Book review - Iranian Writers Uncensored: Freedom, Democracy, and theWord in Contemporary Iran

Under any authoritarian regime, writers are often at the vanguard of the resistance movement and Iran is no exception. According to Shiva Rahbaran, editor of this fascinating collection of interviews with contemporary Iranian writers, “Poets and writers have always been admired and feared for the power of their pen by Iran’s rulers.”

The book’s main focus is on how the 1979 revolution shaped the nation’s literature and the effects Iranian literature has had on society. Originally published in Persian in 2004, Rahbaran’s interviews were carried out during the relatively benign rule of Mohammad Khatami, when Iranians briefly enjoyed a less repressive atmosphere. This translation by Nilou Mobasser, who died earlier this year, is particularly timely, given the recent uprisings in the Arab world, and raises interesting questions about how art and literature reflect or are changed by monumental events.

Persian culture has a pre-Islamic tradition of poetry, both written and spoken, but novel writing never really flourished there until recently. Hafez Musavi suggests that this is because the novel is “the product of modern society, in which the individual plays a fundamental role” and Iran is only just entering “this phase in our social life.” The novelist Amir Hassan Cheheltan claims that the Islamic Revolution “was like a full-length mirror that showed us to ourselves” and so contributed to the growth of the novel in Iran. He identifies the move towards “thought” as opposed to “imagination and emotion” (the realm of poetry) as fundamental to this shift.

However, a long tradition of poetry is continuing to influence Persian culture today and remains a powerful tool for dissidents. Mohammad Hoghooghi, who died in 2009, affirmed that “poetry is infused into Iranians’ blood” and has always offered the means to challenge the status quo: “in any age, the poet has been a protestor of a kind, resisting the thought-molds of the day.” Mohammad Ali Sepanlu offers a similar take when he notes that “one of poetry’s intrinsic characteristics is that it doesn’t surrender to ruling systems.”

Many of the interviewees offer perceptive analyses of the parallels between Western and Persian literature and the reasons behind their divergent paths. What hits homes most forcibly is the pervasive fear of censorship, resulting in an imaginative use of form and language, symbolism and allusion which, as many of the writers argue, is lost on the majority of Iranians. Nevertheless, words have the power to transform society and as Cheheltan concludes, despite the state suppression throughout the past century, “there’s been a porthole that they’ve never been able to close. The name of this porthole is literature.”

Originally published in the TLS on 20 July 2012