Breaking the Mold: PW Talks with Azin Sametipour
We caught up with Sametipour to chat about family, life in Iran, and writing.Tehran Moonlight, Azin Sametipour’s debut novel, follows a young violinist who creates her own path in an Iranian society that frowns upon breaking with tradition. In a starred review from PW, our reviewer complimented the author’s “robust, confident style and probing characterizations.” We caught up with Sametipour and talked about family life and writing.
Tell us a little about your journey as a writer and how you came to self-publish Tehran Moonlight.
Tehran Moonlight was born around six years ago. I had just been back to Iran and was struck at the changes gripping the country. Alongside the mosques and large painted murals of martyrs of war, there were now cell phones and name brands everywhere, even in the Bazaars of South Tehran. The old dour mood of religious puritanism that I had grown up with had given way to hope and materialism. Most of all it was the transformation of the youth of Iran, particularly girls now in their 20s, fighting for a better life for themselves, not martyrdom as before. Yet, change can be scary, and for the establishment and older generations of Iran this was definitely so. And the reality was that the law was still Sharia, heavily stacked against women, and parents still had enormous control of their children, especially their daughters. But I got the feeling that to the youth of Iran, society no longer seemed omnipotent, instead reduced to a challenge in the road of life.
Against this backdrop came the idea about an Iranian girl [named Mahtab] who finds love in the Tehran of today. I saw her as a rebel, someone who believed in herself when no one else did, even to following her dream of playing the violin against the wishes of her conservative family. Initially her love interest was a foreigner, someone from an embassy or a journalist perhaps, but then he evolved into Ashkan, who was a wonderful counterpoint to Mahtab with the history that he brings to the story. After the novel was finished, I hunted around for agents. Unfortunately, in spite of some initial interest, I was rebuffed. It felt as though agents had a fixed formula as to what would be commercially successful and my novel, particularly with its roots in Iran, did not fit their mold. It was disappointing to say the least. But I took faith in the fact that whoever among my friends read my draft genuinely liked it and encouraged me to go on. Simply put, people who read books seemed to like my characters and the plot, and took something away about how people in Tehran live today. So, I decided to self publish because writing was my dream and I didn’t want the establishment to kill it and my characters.
You spent the first 18 years of your life in Tehran before moving to the United States. Did you hope to write in Farsi or were you more drawn to English?Writing and conveying stories and characters are somewhat agnostic to the medium of language that they are expressed in. Sure there are nuances in language, but in the end a great story is a great story. Growing up in Iran, I wrote in Farsi, my native language, although I did get instruction in English as a second language. But when we arrived in the United States, my English bloomed. It happened because of my father. I still remember the day he told me that this land was our new home and the language I must now master was English. There was a learning curve, but it helped that I had wonderful teachers, friends, and of course books to learn from and in time I began to write in English.
How has your work been received in Iran?
There has been interest in translating my book into Farsi in Iran. Given the recent release of my book and all the associated work, I am presently concentrating my efforts outside Iran.
And by your family in Iran?
My family in Iran has been on the whole supportive of my novel. However there are those that found some parts of the book, particularly the parts about Mahtab’s abuse and its reflection on society, disturbing.
What would you like readers to take away from it?
The central theme of Tehran Moonlight is the coming of age, the unveiling, as it were, of the new generation of Iranian women today. For these women, life is no longer about preordained marriages, religion, and martyrdom as it had been for their mothers, but defining themselves as individuals, in careers and even love. In an increasingly polarized society with laws still stacked heavily against them, this struggle takes unique dimensions, especially since the penalty of being caught is horrific. It is this journey that is vividly encapsulated in the story of Mahtab, the beautiful young violinist from Tehran.