PEN Atlas Q&A: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, winner of the Jan Michalski Prize 2013

Recently announced winner of the 2013 Jan Michalski Prize, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi answers questions from Tasja Dorkofikis for PEN Atlas, charting the works, influences and world-view of Iran’s most important living writer

Translated from the Farsi by Sahar DelijaniThose in power in Iran consider your work to be subversive, though you yourself say that your books are not deliberately political. What do you think are the roles of a writer and of literature? Especially in a country where there are limits on free expression?I have never been a political activist, but I have pondered political issues as a citizen, and political thoughts have always been reflected in my work. Nevertheless, what has been and will be of fundamental importance to me is to create literature. A writer can have whatever role he likes. The important thing is to not let the lack of freedom of speech conquer your inner freedom, especially because man lives mostly in his mind and a man who is also a writer lives even more exclusively in his mind.Your early writing focuses on periods of social and cultural transformation in Iran. Kelidar and Missing Soluch chronicle a historical period when people migrated from the country to cities. Have you always been interested in this shift in society?Social and historical changes are the most important events in the life of a writer. The period and works that you refer to had to be written from the perspective of an ever-changing history. One of the aspects of my work as a writer was to pay attention to history, both to classic Persian literature and the modern literature of the last century. The same goes for what I have learned from world literature.Your writing breaks many taboos and approaches subjects previously left unsaid. Your presentation of the Iran–Iraq war is brutal and unsparing, and life for your characters in general is violent and full of anguish. Do you think that the current reality remains equally difficult? Are people less alienated from each other now?Breaking taboos has to do with maintaining that inner freedom that I spoke about earlier. The violence and anxiety is the particularity of the period in which I have lived. Living in a country and a society that was attacked by its neighbor, Iraq, both during, before and after the war was not easy at all, and I was affected by all the violence and hurt and pain. It is evident that there have been changes in Iranian society, which have made it different from the decade of revolution, war and atrocities. However, in my experience, reality has never been easy. The type of estrangement between people has changed too, which now manifests itself mostly in the gap between poverty and wealth.Both Missing Soluch and Kelidar feature very strong and complex female characters. How do you see female roles in Iran nowadays? And how did you choose the main female character in Missing Soluch?Women in Iranian society today are going through a constant struggle to break the tough husk of the past. The female protagonists of Missing Soluch and Kelidar come at the closing points of a three-four thousand year period, and they represent  a moment of change in the social history of our country. And this fact always reminds me of Thomas Mann who said that the writing of important works comes at the end of a certain historical period. Hence, for instance, Kelidar and Missing Soluch were created during a certain historical context when nomadic life had shifted to a sedentary one and the relationship between landowners and the peasantry had disintegrated, resulting in the cities being filled with those same peasantry leaving their villages behind. It has to be said that during the literary creation of my work, I was not bound by any of these rules. I have, since then, thought about them and now I am answering your questions. In any case, I have to say that women have always been clearly lauded in Persian legends and epics and during the ceremony for the Jan Michalski Prize I read a poem in praise of woman, earth, water and fertility that you heard.The Colonel is set towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and depicts the impact of events from the Shah being deposed to the Islamic Revolution and the war on Iran’s citizens. The Colonel’s family is deeply divided along various political lines and the overall image of society is very bleak.  You said during the PEN World Voices Festival:  ‘[The] Iran I write about is in conflict with itself.’ What did you mean by this statement?If you read The Colonel once more you will understand even more deeply the painful explanation of this conflict. The Colonel is about a pressed and pressured Iran. The Iran of The Colonel (1983-1985) is very different from the Iran of today. Unfortunately there is no more colonel, or his children. But our society is full of beautiful young people today among whom I imagine there are more than a few of the descendants of the colonel.The main character, an aged soldier, is both progressive and traditional. He kills his wife for humiliating him, yet he is a sympathetic character. Why did you decide to present him in this way?The wife of the colonel—a general who refuses to take part in the repressive war and is first imprisoned and then removed from the military of the second Shah Pahlavi—is used against him. The military and aristocratic salons use his wife to humiliate this patriotic general and bring him to his knees; a man/colonel who undoubtedly has a traditional past in the most hidden angles of his mind.Your prose has a very distinctive style, it is both poetic and raw at the same time. Could you describe your stylistic influences?  Are they mainly Iranian, or from elsewhere?Without doubt, Persian poetry is part of my formation and mould. Can one recognise a writer who has been tied to the classic and modern literature of his country without Persian poetry? I cannot speak about my writing style but through the words of Leo Tolstoy: behind every literary work, its writer stands.When you first moved to Tehran from the countryside you did various jobs, and among other things, you worked as an actor. Have theatre and film influenced your writing?Theatre is how I came to know about the literature of serious classical drama. Before that I only read books and I loved reading, but in my theatre course I came to learn more about the differences between the two. Hence I have undoubtedly been influenced by theatre. The same goes for cinema, as long as there were serious films and serious artists who made those films. But since the period of those filmmakers is over, I have not gone to the cinema.The Colonel has never been published in Iran. It could have been published by the underground press and you decided against it. Can you tell us why you took this decision, and how likely is its publication now?I cannot say for sure if it will be published or not. But I do not agree with the underground publication of the book. I detest any secret and hidden work and I believe in the same clarity and transparency to which you referred to in my work. And this is my essence: should a work that has been written in the language of Roudaki, Sa’di, Rumi and Dehkhoda be published or not?You said during the PEN World Voices Festival: ‘As a writer I embarked on a path of creating epic narratives of my country, which necessarily contain a lot of history which has not been written. But in doing that I have been required to have a lot of patience, perseverance and very few expectations from life.’ You clearly had to accept a lot for your writing. If you look back, would you have done anything differently?It is of course not possible to go back to the past. But were it possible, I would be the same, with perhaps more effort to learn. 

About the author

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi was born in 1940 in Dowlatabad, northwest Iran and is a writer and actor, known primarily for his realist stories focussing on rural life. His writing draws from his own experiences, such as helping his father with farming, tending flocks, and reading Persian folklore in his youth. He attended high school in Tehran and later joined the Anahita Drama group. In 1975 he was arrested and spent a year in prison.

Dowlatabadi began writing in the 60′s and has published many novels, novellas, short story collections and plays. His first story, The Pit of Night, was published in 1962 in the Anahita Literary Magazine. Other major works include his 1968 novel, The Tale of Baba Sobhan which was filmed as Khak (Earth / dust) in 1972 by Masud Kimiai. Between 1977 and 1984 he wroteKalidar, a novel about a persecuted family and a classic of Persian literature. His most recent novel The Colonel was shortlisted for the Haus der Kulturen Berlin International Literary Award in 2009The 2013 Jan Michalski Prize was awarded on 13 November to Mahmoud Dowlatabadi for his novel The Colonel

About the interviewertasja dorkofikis photo (2)Tasja Dorkofikis is the editor of the PEN Atlas as well as a freelance editor and publicist. She used to work as Publicity Director at Random House and most recently at Portobello Books as Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor. Tasja shares her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland. About the translator

Sahar Delijani (2)Sahar Delijani was born in Iran and grew up in California. She was born in Evin Prison in Tehran, Iran in 1983, the same year both her parents were arrested due to their political activism against the Islamic regime. In 1996, when she was 12 years old, her parents decided to move to Northern California to join her mother’s family. Delijani was registered in a middle school, starting from 7th grade.

In 2002, Delijani gained a place at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a BA degree in Comparative Literature. In 2006, after having met her husband at Berkeley, she moved to Turin, Italy, where she has lived ever since.

Her debut novel, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, will be published in more than 70 countries and translated into 25 languages. It is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Additional information

The Colonel is published by Haus, and translated by Tom Patterdale.