Iran is an ancient country with a complex people, among them some of the greatest poets who ever lived. Sadly, the Iranian novel has yet to reach the popularity of the country's poetry. This is perhaps because there is something enigmatic about how Persian prose is written, often using surrealism and magical realism to mimic the playfulness in its poetry. No matter what Iranians do, even if they write historical textbooks, it seems they can never shed the poetic touch.
But that is the beauty of the culture. From memoirs to history books, writing about Iran, thinking "in Iranian", even if writing from a desk in Canada or the US, alters the writer's state of mind as he or she navigates a culture both tender and resolute.
I never had the chance to master Persian. Having somehow gotten away from the 1980s brutality of the Islamic Republic's regime and the seemingly endless war with Iraq, I went from being an inheritor of the Persian Ghazal to a student of the English novel. With this new form, in my new language there was the opportunity to venture beyond the enigmatic Persian tradition.
I'm not trying to write about Iran. I'm trying to write about people who are trapped, which is what I've tried to do in my novel Aria. All the books I've suggested here are in their own way about entrapment, except for the poems written by Sohrab Sepehri, who, being the lone poet out of the lot, is teaching the others how to set themselves free.
1. The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
It would be impossible to begin a discussion on modern Iranian literature without including this masterwork by the father of Persian magical realism. The Blind Owl is a feverish tale of a pen-case painter's descent into the nightmare of his own psyche as the reader is exposed to his mistrust of oppressive forces, abuse of power, sexual and gender hierarchy, and the constraints of modern Iranian society. No other novel better illuminates the state of modern Iranian alienation and isolation, or the Persian ability to make the disturbing beautiful.
2. My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad translated by Dick Davis
A coming-of-age story following an unnamed 13 year-old narrator as he observes his dysfunctional family and neighbours, in particular the eccentric family patriarch, uncle Napoleon – nicknamed sarcastically for his obsession with the French emperor. The story, set during the 1940s, becomes somewhat "absurd" with its larger than life characters and their exaggerated circumstances. But Pezeshkzad is working in the great tradition of Asian and Middle Eastern literature. Imagine One Thousand and One Nights transported into the intimate neighbourhoods of 20th-century Tehran.
3. Saved By Beauty by Roger Housden
A travel memoir by the British-American Housden, whose love of Rumi propels him to discover the poet's culture. His quest to understand the complexities of Iran initially binds him to the country's rich heritage of poetry, mysticism, art and architecture, as well as the many friends he meets along the way. But despite his steadfast desire to focus solely on the country's beauty, Housden has to face the Islamic Republic's darkness and ideological quagmire.
4. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel is the story of her upbringing in post-revolutionary Iran. Apart from its whimsy and appealing graphics, what makes the narrative matter is Satrapi's viewpoint as an upper-class Iranian child suddenly wary of the differences in class and religious expression. These moments provide the more humorous observations in the book, and the most touching. The storytelling is honest and, in what can also be found in the great tradition of Iranian cinema, Satrapi achieves the most poignancy by telling her tale through the eyes of a confused and curious child.
5. Iran Between Two Revolutions by Ervand Abrahamian
Published in 1982, this is a look at the era between the constitutional revolution of 1905-1911 and the Islamic revolution of 1979, each driven by divisions in religion, ethnicity and class. It is perhaps the most thorough investigation into the reigns of both Pahlavi kings and the British and American interference that permitted their rule and one-party system, fuelling the Islamist and communist movements in the 1960s and 70s, culminating in the 1979 revolution.
6. Touba and the Meaning of Night by Shahrnush Parsipur
Written after the author had spent more than four years in an Iranian political prison, Parsipur's works have been banned by the Islamic Republic. This novel reflects on the changing politics of Iran from the onset of the 20th century through the constricted life of a bold young woman, Touba. After her father dies when she is 12 and she is left to her own devices, Touba proposes marriage to a 52-year-old man hoping it will bring her survival and prosperity. The novel offers a rare, detailed and sophisticated insight into women's lives in Iran, in a world where men hold all power, and where women suffer needlessly – sometimes horrifically – because of it.
7. Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad
Iranian-Armenian Pirzad sets her tale in 1960s Abadan amid the apparent tranquillity of domestic life. She slowly guides her main character, the daydreaming mother and wife Clarice, towards the growing awareness of gender inequality in the 1960s, as Clarice begins to question the roles prescribed for her and other women. The nuanced tension focused on sexuality and gender throughout the narrative could arguably be Pirzad's commentary on current Iranian societal and gender divisions without drawing the ire of the censors.
8. A Selection of Poems from The Eight Books by Sohrab Sepehri, translated by Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid
Every Iranian has their personal favourite modern poet, from Ahmad Shamlou to Forough Farrokhzad to Simin Behbahani. Mine is Sepehri. His work more than the rest belongs in the category of monumental Persian mystical poets such as Rumi, Hafez, Saadi and Khayaam. Sepehri died of cancer in 1980. Better known in his lifetime as a painter, the complexities of his poetry were most associated, like his painting, with his love of nature. But there is also a connection, much like Rumi's, with the most profound understandings of Sufi Islam, Vedanta philosophy, and perhaps the very early Christian teachings. Sepehri never proselytized but his mind and heart are laid bare in The Eight Books, a selection of which have been beautifully translated by Shahid.
This memoir from Iranian-Jewish writer and journalist Hakakian traces her growth as a budding revolutionary in 1978-1979 towards the realisation that the political reforms she and her friends had fought for had been hijacked and undermined by a religious totalitarianism not only targeted at her own Jewish community but at intellectual, egalitarian and democratising Iranians alike, regardless of faith. Hakakian particularly focuses on the violations of women's rights as the first sign that any political system is poised to fall to autocracy.
10. Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat
A meticulously researched account of the past 500 years of Iranian history, beginning with the rise of the Safavid dynasty and the entrenchment of Shia Islam and its clerical establishment into the Persian ruling classes. Amanat spent two decades writing his book, not only tracing historical tales of political intrigue but also delving into Iran's shifting position in imperial geopolitics. In so doing, he attempts to draw meaning from this history by looking for parallels between Persia's unstable Safavid past and Iran's current theocratic regime.