Author Interviews
3:05 am
Sun June 16, 2013

'Children' Of Iran's Activists Inherit Love, Loss And Longing

Originally published on Wed June 19, 2013 12:41 pm

In the late 1970s, activists in Iran had a brief moment of hope. The revolution had succeeded; the shah's repressive regime had been overthrown. But things quickly turned for the worse. The newly formed Islamic Republic threw vocal dissenters in prison, and in 1988, it quietly executed thousands of them.

Children of the Jacaranda Tree, a new novel by Iranian author Sahar Delijani, explores the personal repercussions of that tumultuous political period. It's a series of interwoven stories that start in Tehran's Evin prison and ripple outward across families, continents and generations. The novel evokes the scents, sights and gut-wrenching emotions of oppression, as in this description of Tehran in 1987:

A taxi passed by, trailing a confused noise of singing. Along the gutters, the rusty garbage cans stank sourly. Everything crinkled dusty and black, cluttered with policemen and Revolutionary Guards and Morality Guards and religious guides and food shortages and blackouts and the menaces of a war, at times far, at times near.

Delijani grew up in California and now lives in Italy, but she was born in Evin prison — the same prison depicted in her novel — while both her parents were detained there. She tells NPR's Rachel Martin about her mother's experience giving birth in prison, why many Iranians don't know about the executions of 1988 and how, after writing this novel, she's not sure if she'll be able to return to the land of her birth.


Interview Highlights

On how the character Azar, a pregnant activist who gives birth in Evin prison, was inspired by Delijani's own story

"My mom gave birth to me a few months after she was arrested, and then she gave me ... to my grandparents. And she was released herself about a year after, and then my dad about two years after. ...

"She knew that [the prison guards] would open the door just enough that I could pass through. She knew this before that day. She would tell everyone. And it was exactly what happened.

"This chapter [about Azar] is very much based on my mom's experience. So, for example, you know, being interrogated while going through labor was another thing that was true. ... She told me about it."

On why many of her characters are initially unaware of their parents' imprisonment

"My parents always spoke about their past in prison, but I wrote those stories in the novel, of people not knowing, because a lot of people in Iran don't know of what happened in 1988. Afterwards it was just, you know, it was just like the bodies — it was just buried, like that. And no one ever spoke about it. So in a way, those children in the book that don't know symbolize that part of the society that didn't know what was going on just a few kilometers from the city."

On whether she has spent much time in Iran

"I used to go back very often in all these years that I've been away. And sometimes it's really interesting how, as an, almost an outsider, you know, you go and you observe with a different sort of attention. And everything, you know, stuck in my mind. ... But now I don't know. We'll see what happens after the book."

On whether she's concerned about how her book will be received in Iran

"Yes, you know, by the government. Even though these executions [weren't] exactly a secret, I'm sure they don't want these sort of things to be, you know, to be known — not on such levels. And you know, dictatorships work in this way: You don't even know what you're afraid of, what you're worried about, what you risk. My mom says, 'Well, you know, you should just wait a little bit and see what happens.' "

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Transcript

SAHAR DELIJANI: There is this sense that we will come to the streets if we need to, we will vote if we need to. We will do anything to take the country back in our own hands.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is Iranian author Sahar Delijani. We spoke with her late last week, a couple days before Iranians went to the polls. But her sentiment echoes that of many Iranians who fled following the Iranian revolution of 1979. That revolution ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and put Islamists in charge. The new government arrested many thousands of political dissidents and threw them into Evin Prison in Tehran. Delijani's parents were among them. Delijani's debut novel is set in that time. It's called "Children of the Jacaranda Tree." And it's a series of interwoven stories and characters connected by that prison in Tehran. Delijani grew up in California and she now lives in Italy. But she was born in Iran because her mother was pregnant when she was thrown into Evin Prison.

DELIJANI: My mom gave birth to me a few months after she was arrested and then she gave me out to my grandparents. And she was released herself about a year after and then my dad about two years after.

MARTIN: Your parents were lucky to be released...

DELIJANI: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: Because in 1988, the regime carried out mass executions of political prisoners.

DELIJANI: Exactly. Yes, they were very lucky. Unfortunately, my uncle, my dad's brother, wasn't as lucky. He was still in prison in 1988 and he was among one of those executed. We still don't actually know exactly how many of them. The number goes from something around 3,000, 4,000 to even 12,000. And the reason why we don't know how much many of them have been executed is that they were buried in mass graves and those mass graves are still there. No one, you know, is allowed to go close to it. The family of the executed have never been able to actually bury their, you know, their dear ones properly. So the bodies are still there.

MARTIN: In the first part of the book, you're telling the story of a woman, a character named Azar, who happens to also be a pregnant political activist, perhaps modeled somewhat after your mom. She's being held in Evin Prison, she gives birth and she nurses her child for several months in the prison until one day, as you write, the door to her cell is opened just enough for the child to fit through and she hands her newborn daughter out to the authorities. Is this what happened you? Did your mother have to surrender you to prison guards in this way?

DELIJANI: Yes. She knew that they would open the door just enough so that I could pass through. She knew this before that day; she would tell everyone, and it was exactly what happened. This chapter is very much based on my mom's experience. So, for example, you know, being interrogated while going through labor was another thing that was true, that she told me about it.

MARTIN: Did you grow up knowing this about your parents? I mean, for several of your characters, they don't know that their parents had been imprisoned. One character doesn't even know that her father was executed in prison. Did you grow up knowing this?

DELIJANI: I did, I did. My parents always spoke about their past in prison, but I wrote those stories in the novel, of people not knowing, because a lot of people in Iran don't know of what happened in 1988. Afterwards it was just, you know, just like the bodies - it was just buried, like that. And no one ever spoke about it. So, in a way, those children in the book that don't know symbolize that part of this society that didn't know what was going on just a few kilometers from the city.

MARTIN: There is an interesting scene that you describe when Azar is imprisoned. Her dynamic with the other female prisoners is fascinating to watch unfold. She is at once dependent on these women and they are also rivals. How did you come to understand that dynamic to the point you could write in such detail about it?

DELIJANI: Well, a little bit was told to me by my mom. But then I also imagined how it would be, you know, when there is one room full of 30 women, each in a way tries to survive and each tries to keep her own dignity as an activist and as a prisoner and as a woman. These women did not know if they were going to come out of prison alive. They didn't know what was going to happen to them. So, at the same time, they needed each other to survive. They needed each other to sort of encourage each other to go through one day to the next.

MARTIN: Your descriptions of Iran, and Tehran in particular, are very compelling. I wonder if you might read a passage where that's illustrated.

DELIJANI: Yes, definitely. (Reading) A taxi passed by, trailing a confused noise of singing. Along the gutters, the rusty garbage cans stank sourly. Everything crinkled dusty and black, cluttered with policemen and Revolutionary Guards and Morality Guards and religious guides and food shortages and blackouts and the menaces of war, at times far, at times near.

MARTIN: You were obviously born in Iran but you were raised in the States. As an adult, as a young adult, have you spent much time in Iran?

DELIJANI: Yes, actually, I used to go back very often in all these years that I've been away. And sometimes it's really interesting how, as an, almost an outsider, you know, you go and you observe with a different sort of attention. And everything is stuck in my mind, almost. But, you know, now I don't know. We'll see what happens after the book.

MARTIN: Are you concerned that the reception in Iran or at least the news of your book would not be received well?

DELIJANI: Yes, you know, by the government, you know. I mean, even though these executions wasn't exactly a secret, I'm sure they don't want these sort of things to be known, not on such levels. And, you know, dictatorships work in this way. You don't even know what you're afraid of, what you're worried about, what you risk. I always wanted to go back but my mom says, well, you know, you should just wait a little bit and see what happens. So, that's why I've decided to wait.

MARTIN: Sahar Delijani. She is the author of the novel "Children of the Jacaranda Tree." It will be released this coming Tuesday. She joined us from Turin, Italy. Ms. Delijani, thank you so much for talking with us.

DELIJANI: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It was wonderful. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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