> Rencontre avec Sheida Mohamadi

Rencontre avec Sheida Mohamadi

Par |2017-12-30T12:55:19+00:00 11 novembre 2012|Catégories : Rencontres, Sheida Mohamadi|

Interview With Writer Sheida Mohamadi

By Marissa Bell Toffoli

An intro­duc­tion to Iranian jour­na­list, poet, and nove­list Sheida Mohamadi. For almost a decade Mohamadi has made her home out­side of Iran, ever since inves­ti­ga­tive jour­na­lism cau­sed her to lose her job and have her own life threa­te­ned. No lon­ger fee­ling safe to fight for women’s rights through wri­ting in Tehran, where Mohamadi was born and rai­sed, she has since rebuilt a life for her­self in the US, where she is free to write about the issues that are impor­tant to her. Mohamadi’s most recent col­lec­tion of poems, Aks-e Fowri-ye Eshqbazi (The Snapshot of Lovemaking), was publi­shed under­ground in Tehran in 2007. Giving a voice to women’s rights issues has rou­sed many people to res­pect and appre­ciate Mohamadi, but others wish to tame her into silence.

Living in the US means bat­tling cen­sor­ship from abroad to conti­nue to reach a Farsi-spea­king audience in Iran. There is the double-edged sword of trans­la­tion when mar­ke­ting Mohamadi’s poe­try to non-Farsi rea­ders — it may reach more rea­ders while sacri­fi­cing some poe­tic lan­guage. Fellow wri­ter Mehrdad Balali des­cri­bed Mohamadi’s poe­try as decep­ti­ve­ly simple, and chal­len­ging even for Farsi spea­kers :

Her lan­guage is very fluid, and it keeps chan­ging shape. It throws words and expres­sions at you in way that you haven’t thought of before. That’s real­ly the magic of her poe­try — it brings out some­thing new in you ; it pro­pels you into a new realm. It is so intel­li­gent, but at the same time so simple.”

Sheida Mohamadi Photo By Marissa Bell Toffoli_0
Quick Facts on Sheida Mohamadi
Sheida Mohamadi’s web­site : http://​www​.shei​da​mo​ha​ma​di​.com
Home : Monterey, California
Top reads : My favo­rite books and authors change all the time because they depend on my mood, the books that I am rea­ding, and my own wri­ting. However, there are authors whom I admire and enjoy regard­less : Rumi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, Forough Farrokhzad. My favo­rite books include modern col­lec­tions of poems, and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Current reads : The Best Poems of the English Language by Harold Bloom
What are you wor­king on at the moment ?
I have sus­pen­ded the publi­ca­tion of my fourth lite­ra­ry work, a col­lec­tion of poems, for two rea­sons : The first is that I am still in the pro­cess of edi­ting it, some­thing that I haven’t real­ly done before with my other works. I want to make sure to get the best result. Secondly, I haven’t been able to find the publi­sher I want. This book can­not be publi­shed in Iran due to its ero­tic content, and also because of its femi­nist under­tone. A couple of lite­ra­ry houses in Iran offe­red to publish it a few years ago, but they later chi­cke­ned out for poli­ti­cal rea­sons, in the wake of the mas­sive cra­ck­down on free speech that fol­lo­wed the dis­pu­ted 2009 pre­si­den­tial elec­tion in Iran. Since then, most inde­pendent publi­shers have gone out of busi­ness or slip­ped under­ground. In the present cli­mate, no one is willing to take the risk of publi­shing such a contro­ver­sial book that deals with the taboo sub­ject of sex.
Moreover, I’m reluc­tant to have the work publi­shed only out­side Iran because I would not gain as wide a rea­der­ship. So I am in a state of lim­bo now, until I final­ly make a deci­sion about publi­ca­tion.
What would it mean to publish your work under cen­sor­ship ?
An inter­es­ted publi­sher has asked me to revise the book manus­cript and let some poems go because they can’t get per­mis­sion to publish the col­lec­tion as is. I have to wait and see for sure how many poems or lines the poten­tial publi­sher wants to delete. I know myself, and if they want to make big changes, I’d pre­fer not to publish my poems yet.
What kinds of poems are you being asked to remove from the book ?
The poems that have ero­tic ima­ge­ry or talk about socie­tal issues. Anything about the woman’s body, or if the poem explains or ima­gines love­ma­king. It seems with any­thing that comes from love or femi­ni­ni­ty they’ve asked me to change the point of view, the nar­ra­tor, or how it reads. Those topics are seen as too dan­ge­rous, and the publi­sher can­not get appro­val to print these things. But for me, love is eve­ry­thing. Without love, life is emp­ty.
Do you believe wri­ting can affect change ?
Yes, I believe lite­ra­ture is impor­tant and can change people. Right now in Iranian uni­ver­si­ties and schools, the govern­ment has cut clas­si­cal poe­try with even mild themes of ero­tic love from the cur­ri­cu­lum. I think it’s because they are afraid of a lite­ra­ture that libe­rates. Poetry can be revo­lu­tio­na­ry — think of the Beat Generation poets in the city of San Francisco. The lite­ra­ture of eve­ry coun­try is what makes the culture of that coun­try.
Over time, how do you feel the threat of cen­sor­ship has chan­ged your work ?
When I lived and wor­ked in Tehran they cen­so­red all of my work — my short sto­ries, my novel, my poems. But I kept wri­ting. When I came to the US, I felt freer. That’s why in my first poe­try col­lec­tion most of my poems are femi­nine, ero­tic, and social­ly conscious. I don’t care about making poli­ti­cal judg­ment. I write the things I feel stron­gly about. This is some­thing that I owe to my parents. Both my parents are very open-min­ded, and they taught me and my sis­ter to be strong and inde­pendent-min­ded. They shiel­ded us against the pre­ju­dices of our socie­ty, a socie­ty that teaches chil­dren from ear­ly on that female is the infe­rior sex. But mil­lions of other girls in that coun­try are not so lucky.
Do you have a phi­lo­so­phy for how and why you write ?
There is a thought behind eve­ry piece of wri­ting and that is some­thing that gives impe­tus to the author. What looms large in my work is the woman. I come from a land where being a woman is in itself a lia­bi­li­ty. It is the cen­so­red gen­der, conve­nient­ly repres­sed. The laws of this land open­ly seek to hol­low women out of their spi­rit, and mold them into obe­dient matrons.
In gene­ral, eve­ry poem I write springs from my sub­cons­cious mind. It hap­pens in a flash and then sud­den­ly goes dark. More often than not I try to recon­nect with that mys­ti­cal moment, but it can­not be done through conscious effort. It is hard to go back and find the poet Sheida and her mood in that flee­ting moment. For me, it is a third world, somew­here bet­ween the inner and outer world. I do not make conscious deci­sions what to write about, even if it deals with some social or poli­ti­cal issue that preoc­cu­pies me — famine and star­va­tion in Africa, the mas­sacre of chil­dren and inno­cent people in wars, or the plight of women in the Third World. For me, poe­try is about pain and lon­ging. The two toge­ther make a recipe for that deli­cate moment when I become overw­hel­med with the need to write.
When and why did you leave Iran ?
I left Iran in 2003 and came to the US in 2004 ; and I have not been able to go back ever since. My name is on the bla­ck­list as a result of my jour­na­lism. When I star­ted my career as a jour­na­list, I dis­co­ve­red that my pas­sion was with Iranian women’s tram­pled rights. I espe­cial­ly felt for runa­way young girls from the coun­try­side. They fled their oppres­sive small town lives in search of a dream, but most ended up on the street and even­tual­ly dead, either from mur­der or sui­cide. These were the sub­jects that I was inter­es­ted in, and that’s why I deci­ded to become an inves­ti­ga­tive jour­na­list. But the Islamic repu­blic is not a place for that kind of thing. I was thrown out of one news­pa­per after ano­ther for trying to write about these women, and even­tual­ly had to flee the coun­try.
Before I left Iran, when I was publi­shing those sto­ries about abu­sed women, the cen­sor­ship depart­ment of the culture minis­try cal­led me three times, see­king an expla­na­tion for my work. One day, I arri­ved at my office and found all of my things packed and sta­cked up by the ele­va­tor. When I asked what was going on, nobo­dy would tell me any­thing. Finally, at the end of the day I was told, “We don’t need a women’s page any­more.”
Anonymous people from the govern­ment even cal­led some fel­low jour­na­lists to ask about me. They war­ned if I conti­nued to publish my articles my fami­ly would find my dead body out in a forest. I was serious­ly alar­med. At that time my sis­ter was living in London, and she was able to get a visa for me to visit, thin­king it would be a good idea for me to leave Iran for some­thing like three weeks, and then when things quie­ted down I would go back. So I left in a hur­ry, without even saying good­bye to my fami­ly or my friends, not kno­wing I wouldn’t be able to return. The pain of sepa­ra­tion was too much, and it was only two months ago when my parents were final­ly able to get a visa to come and visit me in the US.
What do you hope rea­ders will take away from your work ?
I believe poe­try is for enjoy­ment. It is meant to induce a deep inner plea­sure in the rea­der, and uplift their spi­rit. It has the poten­tial to awa­ken a pre­vious­ly unk­nown, novel fee­ling in the rea­der — a fee­ling of love, pain, loss, or wha­te­ver it is that prods one to action. For me, rea­ding a good poem is always mar­ked with a new dawn, a great sense of satis­fac­tion.
Who do you pic­ture as the ideal rea­der of your work ?
There was a time when I had a limi­ted rea­der­ship among mere­ly the lite­ra­ti, but now my poems are rea­ching a wider audience. When a poem comes out, it takes its own inde­pendent iden­ti­ty and I, as the poet, like to stand back and watch how it affects the rea­der.
What is the trans­la­tion pro­cess like from Farsi to English ?
Poetry, like jokes, does not cross over. Poetry is the most conden­sed expres­sion of a land, pul­sa­ting with all its music, color, and cultu­ral nuances. It is tough to bring off this whole expe­rience in a new tongue. When I write, for example :
My hus­band
who is the hus­band of the world’s roofs
eve­ry night sleeps with the sky at the
             other end
             of my win­dow
and in the mor­ning
spreads the smell of onion, per­fume and 
             my room­mate
My hus­band
whose unders­tan­ding of Islam only is
             its four wives
and from Judaism, Men’s left rib
and from Christ
the puri­ty of the vir­gin
for all of the neigh­bo­ring women
ele­men­ta­ry school friends
and my office co-wor­kers
he has full atten­tion
devotes time
and talks about the beau­ty of their eyes
and breasts
and eve­ry time he shakes the lef­to­vers
above my head
He says :
“This Spring, you need to be with child!”
This draws upon the native culture of a land where a woman is prone to be humi­lia­ted for her infer­ti­li­ty by allo­wing her hus­band to take more wives.
But some­times poe­try can be uni­ver­sal, like :
Nothing mat­ters out­side this flo­wer­pot  
Not the bru­sh­fire in Malibu
Neither the slo­gans on the walls of Kandahar
Nor the sizz­ling corpses of Bagdad
Oh my love !
If the mea­ning comes through trans­la­tion accu­ra­te­ly, do you mind if the sounds are dif­ferent ? How much do you wor­ry about trans­la­ting the music of your work ?
The sounds of the lines and the music are a trans­la­tion pro­blem. I use a lot of sounds toge­ther on pur­pose, and with repe­ti­tion, so they sound plea­sing in Farsi. It creates inter­nal rhyme. Sometimes I include sounds that aren’t real­ly words, but are a com­mon­ly unders­tood sound or song in Iran, and there isn’t neces­sa­ri­ly an equi­va­lent in English. It’s hard to recreate that part of the expe­rience of the poem in ano­ther lan­guage and get the exact mea­ning in the trans­la­tion. Here’s an example of one poem in English and in Farsi :
The sun moves slant (Poem by Sheida Mohamadi, Translated by Sholeh  Wolpe)
Too late now,
too late to undo your but­tons
and let loose my liquid blue fin­gers
on your chest,
to turn the lock in my throat
and hear the hal­la hal­la hal­la
of your coming
from among apples and lemons.
Your sha­dow moves slant through mine.
Why is it that your kisses no lon­ger leave
their mark on my purple dress ?
Why is it that your body’s tan­ge­rines
no lon­ger swell from sucking my breasts ?
Your voice no lon­ger sends frogs
crrrrrrrrrrr­roa­king along my thighs.
Now, each time your voice grows cold-blue,
you snuff out your ciga­rette in my eyes
and half the clock’s circle face
sinks to sleep in the ashes of my hair.
رفتن اریب آفتاب
دیگر دیر است
برای باز کردن دکمه هایت
و خنده انگشتان آبی ام بر سینه تو
و چرخیدن قفل
در حنجره من
و هلا هلا هلا
در آمدن میان لیمو و سیب ها
و سایه ات که
اریب می رود از سایه من.
چرا دیگر بوسه ات بر پیراهن بنفشم لک نمی اندازد؟
و نارنجی های تنت ازمکیدن پستانهایم
باد نمی کند ؟
دیگر صدایت
قورباغه ها را در ران هایم  غو غو غو غوک نمی
حالا هر وقت
صدایت کبود شود
سیگارت را در چشمان من خاموش می کنی
و نیم دایره ساعت
در خاکستر موهایم
به خواب می رود.
شیدا محمدی
نوامبر 2006
For now, I think maybe the mood and mea­ning of the poem is more impor­tant to me in trans­la­tion than the exact words or poe­tic lan­guage. But it is hard to sacri­fice one for the other. This is a dif­fi­cult issue for me ; I have heard some people say that a bad trans­la­tion can be worse than not being trans­la­ted because it can gene­rate a false repu­ta­tion for my work. People may not want to read my work if the trans­la­tion is poor or inef­fec­tive.


Do you ever write poems or sto­ries in English first ?
No, only some hai­kus in English.
Where and when do you pre­fer to write ?
I don’t like to be groun­ded. I like to be always on the move, to explore and make new dis­co­ve­ries ; and my best wri­tings come out when I am mobile. My mind is more fluid when I’m on the move, whe­ther dri­ving, flying, or riding in a train. I have com­po­sed many of my poems while dri­ving. But I also must have my pri­va­cy, and it is in my room that I feel most at peace.
Where would you most want to live and write ?
As I said, I am a gyp­sy girl. If I stay in one place for too long, I get bored. I pre­fer to tra­vel. Moving has hel­ped me to write a lot of poems. But, I would love to live in a place with a mix of Eastern and Western cultures, the best of the two worlds.
What advice would you give to aspi­ring wri­ters ?
Just as I am not a fol­lo­wer, I do not like to have a cult of fol­lo­wers. I just tell aspi­ring wri­ters to fol­low their dreams and their hearts, and to also be aware that crea­tive wri­ting is a pain­ful pro­cess.
What is the best advice you were given as a wri­ter ?
To edit my work before sub­mit­ting it for publi­ca­tion.
Is there a ques­tion you find sur­pri­sing that people ask about your work ?
What used to sur­prise me and doesn’t any­more is that many of my rea­ders mis­take the poet with the nar­ra­tor ; and since my work contains ero­tic ele­ments, some­thing that Iranians’ puri­ta­ni­cal mind­set is not used to, they often become sho­cked by the direct­ness of my lan­guage. There have been few ero­tic works in Persian lite­ra­ture and almost none by a woman until Forough Farrokhzad broke big taboos with her daring poems back in the six­ties. It was an exer­cise in rebel­lion by a free spi­rit fee­ling suf­fo­ca­ted in a dee­ply tra­di­tio­nal and male-orien­ted culture, a socie­ty where women were assi­gned a set role to play and were not allo­wed any spon­ta­nei­ty.
For me as well, ero­tic poems are an attempt to break free, and reveal that res­t­less side of my soul. I want to free­ly express myself, and if I end up sho­cking or ange­ring some prudes, then let it be.
What do you find most chal­len­ging about wri­ting ?
Finding the dis­ci­pline to write.
When you are not wri­ting what do you like to do ?
I live.


About Sheida Mohamadi

Sheida Mohamadi is a jour­na­list, poet, and wri­ter of fic­tion born in Tehran, Iran in 1975. While living in Tehran, Sheida edi­ted and wrote for the women’s page (Safheh-ye Zanan) at Iran news­pa­per in 2002-2003, and at Farhangestan-e Honar Monthly Review in 2003. She publi­shed her first book, a work of poe­tic prose tit­led Mahtab Delash ra Goshud, Banu ! (The Moonlight Opened its Heart, Lady !) in 2001, and her second book, a novel tit­led Afsaneh-ye Baba Leila (The Legend of Baba Leila) in 2005. Her third book was Aks-e Fowri-ye Eshqbazi (The Snapshot of Lovemaking), a col­lec­tion of poems publi­shed under­ground in Iran in 2007. In 2010, Sheida Mohamadi was a Poet-in Residence at the University of Maryland. Her poems have been trans­la­ted into dif­ferent lan­guages, inclu­ding English, French, Turkish, Kurdish and Swedish. She has lived in the US since 2004, and conti­nues to main­tain her weblog, www​.shei​da​mo​ha​ma​di​.com, which she laun­ched in 2001.


Toffoli, Marissa Bell. “Interview With Writer Sheida Mohamadi.” Words With Writers (August 24, 2011),


Marissa Bell Toffoli

Marissa Bell Toffoli lives in Berkeley, California where she works as an edi­tor, poet, and crea­tive wri­ting tea­cher. She holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts, where she focu­sed her work on poe­try. In 2011, TheWriteDeal publi­shed an e-chap­book of her poems, Under the Jacaranda. You can read her inter­views with authors at http://​word​swi​th​wri​ters​.com. When not rea­ding or wri­ting, Toffoli loves to tra­vel, and kick back wat­ching Bollywood movies.

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