This month’s Trailblazer in Translation spotlight is on Simin Daneshvar, the legendary Iranian novelist and translator. Daneshvar became famous in the fifties and sixties for her contributions to Persian literature including her translations of Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorki, Bernard Shaw, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1969, her legendary novel, Savūshūn, established her as a canonical literary voice in Iran. It remains the best-selling Persian novel of all time as well as being the first to have been written by a woman, and from a female protagonist’s perspective.
The history of women in modern Iranian literature is only a half-century old and it starts with Simin Daneshvar. Born in 1921 in Shiraz, a city in south-central Iran known for its poetic heritage, Daneshvar grew up in a family of six children with a physician father, and painter mother who directed the Shiraz Arts School for Girls.
The year of Daneshvar’s birth coincided with the Persian coup d’état and subsequent rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi to power, resulting in her being educated in bilingual schools run by British and American missionaries. She published her first work at the age of fourteen when her poem titled “Winter Is Not Unlike Our Life” was printed in a local newspaper.
Daneshvar went on to pursue a degree in Persian literature at the University of Tehran until, in 1941, her father’s sudden death forced her to interrupt her studies. In order to support her family, she took on a job as a writer for Radio Tehran, working her way up to becoming assistant director of foreign news thanks in part to her mastery of the English language.
The role sparked an interest in journalism that led Daneshvar to leave the station to become a reporter and translator at the Iran newspaper, where she published under the authorship of “a nameless Shirazi”. Although she considered the drill-like newsroom work dull enough to leave it after just a few years, Daneshvar’s journalistic experience through Iran’s brutal Allied Occupation by British and Soviet forces framed her later fictional masterpiece, Savūshūn.
It was also during this time, in her early and mid-twenties, that Daneshvar began to develop her earliest works of fiction. Her first short story collection which she had written at the age of 22, A Quenched Fire (Atesh-e khamūsh), came out under her own name in 1948 and caused a stir in Iran as the first known work of modern fiction by a woman. Her stories were also controversial for their sharp commentary, as Daneshvar was heavily influenced by O. Henry and other writers of the 1940s who brought to light society’s moral dualities and inequalities.
“I have noticed that the heroines of love stories are always beautiful women. No one has written about the destiny of the ugly ones who are no beauties. Perhaps ugly women don’t have any destiny!”
– from A Quenched Fire (1948) by Simin Daneshvar
After the publication of her first collection, Daneshvar returned to the University of Tehran to pursue a Ph.D. in aesthetics and literature, which she obtained in 1949 with a thesis titled “Beauty as Treated in Persian Literature”. She became close with the Russian-Iranian author Fāṭimah Sayyāḥ, who came from Moscow and moved in with her in Tehran.
In a 1987 interview with the Iranian paper Mahnameh-ye Mofid, Daneshvar praised her friend: “Whatever I have accomplished is thanks to her, whoever I have become I owe it to her. When I read to her the first short story I ever wrote, she said: don’t become a scholar, don’t work for a Ph.D in literature, don’t talk about other people’s work, let people tell your stories”.
On a bus from Shiraz to Tehran, Daneshvar met fellow social critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad, whom she would fall in love with and marry in 1950. Al-e Ahmad’s clerical religious family objected to the union on the grounds that Daneshvar was an unveiled woman, resulting in no contact between Al-e Ahmad and his father for more than ten years.
The marriage proved nevertheless to be successful if not unconventional, as shortly after their wedding Daneshvar won a Fullbright scholarship to Stanford University and went to live in San Fransisco for two years without her husband.
“When Jalal and I decided to marry,” wrote Daneshvar, “my only condition was that I will remain Simin Daneshvar, not being identified as Mrs. Al-e Ahmad, and thus I would keep my freedom, my philosophical aspects, my ideology, my style of writing … and several male friends (not lovers) I have.”
Al-e Ahmad would also become a professor and famous writer and, while they had a profound influence on each other’s writing, they largely succeeded in managing not to stand in the other’s shadow. Together with a group of other activist writers, in 1968 they would co-found the dissident Writer’s Association of Iran.
While in the US, Daneshvar had two English short stories published in a Standford University journal titled The Pacific Spectator. According to the author herself: “Thanks to Dr. Wallace Stegner, in charge of the Creative Writing Centre at Stanford University (1952-1953), I learned to improve my technique by using fewer adjectives and adverbs, to make my style more powerful with nouns and verbs. He also taught me to show events instead of narrating them.”
At the end of her scholarship at Stanford, Daneshvar returned to the University of Tehran to work as an associate professor of art history. In between teaching and managing a house full of guests (she was known to regularly host students and colleagues), Daneshvar also started to translate books. She became famous in the fifties and sixties for her translations of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler and Saroyan into Persian.
“I endure and have great hope and faith in the future for all nations—including Iran … As an Iranian woman, I have suffered from despotism of the grim, the exploitation of East and West, the limitations of a male-dominated culture, and a patriarchal system. But I have never lost hope.”
– Letter from Simin Daneshvar in 1988, published in Daneshvar’s Playhouse (Mage Publishers, 2008)
After a decade of no writing activity, Daneshvar released her second collection of short stories, A City as Paradise (Shahri Chon Behesht), in 1961. This collection demonstrated how she had found her voice as a writer, abandoning the formal tones of her early work in favor of an economical syntax while also incorporating “colloquialism and folk idioms”.
But her outspokenness against foreign influence on the country would lead to years of harassment by the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK. It also cost her an academic career as until her retirement in 1979, after twenty years in the same post, she was never granted full tenure. In a later interview, Daneshvar claimed she had been shown a letter from the SAVAK to the University of Tehran that read: “This woman does not deserve professorship. Slowly phase her out.”
It was her novel Savūshūn, published in 1969 to instant critical success across Iran, that finally underpinned Daneshvar as one of the foremost contemporary voices in the nation. Set in Shiraz in 1943 during the Allied Occupation of Iran, the multi-layered chronicle follows a character named Zari whose husband has been murdered, offering an intimate and mutli-facted perspective on the westernized establishment of Reza Shah and the British occupation of Iran in the 1940s.
The novel is above all revered for its astute commentary on the history of modern Iran, touching on themes of justice, the female experience in a male-dominated society, and national identity. As the translator of the Italian version, Anna Vazan, describes: “Savūshūn talks directly about the harmful influence that the British and the Russian interference had on Iranian civilization and culture. … Because of the occupation, Iranians faced war and famine. This short but cruel occupation changed Iran’s political landscape forever.”
The novel was dedicated to Al-e Ahmad, who died just before the book was published and which Daneshvar apparently suspected was due to poisoning by the SAVAK. According to Farzaneh Milani in her article An Audience with Simin Daneshvar, the novelist also claimed that as many as sixty pages of Savūshūn were removed from publication by government censors.
“Oh Lord, what kind of men are these who know that what they’re doing is no use, but just to prove their existence and their manhood, and just so their children won’t spit on their graves, go ahead and actually dig them—God forbid—with their own hands… She bit her lip.
“And what odd things women remember at the strangest moments, Zari thought, as her mind jumped back to one night when Yusef had sighed in his sleep, and she had woken up and put on the bedside lamp, only to gaze for the longest time at the soft down on his earlobe which had looked just like pink velvet brushed the wrong way.”
– from Savushun: A Novel About Modern Iran by Simin Daneshvar, tr. by M.R. Ghanoonparvar
Written at a time when women protagonists in Persian fiction were either largely invisible from the narrative or portrayed as aesthetic stereotypes and abstract projections of the male gaze, Savūshūn also pioneered a new kind of literature.
As literary scholar Farzaneh Milani writes in her book Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers: “Until the middle of the twentieth century, Persian literature was conspicuously lacking in realistic portrayals of women protagonists. … They lacked dimension beyond male-intoxicating beauty; a limitless nurturing capacity; a naïve innocence; or conversely, a seemingly endless potential for destruction, harm, and repulsiveness.”
She adds: “Daneshvar views herself as the mouthpiece for Iranian women, especially the ordinary kind: those of the lower classes, and those who have little charm to mesmerize.”
Daneshvar would also become the first woman to be translated from Farsi into English in 1990, with the publication of Savushun: A Novel About Modern Iran by Mage Press (and with the alternative subtitle A Persian Requiem, 1991). The novel has been translated into 17 other languages.
In the 1970s, Daneshvar kept a low profile. She would later attest that her productivity in her creative writing was stunted by economic hardship. She published two more novels before her death, Jazīreh-ye Sargardānī (1992; The Island of Perplexity) and Sārebān-e sargardān (2002; Wandering Caravan Master), but the trilogy is left unfinished as the final volume has yet never been recovered.
Her oeuvre also includes thirty-six short stories, though only a dozen have been published in English (collected in Sutra and Other Stories and Daneshvar’s Playhouse by Mage Publishers in 2008), two of which the author translated herself. She died in her apartment in Tehran aged ninety on March 8th 2012—which happens to be Women’s Day, a symbolic nod to her actvisim—at the height of her fame.
As Rashmi Patel writes in Zora, while Daneshvar “has yet to receive the same honor as Rumi and Hafez” in the western world, in Iran she remains upheld as a leading force in the nation’s literary legacy.
Text by Salwa Benaissa