- Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit by Gillian Whitlock
Chicago, 216 pp, £10.50, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 89526 0
In school we were asked to write a short story: fiction, not autobiography. I began mine with the sentence: ‘Bombs dropped, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.’ The teacher, who had been making her rounds, looking down at our papers as she went, saw mine and sniffed: ‘Fiction does not have to be “real”, but it does have to be truthful. A writer writes what she knows.’ Embarrassed, I told her that I had lived through the Revolution in Iran. She apologised: Iran trumped everything, and she could neither prove nor disprove my statement. The truth was that the bombing I had experienced had presented itself only as loud thuds and clouds of smoke. Years later, when I saw a bomb turn a car to a rusted skeleton, I wasn’t able to write about it – because I literally couldn’t believe my eyes.
At about the time that I was learning to be truthful in my high-school writing class, Betty Mahmoody, who, like my mother, is an American woman from Michigan married to an Iranian man, wrote her memoir, Not without My Daughter (1987). In 1984, one of the worst years of the Iran-Iraq war, Mahmoody left her suburban life in Michigan to visit her Iranian in-laws. Her book recounts her ‘vacation, turned nightmare’, and the experience of living with a husband who switched from being the ‘civilised’ man she married in the West into a violent Iranian man who refused to let her take her daughter out of the country. She eventually escaped back to the United States with the help of his family and won full custody of their daughter.
Mahmoody’s memoir, written with William Hoffer (who also co-wrote the movie Midnight Express), is full of stereotypes and prejudices about Iranians. It became a runaway bestseller, a Hollywood blockbuster and the book one had to read to ‘learn about Iran’. But I didn’t recognise the Iran Mahmoody described and what her book taught me was something I should already have known: that any narrative is subjective and the story of a life especially is made up of assumptions, desires and fantasies about what may have happened or could have happened. Still, the reading public took Mahmoody’s book for fact, and it made life even more difficult for Iranian Americans. Her success started a trend in memoirs by Western women who have ‘survived’ the Middle East.
In the early 1990s, after graduating from college, I returned to Iran and spent a year writing a detailed memoir of daily life. I wanted to show everything that Mahmoody and the press did not. Later, my uncle, who had been a political prisoner after the Revolution in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, told me that my writing was deeply self-censored. I had left out the juicy stuff: the neighbour’s lesbian relationships, the opium addicts, the widespread plastic surgery, his incarceration. I did it to ‘protect people’, I told him. I wasn’t trying to sell books, I was trying to sell a vision of Iran different from the Western media’s. I, too, had an agenda and, while I hadn’t made up any of the details in my book, what I left out made it less ‘truthful’. (The memoir wasn’t published but one chapter came out in 1999 as a short story in A World Between: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian Americans, edited by Persis Karim and Mehdi Khorrami.)
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[*] John Murray, 288 pp., £6.99, May, 978 0 7195 6252 5.