A rising star of Iranian literature, writer and former journalist Shokoofeh Azar was incarcerated in prison in Iran for speaking up about women’s rights, among other subjects. She managed to flee to Australia, where she was kept in a detention centre for seven months. She has now settled in Victoria. Her multi-layered debut novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, is set in Iran during the period following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and features the magic realism of classical Persian storytelling.
Catriona Mitchell: Shokoofeh, when you were working as a journalist in Tehran, what specifically were you writing about, and why did that become dangerous?
Shokoofeh Azar: I worked as a social journalist for about ten years, and in this field I learned about labor rights, student rights, women’s rights, children’s rights… any kind of rights that had serious difficulty with the law.
Unfortunately our law in Iran is on the basis of sharia law. Sharia law says that the rights of women are half of men’s rights. It also says, for example in the case of children’s rights, that if a father kills his children, the father is ok, because children belong to the father.
Lots of teachers, labourers, bus drivers, university students etc. want to have a union, but the government doesn’t let them – or they let them formally, but then they control them, censor them, harass them. I covered all of these kinds of situations and of course the regime in Iran didn’t like that.
That’s why they decided to imprison you?
Yes. And it was not only me. Lots of journalists have been in jail, and still they are in jail for a long time. I was only one of them.
What charges were made against you?
There were a few cases. One of them was signing a letter about one of the reformists, to let him be free. Some 300 journalists and activists signed that. We used to do this a lot: we signed lots of campaigns and petitions.
I’ve been in the jail three times and the last time was three months in solitary confinement. After that my mother and my sisters said, “Just go.”
Some journalists stay in the jail for seven years. And if they get free, afterwards by law they are not allowed to write anything. It means they’re dead! They’re dead. They’re living in their own house and can’t do anything else, because a journalist is a journalist. He must now go and become a driver, if he wants to find a little money to survive. What kind of life is this?
How did you manage to stay sane during your three months in solitary confinement?
I don’t know. You just try to survive. Just a little tiny bit of food, tiny bit of water…
Did you have anything to read?
No, not at all. Nothing. You just sit or lie down, with no light, and sometimes they remember that you are in solitary and they call you for interrogation.
Did you know that you would be there for three months, or did you wonder if you would ever get out?
I had no idea. They can keep you as long as they want.
Did you think you might die in the jail?
I never thought I would die. But I was scared. It’s scary. You never know what will happen.
They didn’t officially kill any journalists, but it jumped from my mouth during interrogation that I don’t believe in God. That’s huge. There is a law about that. If you don’t believe in God, if you don’t believe in Mohammad, they are allowed to kill you.
Let’s pass from this because it makes me really upset.
You then left Iran and went to Australia… and were kept in a detention centre.
Yes. I was on Christmas Island for 25 days and then I got sick, because I had been five days in the boat, a roofless boat in a storm. They transferred me to Perth.
Because all of my documents were available on the Internet, they could recognize me, find my identity fast, and trust me. The whole process took something like seven months.
You arrived in Australia without speaking English, is that correct?
Yes. When I came out and became a permanent resident I was so lost. No language, no job and no hope for future job, because my job was and is writing. How in a million years I could become a journalist and writer again without the local language? Still I have no hope to become a journalist here in Australia, although I have a lot of experience.
How did you learn English?
It took me a long time. When you’re a literature person, always you are thinking in high-level language. Your own language. And suddenly you go somewhere with no language, and you want to fix this gap fast, and it’s impossible. It’s like you are a mute person.
What made you decide to write a novel, something you hadn’t attempted before?
When I started this novel, I was so angry and upset. I said to myself, “I have nothing now, but I have myself and I have freedom.”
When I was in Iran, I had everything: family, friends, the country and the culture that I knew and loved… I had all these things, but I had no freedom. So the way I got my self-confidence back was thinking, “Use this freedom. Use this democracy. Your knowledge about literature and Persian culture and politics and social issues in Iran, you can put all of them in one dish, and this one dish should be your novel.”
I thought I could cover all of this beauty and ugliness of the culture through magic realism. That’s what I used.
Did you choose magic realism because it could be beautiful and enchanting, and less harsh than realism?
Beauty is very important for me. I wanted to say that there is lots of ugliness in our culture, in our politics and everything, but still there is beauty if we just learn how or where to find it. What is this beauty? It is literature and poetry and art, the beauty of tradition, culture and myths, which I mention a lot in my book; also the beauty of warm-hearted people who suffer from our regime.
I confess that there are lots of parts in this novel where I cried a lot during the writing. It’s so emotional. It’s deeply emotional. But it’s not harsh. This is my understanding about magical realism. Magic realism is deeply beautiful. You can even write about murdering someone, but in a beautiful way.
Beauty is the only thing that made me survive: believing that life can still be beautiful even in the jail, even in difficult relationships. In one word; beauty is in our eyes; how we look at things.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is available for purchase here.
Thanks to Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. Photos by Suki Zoe.