Most of us take our freedoms for granted because that’s how freedom works: You use it; you don’t think about it.
The City of Asylum program at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV supports writers whose freedoms have been stripped by censorship and whose lives may be in danger. For a year or two, selected writers are given a safe place to live in Las Vegas and the resources to create work that might not otherwise be possible.
Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar, the 2014-'15 Kenneth Barlow City of Asylum resident, is an Iranian writer who has published an award-winning novel and wrote a screenplay that garnered a 2009 Cannes Film Festival prize. Banned in Iran, Abkenar’s work explores violence, gender and revolution. (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via email and translated from Farsi.)
Your work is banned in Iran, and your recent co-written screenplay, No One Knows About Persian Cats, about the underground music scene in Tehran, was shot in secret. Can you speak about how your work became controversial and the state of censorship and art in Iran? Through this film, I got a peek at Iran’s underground music and got to know many musicians, singers and composers. I saw more than what I could have ever imagined or expected. There were so many capable musicians, that we were conflicted about which ones to focus on.
Western music and women singers are banned in Iran. Even showing musical instruments on TV is banned. Censorship in Iran covers everything: music, literature, cinema, painting, photography. For political and religious reasons, there are many barriers to producing art, and it has had severe consequences. No artist can transcend these barriers easily. If an artist does, his work will either be banned or he will get into trouble, be issued fines and even undergo lashing or prison.
It is important for the world to know we have a strong and solid underground art movement in Iran, in all fields of art. For example, in literature, if a work is banned, it will be published furtively and sold privately around the town. This is how music clips, private exhibitions, hidden paintings, photography and hidden movies are made. And, of course, the Internet is a huge help in dealing with censorship.
A lot of your work deals with women’s roles and gender inequality or differences in experience. How does this factor into your current literary exile, so to speak? Well, the dominant religious community in Iran propagates discrimination in a very oppressive way. I have never been quiet about this issue. Almost half of my short stories have female narrators and/or female protagonists. I have been focused on women’s issues: love, sex, isolation, depression, rape, imprisonment and, of course, paying close attention to issues that women themselves sometimes might not think of as inequalities, given the context where they’re expected to submit to social and religious pressure.
The reason that my books are banned in Iran is my focus on women’s issues, political issues and, of course, war. Some of my short stories are about prison, torture and execution, and my novel Scorpion takes an anti-war position quite self-consciously.
I write about the present Iran, the Iran that I lived in and in which I had deep and virulent experiences. I have witnessed so many historical events: revolution, religious shifts, war, imprisonments, executions, immigration, new uses and abuses of power, corruption—I am compelled to write about them.
A few months ago when I was [living] in Boston, I wrote a long story called “Not Every Bullet Is Meant for a King.” It will be published in a book called Tehran Noir soon. In this work and others, my goal is to let the reader really see, understand and feel parts of Tehran, its people and the events they are a part of.
Has the transition from Iran to the U.S. been difficult? You have an 18-year-old son who is an artist. Has the move informed his work? Here in the U.S., we have found so many new and nice friends that we do not feel estranged. Our friends and the people around us are so friendly that we were made to feel at peace here. We usually work with intellectuals, writers, poets and professors. These circles/societies have always been appealing and pleasant to us.
My son, Nima, feels joyous here. He wants to study animation and special effects in the future, and recently he signed up for and is attending design and literature classes. He has big hopes and dreams. I think he can achieve them here.
When we were in Iran, I was always worried about him. The situation is not secure, and there is little hope for the future of young people, especially those who are aspiring creatives. Depression is common; there is a lot of religious and governmental pressure. Fortunately, Nima will not face any of those obstacles.
Your novel, A Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Railroad Station, tells the story of the end of the Iran-Iraq War from the perspective of a veteran. Why were you attracted to this subject? When Iran went to war with Iraq, I was 13 and had no idea what war was. But the war was so long that when I was 19 it was still going on, so I had to serve in the military. Going into the military is mandatory for young men. I served for two years and was dispatched to the frontline. I didn’t want to fight, especially against people from a country that I didn’t know and had no hostility or vengeance toward. This dissonance between what I was being forced to do and how I felt hurt. I witnessed so many terrible things while I was at war: from bombing and horrible killings to capture, self-injury and soldier suicide. Years after I returned from war, I still had nightmares that wouldn’t go away ... until I wrote Scorpion. The novel recounts a soldier’s last few days in the war: His service is over and he wants to get home but cannot. On his way from the frontline to the train station, he witnesses the failed escape of other soldiers among other horrible things that unsettle his mind and spirit. This novel is based on my actual experiences and their consequences.
What’s next for you? Where do you think you’ll go next physically and creatively? I am writing a new novel that I have been developing in my mind for many years but never had the time and opportunity to write in Iran. I think it will be a different and formalistically unique work partly because of the characters, subjects, and issues taking place in Iran [where it is set] in recent years.
I am a writer. For me, a small room, a table and pieces of paper to write on are enough. It does not matter where in the world this room is located. Tehran, Paris, Las Vegas ... I want to write in a state of peace and fearlessness.