A conversation with First Novel Prize winner Jasmin Darznik

By Grace Mott

Remember the flight, for the bird is mortal. —Forugh Farrokhzad

This year we’re honored to award Jasmin Darznik the First Novel Prize for Song of a Captive Bird. This debut work of fiction is a truly unforgettable story set in 1950s Iran and told from the perspective of Forugh Farrokzhad, who is a real Iranian poet that lived from 1934-1967.

In this fictionalized account told from Forugh’s perspective, we are given an intimate look into Iranian society through the eyes of a woman who fearlessly rejects the strict demands forced upon women during the years leading up to the country’s revolution. Despite everything working against her—an oppressive marriage, a demanding family, an unforgiving society—Forugh publishes her controversial poetry and suffers the consequences of refusing to be silenced.

Forugh remains a cultural icon today and is personally significant to the author, who was born in Iran and moved to the US at the age of five. Thanks to Song of a Captive Bird, English speakers are now able to read stunning translations of Forugh’s poetry that, along with the book’s beautiful prose, pull us into the setting of its creation.

I spoke with the author about her writing process, her inspiration, and her motivation to share Forugh’s life with those who have yet to know and appreciate her legacy.

GM: How would you describe your personal connection to Forugh, and what led you to write from her point of view? Was there a single instance that inspired you to write her story, or did the inspiration develop gradually?

JD: Forugh’s last book of poems was the one book my mother brought to America in 1979. Her work energized and inspired so many Iranian women, so

I’d long had a fascination with her. There are many myths about how she died, and I wanted to write my way to an answer—or at least a theory. Since Iran can seem foreign and forbidding to American readers, I knew a first-person narrator could bring Forugh closer, faster. It also helped me really dig into her story, telling it from the inside out.

I was eager to learn more about Forugh after finishing the book, and was surprised to find very little written about her online. Could you tell us a bit about filling in those gaps of information and what the research process was like? Were there any particularly memorable moments of discovery?

There’s a quotation by the German writer Novalis that comes to mind: “Novels rise out of the shortcomings of history.” What often most intrigues me about biographies is all they leave out. Iranian history is full of untold stories. Given the enormous weight of censorship and self-censorship, biographers and historians have not been able to write the full story of women’s lives in Iran. As a novelist, you can delve right into those silences. For instance, when I discovered she’d been imprisoned during the uprisings in 1962 in Iran, there were few details about the episode, but it became a major plot point in the novel, one that revealed a great deal to me about the persecution of artists and writers as well as their response to that persecution.

Did your connection/relationship with Forugh change at all during the writing process? What, if anything, was different for you after completing it?

By writing the book I had to see her as a woman, not an icon. What were her days like? What did she think about when she wasn’t writing? I still have a feeling of reverence for her poems, but I understood better the soil from which they emerged—and it’s not so different, I think, from the soil that makes up many people’s hurts and hopes and fears. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to express herself. We’re all driven by these desires. Writing the novel made me see that.

How do you manage the interplay of fact and fiction when developing your characters?

I had a rule for myself, which was that I could not make up anything that was dissonant with something I knew to be true or false. If Forugh loved someone in real life, for example, I couldn’t make her hate them in the novel. I did invent characters and scenarios, but I sought to keep them consonant with the truth.

How would you describe what remains today of Forugh’s work and legacy, especially in the collective memory of Iranian society?

Forugh is a legend in Iran. She embodies the stillunrealized dream of democracy, feminism, and human rights in Iran. Young Iranians have embraced her with as much passion as earlier generations. Her longing to be free, to live and write as she pleased, remains deeply relevant. As a consequence, her poetry’s been continually censored since the 1979 Revolution. In fact, she’s still such a lightning rod that thousands gather at her gravesite on the anniversary of her death. When Song of a Captive Bird was published in Iran, her name was not included on the cover or jacket material because it likely wouldn’t have made it past the censors. She’s still that alive in the Iranian consciousness.

What is your writing process like? Do you have a daily routine?

On days I’m not teaching I keep regular hours, 9am-3pm. In the evenings I will sometimes dip back into the research. I’m constantly reading novels when I’m working on my own. It’s an essential part of keeping my brain in a creative mode. I am an obsessive editor.

When I’m in the later stages of writing something I can work eighteen hours a day, no problem. That pace is totally unhealthy and unsustainable, but for short bouts of time it’s bliss.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Favorite books?

I love Sarah Waters’ novels, especially Tipping the Velvet. She’s got an extraordinary eye and ear for period detail. Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife has been a huge inspiration to me in the realm of historical fiction. I probably read as much creative non-fiction as I do nonfiction—I truly believe we’re living in a golden age of memoir and biography. Maxine Hong Kingston, Vivian Gornick, and Rebecca Solnit are writers I go back to often, both for their fierce visions and glorious prose styles.

What advice would you give to someone writing their first novel?

It’s important to trust your instincts. If something interests you, do not let it go. Let it obsess you. I think I’ve found my most interesting stories when I’ve allowed myself to pursue odd or errant threads. It can be a very small thing, but if you can’t get it out of your head, it’s a good sign you’ve found something good.

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