Rating 5 stars
Read for Women in Translation Month
Disoriental tells the story of the Sadr family, Iranians who fled to France at the time of the Iranian Revolution. It’s a family saga with a difference. Narrated by Kimiâ Sadr, it draws together her experiences at the turn of the 20th century and mixes them with family myths and ancestral tales.
I liked Kimiâ immediately. She has a coolness of expression that felt like a breeze. The book opens with a memory of travelling on the Paris metro with her father not long after 10 year old Kimiâ escaped to France with her mother and sisters to join her father in exile from Iran. Her memory captures what it is to be different and to choose to be different in a country that’s not your birthplace but is your home. It hints at what is to come – the violence of being an immigrant in exile. Later, we learn that Kimiâ considers her arrival in France to be her second birth, when she becomes a different Kimiâ, drawing on her difference, her androgyny, her queerness.
Kimiâ is funny. She has attitude. Négar Djavadi has written her with a biting insouciance. She’s a confusion of traditions, a modern Frenchwoman woven about with Iranian history. She is scathing about the past that underpins her current existence, but recounts it faithfully as explanation for who she is and doesn’t want to be. From birth, she is an unanticipated child, girl-boy, liberated and unconventional.
Kimiâ, like Djavadi, is my age. Her experiences at each crucial moment in her past and present are littered with pop cultural references that match my own. Her teenage path, though, is different. She becomes the cool outsider, wrapping herself in rebellion, burrowing into the music scene that I experienced the lite version of in my bedroom through magazines and records.
Disoriental is a musical novel, from the P J Harvey song lyrics quoted at the start and the structuring of the book as an album with two sides and numbered tracks to the lyrical flow of Djavadi’s words on the page. There’s an openness to the prose that’s similar to that in The Dove’s Necklace, although these are quite different novels. I haven’t read enough literature from the Arabic/Islamic world to know if this is a feature of writers from that cultural background, something that perhaps stems from different traditions of storytelling to those we have in the West as a result of what we call The Enlightenment. I do know that it’s a writing style that I like, because it feels so much more free than the structures used in the literature of my culture.
Kimiâ comes from a family with a rich storytelling tradition. Her uncle Saddeq Sadr, known as Uncle Number Two, is the keeper of the family lore, a role that Kimiâ continues in this novel. Family stories become distorted over time, as they are recounted to suit the moment and the nature of the person doing the telling. I know in my family that stories I was told as a child have turned out to have darker truths behind them that I’ve learnt as an adult. The same is true for Kimiâ.
The parts of the novel that explore Kimiâ’s childhood in Tehran at the time of the Revolution made me think of my school friend Laleh. Laleh was a year older than me. She came to my primary school in 1976, when Infant 2 and 3 had joint classes. Her dad was, my vague memory tells me, a Maths lecturer at the University of Manchester. The family came from Tehran and I think were here for a school year, perhaps a little longer. I have a photograph of me at Laleh’s house with our other friends Lesley Ann and Julie taken in December 1976. I loved Laleh and was devastated when the family had to return to Iran. I remember Laleh’s mum wrote to my mum a couple of times, just after the Revolution, asking her to send shampoo and cardigans, because of the rationing of ‘luxuries’. I think Laleh and I wrote once, although I no longer have her letter to me to confirm the memory I have of blue ink on thin blue paper. I often wonder what happened to her, whether life in Tehran was okay for her.
The parts that briefly touch on Kimiâ’s Armenian heritage, through her mother’s family, made me think of the Armenians who moved to Manchester, partly fleeing persecution, partly seeking opportunity, and worked in the textiles wholesaling industry. It also made me think of the first wife of my mum’s oldest brother. I never met Herbert, and don’t think of him as an uncle (there’s a complicated family history here), but I was fascinated as a child by mum’s stories of how he joined the RAF towards the end of the Second World War and started calling himself Howard. He stayed in the RAF after the war, stationed in Cyprus, where he met and married an Armenian woman. Their marriage didn’t last and Herbert came back to Britain, leaving his Armenian wife and son behind. One day I will read more Armenian history.
I very much enjoyed the Iranian history at the core of the Sadr family history, some of it embedded in the narrative, with other elements delivered as footnotes. I know a little about the post-Second World War history of Iran, particularly the British and American meddling that ultimately led to the coup that strengthened Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s megalomaniacal tendencies and paved the way for the Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the infiltration of American culture into Iranian society during the 1960s. America supported Mohammad Reza Shah’s White Revolution. This revolution modernised Iran in all the ways that allow greater US influence in military matters. I shouldn’t really have been surprised by this element of Djavadi’s novel, given how the US has deployed this kind of soft imperialism in other countries it wants to dominate for military, economic and political reasons. I know less about the structure of Iranian society 100 years and more ago, and found the stories about the Sadr family from further back in history interesting.
Djavadi has Kimiâ share insights into what it is to be an immigrant, to speak a second language and have who you are policed by how you speak that language. As a tourist, the experience of speaking another language is kinder, and native speakers are more often than not politely delighted by your efforts to communicate (although I have had experience of impatience with my stumbling attempts in another language, both in the form of total dismissal of any conversation being possible and in the exchange quickly moving to English). I’ve never lived anywhere other than the British Isles and I’m from the dominant ethnic group in my country, so I don’t share Kimiâ’s experience of being viewed with suspicion and prejudice by those who peg her as an outsider based on how she looks and how she speaks the language. The closest I get is the experience of being working class at an independent school where my Lancashire colloquialisms were treated as quaint or signifiers of my social inferiority, and the prejudice of the people of Plymouth who call everyone not from Devon a ‘foreigner’. Kimiâ also talks about the need to disintegrate who you are culturally when you change countries in order to integrate into your new adopted homeland. Kimiâ doesn’t want to integrate, and language is one way she achieves that. She refers to her refusal to learn to speak French well as a scar across her vocabulary and an indicator of her resistance to the concept of integration. The push for homogeneity, it seems to me, comes from the arrogance of the dominant culture, that wants no deviation from its norms and seeks to eradicate the richness of different cultural expressions.
A small detail, about halfway through the book, moved me. In leaving Iran secretly, as the family of a dissident, the Sadrs left behind all proof of who they were. The photographs depicting their life stories, the certificates documenting the stages of their lives, all left behind. It made me think of the recent drama about Anthony Bryan, the British man whose family moved to Britain from Jamaica, part of the Windrush generation, who had to produce photographs and certificates to prove he had the right to live in the country that has been his home since childhood. Whether you flee or whether you choose to move your life from one country to another for other reasons, whether you have lived somewhere all your life, we all believe that we exist outside of documents and photographs, and yet those documents and photographs make our existence more real, somehow. I remember how I felt when I thought mum had destroyed our family photographs, as her memories became lost in the labyrinth of her disconnecting brain. It was as though part of my past had been erased. I thought I’d made my peace with it, but the relief when my brother found the old sweet tin crammed full of snaps as he cleared the house to sell it was surprising.
The chapters that recount the experience of being in opposition to the prevailing politics at different moments in late 20th century Iran are tense and thrilling. Djavadi captures the anxiety of living under surveillance, of having someone in your family go into hiding, of having to move quickly to temporary accommodation. She uses the device of a translation from Kimiâ’s mother’s book to portray the desperation of a family fleeing their country in fear of their lives. It makes the situation very personal, laced as it is with a mother’s concern for her children and a wife’s concern about seeing her husband again. It’s a reminder that refugees mostly leave behind lives no different to ours out of necessity not choice, and that lives that are stable can be overturned in a moment by external forces.
That sense that, beyond cultural peccadillos, we are all human, all have families, all have joys and sorrows and challenges, pervades this novel. You don’t have to be Iranian, or an immigrant, or anything other than a human being to understand what Djavadi is writing about between its pages.