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Interview with longlisted author Shokoofeh Azar and her translator

Interview with longlisted author Shokoofeh Azar and her translator

We speak with longlisted author Shokoofeh Azar and her translator about the importance and richness of Iranian literature and overcoming self-censorship to write The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. 

Shokoofeh Azar

What has it been like to be longlisted?

When I got the email from my UK publisher about my nomination for The International Booker Prize, I was so excited and immediately reminded that I had been following this award since I was 15 years old, living in our house in the top of a hill, in the village, surrounded by rain forest and rice fields, and dreamed of someday I would win this award as an Iranian writer. So, it seems I am now one step closer to my dream.

I felt proud to be longlisted as the first Iranian writer. It has always been important for me that the voice of Iranian literature be heard globally because Persian classical literature is very deep, old and rich and can be an inspiration to modern Iranian and non-Iranian writers.

Can you give us a taste of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree?

The novel is a mysterious and magical meditation of the plight of life and death, written in the style of magic realism. The central core of the story is based on the hardship and misery of daily life in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It is about the politicization of Islam and the terrible consequences it has brought for Iranian culture and people. However, the novel is not just about politics. Its political core is hidden under layers of Iranian myths and legends, Persian classic literary and philosophy references, Iranian mysticism and folk culture. The story has a poetic theme, atmosphere and prose. To me, the whole story is like a tragic poem that gives voice to the groans of the wasted lives of Iranian intellectuals and cultural values for the past forty years.

Did you face any challenges or enlightening moments writing from the perspective of a thirteen year old ghost?

Certainly. I was faced with many challenges as well as experiencing deep enlightenment moments while writing this novel. Writing this novel was like experiencing a long and deep meditation and also like a course in self-knowledge. One of my serious challenges while writing this novel was to combat my inner self-censorship. I knew that I was unconsciously censoring my feelings and thoughts because of living in a closed religious-political system, but I was able to overcome my self-censorship through writing, meditation and painting.

Because Bahar, my thirteen years old narrative is a ghost, and was able to be present whenever and wherever she wants, I had not big challenge of writing from her perspective.

What reaction do you wish to evoke in readers of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree?

I wish they say ‘WOW’ with a deep grief or tears in their eyes when they read the last sentence of my story.

I wish they read the whole book uninterrupted in 8 to 10 hours. And read it again.

I wish they have more sympathy with Iranian life experience under the Islamic regime.

I wish my readers become more curious about Iranian history, art, literature, myths and culture. I wish they change after reading my story.

 I wish my readers would think that my novel is an acceptable proof that the novel is not dead.


Shokoofeh’s translator

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Being longlisted for The International Booker Prize is a huge honor. It really blew me away when I heard.

What did you most like about translating The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree?

I think one of the things I enjoyed most about the translation of this work is also what made it most challenging. Persian is, practically by nature, a very poetic language and Shokoofeh’s style of writing really capitalized on that in a unique way. The search for the best way to translate things can be exhilarating when you test out the effect on your own body, play with words and test the boundaries of language. The richness and depth of the Persian scenes and choice of words created some sections that literally took my breath away. Testing the capacity of the English language to accommodate that is fabulous. All of these factors made translating The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree a great experience.

Did you encounter any challenges translating from Farsi to English?

As mentioned above, Persian is a poetic language. Capturing the poetry of certain words, or the buildup of scene though language was extremely challenging. Shokoofeh’s writing takes that poetry inherent in Persian and adds another layer to it. She adds magic. The effect in Persian can be breath taking, but turning it into workable English while remaining true to the author is a huge challenge. I feel language in a very visceral way and I know this has also been tempered by my exposure and knowledge of other languages. I think, therefore, one of the things I have found most difficult in translating work like Shokoofeh’s is being confident enough in the plasticity of English to accommodate and not being afraid of putting something out there that’s a little different. It’s been a huge learning process for me that I can only hope to build on.