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A Self-Portrait
Mahshid According to Amir-Shahy1

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for asking me to talk about myself today, because I am currently researching work on the writings of a few contemporary Persian authors whose personalities and works I don't always appreciate, hence talking about someone whom I am rather fond of and whose books I rather like, is just the kind of break I badly needed! Moreover, being your guest for a short while, the least I owe you is to introduce myself beyond the limits of a simple C.V. This may of-course result in your becoming more cautious about sending out your invitations in the future!

In order to stick strictly to the title — a self-portrait — I shall start with my physique. You may find this part dispensable — after all I am standing here in front of you and you can see for yourselves what I look like. Well I beg to differ. I believe a detailed description, particularly from the horse's mouth, is quite necessary, even invaluable. Not only because of my future biographers in Kamchatka or Guadeloupe, where, I am afraid, my photographs are not readily available, but also because the Mullahs in my country have decided that no part of a woman's body should ever be talked about or exposed to strangers — hence the imposition of chador. Well I will be damned if I accept that. Therefore, instead of remaining faceless, shapeless and voiceless — as they want me to be — I am going to be simply shameless!

I will go from top to toe — that seems only logical — leaving out those features, which are fit to be exposed to X-rays rather than cameras.

First my hair: To the utmost despair of my mother and my own delight, I started going grey very early in life. I discovered my first white hair when I was about 16. I invented quite a few hairstyles at the time just to put this single silver thread on display, but to no avail, because the shock of the tangled crow-black hair I had those days was an overpowering contestant against which that poor little thing had no chance.

Some said that if I plucked it, the number of white hairs would grow rapidly. They meant this as a warning I presume, but I took it for an advice. Yet I could not part with it — what if instead of blossoming into snow-white clumps, it never came back?

So for a while I lived through a painful dilemma, which died away only when I had enough grey hair to stand out without much acrobatic combing.

I was indeed very proud of this precocious sign of maturity, and this sense of pride lasted for a long time, perhaps far too long. I should have put a stop to my vanity when people stopped being surprised at or curious about my going grey. However, I did not understand their eloquent silence, which simply meant, from now on, I had better watch out for my teeth instead of being dashing and cocky about my hair!

When Ayatollah Khomeiny burst upon my life, I dyed my hair just to spite him! Hence, the hair you see now definitely belongs to me, as for their colours I dare say it is even more my own: I have paid for it.

 

Let us move down:

My thick bushy eyebrows occupy too large a space in my face to be totally neglected. They do not, have however a long history. They have been the very same ever since I can remember owing to my unreasonable horror of tweezers. I consider myself lucky not to live in the times when to have those thin semicircular arches drawn at almost half a yard from the eyes was considered the height of fashion. Take Joan Crawford for example. I shudder whenever I see one of her old films with her eyebrows completely plucked off. What agony the dear old girl must have gone through!

 

My eyes with make-up reflect more accurately my true character. When left to their own devices, they look very innocent; so I would rather mess about with some mascara than mislead people.

Talking of eyes, about a couple of months ago, I discovered that my vision was defective. I immediately blamed the ruling clergy in Iran for my new ailment. Don't blame me for being obsessed by the idea, after all they have taken away from me all that I highly value in life, why not my eyesight? The oculist, however, assured me that it was the wayward way of nature. Divine Laws had nothing to do with it. I could not but accept the situation. Nonetheless, I wished that if it had to be that way, why not in a Thurberian manner. This great man, you no doubt know, suffered from bad eyesight throughout his life and died almost blind.

It was not his tragic end, of course that I had wished for myself but that dreamy quality the objects acquired when he ventured to roam around without his glasses on. Without them, he would see a piece of butcher's paper blowing in the wind, as a cat rolling across a street in a small striped barrel; a garbage man with a garbage can on his back, as a gay old lady with a grey parasol walking right through the side of a truck; the smoke from tugs, as bridges rising lazily into the air like balloons.

But I experienced none of these marvellous things. My defective vision demonstrated itself by some very vulgar symptoms such as the blurring of words on the page of a book, followed by a horrible headache. The oculist decided that I had been shortsighted for years, have become long-sighted by age and from one stage to another have gathered some astigmatism as well. For some one who has never been a keen collector, that was quite a collection! The opticians, however, assured me that I could artificially compensate for my short and long comings with just one pair of spectacles.

I have them now, but they are just as useful to me as the glasses of Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly were to her. Remember? She used to pull them down and look over them about the room, then put them up and look out under them. She never looked through them. However, they were her state pair, the pride of her heart and were built for style not service. Mine, on the other hand, should have been built only for service.

I think something must have gone wrong in the fabrication of my glasses. Because when I want to look at something away from me, I have to bend my head back until my eyes rest on the middle of the lenses. To see something at close range I must bend my neck double to position my eyes parallel to the rim and keep them there by hook or by crook. By which time, in both cases, I have lost all interest in whatever it was I wanted to look at — and that is the end of the story.

It is no good going back to the opticians and complaining: in Paris, the customer is always wrong! Therefore, I am now living with a constant and familiar headache and am getting quite used to blurred words.

So much for my eyes.

 

My nose has given me all the services that a nose can give to anyone. That is to say: it smells, sniffs, snorts, snores and sneezes quite adequately; and what is more it has, with a remarkable sense of duty, left the task of running entirely to my feet; thus enabling me — rain or shine— to keep it thoroughly clean. Hence, I would have had no cause for complaint, had it not been for those nasty spectacles. Having failed to correct the deficiencies of my eyes, they have proved themselves useful in demonstrating that the bridge of my nose is abnormally wide. To prevent the middle part of the glasses from drilling two deep holes into the sides of my out-proportioned nose-bridge, I am obliged to hold the specs over it, which makes proper focusing even more stupendous. Anyway, as I have decided to keep my improper seeing-aids in the drawer of my desk, I need not bother much with the deformity of my proper nose, which I am condemned to carry around.

To keep the order — i.e. to go from top to toe — I am not quite sure where to bring in my ears. They are not normally, as you have noticed, placed neatly in the middle of the face, prior to one specific feature and after another, except in the case of Picasso's models of-course. As I am not the only one faced with this problem, however, let us not ponder upon it much longer and leave every individual to find his or her solution to it. I, for my part, have finally opted to talk about them after my nose, hoping — for the sake of posterity — that those present here today would have the good grace of bearing witness later on, that they were where they should have been — i.e. one on each side of my head.

 

My ears, although as old as my other anatomical parts, even older than my hair and teeth, can be considered as brand new, because they haven't been used much. For this, a few other organs should be blamed or thanked, depending on your point of view: namely my mouth, tongue, vocal cords, etc. They have been so busy over-acting, that my ears have not had much of a chance to develop properly and normally. That, I hasten to add, doesn't make of me some one who is hard of hearing, but you could easily label me as some one who is hard of listening!

 

Let us move further down:

My mouth, partly responsible for the virginal state of my ears, is a constant reminder of the first quarrel I've ever had outside the family circle — to be exact, on the first day of attending primary school. I cannot remember what started the fight, but I well recall the comments of the girl who had picked on me. "Don't shout," she told me. "Even shut, your mouth's so huge it could be that of a camel!"

Taking into account that she had two tiny eyes, one could hardly accuse her of having seen too big; the exactitude of her remark, however, is debatable. No one else has ever compared my mouth to that of a camel before or since. Or rather my lips, that part of the mouth visible to naked eye no matter how minute. Absolutely no one, not even those who call me a "chatter box" and clearly prefer the term "trap" to the word "mouth". The reason for the uncalled for familiarity of this group, I imagine, could not be purely physiognomic. Surely, those who call me a chatterbox or a loudmouth could not care less about the thickness of my lips, but they appear to give at least a couple of hoots for the sharpness of my tongue.

Let us not get involved in the latter, which after all concerns only the function of this organ and not its appearance; as for the former i.e. the thickness of my lips, I cannot honestly say that I mind it very much — hang it all, it does offer me a comfortable margin of error while putting on lip-stick.

There is not much else to add to the picture. Just one clarification perhaps, for the sake of those who have noticed that I am carrying a cane to-day. If the notion has crossed your mind that I might be suffering from a writer's cramp, you are pathetically wrong. My ailment is much more grandiose and stylish than that, and it is called "algodystrophie de la rotule droite" if you please! - Which is a rare disease, hence desirable to be preserved, but is regrettably curable.

 

Now to my writings:

I'd like to make it perfectly clear from the beginning that this chapter is going to be much more boring than the previous one — for the simple reason that one can more readily laugh out loud at some one else's creative failures than at one's own. Therefore, without taking my books too seriously, I am bound to be more indulgent with them.

First a general history:

I started writing in my teens, but saw my first collection of short stories in print in my early twenties. My being a young woman writer, whose stories did not resemble those of other established authors, gave ample pretext to every one who was someone to snob me entirely. My total aversion towards opinion makers — namely literary critics and intellectuals of my country, made my previously mentioned faults quite fatal!

Story writing in Iran had taken a rather rigid shape by the time I entered the arena. To make my point clear, I had better tell you an anecdote: it is about a teacher of English literature who has the good fortune of meeting Somerset Maugham during her summer holidays, and at the first opportunity asks him the secret of his immense success. Maugham generously provides her with his magic formula:

"A bit of religion, a bit of society, a bit of sex and a bit of mystery mingled together always results in a good story."

At the end of the holiday, the teacher goes back to her students well equipped and delighted. She reveals the formula and suggests emphatically to her pupils to apply it in their next essay on a subject of their own choice.

One essay — the shortest no doubt — definitively met the requirements, and read as follows: "Oh God!" said the Duchess." I am pregnant. Who's done it?"

Our local recipe, however, had different ingredients. The cooking instructions were extremely easy to follow Mix a dash of misery with a pinch of disease. Dilute the mixture in a glass of tear or blood. Sprinkle the lot with some third-worldish slogans and spread the hotchpotch on a thick bed of anti-regime symbols. Pour it all into a hero-hooligan type recipient and bake it in a lukewarm political oven. Such a dish, all intellectuals guaranteed, had high gastronomic value.

I committed, rather unwittingly, the unforgivable mistake of not respecting this recipe, which to my taste was perfectly insipid. I had apparently added some salt and pepper to it to make the dish edible — In addition, had dared to omit certain ingredients altogether and replace them with others, which suited my palate better.

In the months that followed the publication of my first book — and I remained as unknown to the public as an unborn child — I wrote my second bunch of stories and gave them to the printers almost a year after the first collection was out.

This time, I received a few condescending remarks and some paternal smiles, which I found much more disturbing than being snubbed.

I counter attacked by sending my third collection to the publishers before the year was over. By the time my fourth came out, I could rest assured that I had made a perfect nuisance of myself.

They had to talk now — and they did, but grudgingly and between clenched teeth, with mumbles and in patter.

Meanwhile, the "chefs" of that famous recipe were being turned into sacred monsters, blown out of all reasonable proportions — and all of a sudden I felt tired, very tired. I must add here that apart from writing my books, I was working full time as an editor at the time, and had two part-time jobs as well — which consisted of translating certain technical texts for a museum and once a week contributing to the cultural programs of a radio station. I was also busy translating books, getting repeatedly married and divorced and constantly looking after my child. So no wonder I felt tired — and a bit lost, to tell the truth.

Now, I am a great admirer of Oscar Wilde. Once, one of his contemporaries, a young writer, who too felt tired and perhaps a bit lost, went to him and said, "I am not appreciated at my just value. There is, I am sure, a conspiracy of silence against me. What should I do?"

Without hesitation, Wilde answered, "Join it my dear join it!"

I do not know whether that author ever took up this advice, but it certainly gave me an idea: I remained silent for years.

During that period, I wrote a story or two every now and again; piled up the half-finished ones here and there; jotted down the outlines of some stories-to-be on scraps of paper and left them on a shelf to gather dust and abandoned dozens of fully written pages in the cellar for the mice to feed upon

However, the itch for writing came back, when I was forced to live in exile. It came back with such a strength that I began to doubt it had ever subsided — and I came out with a novel, that I got rid of by publishing it, and finished a second which still hangs around my neck, heavy as a dead body, till I have it printed. And believe it or not the itch is still there!2

This brings us to the end of the general history. I shall now proceed to explain some of the particularities of my writings. In other words, the boasting will only start from now on!

I can at least enumerate three characteristics, which are mine and could rarely be found in other writers of prose in Iran:

a) The variety of subjects. By that I mean, that my stories — unlike those of others — are not devoted to a single mission, a certain class, a constant struggle or a unique topic. The variety of subjects calls for the variety of styles and the variety of characters — both of which have been respected in my stories to the best of my ability and to the utmost annoyance of those who keep publishing anthologies of stories by different authors. It is of-course much easier to decide which is the best story of some one — let us say — like Erskin Caldwell, than some one — shall we say — like Ernest Hemingway. The former only talks of the "deep South", his characters all live in squalor, chew tobacco, spit all around and god-damn everything and everyone; the latter, on the other hand, deals with different people, under different circumstances, in different surroundings.

One of these vintage collectors has actually said about me: "She has not a story which can be used as an ‘example’; there is no 'typical' short-story by her as such, so I have included this or that story here at random." He probably did not mean to flatter me, but I took this as a compliment.

b) Children, adolescents and women are as present in my stories as adult men are, certainly not as accessories to the plot, but as its pivot or corner stone. If what I have just said comes as a shock to you, it is only because you are not familiar with contemporary Persian fiction. Our fiction has yet to produce the equivalents of "Huckleberry Finn", "The Catcher in the Rye" or "Gone with the Wind", leaving the rein of the story in the hands of a child, an adolescent and a woman respectively.

I love talking to children and listening to them. No wonder then, that 15 out of 20 or so books I have translated into Persian are tales for children. I have also written a few fables myself, as yet unpublished. I regret that I never took the trouble to note down the stories I improvised to put my daughter to sleep when she was a mere toddler. I suppose I must have been deadbeat by the time I tiptoed out of her room after having answered her interminable questions and pondered upon her pertinent suggestions.  At any rate, thanks to her, and later on to my niece, I have been able to re-live my own childhood and remember its importance and beauty.

There is also a part of me, I imagine, that has never grown up. This comes in very handy when I want to talk about adolescents or make them talk. Our fully-grown authors perhaps do not have that facility and find this age group too slippery or too amorphous to bother about. I believe they have deprived themselves of a marvellously rich source — but I would be the last person to complain about that: if they had not how could I brag about my own achievements to-day?

Recently, I was given the chance to lecture about the "Image of Women in Contemporary Persian Prose"3. I had the thrilling opportunity there of tearing to pieces those Iranian writers for whom women are nothing but supernumeraries. However, I did not get around to showing off my own women — out of forced modesty for which I have amply compensated to-day.

I believe I've given my best as a writer to my women (who come in all shapes and sizes, by the way), not out of any feminist bias or prejudice, but simply because they are so close, so familiar — after all I am one of them. When I write about their vices or their virtues, their jealousies or their generosities, their coquettishness or their sloppiness, I know what I am talking about — I feel at home.

Some critics have emphasised the fact that my descriptions of scenes and people could not but be those of a woman. Quite a discovery for them perhaps, but I have known it all along!

Finally, c) Humour is something that I cannot live without and most Iranian writers cannot coexist with. It seems that humour, as far as they are concerned, is reserved for the contributors to satirical reviews and has no place in a serious book — I have underlined the word serious. Well I beg to differ. I personally believe that even in most tragic events, gruesome atmospheres and despondent situations, one can find a comical streak or a funny side, which when added to the picture helps to put the tragedy, the gruesomeness and the despondency into relief. I have very few humourless stories, and I can say it here and now, loud and clear, that they are the ones that I like least.

I was very happy to learn that in a recently published book in Iran, entitled "Our Famous Satirists", my name and works were given a prominent place. I have not seen the book and no one has asked my permission for reproducing my stories, but I forgive them whole-heartedly all their faults and felonies for having considered me one of their famous satirists.

 

I could, of course, go on singing my own praises for an eternity, but I'd rather finish before the politely suppressed yawns become too obvious and the intense fidgeting in the audience half drowns my voice. Hence, I think that it is just about time to say good-bye.

I am perfectly aware that this lecture has been most unscientific and vague, and it would be ill bred of me not to admit how much I have enjoyed talking in this slovenly way. I could have talked of school, influence, tradition and technique in my work to make it sound clinically academic. However, I would rather some scholar did that for me. To encourage the potential scholars present here to-day, let me just add that now-a-days, a paper on Mahshid Amir-Shahy may lead you somewhere, unlike the rather far-fetched stories of an author by the same name!

Thank you.

1This lecture was first given at the University of Virginia. (1989)

2Mahshid Ami-Shahy has since written a quartet under the general title of 'Mothers and Daughters'.

3See page 51.