and says how far it is the sky of Kashan from all that, you know, turmoil and Tehran and how beautiful is this desert.
TARAGHIAnd so, I may really, you know, I wanted, you know, to show this contrast, and this style that I chose is like as if I have a camera and I take a flash of, you know, Kashan and Tehran and here and there, and all this contrast. For example, the narrator, the father of the narrator is just, you know, he's sitting and playing his sitar and trying to make the wine because at the beginning when Khomeini came, he said that alcoholic drinks are forbidden. So right away everybody started to make homemade wine and whiskey.
TARAGHIAnd he -- Khomeini said we have to become self-sufficient, and so we became self-sufficient. We made our own wine at home. And this is one -- and then there is another person that Iranian will understand because of his name is (unintelligible) is an Armenian, and we have many Armenians in Iran who had liquor shop. And then he is so scared that he has closed his liquor shop and he is making kompots, you know, and selling very sort of safe commodities. And these are funny people, tragic people.
NNAMDIBut they're also in very many ways real people. You were teaching at the university at this point the university students in the book are chanting against philosophy. Is that in fact what was going on among the young people you were teaching at that time?
TARAGHIYou see, it's very symbolic because suddenly they had a -- down with philosophy, it means that now in revolution we are political minded, we are Marxist. And so being a Marxist, Communists, you know, they don't want -- philosophy here symbolizes, you know, the art and imagination and other things and revolution and Marxism, Communism. But even later on even today we have this strange contrast, the strange mélange, this mixture of Communism and Sufism. For example, we have mystic communists.
TARAGHIOur greatest oppositions calls itself Marxist Islamists, you know. All these -- they don't -- but they go to -- they don't go together, but still all -- this is the -- this shows the confusion and contrast in Iranian society.
NNAMDIAs we said, the state of mind of people who find themselves in situations both often absurd and often heart wrenching. We're talking with Goli Taraghi. She's a best-selling author in her native Iran. Her new collection in English is called "The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons: Selected Stories." If you have question for Goli Taraghi about her work or about her life in Iran during the revolution or her expatriate life in Paris since then, give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIIn so many of these stories, upheaval and revolution reveal and bring out unexpected and sometimes absurd, sometimes terrible sides of people. Can you talk a little bit about what people experienced during that period, and what about that that fuels your fictional portraits of them, the observations that you saw, the changes in people taking place during the revolutionary period.
TARAGHIOf course. And even today when I go to Iran, most of the people that I see, they are characters for a story, and I put them in the waiting room of my mind, so one day they definitely will enter a new story. Pomegranate Lady, of course, she is a product of Iran and what happened that she's coming -- she comes from a village trying to go to Sweden to find her sons who have run away, but she doesn't even know where Sweden is, and she asks the wise of the village and the wise of the village doesn't know, but he says, I've heard it's a place so cold that cows standing freeze and goats freeze and people freeze and everything freeze, and don't go there because you will freeze.
TARAGHIAnd she says, no, I will go no matter what. And so when I met her at the airport, she came to me and said, madam, where is Sweden? How can I get to Sweden? And so I said, okay. Come with me, because I saw that she -- we are in the same plane, and she comes and woke me up, wake up, we are passing Sweden maybe. You know, be careful we don't pass as if she was in a bus, you know. So she's a very tragic figure, but at the same time we can laugh and cry with her.
NNAMDIShe makes no distinction between riding on a bus and riding on a plane. She didn't understand that this vehicle would not be carrying her directly to Sweden, and so when it stops in Paris there is some confusion. You have also said that fear can change people. Can you explain from your experience what you've seen and what you mean by that.
TARAGHIYes. Fear of course can change people. In this revolution when they started to execute, you know, enemies as they called -- enemies of the god, you know, and in the name of Allah, they started to arrest and execute people, suddenly even -- we were horrified. It was a period of terror. And I saw the (unintelligible) in this revolution and a lot of masks were taken off the face of the people. People who change overnight who were afraid of neighbors, you know, afraid of everybody, afraid of any telephone call, even their own children, because at the school, the teachers told children you must come and tell us about your parents, do they drink, do they pray, whatever they do.
TARAGHISo even, you know, there were a lot of people who were scared of their little, you know, children. And the children, of course, sometimes would say that if you don't do this for me, if you don't buy this for me, I will report you to the teacher. So this was horrible, you know. It was the fear that people who were extremely nice to each other suddenly avoided each other. Some, you know, you saw that in Russia, you know, Soviet Union, it all happened. Fear made you suspicious.
NNAMDIYou've lived in Paris now for more than 30 years, but when you left Iran for Paris during the upheaval of the revolution, did you expect that you would end up living Paris permanently?
TARAGHINo, never. Never. I, you know, for me and a lot when the revolution had started, we -- you somehow thought that this is something temporary that it...
NNAMDIA passing phase.
TARAGHIRight. That everything become like -- will become as before. So schools are closed. My children went to kindergarten. They were small. Kindergartens were closed. Everything was, you know, upside down and was turmoil and confusion. So I said, okay, it's a good opportunity for me now that university is closed, I will go to Paris. I always wanted, you know, to live in Paris because I lived seven years in America. I went to school...
NNAMDIAnd you were going to school here in Iowa, didn't you?
TARAGHIYeah. In Des Moines, Iowa of all places.
TARAGHIBut that is a big story. But -- and I took my children -- I said only one year. I didn't -- my -- I just left my house as it was, you know. I didn't cover anything because I said I will come back after a year for sure. But little did I know that, um, war with Iraq would keep me eight years in Paris, and then it will be too late for my children to bring them back. So I waited until -- till everything comes again like before, and then it's 34 years, my dear, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd that hasn't happened yet. You left during 1979 revolution. Do you consider yourself after having spent more than 30 years in Paris, by my count 34, do you consider yourself still to be in exile?
TARAGHIIn exile in a way that I -- after the war was over, I went to Tehran. I even took my children ever summer and then I -- I cannot live without being in Iran. How can I find my characters? In Paris I don't have any characters, you know. I must find these strange, absurd, funny, tragic people only in Iran. So...
NNAMDISo you go back a lot?
TARAGHIYes. I go -- I used to go back not a lot, two -- sometimes four years I didn't go. I was afraid of certain things, and then they were -- sort of, but I publish in Iran, and this keeps me on and on because I insist to publish in Iran, although I have published three books in France. But I -- my source of inspiration is in Iran, and I found these funny, strange, characters in Iran like "Gentleman Thief" is one of my stories, you know.
TARAGHIWhere you can find a gentleman thief who would come to steal in your house and then becomes your friend and he would go and buy you medicine, and at that same time care you? Nowhere.
NNAMDINo place else, but -- but because you publish in Iran, do you have to censor yourself?
TARAGHIYes, absolutely. There are -- I censor myself, then my publisher makes some censor, then the real, you know...
NNAMDIThe Ministry of Islamic Orientation.
NNAMDIWhich oversees these things, how does that work when you got to get a book published after you have self-censored, after your publisher has censored some, what happens? How does that work when it goes to the Ministry of Islamic Orientation?
TARAGHIIt goes to -- it goes the Ministry and Ministry also either says absolutely no, or they start, you know, to cut certain pages, certain sentences, a lot of words, and then it's possible that even when they give the permission which happened to one of my books, the book is published, it is re-edited five times, then it is confiscated. Somebody because wrote an article that this woman is a corrupted woman. She lives in Paris, a corrupted life, and her father also was a corrupted, lustful, horny man. And my father, you know, was a very serious man that -- who didn't even know what sex is.
NNAMDIYet they thought of him as a corrupt man living that life. The censorship situation also seems to depend on who is in charge...
NNAMDI...at the Ministry of Islamic Orientation, right?
TARAGHIYes. That is also -- it's luck that if you find somebody that -- who has so understanding or likes the story very much or has nothing against you so he gives the permission. He's softer, you know, than others.
NNAMDIThere's a lot -- there are a lot of intricacies involved in this process. You're a best seller in Iran, and you've achieved one of the highest literary prizes in France where you live, but your work is not as well known in English. At least not yet. After today, believe me, it will widely known.
TARAGHII hope so.
NNAMDIHow does it feel with this new collection sharing your work with an American audience?
TARAGHISo far all the reviews has really been wonderful and it has pleased me, and anybody who has read the book comes to me or came to me and says that they love this story, they enjoyed it very much. So I really hope that -- I want to make contact with people, and it's not to sell or become a best seller, but when I see that people react and understand -- because my stories are at the same time, full of sense of humor and they are tragic and they deal with -- it can be you also all sitting here, you know.
NNAMDII'm beginning to notice that about you. You observe your characters wherever you are, and somehow they may end up in one of your books. I hope you treat me kindly if that happens. We're running out of time, but you mentioned that you went to University in this country. How did you end up studying in Iowa?
TARAGHIYes. This is always -- if you are American you ask that. If you are Iranian you say where? Where in the hell is Iowa?
TARAGHIIt's because my father had sent my brother first to America to Washington. But he's a masochist, I think, because after a few years, he chose Iowa State University. I was -- that's a good university for engineering. So he went to Iowa.
NNAMDIFrom here in Washington DC?
TARAGHIYes. From Washington DC after two years he went to Iowa.
NNAMDIAnd returned to follow where our families go. I'm afraid we're out of time. Goli Taraghi is a best-selling author in her native Iran. Her new collection in English is titled "The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories." Thank you so much for joining us.
TARAGHIThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd please, good luck with this book.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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