"Cliches have no place in writing″

Fariba Vafi is one of Iran′s most popular contemporary women writers. She has already published many short stories and novels to critical acclaim. In interview with Maryam Aras she looks back over her own life and the situation of women in Iran following the Islamic Revolution

By Maryam Aras

Ms Vafi, the titular young heroine of your novel ″Tarlan″ is, on the one hand, full of hope shortly after the Islamic Revolution and, on the other hand, faces a difficult economic situation, as she begins to train as a police officer. Readers gain an insight into the fascinating yet very contradictory world of female police cadets. Did you experience the story yourself?

Fariba Vafi: No, as a writer I can′t afford to draw merely on my own experiences. I often write stories based on people I once knew. That was the case with the main characters in ″Tarlan″. Although the stories often take unexpected twists that I didn′t plan. The characters develop lives of their own, which surprise even me. I think the writer′s particular perspective is important here. My own life is inspiring as well, but of course it′s very restricted.

You were a very young woman during the 1979 revolution. How has the role of women developed in Iranian society since then?

Fariba Vafi: Women′s identity has changed a great deal in Iran in recent years; that ought to be clear to anyone acquainted with Iranian society. This change has taken place on many different levels: the greatest change is probably the increased confidence of women, which is tangible everywhere.

Your own biography is an interesting example: you worked in various factories after completing school and then started a family. Now you′re one of Iran′s most successful women writers. That′s not typical of Tehran′s cultural scene.

Iranian women in Tehran demonstrating against the Islamic clothing (hijab) legislation passed under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 (photo: Deutsche Welle)
Proudly self-confident: Iranian women in Tehran demonstrating against the Islamic clothing (hijab) legislation passed under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979

Fariba Vafi: Well, people have a cliched idea of how writers should be. I pursued that writer cliche for a long time myself. But then I realised that writing itself is a space in which cliches don′t get you anywhere. Cliches have no place in writing.

When did you start writing?

Fariba Vafi: I enjoyed writing even as a teenager. I always got good marks for my school essays. One day the mayor of my hometown visited our school and our teacher, a revolutionary, asked us to write a report on the visit. The next day he asked who had written anything. I raised my hand shyly and was the only one in the whole class. Then I went to the front of the classroom, read out my report and the teacher praised me very highly. On that day I decided to take my writing even more seriously. That was around the time when I was discovering Samad Behrangi′s books and various Russian novels. They impressed me a great deal and motivated me to go on writing.

In ″Tarlan″, a young activist by the name of Reza gives the heroine advice on how to write her story. He tells her to include ″general statements on humanity″. That sounds very much like the ideological jargon of the 1970s. Is that way of writing out-dated now?

″Tarlan″ by Fariba Vafi (published by Sujet)
"Better a police officer than nothing at all", writes Fariba Vafi in her novel "Tarlan": the novel′s protagonist wants to become a writer. Yet the precarious economic situation following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 forces her to enter the police force as a cadet

Fariba Vafi: No, talking about humanity will never be out of date. Perhaps language develops, or the relations between people′s views of concepts. The way we express ourselves changes. The concepts and terms break away from the slogan-like context and become more focused.

You were born in Tabriz, in the Azerbaijani northwest of Iran and lived there for a long time. Your native tongue is the Turkic language Azeri. Do you write in Azeri as well?

Fariba Vafi: Not so far. I′ve always wanted to write in Azeri and I hope to do so one day. Sometimes when I write in Persian, I notice that some of what I could express in my native language trickles through my fingers. Like with a dream where part of it gets lost when you re-tell it. There′s always something missing.

Your style is often referred to as realistic. You not only use your precise language to describe complex relationships, you also point out problems and their causes in those relationships, in an apparently naive way. Did you spend a long time cultivating your literary voice?

Fariba Vafi: No, not really – I′ve always wanted to write as simply as possible. I think a writer′s style depends on her view of life. That′s why the individual perspective is so important. You can′t separate the reality created in a novel from the way the story is told. But I don′t have a particular strategy for the way I write. I write the way I see the world, society and the people in it. Of course the language has to be revised over and over with great care and it has to be precise and give an impression; there′s no other way to get to the depths of the reality created. Without precise language, every story remains a superficial factual report.

You write mainly about family relationships. Looking at families in today′s Iran, there′s actually everything from very traditional to the ″white marriage″, living together without a marriage certificate. What realities of contemporary life do you create in your stories?

Fariba Vafi: My novels concentrate on crises within the societal network of the family, whether traditional or modern. On structures that destroy interpersonal relationships. I try to comprehend their nature and criticise them. Within the community we call family, women try to resist the oppression and violence to which they are often subjected. In order to find an independent identity, in some way. These women take a clear look at the roles they are allocated and try to choose their own roles.

Interview conducted by Maryam Aras

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Fariba Vafi was born in Tabriz in 1963. She published her first short story collection ″In the Depth of the Stage″ at the age of 24, then married and had two children. In 1999 came her next collection, followed in 2002 by her first novel ″My Bird″, which won two of the most important Iranian literary awards. She has published novels and short stories regularly since 2004. The most recent is her seventh novel ″After the End″ (only available in Persian to date), about the return of an Iranian woman from exile. Her works have been translated into numerous languages, including Italian, Norwegian and Arabic. Vafi lives in Tehran with her family.