Dirty Little Secrets Of The Caspian

A streak of black for depression, blue for nostalgic memories of home, red for love, I put above all else, yellow for the hatred of injustice, green for the life I chose to not end, white for the peace I desperately seek. Here is a portrait painted with words.

It was time. After much encouragement and practice with my beloved husband Payam, I finally picked up the phone. I drew a deep breath to steady myself and dialed the number to my girlhood best friend in Iran.

One beep, two beeps, three beeps, four beeps…

“Why is she not answering?!”

Both relieved and annoyed, I knew that calling anywhere in the Middle East usually took a few attempts before one finally got through.

I tried again.

After two beeps, she picked up. “Hello.”

I was speechless.

“Hello? Hello?” My friend Delara’s familiar cracked voice came from my iPhone speaker.

I sat on the cold floor of our studio flat in London, gazing out through the window onto the wooden fence.

Frozen, heart racing, unable to speak.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes… Hi… It’s me… Raha.”

After twenty-three years, I was finally speaking to my childhood best friend, whom I had tried so hard to wipe from my memory.

After the initial shock and an avalanche of emotions, we were able to catch up.

She asked me how things were, and I told her that I was going to therapy, but I didn’t say what for. I told her that I was also taking a short biography writing course.

Payam helped me with the translation a few times; my Farsi had grown rusty without use. When I told her the name of the course in Farsi, she couldn’t believe it.

“Do you remember trying to convince me to write our life stories just before you left Iran? You even started yours in a notebook. I still have it.”

“What notebook?”

“The wounded birds…don’t you remember?”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

She continued, “You had written poems in the beginning of the notebook. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the shrieks in the silence of the mountains’… Remember now?”

As soon as she said that, I remembered the notebook and the poems… and the consuming pain I was trying to exorcise out by writing.

“I don’t know why I haven’t called for twenty-three years.”

It was a lie. I knew exactly why I had not called her; I just couldn’t tell her the truth because I was afraid of the impact it would have on her.

After what felt like a long pause, she said, “I feel the same way. I think I just wanted to hold on to the good memories. For some reason that I haven’t worked out yet, I think I was afraid of what would happen if we spoke. It was just too difficult. Maybe, because when you left for Pakistan everything happened so quickly and we didn’t even say goodbye properly. I heard through the grapevine that after Pakistan you were in Australia, and now married that famous guy everyone is obsessed with and moved to London. Is that true? How did you even meet him?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” I said.

“You know, I left our tiny old town too, left university, got married, had a baby and moved to North of Iran, near the Caspian Sea.” she said.

Every time I think about ‘The Caspian Sea,’ a breaking wave of anxiety sweeps me off my feet into panic. But this time, I gasped for air in an attempt to keep my anxiety in check.

I asked if she had moved north into her grandparents’ house, which also happened to be one of my father’s hideouts from the authorities, and where our families had spent one summer together just before I was smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan.

“Yes, for a while, but recently we moved a few houses down the road from them, not long after this beautiful boy was born,” she said in a peaceful voice, “I’m actually looking out onto our garden as I am speaking to you.”

“Wait… so does that mean you still see your grandparents and… umm… and your uncle?” I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say his name.

“Yes, they are all here – at my grandparents’ same old house.” she said.

My heart stopped. That house was where her uncle sexually abused us both, when we were nine—twenty-three years ago.

“Can you tell from my voice that I am freezing here in London?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I just couldn’t bring it up.

I promised to call her again. It has been one year, one month and a few days since that day.

To be continued…

By Tellurian Writes

www.tellurianwrites.com
@tellurianwrites

Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)

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Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.

How do emotions drive projects; and how do they end them?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how far it’s possible to construct an emotional biography of a writer, by examining the texts they choose to write at different times in their life. This is really a question about the emotional driving forces behind the projects in which we choose to engage; and is perhaps particularly interesting when applied to non-fiction writers (in which the personal motivation is potentially more opaque, the writer more obscured, than in fiction and autobiography). Why, for example, does someone like Simon Winchester write biographies of a collector of skulls; the Atlantic ocean; the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham; the volcano Krakatoa; the geologist William Smith; and two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary?  I’m not inviting psychoanalyses of Simon here, nor trying to find a unifying factor among all these disparate projects. (Indeed, perhaps their disunity is more revealing.) I’m really just wondering why it is that writers become interested in different subjects at different points in their lives: how do certain subjects speak to us, engage our interest, offer a vessel into which to put our hearts? It’s not always enough to just say, ‘well, I simply find that topic interesting’. Interest is usually a matter of emotional engagement; and the extent to which our attention can be held by a matter, our spirits roused,  can be to do with how that subject speaks to our personal concerns at meaningful points in our own lives.

Of course, this isn’t always the case – far from it. In a psychoanalytic tradition, thinking can be an evasion of feeling; not an engagement with it. I think perhaps this was the case for my first book, Map of a Nation (a biography of the Ordnance Survey).

As a corollary to this, I’m also interested in why certain projects (not necessarily literary ones) fail: why are they abandoned? Are there cases in which this is to do with the writer’s heart being no longer in it; a mismatch between the type of emotional investment required to do justice to the subject matter and the writer’s personal drives and interests at that time?

I’d love to hear input on this: why do you pick the subjects that you do to write about? How do they speak to you personally? What sort of emotional investment is required to do them justice? Or do you have examples of projects that have failed because of a lack of investment? a case of the heart no longer being in it?