Q & A with Nasim Marashi

Where in our origin story and with what force did our foundation crack so deep that, without even realizing it and with just one breeze, we crumbled down on top of ourselves, unable to get back on our feet? We can’t shake ourselves and stand up again, and even if we could, we are not what we used to be before the collapse. – from I’ll Be Strong For You

 
Synopsis
 

Where in our origin story and with what force did our foundation crack so deep that, without even realizing it and with just one breeze, we crumbled down on top of ourselves, unable to get back on our feet? We can’t shake ourselves and stand up again, and even if we could, we are not what we used to be before the collapse. – from I’ll Be Strong For You

    

 Reading Guide

Against the backdrop of Tehran’s loud, bustling streets and the at times suffocating stillness and forced intimacy of their family homes, three recent college graduates struggle to find their footing as they enter adulthood. Leyla, who was unwilling to follow her husband abroad because of her commitment to her career as a journalist, is racked with regret. Roja, the most daring of the three friends, works in an architecture firm and is determined to leave Tehran for graduate school in Toulouse – if she can get a visa. Shabaneh, who is devoted to her disabled brother and works with Roja, is uncertain about marrying an increasingly assertive colleague, as it would mean leaving her family behind. 

Over the course of summer and fall, the three young women weather setbacks and compromises, finding hope in the most unlikely places. Even as their ambitions cause them to question the very fabric of their personalities and threaten to tear their lives apart, time and again Roja, Shabaneh and Leyla return to the comfort of their longtime friendship, deep knowledge and unquestioning support of each other. 

By vividly capturing three distinct voices, Nasim Marashi’s deeply wrought narrative shows how friendship, ambition and unconditional love for each other have the power to hold these women together in all their humanity and complexity. In the process, Marashi shines a rare spotlight on female friendship in contemporary Iran and on the cost of emigration -- what it means for those who leave and for those who stay behind. 
 

Author/Translator Spotlight
 
 
 Nasim Marashi - Photo by Mehri Rahimzadeh

Nasim Marashi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1984. She started her career in journalism in 2007 and became a screenwriter in 2013. She won the Premier Prix in Bayhaqi Story Prize (2014) for the short story, "Nakhjir," and the Premier Prix in Tehran Story Prize (2015) for the short story, "Rood." Her debut novel, I’ll Be Strong for You (Cheshmeh Publications, 2015) was selected as the Best Novel of the Year in the 8th Jalal-e Al-e-Ahmad Prize and is in its 40th printing. The book was translated into Italian and Kurdish and received great acclaim. Marashi's second novel, Haras (Cheshmeh Publications, 2016) is in its 20th printing and has been translated into Turkish and Kurdish. Marashi is the co-writer of the feature film, "Avalanche" (2015), and the documentary "20th Circuit Suspects" (2017).


Poupeh Missaghi is a writer, a translator both into and out of Persian, Asymptote’s Iran editor at large, and an educator. She holds a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Denver, an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and an MA in translation studies from Azad University of Tehran, Iran. Her nonfiction, fiction, and translations have appeared in numerous journals, and she has several books of translation published in Iran. Her debut novel, trans(re)lating house one, was published by Coffee House Press in February 2020. She is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Writing at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.


 

Q & A with Nasim Marashi

1. The novel opens with an airport scene: a young man leaving Iran, his wife seemingly unable to stop him from leaving. What drives young people in Iran to want to leave and what makes some of them want to stay? Why did you decide to stay?

I see this as a global impulse. Young people around the world want to leave their hometowns and make new experiences—just like young Iranians. In Iran, maybe this urge is a little more common because of our circumstances. In my opinion, most young people who leave Iran do so because of the instability of the present and the unpredictability of the future. You may wake up one day to discover you can no longer buy the medicine you’ve been taking for ten years because of the sanctions. Or the price of the house you planned to buy has increased tenfold. Or the company you work for has downsized because of the sanctions. Or your book can’t get published due to censorship. Leaving is especially important for women, who do not have social freedoms.

For some people, leaving your hometown or emigrating is not a big deal. You can leave, stay in a new city or country for a while, and sometimes come back. But for us Iranians, emigration sometimes becomes exile. People leave without knowing whether they can ever come back. It’s not a return trip; it’s a one-way ticket. They stay abroad and—perhaps influenced by other emigrants— they begin to fear a return. This fear multiplies over time and they end up staying abroad forever.

But, like other youths around the world, staying home means bonding with your roots and connecting with your language. It’s a different choice. For me, as a writer, I decided to work with my roots and language. I’m always studying and updating them as I write. Iran is full of inspiration for my writing.

2. There are several novels that explore themes of emigration or immigration that are available to American readers. You focus on the point of view of women who, willingly or unwillingly, get left behind. Was this a conscious choice or a consequence of the reality in Iran? What themes did this perspective allow you to explore that you couldn't have otherwise?
 

I started writing this novel two years after the Iranian Green Movement, which protested the 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So many Iranians were fighting for their lives. After the protest died down, the situation became tough for everyone—but especially for young people. Some of us were arrested. Some of us who had important jobs, like journalists, got fired. And people became frustrated. For women, it was time to pursue our repressed demands. At the time, I had been fired as a journalist and I felt I had to record these experiences in the aftermath. Someone had to do it. We could not forget. I wanted to narrate those days after the uprising, and this novel allowed me to explore the lives that—while not entirely ruined—were strongly affected by what happened. Society as a whole was impacted in some way, but I wanted to tell the story from the women’s point of view, as so much was at stake for us.

3. The relationship between Shabaneh and Arsalan is very cyclical and toxic—infuriatingly so at times—but also familiar. Have you witnessed your friends go through unhealthy relationships like this one? Would you say that living in Iran complicates relationships between men and women?

The relationship between two people is one of the most complicated topics in human life—anywhere in the world. But in Iran there are some things that make relationships more difficult. For example, in my generation, it was not common for a man and a woman to live together before marriage, and so life together was a blind chance. Maybe if Shabaneh could live with Arsalan for a while and then decide, her situation would be different. I want to mention that young people now live much more openly in Iran. Now, especially in the big cities in upper-middle-class families, they can introduce their boy/girlfriend to the family, they can live together before marriage, they can cry in front of their families when they feel heartbreak from love. This is something that we barely had twenty years ago. 

4. You said in an interview that as an Iranian author you can’t write explicitly about sex in your books, and yet this novel has some very sensual moments. How do you work around the limitations of the censors? Were you ever reprimanded or censored for your writing?

In Iran, before you start to write a book, you need to decide whether you want it published here or not. And how you go about it is not always predictable, because sometimes censorship is stricter and sometimes it’s looser. One day an inspector at the censorship office is good natured, and another day he is in a bad mood. It is also important which inspector gets to evaluate your book. Still, there are usually some considerations that can help. For example, we cannot write directly about sex and we cannot directly criticize the regime. There are other tips as well, like triangular relationships, are forbidden. Writers learn all this by experience.

In this context, writing can be disappointing. To write, you need to allow your imagination to soar, but you are constantly being shot down. Sometimes there are ways to escape. Iranian readers have learned to pick up on writers’ cues. You might not write an explicitly erotic scene, but you can describe the scene in such a way that the reader will recognize that moment as you wish her to. Iranian writers are so clever. Sometimes they use creative techniques. For example, a few years ago, a translator translated whiskey by inverting the letters to spell “yeksihw.” The book was published and readers instantly knew what he meant.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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