June 18, 2023 will mark 40 years since 10 Baha’i women were hanged in Shiraz. Their only ‘crime’ was their refusal to renounce their beliefs in a faith that promotes the principles of gender equality, unity, justice, and truthfulness. This collection highlights Baha’i Blog content relating to the ongoing persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
Crimson Ink – A Novel of Modern Iran by Gail Madjzoub
In my interviews with authors for Baha’i Blog, I have noticed a quiet flourishing of Baha’i-inspired novels and they range widely in their genres and styles. Gail Madjzoub has penned a novel titled Crimson Ink which features the workings, struggles and hopes of three families — some Baha’is and others Muslim — in near-contemporary Iran. Curious to know more, I reached out and am grateful Gail responded. Here’s what she shared with me:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Although I was brought up near Boston, Massachusetts, I lived and worked most of my life in Europe and Africa, and traveled widely. I’m currently on the West Coast of Canada close to family.
My professional background has been in education, coaching, and healthcare and I’ve drawn on these a great deal in Crimson Ink.
I have a “Persian connection” through my first husband. I was immersed in a marvelous Persian family and its rich history for the 20 years before his death. Before, during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, we kept a close watch on the renewed persecution of the Persian Baha’is, and their situation struck a particular chord in me.
Baha’i Blog: Could you please tell us a little about your book and what inspired you to write it?
Crimson Ink’s intention is to give a voice to those whose voices are suppressed and whose stories ought to be told. In a sense their stories are also our stories. Because we’re one human race, when part of it suffers, we all suffer. And how can we ultimately end suffering if we aren’t aware of what others go through? At their core, the book’s character types and themes are universal.
Although this is a novel, every aspect of it is based on facts, real events and real people. I had to do a lot of research and fact-checking from multiple sources; these are listed at the end of the book.
Here’s a synopsis:
After the Islamic Revolution, Fereshteh, a woman doctor and a Baha’i, experiences along with her family and religious brethren far greater than usual persecution for their beliefs; they struggle to survive.
Yet compassion for the countless others who also run afoul of the regime prompts her and her physician husband to treat those coming out of the torment of prison in the ‘80s, and again following the chaotic aftermath of the 2009 election.
It’s during this time that Fereshteh joins forces with others to help women subjected to not only the regime’s oppression but also domestic abuse. Eventually, her work and her religion become the pretext for her imprisonment, and worse. This has unintended consequences for other family members; yet there is resilience and there is hope.
The main characters come from a large extended family split down religious lines: a Muslim brother and a Baha’i sister. While the sister’s family embraces everyone, it’s only out of love and loyalty to his sister, despite her religious “defection”, that the brother and his family tolerate hers. Sinister undercurrents, and secrets and betrayals born of fear carry grim consequences for many, some emerging only over decades.
In a second family, the one fair-minded son finds he can’t escape his family’s legacy. This and the Revolution tether him to a path that causes him to forget who he is.
A third family produces a son out of squalor, desperation and neglect. His eventual reconnection with his powerful cleric father gives free reign to this man who lacks a conscience. His dealings with and marriage into the first family, and his professional relationship with the son from the second family complicate all relationships in unforeseen ways.
Baha’i Blog: What was the process like to put this work together? What challenges did you face?
To help readers make sense of the large cast of characters from three different Iranian families (all with names unfamiliar to a Western reader), I created family trees, bolding the names of those whose points of view drive the story. At the end I added Glossaries and References.
To manage the long timeline I grouped chapters into “Books” that reflected eras: Pre-Revolution (1955-1978), Revolution (1979-1980), Post-Revolution (1989-1993), “2008”, and Reform (2009-2011). Within these I selected only significant years and months, showing each family separately but simultaneously up until 2008. Only during the final three years of the narrative do all three become inextricably intertwined; their interaction then drives the plot to its climax and resolution.
Historical events created a solid framework for the novel and it was easy for me to fit my characters and their stories into it. The characters are a mix: composites of real people whose stories I knew, and purely fictional ones suited to the narrative.
The real challenge was balancing. I didn’t want my portrayals of characters and events to fall into the quagmire of politics and known personalities, nor did I want to reduce characters, politics, social justice and religion to simple black and white depiction. All are complex and I saw my task as providing nuance and opposing perspectives without becoming dogmatic. This took a great deal of time. Discussions with early readers helped me in this.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope people will take away long after they’ve finished reading?
I hope Crimson Ink will take readers on a journey into a culture they may not know much about, and that it will dispel any preconceived ideas about Iran and its people, and particularly the Baha’is.
But more, I hope they’ll come away with some understanding about what’s now being called “constructive resilience”: that despite suffering and persecution, there are people who continue to believe in the essential rightness of living and working according to standards of excellence and altruism; who strive to help not only their co-religionists, but also their neighbors, their society, and their country. That a “moral imperative” sustains them and benefits others.
Baha’i Blog: I understand you’re working on another project now. Would you say a few words about it?
Yes. It’s a sequel to Crimson Ink. I’d thought I’d finished the story, but events in 2019 and 2020 said otherwise.
As writers know, our characters tell us when they have more to say. In my case, they were insisting loudly.
Iran has become increasingly harsh in its treatment of many of its citizens, particularly women and minorities. Social justice questions continue to loom large. In my sequel, at least, I can bring some resolution to a couple of the issues I addressed in Crimson Ink.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you, Gail, for sharing with us about your novel!
In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.