Shaping a New Voice — Or, How the Spectre of Censorship Still Haunts Me

This summer, carte blanche is curating a short series of articles under the theme WHO NEEDS CANLIT? We’ve invited critical perspectives on the status of Canadian literature. No, this isn’t another faux-edgy Canadian CanCon production to put you to sleep! It’s intended to function more as a wake-up call. Follow the action under the hashtag #whoneedsCanLit. Today’s instalment is an essay by Mehdi M. Kashani.

I WAS IN MY mid-to-late twenties when I decided to write in English. A few obvious obstacles stood out: I wasn’t a native speaker and I was working in a totally unrelated field: software engineering. However, I was an immigrant in Canada, and had been lectured more than once on how people in Canada could pursue what their heart desired (a female friend with a knack in operatic singing, unable to officially practice it in Iran, found her voice here in Canada; others in engineering backgrounds formed bands; etc.). The optimism of my age made me venture into uncharted territory. However, there was another less obvious challenge ahead of me: what to write about?

Coming from Iran, a country where you should be cognizant, all the time, of not stepping on some sensitive toe (religiously, politically, sexually), it felt great to be able to write practically about anything. The themes that Canadian writers have dealt with in the past ran the gamut from the apocalypse (Margaret Atwood) to World War II (Michael Ondaatje) to family dramas (Alice Munro), among other topics. Lots of opportunities existed and I had dozens of stories to tell. But, my frequent forays into libraries and local bookstores to familiarize myself with published writers from Iranian backgrounds proved that my initial assessment was not entirely true. While you could find books on any subject in Canada, it turned out Iranian writers had only a tiny share of the topical spectrum. It was as if they were pigeonholed into predefined subject matter, that of political tyranny and its aftermath[1]. For example, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran’s Awakening, Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, Sahar Delijani’s Children of the Jacaranda Tree, Ava Homa’s Echoes from the Other Land, Dalia Sofer’s Septembers of Shiraz and many other semi-memoir/semi-fictional works all contain the same overarching themes. Also, if you’ve been held in Iran’s jails and then released, you’re guaranteed to have landed yourself a book deal (Roxana Saberi, Maziar Bahari, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Haleh Esfandiari come to mind. Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, jailed for 18 months in Tehran, is currently working on a memoir too).

Some of these books are really good. A few have literary merits. There’s no doubt they are stories and accounts worth telling. After all, these books deal with big issues of freedom, resistance and human redemption. But is that a comprehensive snapshot of the realities of contemporary Iran? Aren’t Iranians, like any other people in the world, dealing with day-to-day issues like family reunions, college romances, holiday trips, camping adventures, troubled children, dysfunctional families, diseases and deaths (outside of prison, that is)[2]?

My immigration to Canada coincided with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power and his incendiary remarks on wiping Israel off the map (among other things). Ahmadinejad won an election riding on his populist promises and also by taking full advantage of the sterility of the reformist movement in the final years of then-president Mohammad Khatami’s reign. In those days, rarely did I appear at a gathering in Vancouver without encountering some variation on the question, “What’s wrong with your president?” (At the time, people didn’t know his name by heart). My response was an ashamed and silent shrug, partly because my confidence in speaking English was still low. If I had responded, I’d have said that as much as Ahmadinejad made a good topic for cocktail parties, he was not how Iran should be represented. But continuing the conversation in the same vein, I would have had a hard time finding a book to recommend, something not necessarily confrontational and politically charged. The feeling one gets by reading the Iranian literature available in the North American market is that of a war-torn country. Imagine if American literature in the Cold War Era was exclusively about the Soviet Union and the machinations of the Cold War.

So I did what I could to address the two salient challenges to my becoming a writer. I read voraciously and wrote profusely in English. I jumped from proof-reader to proof-reader, finally landing with someone who I trust with my writing. Obviously, it was—and continues to be—a paying service, an overhead that most native English writers can get away without[3]. That means in order to create art which comes with scarce monetary rewards, I had to financially invest. As for making time for my vocation, I made some arrangements. My apartment is minutes away from where I work, a luxury in Toronto. Also, my boss agreed I work half days on Wednesdays, to be able to write in larger chunks.

But again, even with all these things in place, the concern of what I should write about kept creeping back.

Photo by Kyle Lawless

Photo by Kyle Lawless

Nowadays, the concept of “cultural appropriation” is widely discussed in the media. It refers to any adoption of the defining elements of a culture by another—that is, by an outsider. Most of the time, the culture being appropriated is part of a minority and appropriators are part of the dominant culture. In the context of literature, the opponents of this phenomenon argue that a writer from the dominant culture should not write about minority experiences, be it race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other dividing factor.

Lionel Shriver, the American writer residing in the U.K., gave a controversial, rather scandalous speech in Melbourne on the topic of cultural appropriation. In her candid, provocative words, she claims that as a writer, she has the right to write about anything and anyone that serves her novels. In her opinion, constraining writers to write only about their own demographic limits their abilities. At the end of her speech, she vehemently defends a writer’s right to venture into anything, any topic, any body that interests them. This is because, according to Shriver, it’s the writer’s primary job to imagine the goings-on in the mind of the characters, none of whom are the writer’s replica, unless she’s writing memoir.

While enforcing limitation on what you write about sounds like a kind of cultural dictatorship to the writers of the dominant culture, the same argument can be said about the writers of the minority. If you think back to my introductory paragraphs, there seems to be a reverse phenomenon in effect here. In my case—as an Iranian-Canadian writer—as much as non-Iranian writers are frowned upon writing about Iran under the label of cultural appropriation, Iranian writers are encouraged, or forced, to write about certain issues.

Like any other market, literature thrives in a supply-and-demand milieu. But, it’s not easy to determine which one is the cause and which the effect. After 9-11, we can’t know if there was a slew of writers having things to say about the violent event, or if there were many readers with an unquenchable thirst who wanted to read about it. By the same token, it’s hard to decide whether Iranians in the diaspora write about topics of war and prison and other diasporic traumas because they find them interesting or whether the North American readers demand it of these writers.

One can argue that we Iranian immigrant writers are enjoying our earned freedom to write about topics we’re not allowed to tackle within Iran’s borders. Also, I’m sure some of us feel an urgency to talk about the ordeals we’ve experienced. On the other hand, Canadian and American publishers tend to trust these topics will sell as they seem to think they’re eye-opening, controversial and will easily find their readers.

I think the first victims of this vicious circle are those very writers who produce books about a limited-Iranian experience as they become a predictable collective who write—or who are forced to write—about the same stuff. The merits of books and literature will be neglected if, after a while, readers start labelling Iranian writers’ books simply as another prison story set in Iran. In fact, in a healthy and diverse balance of subjects, where the same theme doesn’t constitute the majority of the canon, these writers and their work would stand out, showcased in better light.

Photo by Kyle Lawless

Photo by Kyle Lawless

Like any other writer, I’m attracted to certain themes and, inevitably, they appear in my work. As someone who grew up in Iran, her politics have formed me in many ways. In particular, I’ve always been interested in the lives of individuals who were affected, directly or indirectly, by the major upheavals in the country’s recent history. It’s only natural these themes would ooze into my stories. Interestingly though, in my subconscious (or sometimes this even happens consciously), I resist writing about these themes, resist becoming another Iranian writer who CanLit and American literature can put safely in a box. It’s a Faustian pact. I don’t want to be pigeonholed and don’t want to be culturally appropriated.

It took me a few years to first get published in English. My writing abilities aside, prose and poetry are generally the hardest variations of art to migrate into a new culture, as opposed to forms like painting and music that use audio or visual cues. Over the past half-year, I had six short stories published. Two of them didn’t involve Iranian characters or themes; however, in the other four, the nationality and Iranian cultural context of the protagonists were crucial to the story. These four stories mostly deal with individuals at a pivotal junction in their personal lives. While you can always trace any drama to the rulers or governments, the major themes I’ve discussed above aren’t salient in these stories. As an example, in my short story “Dayi” (published in The Malahat Review No. 198) a middle-aged, affluent Iranian man is about to join his family in Vancouver—which means he has to part with his object of desire, a young student who is the same age as his daughter. It is a story about the intricacies of relationship at different levels and also about immigration and its after effects. At the time of writing this story, I felt the protagonist (and his family) represent a good portion of the Iranian immigrants in Canada who aren’t represented as they should be in CanLit. When the piece got published, the editor of TMR interviewed me and expressed his surprise about certain passages in “Dayi.” His surprise, admittedly, came from what Canadian and American media feed the public.

Recently, I had a collection of short stories in Farsi, The Innocent Gaze of Irene, published in Iran by Nila Publication. I carefully handpicked the stories to be consonant with the norms Iranian writers must meet and yet it took the Ministry of Guidance two and a half years to grant permission for publication. Now, in Canada, while I write or create characters in English, a kind of self-censorship agent governs my thoughts, to guarantee that I don’t sell out, that I don’t yield to what is expected of me. Ironically, this process isn’t dissimilar to the self-censoring skills I or any other writer develops in Iran to appease the censorship authorities.

This realization is a wake-up call. If I am to be selective about what I write about, then why bother with all the challenges I mentioned earlier that come along with writing in English and participating in CanLit? I could easily as well continue writing in Farsi, adhering to the strict rules of that market. Moreover, if I’m critical about the scarcity of the themes writers with Iranian backgrounds pick up, shouldn’t the same criticisms apply to me, a writer who deliberately shuns those themes? Granted, immigration is an area worth exploring. But I don’t want to be “pigeonholed” as that kind of writer either. Not because I’m afraid of a label. After all, most writers are associated with a theme or topic they’re particularly good at. And that’s my point: what we’re good at should be determined by our inherent abilities, not by what we’re obliged to write because of our background. Lionel Shriver’s proclamation about her right to write about anything is fair, but only when every other writer, regardless of their background, can practice the same right, freely and without censure by readers or by markets or by terms like CanLit.

In this creative marketplace I’m imagining, writers should actively publish works on any subject they desire and step back. The real worth of these stories should be determined by reader—and by a diverse body of critics. This is the only way to make sure the next time I’m asked about Iran, I’ll have a varied list of book recommendations handy.

[1] Obviously, I’ve excluded classics in poetry and prose like Rumi and Sadeq Hedayat from this list.

[2] This list explores themes prominent in contemporary North American, and particularly Canadian, fiction.

[3] Everyone will eventually need an editor. Here, I’m talking about the additional layer of editing that someone writing in their second or third language requires.


Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. One of his short stories in Persian won first-place in the Sadeq Hedayat 12th Annual Short Story Contest in 2014. His fiction has appeared in Passages North, The Malahat Review, Portland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Hobart and Litro.