Susanne Pari on Iran’s Rich History of Feminist Rebellion
The Author of In the Time of Our History Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Mitra Jahani, the fierce feminist at the heart of Susanne Pari’s second novel, In the Time of Our History, is the daughter of Iranians in the diaspora, exiled in the traumatic aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Like author Pari, who is the daughter of an Iranian father and an American mother, Mitra is born in the U.S. and raised in an extended family spanning four generations.
“I have twenty-four Iranian first cousins, all of whom are in the diaspora,” Pari writes in a recent essay. She embeds Mitra’s story in a transnational, multigenerational narrative of grief and loss, laced with interludes that echo Persian storytelling, to create a stunning portrait of family secrets, betrayals, and sustaining love.
Jane Ciabattari: How has the time of pandemic and turmoil affected your life?
Susanne Pari: I’m a social person with a large, spread-out family, so my obligations to loved ones have always taken precedence over my writing time. Lockdown, therefore, turned out to be quite helpful. After the initial panic, a group of writer friends and I instituted what we called a Daily Surveillance Group on Zoom. On mute, we made sure everyone stayed in their chair for a designated amount of time, then celebrated or whined to one another about the work we’d managed to do or not do. The routine and support allowed me to finish a novel I’d been working on for too long.
By turmoil, if you mean the Trump presidency, it was like re-living the Islamic Revolution. The misogyny, religious extremism, greed, and cruelty—it all looks the same whether the men are wearing turbans or toupees. I contemplated leaving the country, building a small bunker in my backyard, stringing barbed wire around my doors and windows. In the end, fleeing was a do-over I couldn’t stomach.
JC: What inspired the multigenerational family story you weave together in your new novel, In the Time of Our History?
SP: My family is actually more socioeconomically and religiously diverse than the one I depict in this novel. I don’t think I could tell a story that didn’t involve a family. I’ve always viewed and experienced the world from amidst a sprawling transnational clan of diverse people. This middle space is where I process and interpret what happens in the wider world before I let it touch me as an individual.
In essence, I make sense of big ideas by examining them within a tribal context. I begin with one character, in this case Mitra, and slowly, inevitably discover her tribe and the story of that tribe. The broader themes involving women’s roles, motherhood, patriarchy, and oppression gain clarity through the behaviors of these characters.
JC: How did the effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution on you and your family influence this novel?
SP: Some people react to forced exile with resilience, others with paralysis. I have, and still do, experienced both. The trauma of the Revolution was different for me than for my family members who had to flee and leave everything behind. Most of my life was already grounded in the US. The Revolution upended that life, but to express that would’ve seemed ungrateful and insensitive when so many were being forced to start over. I was the lucky light-eyed U.S. citizen without an accent; privileged and eager to have that privilege used by those I loved. Still, my life and my future were altered along with theirs. I felt ready to explore that in this novel.
JC: Your narrator, Mitra Jahani, fights against the traditional role of women in her family in radical ways, by refusing to marry or bear a child. She was “a girl who wanted to be as free as a boy in choosing her future,” you write. She has surgery to have her tubes tied in 1981, on the same day the American Embassy hostages are released in Teheran. Her reaction after it’s over: “I’m free.” How common was her attitude among American-born daughters of traditional immigrants of that time?
SP: New York City’s suburbs in the 1960s and 70s were very white. Assimilation was de rigueur. Iran was nowhere on the map. Multiculturalism was not a word. My life was bifurcated, one culture separate from the other. I didn’t have many friends whose parents were immigrants, and the ones I did have didn’t want to talk about them.The misogyny, religious extremism, greed, and cruelty—it all looks the same whether the men are wearing turbans or toupees.
At that time, rebellion against patriarchal norms was everywhere, including among the girls and women I knew in Iran. Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda were our role models and our parents’ nemeses. The Pill and options such as voluntary sterilization were tools for freedom. Rebellious attitudes felt common to me, but I can only speak for my narrow socioeconomic class. And I wouldn’t discount the fact that I look like a white person. That made my connections with the children of immigrants less likely, and my life in the US easier, especially during the Hostage Crisis.
JC: Mitra’s immigrant mother, Shireen, is her example of the dutiful submissive traditional Iranian wife. In the course of your story, she has a change of heart. Did you intend her choice to require as much courage as Mitra’s earlier decision? Is it too late for her to change her life?
SP: It’s never too late. Older women who rebel against tradition are the role models and support for younger generations. It’s why older women in Iran today are joining the protests. It can be a form of activism.
As for courage, Shireen’s choice requires more courage than Mitra’s because it is a sacrifice, not just an act of rebellion. Mitra’s decision to sterilize mirrors Yusef’s decision to come to the U.S. Both require chutzpah more than courage. Both are a severing of ties from a large family at a young age when the future is long. For Shireen, the choice is not about leaving the family, but about altering it. The risk of that failing requires a great deal of courage.
JC: Mitra’s father Yusef is a traditional Iranian patriarch, transplanted to Bergen County. He loves his two daughters—Mitra, who is fascinated with his work and would like to follow in his professional footsteps (and could, if she were his son), and his younger daughter Anahita, who follows her mother’s model.
After Mitra’s decision not to marry or have children, he casts her out of his life. They do not speak for years. How difficult is it for an immigrant man in his situation to change? Under what circumstances might it be possible?
SP: It’s not the “changing” that’s hard; it’s mustering the will to change. It’s facing the reality that the patriarchal role is as damaging to men as it is to women. In Yusef’s case, he forfeits meaningful relationships for the sole purpose of feeling somehow validated by his position as clan patriarch. Frankly, I haven’t known many men, immigrants or not, who are able to consciously fathom the benefits of separating from the patriarchal construct. Sometimes it’s a lack of imagination, which is necessary because there are so few role models.
My father, who just turned 99, has changed a great deal since he immigrated in1950, but the changes were either slow and subconscious or they were a sudden reaction to trauma. For example, after Khomeini came to power, my father let go of Islam and became secular. It’s that change that he acknowledges most consciously. The other changes—such as accepting that his granddaughters have boyfriends when he wouldn’t have allowed his daughters to receive even a phone call from a boy—seem hardly noticeable to him. They are changes that were influenced more by a changing society than by an internal calculation.
JC: The death of Mitra’s sister Anahita and her two young children in an auto accident brings Mitra from San Francisco back to her parents’ New Jersey home in September 1998 for the One Year, marking the first anniversary of her sister’s death. As she mulls over her early life and the decisions she’s made, she also learns some secrets about her sister, who she loved dearly. Mitra, too, seems to be required to change, no?
SP: People who never change are infuriating and boring. For me, it’s the characters who move plot, so an unchanging character equals an unsatisfying plot. In Mitra’s case, I not only wanted her to change, but I wanted her to be cognizant of and engaged in her change. Mitra thinks she knows what’s best for everyone and charges headlong into a scheme to fix things. She’s irreverent and unbearably judgmental, a general pain in the ass. At the same time, her convictions, strength, loyalty, and devotion are laudable. I wrote her predominantly because I’ve always wanted to be more courageous and rebellious.
JC: I’m fascinated by the poetic textual interludes with which you introduce each section, each beginning with the line, “In the time of our history.” Can you share the reasoning behind these interludes, and the meaning of that line, which also is your title?
SP: For me, history is global and collective. The way I grew up forced me to hold the global and the local in my mind at the same time. It frustrates me when people approach other societies as explorers would a planet of aliens. It stunts our progress as a human race. Certain behaviors and historical patterns, be they political or familial, are universal. I would like more of us to acknowledge that.
As to the poetic interludes, they came to me in a kind of flow state very late in the process of writing the novel. I guess when you grapple with a story for ten years, something of it grows inside you until it bursts forth. That the linguistic imagery, metaphor, and lyricism of the interludes echo Persian poetry and storytelling was uncanny to me. I can’t read or write in Farsi, but clearly a lifetime of exposure had its influence on my writing.
Most stunning to me was that I wrote exactly seven interludes, inserting them intuitively throughout the story, not realizing until later the significance of the heptad in the rites and customs of all Iranians since Zoroastrian times.
JC: You weave into this novel the story of Zoya, a 19-year-old Iranian writer who returns home to find her home ransacked and her father, also a writer, missing. She knows she must flee. “She turned her back on the place where she had once belonged,” you write, “where her poetry lived in pixels poised to fly on the winds of Code, and remembered what all the children of writers begin to sense from the moment their eyes see the light of the world: that in all of our histories—in the East and the West, in the North and the South—the Writers have been hunted and silenced by the cowards who seek power.” How does this novel predate and predict the current rebellion in Iran?
SP: Feminist rebellion in Iran has existed since the Arab Invasion in the seventh century. Before that, in ancient times before Islam, the rights of Persian women were nearly as equal to those of men. The right to inherit and own, to travel and study, to go into battle and be politically involved. In modern times, the Women’s Movement in Iran has been active since the early 1900s and it was making great strides until Khomeini and his cronies came to power.
There’s really nothing predictive about this novel. The fight for women’s rights and for freedom of expression has never waned, not in Iran, not anywhere. The current rebellion and its brutal oppression in Iran is only current because we’re paying attention and calling for the attention of others.
JC: What are you working on next?
SP: That would be Zoya, and her generation. I hope I can do them justice. They are the parents of the children who suffer under the Islamic Republic today.