I have long admired the writing style of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Her prose is so masterful that I often read a passage or two and then put the book down, the same way you would put down your fork in order to relish a morsel of truly flavourful food. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is the internationally bestselling author of The Saddlebag – A Fable for Doubters and Seekers, Paper – The Dreams of a Scribe, Four on an Island, When We Grow Up, Response, Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism, and most recently, The Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel which is a work of creative nonfiction about the life of Tahirih.
In these early days of the Faith where we explore what it means to be a Baha’i artist, Bahiyyih has inspired me with a vision of literary excellence and I am truly honoured to ask her about her recent publication.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! To begin, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your work as a writer, and about your latest book ‘The Woman Who Read Too Much’?
I’m a member of an ancient tribe, a venerable race whom some now say is bordering on extinction. There are still many of us around, although like other anthropological groups whose belief system runs counter to that of the majority, we tend to be invisible. High finance ignores us. Politics barely knows of our existence anymore, although at one time it was afraid of us. We are scattered across the five continents and come from different backgrounds, different cultures and generations, but we all share one common faith, one universal cause. We call ourselves Readers.
Readers have learned to keep a low profile for survival purposes because we used to be considered dangerous. We believe in the power of the written word to change society and influence the human mind. Literally. Language can actually transform the pathways of the brain: – not speed reading nor reading the so-called “literature” of advertisements and coffee machine manuals but the kind that provides no answers and makes you ask questions. It is a strangely paradoxical activity, generally conducted in solitude and conducive to being alone, but stimulating empathy and demanding a certain detachment from the self. It requires that one be intellectually active and spiritually independent but can simultaneously invite liberty of imagination and even enable time travel. No wonder it used to be considered dangerous.
I don’t think there’s much more to say about myself than that. The rest is superficial: place of birth, Iran; citizenship, UK; current residence, France; profession, ex-teacher and writer. But if I write now it is only because I have always been a reader.
I wrote ‘The Woman Who Read Too Much’ because reading has traditionally been denied to women in many societies and those who read “too much” generally suffered for it. We think we are now beyond such antediluvian attitudes, at least in the West. Today, reading does not need to be denied; it is simply redundant to us, regardless of gender. We prefer to watch; we like to buy. Our current political and commercial systems are aggressively opposed to whatever liberates thought. I wrote this book because think we need to re-evaluate the power of reading to change the world.
‘The Woman Who Read Too Much’ was inspired by the story of a woman in 19th century Persia, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who believed in change. She read in the deepest sense of the word and taught others to read too, especially women. She was able to read the meaning of her times, her culture, and religion. And she understood, from her reading that a wind of change was sweeping across the world. She was convinced, moreover, that her country was critical to that change. By accepting the teachings of Ali Muhammad, the Bab, and by supporting the efforts of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, she became the first Iranian ambassadress to claim that the era of the sharia law had come to an end. She died for her beliefs in 1852 and has been relegated to obscurity by her countrymen for the past hundred and seventy years. But I believe the time has come to tell the world her story.
I wrote a fiction because the facts about her are few. A biography would need more than we know and less that is contradictory. Most histories so far tend to tell only one side of her story. By writing a novel I could take advantage of the ambiguities.
Baha’i Blog: What inspires you?
Literature, because it loves ambiguity; literature, because it eschews fundamentalism; literature, because it teaches one to live with paradox and contradiction, which is what life is all about, and with uncertainty and with hope, which is what the Baha’i Faith is about. Uncertainty because one must always doubt one’s absolute understanding of anything; hope because there is always a promise, in the Baha’i Writings, of understanding more, by the grace of God, if one ponders and meditates.
Baha’i Blog: When you write a novel, do you have the entire narrative already mapped out or you simply begin and then see where your writing takes you?
It depends on the novel. With ‘The Saddlebag’ I saw the map of the story clearly before I began: it was as simple and obvious as a rolled up carpet and I just had to unroll it, once I had been seized by the initial idea. With Paper, it was a bit like the paper-making process – soaking the idea, pulping it, straining it, squeezing the excess out of it and then letting it dry; I should have squeezed more out of it, frankly! With The Woman Who Read Too Much the challenge was not the story so much as the form; it was not only the story of Tahirih either but Qajar Persia and the men and women who lived in. I had to discover how to weave all these stories together because I knew that the only way to approach this subject was to look at it from multiple perspectives. But in general, I think there is always something of a combination: you catch a glimpse of the map, enough to make you excited enough to start the adventure, and then you have to see where the writing takes you. Sometimes it teaches you that your map was wrong. As T.S.Eliot affirms “humility is endless.”
Baha’i Blog: What is the research process like when writing a work of historical fiction?
Well, I guess it must be like any other form of research: scientific, rigorous, disciplined, tedious at times; often full of dead ends which bring you up short against your own limitations, and once in a while illumined by serendipitous insights. In my case, the dead ends are invariably linguistic because I am limited by illiteracy and an inability to read in Persian. This is my main impediment: not to have access to material in the original language. In the case of historical fiction, about this period and this part of the world, the dead ends were often due to the fact that until quite recently and certainly as long as I was writing this book, there was limited information available in any language about women in Qajar Iran. In recent years much has come to light, thanks to Afsaneh Najmadi and her brilliant research project (www.qajarwomen.org) but many gaps still remain.
By opting for fiction rather than history or biographical writing, I have used these gaps to my advantage and filled them in by using my imagination. So this is the formula I follow: – I do all the research I can; I read all that is available to me and gather notes about it. And then I join the dots. Once in a miraculous while, as I said, one can stumble upon an undeserved insight in this process which proves to be as valuable, as authentic maybe, as anything one has pedantically researched. I have always found that the gaps under the dots prove most fertile, from a creative point of view, and that in basing fiction on facts one is never limited to them.
Baha’i Blog: Phrases and expressions from the Baha’i writings pepper your prose. Can you tell us a little bit about how your faith influences your art?
I like your “pepper”! Do you mean “add spice to” my prose? Five hundred years ago, pepper was a vital commodity in Europe and essential for hiding the flavor of rotten meat. It was also one of the major incentives in the quest for the Spice Isles, which led to the “discovery” of America. If echoes from the Baha’i Writings can render the rot of my writing more palatable, then maybe they are justified. But they could just as easily, for certain readers, prove a rhetorical impediment, precisely because they are so ornamental. To be honest, I did not consciously conjure these echoes; I didn’t add them in an extraneous fashion. They simply arose from the world I was evoking. I have always felt that the texture of the language used by the Bab, by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha is like a richly embroidered gown covered with arabesques and peacock eyes, like a densely woven tapestry or a Persian carpet, ornamented with stylized leaves and flowers. It seemed appropriate to Qajar Persia, felt intrinsic to the subject matter of a book set in 19th century Iran. If I wrote a novel that was more contemporary in setting, I doubt the tone would be the same.
As for the influence of faith on art, well, whatever you think and whoever you are must invariably influence what you write and how you read. So my faith undoubtedly informs my work, just as my diet does, probably, or my lack of exercise (!). What I never expected, however, was to discover that my faith also influenced the narrative form of my work. It was exciting to find myself writing a novel whose literal structure was built on the concept of the relativity, the continuity and the progressive nature of religious truth, which is the corner stone of Baha’i philosophy, if you like. I didn’t realize that until after I wrote The Saddlebag. It was also a surprise to see how the temporal aspect of narrative permits for a structure which contains and resolves opposite and contradictory points of view. So in The Woman Who Read Too Much, for example, words are heard differently by the various characters according to which period in their lives they listen to them; events are recalled differently too depending on when and where as well as who recalls them.
This unsettled and unsettling use of time in narrative forms has profound spiritual implications. It allows for the resolution of seeming conflicts; it permits for the possibility of future answers as well as admitting the intransigence of past and present questions; and it reminds us that beyond the contingent linearity of language is a dimension which inspires humility of interpretation. These are all ‘Baha’i’ concepts.
Baha’i Blog: What projects are you currently working on?
Ah, who knows.
Baha’i Blog: What advice do you have for other emerging writers?
Read, read and read again from the wellspring. And write and re-write again and again. And forget about being published. That is the bottom line. To be an “emerging writer” is to become a wanderer, a seeker, a lover – and you know the rest. I will not mention poverty and absolute nothingness (!) but look forward to it.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you immensely, Bahiyyih, for sharing insights into your creative process and your writing of The Woman Who Read Too Much! It was a pleasure to interview you.
‘The Woman Who Read Too Much’ is a publication of Stanford University Press and can be ordered from your local Baha’i bookstore, or here on Amazon: The Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel