"I am a Fighter" Nilofar Shidmehr on Writing Iranian Women's Stories in Her Powerful Collection Divided Loyalties
Nilofar Shidmehr is known for her powerful poetry collections, but her newest book sees her working in a different genre: short fiction. Her voice is just as arresting in the short stories of Divided Loyalties (House of Anansi) as in her acclaimed poetry collections, and she returns to the complex experiences of Iranian women in both post-revolutionary Iran and the Canadian diaspora.
Beginning with the revolution and its turmoil in 1978 and moving forward in time with each story until 2003, the stories are profound, surprising, and nuanced. The women characters face a complicated cocktail of pressure, resilience, trauma, and social expectations, with each living out her individual story in Shidmehr's rich, measured prose.
We're excited to welcome Nilofar to Open Book today to talk about writing Divided Loyalties and handling the shift to fiction. She tells us about the important central question that runs throughout all nine stories in the collection, how she deals with the overwhelming parts of the writing process, and why it is beneficial for a writer to have the "neuropsychological tenacity of a boxer".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I put together seven stories presenting several life trajectories of Iranian women at home and in diaspora, that I had written over the years. Lucky for me, House of Anansi picked up the book. I added one more story to the manuscript I submitted to the publisher. Then, during the editing process, my editor, Michelle MacAleese, suggested to add another story which is set in Canada to the collection. This is how Divided Loyalties including nine short stories came to be.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Yes, there was a central question to the stories I chose to make my book. It was about how much of herself a modern Iranian woman should give to her family and relationships and how much of herself she should dedicate to her own life and self-realization. In a culture where community takes precedence over individual, the price for diverting from community morals and recommended ways of life could be marginalization, loss, and separation from their loved ones. Like myself, my characters pay this price, as they struggle to find a balance between personal and communal values, goals, and ideals, but in return, achieve independence.
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
The project didn’t change much, but two of the stories did. During the editing process, I rewrote “The Gordian Knot” and developed “Yellow Shadow” significantly. In 2015, when I was the Writer-in-Residence at Regina Public Library, I decided to create this book, but I didn’t have enough stories for the kind of collection I had in mind. The manuscript was ready for submission in 2017. It took me two years to write the additional three stories and rework or edit the four I already had.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I don’t need much in terms of “hardware”, only a laptop, a large desk to spread my notes, and books. The most important is a time of my own. The ideal would be a three-to-six month retreat to write uninterruptedly. Discipline is the key. I try to write and read at least five hours every day and stay away from hindrances like email and social media. To create a healthy balance, I leave time for exercising (e.g. Zumba, swimming, biking) and socializing in my weekly schedule. Fresh food and rich cultural nutrition are also important. My husband and I have created our rituals including going to film festivals, theatre, and art exhibitions, watching movies and TV shows at home, playing games, and engaging in philosophical and social discussions. I feel fortunate for having a partner who is supportive, encouraging, and respectful of my work schedule and rituals.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I’ve never had this experience; instead, I have had the experience of feeling overwhelmed by the feedback provided to me on early drafts of my stories. Both my body and mind become tense whenever I am overwhelmed. My body aches as if I’d been beaten hard and wants to rest. My mind, on the contrary, goes on fire, keeping me up the whole night, trying to find ways to revise the story. I’ve been strong-willed, practical, and persistent since childhood. I am a fighter and a problem solver, and don’t give up easily. It might take me a few days to figure out how to rework my writing. During this time, I feel as anxious as a trapped animal. The most difficult is the morning when my mind commands my body, which feels even sorer than the night before, out of bed and calls on me to have another stab at my story. To deal with an overwhelmed self and an injured ego, it helps to have a mind with the “neuropsychological tenacity” of a boxer, which also works like the mind of a scientist who strives to fail better in the next experiment.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Two great books I read in the last few years are: Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul. They both touch on subjects indispensable to survival of humanity: equality, belonging, and justice. They help readers to imagine a different future than their own violent and difficult pasts—a more just and peaceful future yet to come. Truly significant books are both local and universal, because they promise truth and reconciliation. They makes you identify with characters, experience the same physical and emotional intensity they go through, and have a revelation. They are immortal because they plant a seed in your mind that keeps growing. Their freshness and the mark they leave on you don’t diminish with time. Impactful literature is not reducible to an engaging stories, good characters, and/or literary tropes. There is something more to it, a mystery to be explored over and over, a magic that opens the present to the eternity of “l’avenir”.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my first novel Green Intervals. This is the plot: A former political prisoner in Iran, who has been in Canada for twenty years, goes back to join “The Green Movement”, the largest uprising since the 1979 Revolution. Even though the movement is suppressed, her journey is fruitful. She gets an opportunity to reconcile with her family, find closure from the past, and move forward into a different future with her fiancée in Vancouver, who is waiting for her return.
Nilofar Shidmehr is a poet, essayist, and scholar, and the author of six books in English and Farsi, including Between Lives and Shirin and Salt Man, a BC Book Prize finalist. She writes and delivers lectures on women’s rights, migration and diaspora, and social and political issues in Iran. A specialist in literature and cinema of modern Iran, she teaches in the Continuing Studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives with her husband.