"Writing is my means to fight back": an interview with Nasrin Parvaz
Nasrin Parvaz is a writer, artist and activist from Iran. Since fleeing to the UK in 1993, she has published or translated fiction, non-fiction and poetry in Farsi, English and Italian, as well as being a longstanding member of Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life group. The first publication in English of Nasrin’s prison memoir is currently being crowdfunded online by the publishers Unbound.
Interview by Ed
Born in Tehran, Nasrin returned from studying in England in 1979 to a country transformed by that year’s revolution. She joined a left-wing political party and campaigned for a non-Islamic state with women’s rights: for this, she was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death in 1982. Following the commutation of her sentence, she was released from detention in 1990, and fled to the UK in 1993, being granted asylum the following year.
“I don’t want to forget” she says, when I sit down to interview Nasrin ahead of a Write to Life poetry reading, and ask about how her writing has helped her to deal with her experiences, or move on from them.
I don’t want to leave it, because it’s something which is still ongoing in Iran: now the prisons are full, they’ve just built more prisons. The process of writing for me is a counterattack against the systemic violence. Writing is my means to fight back.
“Last week, 45 ambassadors from different countries were invited to visit Evin prison; the political prisoners held there were taken out of their usual wings, and put in solitary confinement, so the ambassadors couldn’t see them.
“Something like that happened when I was in prison: they built a wall in a corridor to stop people being able to see where we were held. The interrogation centre I was held in has been turned into a museum: they take schoolchildren there, and tell them it was only used by the Shah, they don’t mention that it went on for 20 years after the revolution.”
The process of fighting back has not been easy. Nasrin talks about the difficulties of finding a publisher for her latest book, and of funding its publication:
“Books that are published in English, they’re not written by people like me: something like 2% are translations from other languages. Traditional publishers, they don’t want to take our books.”
Unbound, a crowdfunded publisher, is able to take a more open-minded approach, but this still requires Nasrin to do the work of raising money for the publication herself.
Of course, there have been even greater challenges along the way: not only surviving her imprisonment and escaping Iran, but also dealing with the after-effects of these experiences through writing and painting. Nasrin shows me several of her artworks: one depicts the grey, faceless walls of her prison; another features a woman kissing her daughter before being taken to be executed.
“I received therapy and help from Freedom from Torture for several years. My first mentor was Sonja Linden, who set up the Write to Life workshop.
“When I first started working with Sonja, I didn’t know what was going to happen; I wanted to write about my experience, so I spoke to Sonja in English and she wrote it down, but after a while I realised that this wasn’t what I wanted to say, so I began writing in Farsi.
"Sonja’s help was the starting point for my writing, giving me a space to write and think.”
From that starting point, Nasrin’s career as a writer has blossomed, including the publication of her memoir in Farsi and Italian, a novel, Temptation, based on the true stories of men who survived the 1988 massacre of Iranian prisoners, and translations of poems prohibited in Iran from Farsi into English.
“Writing in fiction, even about these terrible things, is much easier than writing a memoir, because you have to be true, and you have to remember things that were very difficult at the time.
If books like mine get published, though, people will hopefully become less misinformed about what really happens in Iran
Nasrin’s ambitions for the future are extensive: she has several more novels ready, waiting to see if her memoir is successful. “I will keep writing,” she says “because it’s the best thing I can do.”