Exile Is Treading Water in a Strange Sea

Two recent stylistically unconventional novels by Iranian authors in diaspora explore the particular cultural loss of the exile, as distinct from that of the ...

Two recent stylistically unconventional novels by Iranian authors in diaspora explore the particular cultural loss of the exile, as distinct from that of the migrant or the refugee. Both Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow and Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental craft puzzling, labyrinthine reading experiences guided by young, impressionable narrators who are physically and psychologically scarred. At issue are two distinct modes of exile—the post-traumatic alienation of the returned soldier and the anxious flight of the political dissident, respectively—yet the books dwell in a similar mood of perpetual dislocation.

Moon Brow is Mandanipour’s second novel to be written in Persian but explicitly intended for English translation, the author working closely with his gifted and meticulous translator, Sara Khalili, from very early on in the composition process.1 His highly acclaimed 2009 work of autofiction, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, was the first novel he produced in this way. When he began living in the United States, in 2006, Mandanipour entered a new phase not only in his career but also in his relationship to—or alienation from—language and the written word itself, alongside his geographical and intellectual exile from Iran.

Amir Yamini, the protagonist of Moon Brow, is a desperate, anxiety-ridden veteran of the Iran-Iraq War whose battle wounds include a missing left arm and significant psychological scars. He is haunted by his time in the trenches and a subsequent stay in the “nuthouse,” from whose disorienting chambers his family retrieve him. Amir’s missing arm leaves him with a phantom limb on which he believes there is a missing gold ring, though he cannot remember being engaged or married. The character’s physical asymmetry is counterbalanced by the archetypal device of two alternating narrators—an angelic scribe on his right shoulder, who provides narrative clarity and suggests progress toward healing, and a demonic scribe on his left shoulder, a primal id who plunges deep into the disorienting details of his past.

The shell-shocked prose of the novel’s present time reverberates with impressions of war, as Amir’s new domestic comforts continually fail to offer solace: “I have requested a massacre of plants for lunch. The sound of the lettuce crunching between my teeth echoes in my ears.” Instead, he is sustained by his vision of “Moon Brow”: the celestial figure of a woman—possibly his onetime fiancée—whose face he cannot remember because his mind’s eye is blinded by the light streaming from her forehead.

At the same time, “Moon Brow” is an all-consuming fantasy that leads him into repeated clashes with those around him. When he tells his sister, Reyhaneh (who, unlike his parents, does not walk on eggshells around him), one of many circular, contradictory stories about his imagined separation from his beloved, she is exasperated and challenges him: “Are all these fabrications just another one of your games meant to torture us to death?” “What have I done for you to say ‘torture us to death’?” he responds angrily. “I am the one being tortured to death, by her.” When he eventually meets a new lover, Roya, he has trouble trusting her love or the ability of the natural world to be nurturing: “The ugliness of beauty,” Roya reflects as they lie stargazing through the branches of a cherry tree, “is that you worry it will end.”

Amir’s postwar trauma results from the loss of not only a limb and a lover but also patriotic idealism and narrative cohesion. His guilt and shame reach back to the time before the war, to his days as a disobedient teenager early in the Islamic Revolution, drinking, smoking opium, having reckless sex, and blaspheming his way to a public flogging punishment. He recalls the psychological damage suffered by the family under Imam Khomeini’s new regime, now indelibly linked in his mind to the physical carnage of the subsequent Iran-Iraq War: “Books burn like human beings. It takes a while for them to catch fire, but then they burn really well.”

Dismayed by the many targeted assassinations taking place around the country, Amir’s father at one point sighs in resignation: “Regardless of our sentiments, we should not take sides. We will not voice disapproval; we will not approve either … they are in power. It is better that we remain silent.” This moment of surrender marks the midpoint of the novel and suggests that the family long ago adopted silence as their primary survival strategy, with the consequence that Amir has no outlet for his anguish.

Autobiographical parallels can be drawn between Mandanipour’s life and events described in both of the English-language translations of his novels. Censoring follows a middle-aged author who is fed up with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s protocols, while Moon Brow reaches further back to when, as a recent college graduate, the author enlisted in the Iran-Iraq War and served on the front lines as an infantry officer for 18 months. The horrors he encountered were formative and stimulating for his writing career. “As I wrote,” he recounted in one interview, “I would hear the Iraqi artillery shooting mortar shells. It takes a shell about three seconds to get to you. You hear them shoot and know a mortar shell is on its way. Sometimes, I’d have to choose a word in those few moments between death and life.”2

Compared to Censoring, Moon Brow is a much darker tale—it has more in common with Mandanipour’s earlier works, such as his 1998 novel, Del-e Deldādegi (a 900-page stream-of-consciousness opus published in two volumes, filled with the devastation of war and natural disaster). Censoring featured cross-cultural allusions and an author protagonist who sought to reach a global audience; the new novel’s traumas—physical, psychological, and historical—are distinctively Iranian. But there is one particularly interesting overlap between the two novels: the davālpā, an elderly male parasitic demon figure from Persian folklore who occasionally jumps onto Amir’s shoulders, as it did with the protagonist of Censoring, and wraps its legs around his neck to choke off his perspective and ability to act with reason or conviction.3

At issue in “Moon Brow” and “Disoriental” are two distinct modes of exile—the post-traumatic alienation of the returned soldier and the anxious flight of the political dissident.

Taking the spirit of Persian folklore in a different direction, even the book jacket of Disoriental—a dazzling debut novel superbly translated from the French by Tina Kover—portrays its Iranian French author, Négar Djavadi, with a romantic streak. Her short bio there reveals that she immigrated to France after “having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister.”

This image of feminist nomadism suits the panoramic cross-cultural sweep and adventurous ambitions of Disoriental, an intergenerational story of the narrator, Kimiâ Sadr; her sisters, Leïli and Mina; their mother, Sara; and their paternal grandmother, Nour. The novel follows Kimiâ as she reckons with her family’s past and present, from Nour’s birth in a royal andarouni (women’s quarters) late in the Qajar era (1785–1925), to Nour’s son Darius’s career as a political dissident under both Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and Imam Khomeini, to Kimiâ’s own life in 21st-century Paris.

Radical changes in women’s lives from generation to generation inform Kimiâ’s cultural alienation from Iran: “In a century driven by technology and machines,” she reflects, “I’m the granddaughter of a woman born in a harem.” The patriarchs of the family weigh heavily on the story too, from the tyrannical great-grandfather, Montazelmolmolk, to Kimiâ’s beloved father, Darius, and his six brothers. But it is the women who tell the stories and ultimately enable the family to survive.

Kimiâ has been described as a modern-day Scheherezade, and storytelling-as-survival is an inescapable theme here.4 But the silence she battles as a socially outcast member of a politically ostracized family—haunted by the Shah’s henchmen even after moving to France—is far more nebulous than King Shahriyar’s sword in the Thousand and One Nights: it is a simultaneously political and personal climate of fear and rejection that transcends particular leaders and historical epochs.

“This tendency to make endless small talk,” Djavadi writes, “to throw sentences like lassoes into the air to meet one another, to tell stories which, like Russian matryoshka dolls, open to reveal other stories, is, I suppose, one way to deal with a fate consisting of nothing but invasions and totalitarianism.” Kimiâ chronicles many decades’ worth of censorship and repression, culminating in a horrific and formative family incident she refers to simply as “THE EVENT.”


A Matriarch in Exile

By Manan Ahmed Asif

The novel adopts a nuanced attitude to Western cultural influence, compared to commonplace depictions of 1970s Iran as a split between two extremes: a royalist, Westernized elite and a fundamentalist working class. Djavadi shapes Kimiâ into a complex cultural amalgam who describes Angela Davis and Leïla Khaled in the same breath as her “revolutionary heroines.” Disoriental’s transnationalism is also insistently transhistorical—from the classical reference to the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, as “Antigonesque” to the contemporaneous description of Darius Sadr as “the Sakharov of Iran.”5

A critical device for Djavadi’s intertwining of past with present and personal with political is the novel’s sporadic historical footnotes, all narrated with a smirking nod toward Western readers. Footnote 1 begins: “To make things easier for you and save you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, here are a few facts.” A later footnote summarizing a Wikipedia article acerbically concludes: “I’m sure you remember that.” This constant reminder of the author’s presence and how attuned she is to her audience’s ignorance is reminiscent of the self-referentiality of Censoring an Iranian Love Story—but its tone is even more tongue-in-cheek.

From the introductory chapter on, THE EVENT looms large: a horror around which Kimiâ’s past, present, and future cluster and whose shadow engulfs all other events in a novel marked by family tragedies at every turn. The trauma surrounding THE EVENT is often bypassed with playful sarcasm. But it is partly expressed in a profound pattern of renaming in order to avoid loss—Kimiâ’s highly educated and politically savvy mother, Sara, becomes “mom” when she loses her previously formidable memory and independence to debilitating dementia, and Kimiâ’s five paternal uncles lose their individual names in favor of numbers as the family scatters across the globe and the narrator’s memory of them fades.

Harrowing events from the Islamic Revolution are also recounted with a certain indirection and distance. For instance, readers learn of one horrific episode of mob violence through the transcript of a 1978 radio interview with the traumatized narrator at age seven, conducted by a New York journalist who supplies her with a gruesome adult vocabulary for the violence she witnessed in the protests leading up to the Shah’s departure. This exacerbates the trauma Kimiâ is already experiencing, as she is forced to relive the story in more graphic terms—a searing indictment of the questionable ethics of Western media portrayals of the Middle East, then and now.

exile is like treading water in a strange sea, being doomed to perpetual motion and constantly shifting vulnerability, precarity, and disorientation.

Though it is Djavadi’s first novel, Disoriental bears the traces of her career as a screenwriter in the contemporary French cinema. Literal cinematic turns of phrase such as “freeze frame,” “picture a … ,” “the camera zooms in,” and “I’ll leave you to imagine the soundtrack” cleverly signpost the narration, which ties together public and private at critical historical moments by invoking the movements of a camera and turning readers into viewers of scenes from multiple perspectives and on multiple scales. On the day that marks both the Shah’s coronation and the birth of Mina Sadr, for example, the scene is set as follows:

You couldn’t possibly have missed the giant replica of the imperial crown erected on an enormous platform; the Tehranis as tiny as Lego figures at its base, with their noses pointed skyward, seeming not to understand what was happening to them. And there, at the very bottom of the screen, in the midst of all the cars, you might have been surprised at the sight of a taxi racing toward the north of the city, anxious to unload its bulky cargo as soon as possible.

In this way, Djavadi’s prose embodies one of the central themes of the novel: the idea that “the Historic and the Domestic [blur] into one another.”

But the novel is also “cinematic” in the way it binds various time periods through one central, visually striking motif: the recurrent blue eyes of the Sadr clan. The patriarchs of the family are unrelentingly fixated on this genetic trait: “The blue eyes became a sort of trademark, a label, a certificate of authenticity … a divine attribute.” Their obsession evokes the white supremacist notion of Iran as “land of the Aryans,” whose disturbingly common repetition among the Iranian diaspora has been explored by the sociologist Neda Maghbouleh, among others (Djavadi, though, never explicitly addresses this).6

Given that the frame narrative consists mainly of Kimiâ in a fertility doctor’s office anxiously awaiting her artificial insemination, questions of predestined or accidental genetic heritage pervade the novel. Ruthless reproductive norms are treated with more and more nuance as the story unfolds, especially after Djavadi transitions from the first two-thirds of the novel, centered on the family’s history in Iran and titled “Side A,” to Kimiâ’s life in exile in Paris, “Side B.”

In the latter section—subtitled “the failed side, the weak side. The one that was put out into the world but didn’t find its place”—the narrator hits fast-forward on her own life story of teenage rebellion in the punk-rock underground in Paris and other European cities. She ultimately learns to accept her identity as “disoriental” (a perfect title that gradually unspools into multiple threads of meaning).

Djavadi constantly shifts between past and present tense when relating historical events, and this nonchronological style even within a single description of the same time period creates a cinematic sense of disorientation, as if a scene were constantly being shown from different angles. Images and anecdotes become disjointed fragments, but, unlike the traumatic fragmentation and apocalyptic battlefield scenes in Moon Brow, they evince the steady guiding hand of a director with a clear reason for telling the story out of order.

Djavadi cites the “K-effect” in cinema, the idea that “the perception of an image depends on its context; in other words, on the image that precedes it and the one that follows it.” As Aamna Mohdin has pointed out, Disoriental gives voice to the “cultural bereavement” of exile; what its narrator thereby loses in historical perspective and cultural context she makes up for by being an extremely precise and self-aware cinematographer.7 The reason Kimiâ must be such an omnipresent and vivid narrator is simple: the erasure of her family’s archive. “The entire story I’ve been telling you is one without pictures,” she reminds us. “I have no proof to show you. None. … You just have to take my word for it all.”

Kimiâ’s highly stylized, sardonically inflected shuttling between interlocking generational stories and Amir’s narrative fragmentation, a side effect of psychic whiplash caused by memories and visions, might suggest to readers that these narrators are responsible for the disorientating effects of their tales—but we soon realize that, in different ways, the exilic climate of each novel is responsible for disorienting the narrator and, by extension, us. Whether caused by a return from war or a departure from revolution, exile is like treading water in a strange sea, being doomed to perpetual motion and constantly shifting vulnerability, precarity, and disorientation.

Crucially, exile is also the state of many of Iran’s most prominent writers today. These two novels must be read in light of the Iranian regime’s ongoing persecution of dissidents and writers, and also in the context of the devastating caprices of the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim countries, withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, and recent reimposition of sanctions. It’s difficult to separate author and narrator when faced with heartbreaking sentences such as this one by Djavadi: “My existence was made up of drifting islands, each of which I had managed to stand on for a while, achieving a shaky equilibrium amidst the general chaos.” The state of exile, she and Mandanipour both suggest, can be as disorienting and traumatic as war or revolution.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. When asked about a possible Persophone audience for his two most recent novels at a launch event for Moon Brow, Mandanipour made clear that he has little to no hope these novels will ever be publishable in their original language in Iran because of heavy censorship, and suggested that the market for contemporary fiction in Persian among the Iranian American diasporic community is difficult for struggling publishers. “Visions and Fever Dreams: New Iranian Lit with Jasmin Darznik, Shahriar Mandanipour, Sara Khalili & Porochista Khakpour,” Asian American Writers Workshop, April 23, 2018.
  2. Elizabeth Hoover, “Shahriar Mandanipour Shoots Bullets into the Heart of the Monster,” Sampsonia Way, November 30, 2010.
  3. The davālpā figure dates back to the Shahnameh, an epic poem composed ca. 1000 CE that would become the national epic of Greater Persia. It has remained culturally ubiquitous since then. One of the most famous characters ever plagued by a davālpā is Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights.
  4. Azarin Sadegh, “The Dichotomy of Remembrance: Négar Djavadi’s ‘Disoriental,’Los Angeles Review of Books, April 11, 2018.
  5. A reference to the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, who after playing an instrumental role in the development of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal became a lifelong advocate for civil liberties in the Soviet Union and eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize.
  6. Neda Maghbouleh, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford University Press, 2017).
  7. Aamna Mohdin, “A Lyrical French Novel Shows that the Pain of Exile is Akin to Bereavement,” Quartzy, April 19, 2018.
Featured image: Detail from Rustam Is Thrown into the Sea by the Div Akvan, folio from a ca. 1330–40 edition of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020). Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Monroe C. Gutman, 1974