ROSEMARY NEILL talks to ANITA AMIRREZVANI NOVELIST
WHEN Anita Amirrezvani gives speeches about her acclaimed debut novel, The Blood of Flowers, she tells her audiences: ‘‘ I was born in the axis of evil and raised by the Great Satan.’’ Amirrezvani, 46, was born in Iran before the Islamic revolution and grew up in the US after her parents divorced. She feels her axis of evilGreat Satan joke ‘‘ characterises the kind of rhetoric the two countries have been throwing at each other for 30 years’’. Indeed, she says, it’s ridiculous that almost three decades have gone by without Iran and the US maintaining official ties.
‘‘ It’s really quite terrible for there to be such antagonism,’’ she adds, in her cultivated American accent. ‘‘ For someone like me whose father is Iranian and whose mother is American ( of Lithuanian descent), it’s almost like seeing your parents fight. It’s kind of insupportable.’’
Amirrezvani, who this month will visit Alice Springs’ Leading Edge Festival and Adelaide Writers Week, was just 17 and spending a gap year in Iran when the Islamic revolution shook the country in the late 1970s. She and her father’s family fled the chaos, violence and uncertainty.
Since then, her father has returned to Iran, but she feels Westerners’ views of her birthplace have hardened and narrowed, partly because of the lack of contact between the West and Tehran. ‘‘ I’m always surprised that people don’t seem to realise that Iran is a modern country, a 21stcentury country,’’ reflects the journalist turned author, who visited there several times to research her novel.
As she slogged away for nine years, writing The Blood of Flowers while working a full- time job, Amirrezvani was determined — ‘‘ in a humble way’’— to broaden outsiders’ perspectives of Iranian culture. ‘‘ Politics and headlines are so much of what we get,’’ she says, sighing down the line from the San Francisco Bay area where she lives. As a journalist, she knows those things are important. As a half- Iranian, she knows her father’s country has an enduring and lustrous culture that has become virtually invisible in the West. ‘‘ I began to feel that these things weren’t being talked about any more,’’ she says.
Iranian culture, she explains, encompasses high literary traditions: oral storytelling, spoken poetry and intricate crafts such as carpet making. All, especially the last of these, feature prominently in her novel.
The Blood of Flowers during
is set in 1620s Iran, the reign of the legendary ruler Shah Abbas. Framed by invented and borrowed Iranian folktales, the story focuses on a strong- willed village girl with a flair for carpet- making. When the girl is 14, her father dies unexpectedly, catapulting her and her mother into wretched poverty. They are taken in by a wealthy uncle in Isfahan, a thriving cultural mecca. Although designing carpets is a man’s profession, the girl’s uncle, who works in the shah’s carpet workshop, agrees to teach the girl the craft, but only after she has completed her onerous domestic duties.
The girl, who remains unnamed as a tribute to generations of anonymous Iranian artisans, is forced into a secret marriage, her virginity effectively sold to a stranger. Her temporary marriage, known as a sigheh , means she can be cast out with nothing if she displeases the man to whom she is contracted. At first the girl complies and learns how to seduce her boorish spouse, but she eventually rebels against the sigheh , even though the consequences are grave.
The Blood of Flowers highlights women’s powerlessness in medieval Iran and their resourcefulness and sensuality within their own domains: the home, bedroom, bathhouse and within the few careers they are permitted, such as knotting carpets at home.
Before its release in the US last year, the novel sparked a bidding war among publishers. It has since sold to 25 territories including France, Italy, Germany, Turkey and Brazil. While many critics have hailed it as a sensuous, well- written and vivid tale, some have found its language flowery, and seen it as a feminist treatise and exotic soap opera. Nonetheless, the novel’s success has been ‘‘ an enormous surprise for me’’, its appealingly modest author says. ‘‘ When you’re toiling away at any novel, you think that maybe, maybe, it will see the light of day one day and that is as far as your hopes and dreams can take you.’’
Iran is, conspicuously, not on the list of countries in which The Blood of Flowers is to be published, but this doesn’t surprise Amirrezvani. The banning of business relationships between the US and Iran means it can’t be distributed there by an American publisher. State censorship in Iran would mean that if the book were published there, ‘‘ the scenes of intimacy would be changed or deleted’’.
Clearly aware of Iran’s pirate and black markets, Amirrezvani chuckles that ‘‘ I understand things sometimes appear in translation, regardless of the author’s involvement’’.
Intriguingly, sighehs still exist in Iran. Pointing out that little research has been done about contemporary short- term marriages, Amirrezvani is uncomfortable speculating about them. ‘‘ My sense is that they are being used in a more modern fashion . . . ( but) this is a custom ( that) has been controversial.’’
The writer is also cautious about discussing parallels between the crippling restrictions imposed on her 17th- century female characters and the restraints — such as sex- segregated workplaces and rigid dress codes — imposed on Iranian women today. ‘‘ It’s hard to draw a meaningful comparison,’’ she insists. ‘‘ Today there is a lot of stereotyping of women in the Middle East, about what they can and can’t do.’’ On her website, she points out that women account for 60 per cent of university students in Iran. She does reveal that during her research trips to Tehran, she noticed cycles of liberalisation and repression ‘‘ as young people always push rules as hard as they can’’. Thus, a period when young women wear tighter coats, looser headscarfs and a bold scrape of nail polish will give way to periods featuring long, baggy coats, fuller headscarfs, unvarnished nails.
The novelist concedes that when she lived in Iran for six months just before Ayatalloh Ruhollah Khomeini took power, ‘‘ that was a period that was the opposite of this ( contemporary) period’’. Back then, she went on holiday to the Caspian Sea and swam in a bathing suit, her family went to restaurants where alcohol was served and there were tens of thousands of Westerners, including Americans, living in the country. Asked if she is surprised by the radical changes that have swept Iran since the Islamic revolution, she is again guarded: ‘‘ As with many revolutions, you never know what you’re going to get in the end.’’
For years Amirrezvani worked as a respected dance critic at the San Jose Mercury News. However, when the paper was sold in 2005, its arts coverage was downsized and her job disappeared. It’s not the only US newspaper to fillet its arts coverage in recent times and Amirrezvani describes the cutbacks as heartbreaking. On the other hand, she has the luxury of time to work on her second novel, another historical work set within the Iranian royal court.
Given that Persian carpets play such a central role in her first novel, I ask Amirrezvani whether she has any. She confirms she has three small rugs and jokes: ‘‘ Every time I go there ( to Tehran), the size of carpet I can afford shrinks.’’ It also amuses her that despite their trade embargo, Americans are the biggest foreign buyers of Persian carpets; carpets made in the heart of the axis of evil.