A Conversation with Ali Araghi on his book, “The Immortals of Tehran”
A Conversation with
On his book, “The Immortals of Tehran”
“Spoken language has an immediacy and intimacy that is lacking from written language. The sound of your voice is unique to you. That’s a very human thing.”
A Conversation with Ali Araghi
On his book, “The Immortals of Tehran”
Ali Araghi’s acclaimed The Immortals of Tehran—soon to be released in paperback—is a heady multigenerational epic with a far-reaching temporality yet is also as rooted as the apple orchard in Ahmad Torkash-Vand’s family for hundreds of years. In Araghi’s nuanced hands, history and mythology combine to create a mesmerizing, layered narrative amid the backdrop of metamorphic times. At the cellular level, it is also about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and the power and limitations of language.
The Immortals of Tehran is coming out in paperback this year; how is it for you to reconsider the book in light of all that has transpired since you first wrote it?
AA The novel came out early April 2020 during some of the toughest lockdowns we had here in the States and perhaps in other places across the world, too. Then came the racial justice protests in the summer, and the second wave of COVID, the election, and the attack on the Capitol. It was a rapid fire of events, each big enough to make a year memorable. I can’t help drawing parallels between the craziness of 2020 and what happens in The Immortals. There is a fifteen-year winter in the novel that cripples the economy. Many lose their jobs and resort to shoveling snow to earn a few bucks. There are protests against the status quo, and characters who stand for and against the movement. There’s a coup in the novel against a democratically-elected prime minister.
For a while, I have been conscious of the image of Iran (and really the Middle East) in the Western mainstream media as places of constant turmoil. I felt a little uncomfortable that The Immortals also portrays that to some extent. But the events of last year, some of which are still ongoing, somewhat changed that. I no more feel like I may be bringing stories of havoc from far-off lands to readers for whom stability is default. I don’t mean to equate the two societies, but I think with the events of last year in mind, a reader of the novel would connect more deeply with The Immortals.
Early in The Immortals of Tehran, Ahmad’s mother Pooran tells him, “Do not speak a word,” and whether by virtue of her command or all that had happened to him, it becomes his destiny. It’s a fascinating direction to take, this friction between spoken language and written language. What does each provide that the other can’t?
AA Spoken language has an immediacy and intimacy that is lacking from written language. The sound of your voice is unique to you. That’s a very human thing. This is something that the main character of the novel, Ahmad, doesn’t have.
Ahmad loses his ability to speak very early in the novel. He resorts to writing for communication. I see his recourse to poetry as a direct result of his lost speech. His poetry intensifies as he gains experience, but also as he tries to find an outlet for his emotions. His most powerful poem originates from a deep, personal pain that comes out concentrated as powerful, burning words. I think if he could use his voice like regular people, he wouldn’t have written the burning words that he did.
Speaking of destiny: we have this concept of saar-nevesht—what is literally written on one’s head—that permeates the Persian culture, and is beautifully rendered in the book. How much does that enter into your own philosophy?
AA Very little, actually. I don’t believe the future has already been decided for people as the Persian term might suggest. I think how a person’s life pans out is partly shaped by their own actions and partly by what happens to them. There’s a lot that’s out of our hands but they do shape our lives and they play a big role in what we become. I don’t think, at least at this point in my life, that these life events have been predestined.
The novel does play with the idea of destiny. There is the tale that Agha tells about the country of cats and how basically the felines are behind what happens in Iran. According to the tale, it’s the cats who wreak havoc. It’s they who orchestrate the protests and the revolution. So there is a sense of the existence of some power out of your control, a sense of inevitability and destiny. But at the same time, the characters are not without the power to choose. Ahmad has the ability to effect change through his willful acts, including his poetry. People fight against the regime. Some characters do not even know about the cats possibly playing an active role in the revolution. But this neither means that they are unaffected by what they don’t know nor that they are absolutely powerless toward it. At the end of the day, I see the characters in The Immortals as I, myself, navigate the world I live in: free to act within a limited scope of freedom.
I hesitate to use the term magical realism because the beauty of The Immortals of Tehran is that it isn’t easily definable, but what does the use of the supernatural, along with a flexible temporality, allow you to do in this world you’ve created, and what does it allow you to say about our own world?
AA Reality is boring. It can be very boring if we were to take stock of our routine. Most of our time is spent doing menial tasks: peeling onions, driving on the same road day in and day out, throwing the laundry into the machine then the dryer, replacing the toilet paper, or just sleeping. This is very hard to turn into fiction even for realism. What fascinates me are fictional universes that break some of the limitations of the real world, to offer new possibilities, new physics. I like the sense of freedom that comes with imagination. The fantastical elements in fiction allow me to create a parallel world that can bear various degrees of difference from the “real” world. Techniques used in fantastical fiction are tools available to the writer. You can use them to create worlds where the reader escapes from the real world or ones that keep being engaged and critical of the historical, social, and/or political realities.
Your use of allegory and the art of Persian storytelling is rendered beautifully. Were poetry and Persian fables part of your family life growing up? Do you have a favorite or one that still resonates?
AA I used to read a lot of poetry. There was even a period when I wrote poems myself. It was in high school and the first years of college, I think. Then I realized I’d never be a good poet. I could have been wrong, I don’t know. If you asked me now, I’d say I gave up too soon. Anyway I threw out all of my poems one day and became more of a reader and later a translator of poetry.
I was an eclectic reader. From early on, I read works in translation and original Persian. I read modern YA novels, simplified Persian classics, poetry, short stories, fables, folk tales. I was also interested in different mythologies: Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian.
One of my favorites is Zarvan or Zorvan, an ancient God of Time in a branch of Zoroastriansim. He’s the creator of both Ahura Mazda, the main Zoroastrian deity figure, and his major devil adversary, Ahriman. Zarvan exists before everything and anything else, yet to create Ahura Mazda, he says a prayer. But the question is to who? There may be scholarly explanations for this, but what interests me is this fictional moment of a timeless god hovering in nonexistence and creating the major god of a religion through prayer.
I’ve both read this book and listened to it. I’ll admit I don’t often listen to audiobooks, but it was spellbinding. I do think that Persian works—certainly our poetry—are inherently designed to be part of the oral tradition. Were you thinking about that when you were first writing this book?
AA Back in Iran, I was trained to write a specific kind of fiction, one heavy on showing and sparse on telling. I aimed for a certain sort of objectivity. My narrators would avoid directly telling the reader about the character’s thoughts or their motives. Instead they tried to describe the characters and report the actions and dialogues in a way that the reader would be able to infer incentives and discover the real story. The first draft of The Immortals was also like that. It read more like a cinematic treatment of the subject matter. The scenes were longer. There was much more dialogue, especially untagged dialogue. One scene would cut and the other begin. The rewriting changed all of that. I did something of a full one-eighty. A narrator emerged that did not shy away from telling. It would go into the characters’ headspace without hesitation, a totally sinful move for the previous narrator. It was a very conscious decision to push the narrative towards the oral storytelling traditions. And it became a defining characteristic of the novel.
What started you on the road to translation?
AA I don’t know. I began to learn English at a young age. I owe this to my mother who sent me to language school in Tehran when I was about twelve. By my late teens, I already knew enough to have the illusion that I could translate. Finding English books was not easy back then. I remember I bought a simplified edition of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda from someone who sold books on the street. I translated it and took it to a publisher. Obviously it didn’t get anywhere. But the guy gave me two other books to translate, one on the Persian miniature and the other on Persian rugs. Neither of those got published either. That was the beginning.
I think translation was partly a game, partly an urge. When I read something in English that I enjoyed, I felt I had to turn it into Farsi. I just liked the process, especially when the text presented some difficulty, where there was a play on words, an expression, or some linguistic gymnastics. I felt challenged to find a way to do the same in Farsi. The challenge motivated me. Translation was like a puzzle that I enjoyed solving. Of course this wasn’t the only impetus. There was also the joy of creation. The translated text was something that hadn’t existed before. And I had made it. So I think translation satisfied my desire for literary creation.
As a translator and a novelist, how do you think the two professions intersect or diverge for you?
AA I never thought of translation as a possible career path. I’m only interested in literary translation and I knew that few made a living doing that. I wanted to translate only what I believed was good literature and I also wanted the luxury to do it in my own time. This is only a recipe for insolvency. I’m not surprised I never became a professional translator.
In the past years, I have spent more time on my fiction. I tried to separate my translating and writing activities by genre: I write fiction, but translate poetry. I write in English and translate from Persian into English. Most recently, I have become interested in studying translation from a distance by looking at many texts instead of focusing on a few. As part of my PhD dissertation, I am creating a database of translated Persian literature. I’m calling it Persian, Translated.
Please tell us more about Persian, Translated.
AA Persian, Translated is a database of Persian literature in English translation. It catalogues metadata about the translations, like writer, translator, publisher, place and year of publication, and so on. It’s a website available to the public for free. You can search the database for titles and people or explore cities and countries of publication and the different genres of translations.
The project could be appealing to anyone who’s interested in Persian literature in translation, scholars of translation and Iranian studies, and teachers of Persian language and literature. This is part of my PhD work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Listen to Ali Araghi read Chapter 20, an excerpt from his debut novel, The Immortals of Tehran:
The Immortals of Tehran will be available in paperback on April 13, 2021.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ali Araghi is an Iranian writer and translator and the winner of the 2017 Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing. His writing and translations have been published in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Asymptote, among others. His debut novel, The Immortals of Tehran, was published in April 2020 by Melville House. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. As a PhD student of Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, he is working on English translations of Persian literature. Find him on Twitter @ataraghi. More at www.ataraghi.com.