Writing Reading, essay by Fereshteh Molavi

From the very start, my relationship with writing has been difficult, convoluted, involuntary, and unavoidable. Such was not the case with reading, which always has been generously open to me as a garden promising a pleasant promenade whenever I wanted it. Neither demanding nor dominant, reading gives me a comfort zone, whereas writing challenges me constantly whether or not I’m ready. But, despite their contradictory functions in my life, writing and reading are interwoven and inseparable.

The connection between reading and writing began to be revealed gradually in my twenties when, almost secretly, I realized I had an irrepressible need to write out the stories inside me amid a life tangled in social turbulence, political repression, war-time horrors, and personal problems. Learning about this connection didn’t lead to, on one hand, any immediate easy perception of the complicated interrelations and interactions between writing and reading and, on the other, between them and myself as a writer.
From my pre-school years in a small working-class town on the shores of the Caspian Sea, I don’t recall libraries, books, or magazines, either at home, kindergarten, or the school where I took Grade One. Nor do I remember story-telling then. But luckily my young parents, the lovely young washing woman whose weekly company around a big copper basin full of foaming, steaming water and dirty laundry I enjoyed a lot, the old Jewish neighbour who was our babysitter and my mother’s mentor in child-rearing, and the house keeper who lived with us to be less harassed by her nasty husband, all used stories to tame a restless little girl. At the time, my future story provider, grandma, lived far away.

Then we moved to Tehran, where I could spend time with my grandmother, who enjoyed pampering her first granddaughter and entertaining her with as many stories as she wanted. She, as a traditional school teacher, wasn’t ignorant about age appropriateness. However, when telling folk tales or something she’d read somewhere, she barely bowdlerized. Listening to the radio, whether children’s or adult programs, was another way to quench my thirst for stories. In Tehran as well, I was able to buy children’s magazines and books and take in anything readable stuff that came to my way. I don’t think I read any notable children’s books or one of the classics. As a bookworm, I read everything, but what really fascinated me were serial stories in magazines to which my parents subscribed, sometimes historical stories full of intrigues, often stories whose impoverished plot was an innocent beautiful girl becoming a prostitute because of bad guys and eventually rescued by an exceptionally good lover. This was, more or less, the vulgar counterpart of the folk tales’ familiar plot – a poor beautiful girl, captive of evil guys, rescued by a Prince. Interestingly, those were years in which one commercial trend in the Iranian film industry, “FilmFarsi”, was inundated with banal versions of a favourite plot – the love between partners from two extremes of social status.
My teens were the years in all my life when I read with most freedom, and as well in the most relaxed and random way. Certainly, my grandmother could no longer help. Trusting me, my parents left me free to choose what I my read. The only exception was when I was fourteen, and my father caught me reading “Buf-e Kur” (“The Blind Owl”), the masterpiece of the most prominent contemporary Iranian writer, Sadeq Hedayat, who’d committed suicide in Paris a year or two before my birth. My father advised me that a suicidal writer could have depressing effects on young adults. This was all he’d heard or read about Hedayat. Getting the message in my own way, I went to my grandmother’s house, and read the novel in the desirable solitude she and her place offered me. As in childhood I kept reading materials written for adults. I grabbed any book I could find on relatives’ bookcases, in libraries, or bookstores. My high school teachers, confining their instruction to a fossilized presentation of Persian classics with emphasis on grammar and vocabulary, failed to invoke any desire for literature. To be fair, I do recall that a newly hired young Grade Eight teacher, introduced Forugh Farrokhzad, the great contemporary poet, on the day she was killed in a car accident. In fact, she did it unintentionally. She’d come to class with eyes full of tears and when her nosy pupils importunately demanded to know what had upset her, said for the first time a few words about a famous contemporary. Overall, my literature teachers helped me to realize that I had no talent or desire to pursue academic literary studies, that I valued science in general and mathematics in particular rather than their stereotypical humanities packages, and that I had to find my own way to world literature by myself. Learning this wasn’t by any means disappointing. On the contrary, I was happily proud to be an independent autodidact. Years later I learned the disadvantages of not having an advisor or a systematic reading plan. My big regret is that I read some masterpieces at a time when I was unable to absorb them, and later re-reading them wasn’t enough. This aside, I joyfully plunged into world literature. Shifting from Russian to French to English to German to American, I concentrated on works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other than Hedayat, who uniquely charmed me, the great European and American writers of the last two centuries extremely appealed to me. Coming to terms with modern Persian literature happened only later in my university years. The main gate to world fiction, especially short stories, was the prestigious literary periodicals and anthologies that flourished in the 1960s. Furthermore, my serious intention to learn English privately in British Council classes directed me to a new ocean of material.


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