Thursday, March 24, 2011

Author Nahid Rachlin Self-Reflects at St. Francis College

By: Chandra Persaud

On March 17, 2011, a small crowd of students, faculty, and members of the community gathered in the Maroney Forum for Arts, Culture & Education at St. Francis College for Nahid Rachlin’s reading from Persian Girls: A Memoir, followed by a Question & Answer session and a reception in the theater’s lobby. The intimate setting was appropriate for a reading that delved deep into the author’s personal life.
            Professor Gregory Tague of the English Department at St. Francis provided the opening remarks, explaining that he first came into contact with Rachlin when Editions Bibliotekos, his small family-owned literary publishing company, was searching for pieces to be placed in two anthologies: Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, published in 2010, and Battle Runes: Writings on War, published in 2011. Stories by Rachlin were published in each anthology, but her work left a lasting impression on Professor Tague and he was more than delighted when she agreed to the reading. Professor Tague then proceeded to give a brief biography of Rachlin including her education at Columbia University and then at Stanford University on a Stegner Fellowship as well as her notable recognitions. He shared reviews from prominent literary publications, such as The New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly, testifying to the value and richness of Rachlin’s work. Persian Girls: A Memoir was chosen by Christopher Merrill, Director of Iowa International Writing Program, as one of the best four books of 2006.  
            When Rachlin took the spotlight, she gave the audience some background information on her writing style. For many years, she wrote only fiction as a way to understand the world; she was able to escape any harsh reality through her writing. Even though her characters or plots stemmed from her imagination, her writing was always personal and somehow related to her life. For example, Foreigner, published in 1978, was composed at a time when Rachlin was questioning her own identity. While she always wished to write a memoir, she was rather surprised at how difficult the process turned out to be. The sole purpose for writing a memoir is telling the truth, the essence of the writer’s being, which meant that Rachlin could not make up any events or characters as she was accustomed to. It also meant that she had to embrace memories that took quite some time to come to terms with.  
            Excerpts from Rachlin’s memoir revealed an individual who is multilayered, whose life has been filled with emotions and experiences that continuously shape her writing, her perspectives of the world, and her being.
              The first few excerpts Rachlin shared revolved around her childhood and early teenage years in Iran. She recalled the time when she was forcibly taken back by her father, who was a well-educated judge in Iran, from her aunt who did not legally adopt her. Rachlin was given to her aunt, Maryam (her mother’s sister), as a baby after Maryam repeatedly pleaded with Rachlin’s biological mother, Mohtaram, to adopt one of her children. Maryam was a widow with no children of her own, while Mohtaram gave birth to ten children. Mohtaram promised Maryam that she could adopt her next child and Rachlin was that next child. When her father came to take her back at the age of nine to live with her biological family, Rachlin was reluctant to be separated from Maryam, the woman she still considers to be her mother. In an interview for The Writer’s Chronicle in 2008, Rachlin explained that at the age of nine, her father viewed her as “a woman…and he felt I [Rachlin] needed his supervision.” To help readers understand why her father must have felt this way, Rachlin explains in her memoir that, “Islam required women to begin wearing chadors, or head scarves, around the age of nine. Nine was also the age when Iranian girls could legally marry” (6).
            Rachlin also spoke about her upbringing in the home of her biological parents. She described her parents as being “half-Westernized” because they were not devoutly observant of Muslim customs such as praying, following the hejab, or fasting. Yet, they upheld many traditional standards of Iranian/Muslim life, such as believing girls and boys should not mingle together until marriage, marriages should be arranged by parents, education was for boys, and girls should tie the knot as soon as a suitable match was found. Rachlin shared a very close, loving relationship with her older sister, Pari, who like Rachlin, did not settle for the prescribed roles for Iranian girls and women. She yearned to be an actress and Rachlin a writer and, as Rachlin explains, both “wanted to use the arts to escape what we felt deeply as the oppression of our beings” (Interview for The Writer’s Chronicle, 2008).
            Rachlin also read an excerpt detailing the arranged marriage Pari reluctantly agreed to, despite being in love with someone else. Their parents did not find Pari’s love interest suitable for their eldest daughter and so repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from this suitor. The man whom they accepted as their future son-in-law was very wealthy and educated, but Rachlin later revealed he was also abusive and her sister’s marriage ended in a divorce. Pari passed away as the result of accidentally falling down a stairway while Rachlin was in America, but Rachlin still fears that her sister’s death may have been self-inflicted since Pari was dissatisfied with her life and not being able to live out her dreams.      
            Rachlin then shared an excerpt describing her initial experiences and feelings in America. After her two older sisters were married, she knew it was her turn next. To escape a life of domesticity, Rachlin convinced her father to send her to the U.S. to study at the age of 17 and he finally agreed, but on one condition: she must attend an all-women’s college in close proximity to her brother who could “keep an eye” on her. Rachlin spoke of the cultural changes she observed in America, particularly the freedom of women to dress, socialize, and go as they please. Yet, she also recalled the mixed emotions she experienced in those days, feeling relieved to be “out of the prison of her home” but simultaneously feeling alienated and insecure. She read about the time when the Dean of her college insisted she wear her “native costume,” or chador, on Parent’s Day. Rachlin never wore a head scarf in Iran and associated it with “a kind of bondage,” but the Dean never inquired about her feelings or preference for the covering.
Rachlin valued the freedom to write and express herself here in America with a sense of ease that she did not experience in her homeland, but her fear of being “discovered” still lingered during those initial days in her new environment.      
            The reading was followed by a Question & Answer session where Rachlin revealed further details about why her father allowed her to come to America. While in Iran, Rachlin was in the habit of reading censored books, many of which were written by American authors, that she managed to get from a bookstore’s owner whom she befriended. Rachlin’s father feared that her reading list as well as her writing could be interpreted as anti-government and to protect his family from the Shah’s secret police, he decided to send her to America.
When asked why she chose to refer to her mother and aunt by their names when Iranian/Muslim tradition deems such an act almost sacrilegious, Rachlin explained that, for the sake of clarity, she used names to distinguish the two women who played motherly roles in her life, but she considers her aunt, Maryam, as her true mother.
She also revealed that her book, Persian Girls: A Memoir, is not published in Iran and while many of her books have been translated into other languages, such as Portuguese and Dutch, none have been published in her native tongue, Farsi. Her decision to write in English and not in Farsi is emotional—she associates her native language with “taboo and fears.” Rachlin also answered questions about her homeland, explaining that customs, values, and laws vary by villages in Iran so while acts such as stoning a woman is accepted in one region, it may not be the case in another.
            A small reception followed in the theater’s lobby where Rachlin signed books and enjoyed small talk with guests.
            Nahid Rachlin’s Persian Girls: A Memoir is more than just a story about a woman who escaped a life of convention, giving her the freedom to accomplish her dreams. It also awakens readers to the values and traditions of a culture that many do not have a firsthand account of. Readers are given the chance to enter a world where Rachlin pulls back her many layers, revealing her core, her beginnings, her fondest memories and deepest pains.
            For more information about Nahid Rachlin, including a complete biography, interviews, and upcoming readings, visit

Copyright©2011 by Chandra Persaud