A Conversation with Sanaz Fotouhi

 

Savita Narayan, our copy editor in conversation with Sanaz Fotouhi

Savita: Hi, Sanaz. Thank you for agreeing to talk to our readers. We are all writing enthusiasts and are always looking to better our craft and improve the way we tell stories.

Let me begin by introducing you to our readers. Sanaz Fotouhi is an Iranian-Australian author, film maker and academic. She has written extensively on Iranian writing in English, has travelled and made films in Afghanistan that emerge from the diasporic experience. She has written The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity Since The Islamic Revolution and several stories that have appeared in anthologies. Sanaz Fotouhi is Director, Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT).

 

So with that extremely short bio, Sanaz, I would like to know what your influences were as a child that took you on this journey through literature and film.

This is actually a very interesting story. I was about six years old. On Fridays, which were public holidays in Iran, my father who was a banker taught in a school. He used to pass a street of booksellers on his way. He would buy me one or two books and hide them in his briefcase. I would be all excited about the books he bought, rummaging through all his papers when he returned home. This became like a ritual. It developed my love for reading and literature from that very early age and my parents used to encourage this. I remember these books in Farsi when I was growing up in Iran - ‘Tell Me Why’. They had all sorts of information. I went through the series in a week. When I was 8 years old I wrote a short story that got published in the centre page in a children’s magazine. Just tiny stories about three sentences long but my work had been published!

 

The ‘Tell Me Why’ books still sell here in India. But in India childrens’ magazines are pretty much gone.

Yes they are, sadly. I think pretty much everyone is busy on their phones. These children’s magazines in Iran were very popular. They were national. If you had your story published, every kid would read them; not just one or two. The magazines were cheap, so parents could buy them. Unfortunately, I think we’ve just lost that now.

 

So you started out writing in Farsi?

Yes.

 

How did you switch to English?

When we moved for my dad’s job, I started going to international English schools in Japan which is where his first job was. And so I just switched to English. I have been writing in English since then.

 

Let’s talk about the films that you make. Iran is so famous for their films. Was that an influence in your childhood?

Well, not so much the films. Films happened kind of like proxy because my partner back then was studying film at ANU, the Australian National University. I got very interested in what he was doing. My dad was working in Afghanistan. When we visited him, it occurred to us that Afghanistan was an incredible source for film stories, a lot could be done. So I started learning a lot about film by just shadowing my then partner and jumping in when needed. I was never formally trained in film making. There, it was just the two of us. So I had the second camera and then the voice recording, sound recording and afterwards all the paperwork producing the short film. “Why are you doing this, how are you doing this, can I have a go? That’s how the film came together".

 

So did you also script your films?

No, because the films that I worked on were documentaries. There’s no script for them. We just went and made the film. We couldn’t have actually written them any better, you know.

 

What is your process for writing and movie making? What inspires you, how do you get the seed of the idea? Then how do you grow it, make it into a full-blown book or film?

These are two different components. With the film we had an idea, we went and we did it, in guerilla style. We made a short film of women burning themselves as a form of suicide. We went into the hospitals, into burn units, social centres and we spoke to people. This was in Afghanistan after the Taliban left. We heard that women were burning themselves, in the hundreds, everyday. We wanted to understand why. It was really difficult because I was in my early twenties then.

This film didn’t really do as well as we had hoped because it was such a harsh topic and people really couldn’t bear to see it. We thought we hadn’t done a good job. But we wanted people to understand about Afghanistan. So we decided to make another film, a documentary and that actually took a lot of research and negotiation. We then met Mahboba Rawi. She runs a charity in Afghanistan and is based in Australia.

She told me two kids, he’s 17 and she’s 14, were trying to get married in one of the orphanages. This would be a great idea for a film because then many different issues could be spoken of through the documentary. We travelled with her to Afghanistan. For a month we followed the journey of these kids. You see a slice of life in a country still grappling with war and so many issues, so much madness, so much anxiety. The film ‘Love Marriage in Kabul’ was very successful. It won numerous awards, Best Audience Choice Award in Sydney Film Festival, got shortlisted for Rockley, which is like the Australian Pulitzer.

When the film came out I felt I still hadn’t quite gotten my story out there. Because underneath there was still so much story which didn’t make it to the film. I had been writing about Afghanistan for quite a while since we started going. So I actually turned it all into a book, the journey and the process of making the film.

 

There is quite an audience for documentaries as well?

There is. Especially, my kind of narrative documentary where you follow the story of somebody.

 

What has a higher impact on your writing process - experience or imagination? I’m sure it’s a mix of both, but does one take precedence?

I can’t say because they are so interrelated. For me, experience has more impact since I usually write on issues. I then embellish it with my imagination. For e.g. my piece in the Griffith Review.

I took a trip to the US in 2017 and it was about the exact same time that Trump put the travel ban on seven Muslim majority countries. I’m by nationality Australian-Iranian, and I was going from Iran. So that trip was just so incredible, in terms of what I went through and the anxiety.

It really made me aware of ground reality, of what Trump was doing. When I’m going to the US and get rejected for a visa, I’m going to return to Australia. But what about somebody who has been waiting 4-5 years for a visa and they have got 6 kids behind them? They don’t have a country to go back to. They get to the border and they hear ‘Go back, go back.”

Where? Where are they going to go back to? It really brought home the bigger picture to me, the political impact on individuals. So I guess the short answer would be experience.

 

You write both fiction and nonfiction. Your book is on the Iranian Diaspora.

That’s the nonfiction book. But that’s also a kind of an academic book. It rests on a lot of my own personal experiences, as one who has lived abroad and of my engagement with literature. I also have a lot of essays, mostly nonfiction.

 

You also write fiction in the form of short stories.

I do.

 

Not book length?

The book is in the pipeline, a novel.

 

How do you tap into all the information you have? How do you collate all the information. You obviously don’t use everything you come across. So do you have a system of recording, of keeping all the information in place so you can tap into it as and when you want?

I used to, when I was younger. But not anymore. Now if an idea comes up and it really sticks in my brain and I can’t get rid of it, I know that’s an idea that needs to be embellished. Otherwise you get so many ideas in the middle of the night which you explore. And once you do, maybe it’s not a great idea. But the ones that stick in my brain I know that I definitely want to explore further.

 

I have also come across writers who say other art forms give them some sort of creative inspiration. Is that true for you too?

I used to do a lot of other things. I used to paint, do photography. But I haven’t done that in a while because with APWT, I’m more geared towards Arts Management for the last couple of years. And that’s taken away a lot of my time from creative activity.

 

Tell me about how you research your projects, be it fiction or nonfiction. Short of actually going to the places that you visit to write about, do you have avenues that you tap?

Depends on what it is. For example, Literature of the Iranian Diaspora was based on my PhD, so it’s a really extensively researched piece of writing. But otherwise, unless I need to fact by fact, I don’t really do much research. A lot of my writing is based on my personal experiences.

 

The reason why I ask is your writing is based on societies that you’ve lived in earlier. I thought there would be some correlation there as well.

The novel I am writing at the moment is set partially in Iran and partially in Australia and partially in America from the Iranian experience. I have to go back, look up historical records from the time I was growing up in Iran. Yes, I have some idea of it but the accuracy is important. You go back and check. Especially if I’m referring to a song or something, I have to actually make sure of the accuracy of the facts, and do my due diligence.

 

That right. Memories can sometimes be very subjective.

Oh, they’re always very subjective.

 

So your roots are in a culture that is quite different from where you live as a creative person. You just told me that you bring in both into your work. Has this always been true of your writing?

That’s been the foundation of all my writing since I was a kid. Ever since I moved away from Iran it has always been about how do you straddle two cultures, how do you create a space of belonging? For me literature, and the literary community creates that. For example, at APWT I really feel at home. I go to these places where there are writers and creative people and I feel ‘Ah! These are my people.’ It doesn’t matter where they come from, doesn’t matter what they are writing, just being in that space is like being home. So, that’s been something I’ve always done and it concerns a lot of my work.

The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora was actually based on this notion. How do writers tackle these two spaces, how do writers create a sense of identity for themselves, in between these two spaces and ideas?

 

Going by what you just said, it seems like you write about modern Iran and its interaction with modern Australia, the modern western society. Is it correct to say that? Or are you also looking at historical Iran?

I do engage at bit with history, historical aspects of Iran in my novel. The novel, which is work in progress, also deals with issues of migration, actually migrations of Iranians into Australia. And so it also kind of addresses those issues.

 

What is the single-most significant experience of your life. You told me what made you write the film in Afghanistan but regarding writing is there any one turning point apart from having a childhood experience of it?

The turning point for me was researching for the Literature of the Iranian Diaspora. I lived in Hong Kong before moving to Australia. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Hong Kong. I became really interested in diasporic literature and postcolonial literature. I was finding a lot of solace in them. And I realised no one represented the Iranian voice, we just didn’t have a body of work. Very accidentally, one day in a little dingy bookshop in Hong Kong, I came across a book by an Iranian woman writer. It was written in English. I read it really quickly and it set me thinking “Are there other people like this?” I researched and gradually discovered there were quite a few, the list kept growing. Eventually it became my passion and a PhD study which took me 6 years to finish. After that I turned it into a book.

 

So you came across other Iranian writers writing about the diaspora?

Yes. When I finished my book, there had to be a hundred of them. Now I’m sure there are many more. People who write specifically in English. I’m not even looking at translation.

 

Any particular scenes in your book or movie that hold a personal significance for you, that you’ve taken from your experience and written about?

The whole film ‘Love Marriage in Kabul’ is very significant and personal because we were involved with the children in the orphanage. I really became close to them, they became part of my family, my Afghan family.

So every time I see ‘Love Marriage in Kabul’ (I’ve seen it about 300 times), everybody says ‘Don’t you get bored?’ I say “No.” Even though we made the film, I see things in it that I hadn’t seen before. I am reminded of those children and it just feels really new and fresh to me. It reminds me of the connection we had with those kids and also the impact the film made on them.

 

Our perspectives are so different if we read something we have written a few years back.

Yes. That’s because we change as people. Our perspective changes. How we see things changes.

 

Publishing been male oriented in many ways until now although there have been significant women writers for many years. Does origin or gender play a role on how one’s work is received? The trope White Male Writer is known for better advances, better publicity by publishers than to their female counterparts. So much so that female writers even today go by gender-neutral names, JK Rowling for example. So is the shift towards gender neutrality, racial neutrality in the publishing industry happening yet? What is your perspective?

This is an interesting debate. I’m a Middle Eastern woman. Publishers need to be interested in me because of the stories I can tell and I have. But sometimes that is a disadvantage. Certain publishers, certain readers expect a certain narrative from a Middle Eastern woman. So I know that I would be very marketable as a writer if I were to tell certain stories. I have avoided this.

I was on a panel with an author and he said, “You are losing a lot of free money because if you tell these stories people would be interested in reading your book."

I said, “No. I would rather pass on the free money because that would put me in a stereotype.” There’s so much stereotypical writing and I don’t want to be a part of it. I think that question is not only about male-female, we also have to add the issue of race into this. I think Middle Eastern women get the upper hand in some publishing industries because of how they are situated compared to White women. And I’m being very general here because these terms of White and Middle Eastern are very fluid, if you were to look at it. But someone who has a more ‘exotic’ background has the upper hand when it comes to marketability than somebody who’s a White woman author because of the nature of their stories. People love to hear stories of women in the Middle East being oppressed. It’s an old, old narrative. I think people still like that. Certain people do, at least.

 

You mean stories of hijab and what it is like to be behind the veil.

Yes, yes and to be fair I think we need to slightly move away from that, slightly, because when I look at this in my book, when you look at book covers of Middle Eastern women authors in late 90s-early 2000, 80% of them are just (gestures to show face cover, only exposing the eyes) you know, burqa clad and it became so saturated that, for me, it was just a turn-off.

I think it does not do the writers justice because no matter how different your narrative or tale is, when you market it like that you are immediately put into a category. So, I think that question has many different aspects to it.

 

There is one thought that struck me about this topic and I thought I would get your perspective on it. The market for most books is the western market. That’s where most of the money is.

Yes.

 

So, markets in Asia and the developing world are still very limited compared to sales in the US and in Europe. Which is why publishers pander to those markets with these stereotypes which they feel have better marketability than offering a different viewpoint. Is that a correct view?

You mean people who offer different perspectives ...

 

...don’t have as much of a market as those who cater to stereotypes in terms of gender and such.

Oh, definitely. And I’ll give you a prominent example of this. If you look at the body of Iranian writing in English you will see that the women writers who are made to appear within the stereotypical presentation get so much more air time but if you look at the numbers, the men have published a lot of books. But you don’t hear from any of them. They are not marketed, they don’t get the reception they deserve because they don’t play on the stereotypes. What happens to these narratives is, “Ah. But you are just an exception. She’s just an exception.” Just how many exceptions are there? [Laughs].

So it’s actually true that those who don’t fit in don’t get as much attention as they deserve. The example of men’s writing in Iran is a clear one of that.

 

So male writers are broaching different kinds of subjects that don’t necessarily pander to the marketability. Is that what you are saying?

Yes. A lot of the narratives by men, interestingly enough, break down the stereotypes of ‘patriarchal’, ‘violent’, ‘over-sexed’ Middle Eastern men. So, for example, one of my favourite authors Mahbod Seraji has a love story from the perspective of a young Iranian boy in his book ‘Rooftops of Tehran’. It was a narrative that didn’t get the attention it deserved. People thought it was ‘just another exception.’

 

So women writers who write within the stereotype, do they have a good market for writing in English?

Yes, some of them do. Azar Nafisi wrote a memoir ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’. Massive success. There are a few women who have become very famous doing that because they are marketable. And timely. This came out at a time when people were interested, right after 9/11. It had a very small print run before but afterwards there was so much demand that it sold millions of copies.

 

Diaspora writing carries a feeling of nostalgia for the place left behind…

I think that is partially true. Speaking for the body of Iranian writing in English, that’s one of the themes I deal with, the concept of nostalgia, displacement, home and homecoming. It plays a huge part in my body of work. Regarding my own writing, when I was younger I had much more nostalgia, much more of a sense of feeling displaced and alone. But as I grew older, I’ve kind of pushed that into the background. Or maybe it’s just too much for me to feel. I don’t delve into it. I’ve gotten to the point of, “If you miss your family, what are you going to do about it?”

 

In recent times people move out of their homes due to a number of reasons like violence etc.

It’s really interesting because literature plays a significant role in how people settle into a place. I deal with this extensively in my book because there are two aspects to it. First, how do you create that sense of belonging in literature? I think that ideally we deal with the trauma of displacement, we deal with the voice and that immediately gives a sense of belonging, within that community.

Secondly, by writing we then have the opportunity to express part of ourselves to the community we migrated into. Take the Iranian community. I think literature has played a huge part in the process of them settling because when you read something, you feel connected to somebody. Then you see them at a human level. You stop seeing them as The Other. You feel the same human feelings as that person, so it closes barriers and gaps.

Literature asks people to relate to each other on a human level. We are all human and we all share a human story. It allows people to represent aspects of their culture much better and allows them to settle in the new country.

 

Very true. Many art forms such as cinema pretty much cater to stereotypes. Are there Iranian women writers who write anything different?

There are a couple of women who do that. Azadeh Moaveni has two memoirs of Iran from a different perspective. She’s American-Iranian but she writes of authentic Iran. The popular image is that Iran is regressive. But the reality is that there is a huge underground movement and it’s very, very active. So when people start writing this, it’s going to defy stereotypes.

 

Unfortunately we don’t get to read much of this in India.

Even in the western markets these books have not received the attention they deserve. Because of the perception that they are an ‘exception’. So the ones that cater to western perceptions, confirming stereotypes get published. I find it really frustrating. I express something and I’m told I’m an exception, having lived abroad, being educated in the West. But I’m still Iranian! It’s a very delicate and complicated situation.

 

So all these books you are talking about. Are they published in Iran or are they published outside?

None of these is published in Iran.They are all in English. And some like ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ are actually banned in Iran. Some books have been translated into Farsi and you can get them in Iran. But again, they are not very popular because taking the theme of Iranian Disapora back into the country does not make sense. People don’t understand the sensibility and the nostalgia of living abroad, of missing the homeland.

 

What are your future projects?

One is a memoir about my trip to Afghanistan which will hopefully be out in 2019. I write short stories. Interestingly I have had quite a few essays which is not what I usually write. I love writing short stories but somehow they just become essays. So you know, who knows where this creative urge is taking me. I just go with the flow of how that piece or topic can be dealt with. Sometimes maybe an essay format is more appropriate that turning it into a short story.

 

What other topics engage you? What else do you write about?

Issues of identity. Recently, with APWT, cross-cultural writing, the voices of Asia-Pacific. This region has become important for me. I’m getting a clearer understanding of it.

 

Please tell me more about APWT. We want our readers to know how they can engage more with it.

We call ourselves a literary networking organisation. We are a cross between a conference and a festival. At an APWT event we have writers, editors, translators, publishers, poets, you name it. People from over 23 countries all get together. We have panels, book launches, reading sessions and lots and lots of networking. The event moves from place to place. So last year we were in Bali. Next year in Macau, 2021 probably in India. The benefit of APWT is that people meet publishers and editors and have an opportunity to travel internationally. It’s a versatile network that just brings people together.

 

The conference is once a year. Is anything else happening the rest of the year?

No, not at this stage. But in the pipeline we have plans for off-shore events, live workshops, book launches, online courses. I only took over as Director about two years ago and I’m working on plans and strategies so we are not just a one-time event.

 

From your website I understand that APWT is a collaboration between universities.

Yes. it started in Hong Kong where writers and publishers from the region got together. We wanted to know what’s happening in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, India. This was brainchild of Jane Camens to bring people together. It started in Hong Kong. Now we work with a consortium of universities who fund us. We hold an event at an university every year, so we tap into the educational system, into the students.

 

You also have a membership section on the site.

We offer members exclusive discounts at conferences. There’s a section on the site where they can post, a section for jobs in the region. Membership is a way of showing support for us throughout the year. We are not-for-profit, we don’t have a lot of money, so that helps us maintain ourselves. Membership offers will change and increase in the next year or two.

 

Why the focus on the Asia-Pacific region?

Unlike the American Association Writer Program who get people together in the US, there was nothing similar in the Asia-Pacific region. APWT came out of a need for people to meet. It’s now 11 years old.

 

What advice would you give emerging writers?

Keep writing! Be thick-skinned and persistent. Because there’s a lot of rejection out there. Rejection does not necessarily mean anything, it does not reflect the quality of your writing or your personality. Rejection is often the taste of the reader, because often we hear of success stories of people who were rejected 70 times. And once they get the book deal, it can change the whole culture. So just keep writing.

 

Thank you very much Sanaz for talking to our readers at ActiveMuse.

 

Sanaz Fotouhi is a writer, filmmaker and academic. She is APWT's Director. She holds a PhD in English literature from UNSW. As an Iranian-Australian and someone who has lived and travelled extensively Sanaz is interested in narrative and stories that emerge from the diasporic experience. Her first book The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution was published in March 2015 (I.B. Tauris). Her stories and creative fiction are also reflective of her multicultural background. Her fiction includes 'Ceydney', in Stories of Sydney, Seizure, 2014. She is one of the founding members of the Persian Film Festival in Australia.

 

 

 

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