Nov. 17, 2008
Iranian poet Maryam Ala Amjadi embraces the adventure of writing in English
English is not the native tongue of young Iranian poet Maryam Ala Amjadi, who is in residence this fall in the University of Iowa International Writing Program. And that is the primary reason that she writes exclusively in that foreign language, savoring the challenge: "It's a new land that demands a sense of adventure."
She says that writing in English provides a limiting framework that pushes her to seek the best means of expression. "This is necessary for me as a person," she says. "It will bring the best out of me. Giving me a little space, a little amount of material and time. The discomfort of English does that for me.
"When you have a limited vocabulary and limited space, you explore all the areas, all the little corners that you think that something might go into. Every day I learn new words, and discover them like new land.
"My mother tongue is so inside. It would be painful for me to try to distance myself from my mother tongue. It is too comfortable. The question I ask is, 'In which language do you sigh?' The language that you do that in is your mother tongue. I sigh in Persian, but I think in English. That's a very significant factor in mastering a language. And the next level is, you dream in that language."
For Maryam, discovering new words and new meanings in her chosen literary language both energizes her and provides a sense of wonder. "What is more enjoyable than a sense of wonder?" she asks, revealing that she reads dictionaries like most people read novels and delights in tracing etymologies.
"People think that America was the last land to be discovered, but there are so many things within things, lands within lands -- the way an island would come to the surface after centuries of being in the depths. When I meet a new word, I think, 'How can I use you? can I chop you up? If I break you, how would you look?' And I'm not scared of this, because when you are uncomfortable, you look for comfort, for a way of extending yourself into that language."
Maryam was born in Iran to Muslim parents but spent much of her childhood in India, where her parents pursued doctorates in scientific fields. (Her father is now a professor at Tehran University and her mother is the head of the chemistry lab at the Pasteur Institute.) And it was in India where she both began learning English at the age of 7 and experiencing the religious diversity that would have a major impact on her life. She is now a graduate student in Pune, India, drawn back, she says, by the country's "mysterious aura."
"As a kid with a curious eye, I looked into temples and mosques -- you get that in India," she explains. "On one street there is a church, and just two turns away there will be a mosque or a temple."
She read a New Testament she found at the Catholic high school she attended -- under the covers after everyone else was asleep -- and later she read the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu texts.
Those experiences developed a liberal attitude in her that made it possible, and perhaps even necessary, to push the envelope, writing poetry that draws imagery from several religious traditions. "I don't believe that just because you are born into a Christian or Muslim or Jewish family, that you are branded," she says. And writing that poetry in a language that has no tradition and few readers in her homeland.
"It's a strange feeling, being an English-language writer in Iran," she says. "It isolates you. But you have to believe in what you do. It should be fundamental; it should be a pillar in you. That has to be a sort of faith behind it."
Not only faith, actually, but also doubt, which she identifies as an important element of the Islamic tradition, which also helps to explain her insistence on placing herself in a situation of discomfort. "In the religion of Islam you begin with questioning, and questioning begins with doubt," she explains. "Maybe that's not the common belief these days, but there was a time when doubt was a sacred and holy thing in this religion, because it was something that brought about inspiration, and the thirst for questing and ways to quench the thirst that could take you to new places and new understandings.
"I believe that poetry begins from questioning. Some writers are obsessed with, 'Will I be able to fill up this blank page? What if one day I sit before my desk and I'm unable to have that satisfaction?' The paper is so blank, so virgin, so empty.
"You find that the quest was more important than the question -- not because, as they say, the path is more important than the destination -- but it's because only by going through that process you can again arrive at that question, and look at it from a different point of view, or maybe start with another counter question, and who knows where that is going to lead you?"
Years after making the decision to write in English, and having lived in India, where there are many English speakers, she viewed her trip to Iowa as an opportunity to test and validate that decision. "This is my first time in a country where people speak English as their national and native language," she says. "So I was a little bit concerned about my English and my writing in English. At the same time I thought this is going to be a very good experience for me, because finally I was going to get some evaluation of my work, and even my speaking, my way of dealing with words in English, by people who speak English as their native tongue.
"I'm convinced from my stay here that it reaches to a wider range of audiences. No writer can say she or he writes for himself or herself alone. Even a simple note you put on your refrigerator is addressed to somebody, to a 'you.' These things are going to be read.
"I'm sure as I go along I will find more and more reasons to write in English. It's just about discovery, because writing is discovery, it's unraveling things, it's finding the thematic thread that is so subtle in concepts that are woven into each other."
For biographies of all the 2008 IWP writers visit http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html. Ala Amjadi was able to attend the IWP through the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
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