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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

Iranian Writers Uncensored

Shiva Rahbaran

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To purchase Iranian Writers Uncensored

Title: Iranian Writers Uncensored
Author: Shiva Rahbaran
Genre: Interviews
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 323 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Iranian Writers Uncensored - US
Iranian Writers Uncensored - UK
Iranian Writers Uncensored - Canada
Iranian Writers Uncensored - India
  • Freedom, Democracy, and the Word in Contemporary Iran
  • Persian title: جايگاه سخن
  • Translated by Nilou Mobasser
  • Interviews with: Simin Behbahāni, Mahmoud Dowlatābādi, Mohammad Hoghooghi, Manouchehr Ātashi, Mohammad Ali Sepānlu, Ali Ashraf Darvishiān, Javād Mojābi, Amir Hassan Cheheltan, Hāfez Musavi, Moniru Ravānipur, and Shahriār Mandanipour

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting insights into the post-revolutionary Iranian situation (anno 2004) -- and more

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Shiva Rahbaran's Iranian Writers Uncensored consists of conversations with eleven prominent Iranian writers about Freedom, Democracy, and the Word in Contemporary Iran. Rahbaran asks each of the authors similar questions, focusing on the situation of the contemporary writer in post-revolutionary Iran but also considering Iranian history -- political and literary. She speaks only with authors who are actually working in Iran (or were, at the time -- several have died, others now live abroad). As she notes, the conversations took place in the last days of Mohammad Khatami's presidency (he was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005) -- perhaps the most hopeful period in Iran since the early 1980s. The collection was first published in Persian in 2004 -- though not in Iran. (She notes that the book could have been published in Iran, but only: "if over thirty pages of the interviews were cut".)
       Rahbaran explains in her Introduction that:

the aim of the book is to examine the influence of writers and their work in an undemocratic and oppressive historical and social context
       She asks the writers not just about their own writing and experience, but how they see the larger pictures of Iranian history, politics, and literature. The concept of democracy is one she repeatedly asks about -- both whether Iran can handle it (the consensus is: of course -- and: give it a chance (which they haven't so far)) and what difficulties it faces in Iran. The volume is of particular use and interest in showing that the current situation (i.e. the theocratic oligarchy dominating Iranian society since the early 1980s) was not a radically revolutionary break but in many ways is just another, different phase of undemocratic rule; repression under the last shah was equally problematic. (She doesn't mention it, but, for example, Mahmoud Dowlatābādi was imprisoned under the regime of the shah, not that of the ayatollahs.) Many of the authors point out that a succession of (morally) weak and insecure (and hence heavy-handed) governments have made for a century-spanning continuum of which the current regime is only the latest manifestation.
       Many note that Iran is particularly inward-looking -- and that many are a bit (or very) oblivious. Mohammad Ali Sepānlu goes so far as to say:
     I'd say that over the past thirty or forty years, most of our friends, who are good artists or who are very knowledgeable, haven't even noticed the calamity that is unfolding, never mind about analyzing it. That is why you constantly come across pieces of writing in which someone says: "We made a mistake then." No one notices that they're also making a mistake now.
       Amir Hassan Cheheltan puts it even more strongly:
We suffer from a poverty of thought. No one produces thought. And the bigger tragedy is that Iranian artists and writers imagine that they are committed, so they can fill this void. Yes, of course, Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Yiannis Ritsos, and others have produced political poetry, but their love poems far outnumber their political poems. We have always missed the depths of developments and have, consequently, remained dwarves.
       Nevertheless, the importance of literary culture is agreed upon by all -- even if some complain about the limited influence (and small print runs), or the lack of a: "high level of cultural literacy" (so Manouchehr Ātashi). As Ātashi sums up:
     When you have books, you exist; when you don't, you don't exist.
       Of course, things were looking a bit better around 2004 than before or after; as Ali Ashraf Darvishiān points out:
     In the last few years, the tight strictures of the past have been set aside, because people want uncensored books. Their pressures and struggles have pushed censorship back a bit (I say a bit, it's not ideal), and good literary works have been produced which do a good job of portraying society's highs and lows, the terrible nightmares, the despair, the isolation, and, even, the people's struggles.
       Widely noted too, is a transition from poetry to the novel, with Persian literature long dominated by poetry, but in recent decades being replaced by fiction. Often seen as having Western roots, the embrace of the novel also brings issues with it, and it's interesting to see how the various authors address this.
       Among the interesting titbits strewn throughout is Shahriār Mandanipour's call: "I think we should tackle the war more actively" -- meaning the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Interesting to see that in 2004 he felt the subject matter was neglected: in the time since the regime seems to have encouraged nothing but so-called Sacred Defense literature, and it seems to have come to dominate the entire contemporary Iranian literary scene (Mandanipour, meanwhile, has high-tailed it out of there ...).
       Brief biographies introduce each author, but unfortunately offer little more than a bibliography (not very useful, given how few works by these authors are available in English -- and, disappointingly, where works are available in English these are rarely prominently noted). It would be great to know more about these authors and their careers (in the broadest sense), and there's just too little information on offer here. Rahbaran's introductory summaries are fairly useful, and while the interviews do cover much of the same ground they only occasionally do so too closely, and overall there's certainly enough variety in how they unfold to make all the contributions worth reading. (Dariush Shāyegān's Henry Corbin does get a few too many plugs -- without a fuller explanation/description of the text and its significance that surely just becomes annoying to English-speaking readers who have never heard of it.)
       It is disappointing that there is no index, but it's unconscionable that there's no table of contents; without any headings on each page indicating which author-interview is covered in those pages either (and with names in the interviews themselves only indicated by initials) it is a trial to move back and forth and figure out where what interview is. (The order in which the interviews are presented is listed on the back cover, so there is at least that -- but, come on: a table of contents is a must for any collection of this sort.)
       There's a great deal of insight into Iranian culture, politics, and history to be found here, making it more than just a document of a particular, short-lived era. Iranian Writers Uncensored should be of considerable interest and value to anyone interested not just in Persian literature, but in all aspects of Iran over the past hundred years.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 April 2012

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Iranian Writers Uncensored: Reviews: Shiva Rahbaran: Books by interview-subjects: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Shiva Rahbaran was born in 1970.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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