Reading Women Discusses Shokoofeh Azar and Megha Majumdar
Closing Out This Month's Theme, Fight Like a Girl
This week on Reading Women, Kendra and Jaclyn close out July’s theme, Fight Like a Girl, with a discussion on The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and A Burning by Megha Majumdar.
From the episode:
Sumaiyya: Yeah, and as we see in this episode, you know, with our discussion picks, we’re seeing how powerful writing is as an act of resistance. And so these books definitely are also representative of that, how you can write that and how your writing can be how you resist. And that’s also really important. That’s why we love literature. That’s why we love stories.
Kendra: Yes. And women have been writing these stories since time immemorial. And I think it’s important to listen. And I just love the books that we’ve chosen today and how complex they are and how they’re all about female resistance of various kinds. And we chose them independently. And they really, though, mesh well together, which I feel like is the story . . . the story of our lives here on Reading Women.
Sumaiyya: We usually have really good chemistry with the books that we select, Kendra. Women have also taken part in political protest that happens on the streets. And I mean, after saying that, you know, writing is a great way to celebrate. I also want to acknowledge that it’s not just writing. Women are very actively involved. And I think it’s inevitable because wars and oppressive regimes like the ones that we will be discussing . . . they disproportionately affect women. So we do have a lot to fight for. And I wanted to mention a very powerful photograph that emerged from protests in Sudan last year. This was a photo of Alaa Salah, a university student who was standing in a traditional white outfit on top of a car surrounded by a sea of protesters as she led the protest. And with the single photograph, Alaa Salah became a symbolic figure of women’s defiance in Sudan. And in fact, the photograph was taken by Lana Haroun, a female photographer. So whether it’s Alaa or Lana, they both use their talent and their ways to resist. And we also had very similar, powerful images of young women emerge from protests that happened in India in December here in New Delhi and other parts of the country as well.
Kendra: This photo is amazing. I’ve just Googled it, and we’ll be sure to link it in the show notes. But it’s such a powerful photo. And in the photo, you can see all of these women also taking photos as well on their phones.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, and we’re living in the kinds of times where there are so many different mediums through which, you know, you are recording your resistance and sharing it with the world. So there’s really no excuse for people to say that Arab women or Muslim women are oppressed and subservient when really we are very active and care about our lives and care about, you know, our communities and are fighting for them.
Kendra: Yeah, I think these books definitely illustrate that in so many different ways. And I think it’s just like really the tip of the iceberg. But hopefully, we’ll give people a starting place today.
Sumaiyya: Definitely. So. All right. So, Kendra, you’re the first one to go and tell us about your discussion pick for today.
Kendra: So I have chosen The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar. And this is a translated from Farsi by an anonymous translator, who’s chosen to remain nameless out of safety concerns. And so this book really looks at the decades after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and looks at a single family. And so a 13-year-old girl is killed during this conflict. And so she follows her family out to a rural village, and she lives her life with her family as a ghost. And she is the first-person narrator of this entire novel. And it really looks at, you know, how the effects of this conflict affected this family in certain ways. And to be clear, this family is a family of privilege. They’ve had a lot of intellectual debates, and they have books available and all these different things. So it is a particular kind of family at this time. But it is really interesting the way that the author kind of unravels the story throughout the different chapters.
Sumaiyya: And I think the author mentioned that she is inspired by the South American tradition of magic realism, but there’s also a lot of Iranian magic realism. Do you want to talk about that a bit?
Kendra: Yeah! So there’s a really complex combination of the two with this novel. I will link the interview that I talked about last episode in this episode’s show notes as well. Highly encourage you to go check it out. She’s amazing. And she talks about how she loves, you know, One Hundred Years of Solitude. But she also wanted to include a lot of Persian folklore. And so the interviewer is Australian because that’s where the author lives now. And she asked a really interesting question about does the author think that Western readers will understand the book? And she said, you know, she laughed a little bit and said, No, I don’t because this is a type of storytelling that Western readers are resistant to because it embraces the fantastical. And that is a Kendra paraphrase. But it really, I think, made me think about my own perception and my approach to this book as someone from the West reading this book because I needed to approach it with an open mind and an understanding that there are just some things I wouldn’t understand culturally from the book. And so there are lots of footnotes and all sorts of things in this edition. But it’s a really interesting way to approach going about telling this story.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, I actually really related to that aspect of there being these fantastical elements or the magic realism, the presence of the Djinn in the story, the ghosts . . . because I—you know, even though I’m not from Iran . . . I’m from Saudi Arabia—but, you know, the Muslim tradition or the Arab tradition or folklore is very much similar to what they have in Iran because even One Thousand and One Nights is something that we celebrate in our culture. So I really related to seeing the family interact with Djinn because, in the Islamic tradition, we believe that they are real beings that live in a parallel, unseen world that exists alongside our own. So some of the situations that she described with Auntie Turan and her children and the community of the Djinn in the forest, they actually reminded me of stories that I have listened to while growing up, you know, like stories that my father has told us or people in my family, extended family in India have talked about. So it’s very interesting to me how we are in this world that is kind of, you know, filled with all this logic and reason from all different directions, but we still have these beliefs that really defy that logic. And there’s so much mystery and strangeness in life, especially in the parts of the world that I’ve lived in and especially in the Muslim culture. So it was really nice to see that in the book. And I guess that kind of explains why she feels that Western readers may not really warm up to that because perhaps that is missing in some of the areas.
Kendra: I thought it was very interesting how she has parallels genuine religious and spiritual beliefs alongside folklore and mythology. And she kind of interweaves the two together in the different chapters, which act as little fairy tales or short stories as we might understand them here in our Western English language tradition. And so I really appreciated the way that she very skillfully interwove those two things together and created these stories about the family that has moved out to the rural village area that they live in. And it was just fascinating because once I understood that it was very episodic and that each chapter could be read on its own almost, it made the reading experience change for me because then I understood that I was reading a collection of interconnected short stories that also were sort of like fairy tales, but also were commenting. . . . It was a very political novel. They’re also commenting on Iranian government and what happened after the revolution and all sorts of things.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, life, culture, the way people interact, especially within a system like the religious dictatorship that we have. I was wondering, out of all of these different episodes and short stories, or retellings rather, did you have a favorite?
Kendra: I really liked the chapter about how Abita, who is the narrator’s sister, falls in love with a man who can read dragonflies. And the dragonflies tell him stuff about truths about the world, essentially. They might be predictions or they might tell him what a stranger feels or if certain things are friendly. It’s really fascinating. And I found that very interesting because I—being from Appalachia—I lean towards nature. I lean towards understanding nature. When I go out into the woods, it seems so vibrant and full of life to me. It’s not quiet or suffocating like people might say in the city or from the city. And so reading dragonflies was like, oh, yeah, that’s cool. That’s, you know, that’s part of my cultural tradition, looking at nature and finding truth in that. So I loved that chapter.
Sumaiyya: And I generally really enjoyed Abita’s perspective because I feel like she’s such an interesting and dynamic character who really represents all of the women living in Iran who had ambitions and dreams but were prohibited from following their hearts and from following through with those dreams. So her storyline, you know, and the way that it progresses and the things that happen in her particular storyline. . . . Obviously, we don’t want to ruin anything for the people who haven’t read the book. It was fascinating. Heartbreaking. All of the emotions.
Kendra: Yes. And I found her completely fascinating. And it was interesting because you have the three women of the story. You have the narrator, you have Abita, and then you have the mother. And the mother goes off on her own little journey off in the mountains and finds, you know, she leaves the family at some point, which is not really a spoiler because everything happens in this book. Like they climb a tree, and it keeps growing. So, I mean, like, you never know what’s going to happen in the story. But she leaves the family and goes off in her own little self-actualization kind of journey. And all of the women are trying to find a place for themselves in this world that has completely changed. And they find comfort in different things. They find their place in different things. And it’s really fascinating to follow each of them.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. Her mother is a really spiritual character. So the women in the story and the father figure, who’s named Hershon, they all are trying to find a way. And it was really interesting to see the way that the father is always supporting them and encouraging them to, you know, pursue literature and art and be intellectually engaged in the life that they’re living. But all of this is taking place in the village.
Kendra: Yeah. And they’re kind of hiding out from the city, which has quickly been overtaken by figures of reason. And so there are a lot of metaphors and figurative language. And it reminds me a lot of Christian allegories that I read as a kid because stuff like this would happen in them all the time, and they have greater meanings and all this stuff. But I think when it comes to this story, you see that these opposite worlds are juxtaposed together. You have the rural village in Iran and how that is a symbol of traditional Persian folklore and traditions and culture. And then you have the new regime that is the city. And it’s really interesting because I have really different colors associated with those chapters, like the way that she writes so vibrant in the rural village. And like you see the covers full of greens and oranges and pinks and reds. That’s how I imagine the village chapters. But then when one of the characters goes back to the city, it’s very stark and like tans and very bland, stark whiteness. Like, it’s lost all of its vibrance. And it’s really amazing the way that she was able to communicate that with just words on a page and storytelling and the feelings that we feel when we go to the different locations of the stories.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. And one thing that strikes me about the village is how it is kind of very close to history or where the people who live there look towards history. And you also have the Zoroastrian faith, which is still very much alive and vibrant in the village. Because that faith was driven out by Muslim invasion in Iran ages ago, I think 1,400 years ago or something. So she’s really preserving that time, you know, before the feudalism and capitalism because I think she mentions that people don’t even have the concept of buying land in that village. So they also decide to not build any roads that lead to the city and thus further isolate the village. And to me, it represents a time before the clash, before the corruption that has resulted in all of the modernization and westernization that emerged, the way that technology changed things. People don’t even know what a car looks like in that village. So it’s really a time before people discover that they can use power. They can use information against each other. And they instead live in a community that is very spiritual and full of magic and very close to nature and still attached to the history and heritage. And by showing us this preserved culture, I think Shokoofeh is showing us the Iran that she wants to remember and the home that, you know, she really misses.
Kendra: And like we mentioned last time, Azar is a former journalist from Iran. And she moved to Australia and sought asylum and is now a permanent resident there and really has accepted that as her home. And I wanted to read just the acknowledgments because they’re just a couple short paragraphs, but I think it really exemplifies her feelings and emotions when she was writing this book. And she says, “I would like to thank my father for teaching me to fly in the sky of literature freely. I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother without whose support I would not be living in the free country of Australia, able to write without censorship. I am profoundly grateful to the Australian people for accepting me into this safe and democratic country where I have the freedom to write this book, a liberty denied me by my homeland.”
Sumaiyya: That is so powerful. That says so much about regimes these days that are, you know, banishing literature and the arts and really destroying the culture instead of celebrating it.
Kendra: I think this book is very much a love letter to Iran and the place that she calls home because even though moving to Australia, that’s not where she came from. And there’s always going to be that sense of loss there. And I don’t think that any free country is like, you know, this perfect place that people want to go to. And like the whole American dream myth kind of situation. . . . But I do think that not every place allows people that freedom of speech, and that is an issue. And so I think that that sorrow, that complex feelings of loving your homeland, but feeling rejected by it at the same time is throughout this book. And you can see that in a lot of her work and her interviews as well.
Kendra: Well, we could talk about this book for ages more, I’m sure. But that is The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar. And that is out from Europa here in the US. And it’s out from Wild Dingo Press out in Australia.
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