SONG of a CAPTIVE BIRD
A NOTE FROM JASMIN
In 1978 my family left Iran with two maroon leather suitcases. There’d been trouble in Tehran for a while, but that year the trouble suddenly got worse. We weren’t sure how long it would last, but for now it seemed we should leave the country. There wasn’t much time to pack, much less to plan. We flew to America, thinking we’d wait out the violence and chaos back home. The next year there was a revolution in Iran. The two maroon suitcases were unpacked and then cast off.
My family and I never returned to Iran, but some things survived our exodus. Among the few cherished possessions my mother managed to bring to America was a slender book of poems by Forugh Farrokhzad. Growing up, I’d happen across the book every so often. I can still picture the bobbed-haired woman with kohl-lined eyes on the cover. Who was she and why had she followed us to America?
That image—its glamour, mystery, and modernity—rooted itself in my imagination, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to read Forugh’s poetry and that my fascination with her truly began. At UCLA I had the great fortune to study with the late Dr. Amin Banani, a scholar of Iranian literature who’d been acquainted with the poet in the 1950s. No sooner had I read “The Sin” than I was possessed by Forugh’s voice, its naturalness and immediacy. I was also bowled over by Forugh’s audacity. This was a poem about desire written from a woman’s point of view. Had Iranian women really once sounded like that?
Brought up in Tehran during the 1940s and 1950s, Forugh Farrokhzad, or “Forugh” as she became known, was the first woman to transcend the label of “poetess” without the support or patronage of a man, becoming a poet of tremendous accomplishment. She was not yet twenty when she wrote “The Sin,” a poem so candid and daring that its publication in 1955 made her the most notorious woman in the country. Her five books of poetry cemented her reputation as a rebel. An exile in her own country, as a filmmaker, she turned her lens on those banished to the fringes of society. Again and again she flung herself fearlessly into life, voicing passion and protest at a time when many still believed women shouldn’t be heard from at all. She was simply too creative, too gutsy, and too ambitious to be silenced by the constraints others sought to place on her.
The risks she took cost her a great deal, but they also made her the artist she became. Her poems still offer an extraordinary reading experience more than half a century after they were first composed: the subject matter is daring, the language unfettered, and the point of view direct and unapologetic. More than perhaps any other writer, Forugh Farrokhzad gave Iranian women permission to be bold, furious, lustful, and rapturous. She ripped the decorous conventions off women’s writing, holding up a mirror for women’s hopes and pain. She cut a path through Iranian literature with her courage and her honesty. For me, a young Iranian American woman coming of age in 1990s’ California, reading Forugh’s poems felt like crossing into a different country, into a different idea of what it meant to be a woman, into different possibilities for whom I myself could become.
Her poems changed me. They stoked my curiosity about Iranian women’s lives, a curiosity I chased first as a literary scholar and then as a writer myself. To write my first book, a family memoir titled The Good Daughter, I spent several years researching Iran before the 1979 Revolution. Even after completing the project, so much about this time period still vexed and riveted me. Iran is a paradoxical country, and those paradoxes were profoundly amplified in the fifties and sixties. Women’s lives underwent radical changes in these years, yet many old prejudices and prohibitions endured. The ensuing tensions fascinated me. Since Forugh’s day, women have become a vital presence in Iranian literature, yet whether on account of cultural taboos or outright censorship, it seemed that so much remained unwritten, particularly about the decades leading up to the revolution. What did it mean to be a woman in Iran at that time? What were the rules? What were the possibilities and encumbrances? I wanted to read—and write—a story that answered these questions.
Eventually, my thoughts turned to Forugh. For many years I’d continued to read all I could about her, not knowing it would lead me to write a novel. Then at one point I discovered she’d assisted some student activists during the turmoil that roiled through Iran in the early sixties. I set about learning all I could. I returned to her poems, then to scholarly sources. Discovery piled onto discovery. What I found astonished me, and eventually I thought, I have to tell her story.
As a poet, Forugh often drew inspiration from her life, and the outlines of that life—a troubled early marriage and divorce, the forced surrender of her son, her notorious union with a prominent filmmaker, and, of course, her death in 1967 at the age of thirty-two—form the novel’s framework. Moving between interpretation and imagination, I embedded the novel with the images, tropes, themes, and rhythms of Forugh’s poems and films. As I wrote, the ghost of her voice—its urgency and tenderness—was constantly in my ear. I wanted readers to hear it, too, so I steeped myself in her poetry, working from the Persian into English. By translating her poems for the novel, I gained a completely new intimacy with her writing, one of the most precious gifts that came from writing Forugh’s story.
What I couldn’t know I invented. In part this was of necessity. Unlike other novelists who’ve written about historical figures, I didn’t have access to a well-stocked archive. After the 1979 Revolution Forugh’s poems were banned, then censored. When one press refused to stop printing her work, it was scorched to the ground. For decades Michael C. Hillmann’s A Lonely Woman, published in 1987, offered the only in-depth look into her life. Forugh’s writing has been splendidly illuminated by Professor Farzaneh Milani, yet Milani’s full-length Persian-language study, Forugh Farrokhzad: A Literary Biography, was published in Iran shortly after I finished writing this book.
Yet the gaps and fissures I encountered in the historical record opened a space for invention. “The historian will tell you what happened,” E. L. Doctorow remarked. “The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” In writing about Forugh, I wanted to go beyond what was known outwardly about her—what could perhaps ever be known about her, given not just the reticence of those who’d been close to her but the essential inscrutability of the human personality. I wanted to imagine what it felt like to be the woman writing those astonishing poems. To be the woman who created herself by writing those poems. And to do this I embraced the unique power of fiction to illuminate the past.
As I worked on Song of a Captive Bird, I found myself continually moved by Forugh’s bravery, tenacity, and independence, pained by the slights, prejudices, and cruelties she faced, and awed by her talent, vision, and integrity. Through Forugh I found a way to enter the past and to return to the country I’d left as a child, but to my surprise I discovered many of her dreams and frustrations echoed through the present. Song of a Captive Bird is the story of a woman who fought to create a life on her own terms, to balance conflicting roles and desires, and to survive in an often-hostile world. Her choices, when she had them, were hard. Her independence and her career were achieved at significant cost, not least the surrender of her child and her own emotional well-being. Her love affairs both freed and entrapped her.
Forugh was a modern woman, and in her hopes and ambitions we can see our own. Today her work is as significant as ever, and for the same reasons it has been for more than five decades. Forugh Farrokhzad is an icon in Iran, a gifted and spirited woman whose work and commitment to individual liberty and social justice resonate deeply across generations. Her poems have been banned and censored, but readers still manage to get ahold of them. There is perhaps no more touching proof of her legacy than the thousands of people who trek to her grave in Zahirodo’allah Cemetery every year.
Like those pilgrims, we can be enriched by giving words to the inexpressible and expanding our view onto unfamiliar people and different worlds. We have today the same need to not just look to at, but to truly see the struggles of those seeking justice and also to celebrate those who, like Forugh, show us the enduring importance of the arts to a thoughtful, free, and deeply felt life. “Remember its flight,” Forugh famously wrote, “for the bird is mortal.” My hope is that Forugh’s story in Song of a Captive Bird will inspire and embolden readers, conjuring something of the magic that came with me from Iran to America in two maroon leather suitcases so many years ago.