AUGUST 25, 2011
THE PAST DECADE HAS seen a surge of memoirs written by Iranian woman in exile, many of whom share their stories at the peril of angering or shaming the clan. Exile seems to have emboldened these writers, giving them the courage to dispense with the traditional Iranian idea of abroo — the age-old obligation of saving face at all costs. These women have forged ahead into what one might call “Mary Karr territory” — the kind of devil-may-care, tell-all recollections that jumpstarted the current explosion of memoirs in this country.
“Like all the photographs that came with us when we left Iran,” Darznik begins,”this one was as supple and as thick as leather. Its edges were tattered and a long white crease coursed through the image. I might easily have mistaken it for just another old photograph, but this one was nothing like the others.”
The young girl in the photo is no more than 14 years old. She is made-up and dressed in bridal satin. She stands awkwardly next to a man wearing a tuxedo and a grey fedora. Staring at the photograph, Darznik realizes that this is her own mother, Lili. Upon closer inspection, she also sees that the man her young Iranian mother is standing next to is not Darznik’s German father.
More astonished than horrified, Darznik confronts her mother with the photograph. Lili grabs it, saying the picture is from a past that does not concern her. Darznik, still mourning her father’s death, chooses not to pursue the matter. After helping her mother move out of the family home, she returns to Princeton.
Shortly thereafter, the audio tapes begin arriving in the mail.
These old-fashioned cassettes relay the story that Darznik’s mother could not bear to tell her daughter in person. “If you want to know my story,” says the voice on the tapes, “you have to know about Avenue Moniriyeh, about your grandmother Kobra and your grandfather Sohrab, and what Iran was then. Because we couldn’t just do what you do here — forget your name and who you belong to. Our lives were not like that, no.” Trapped in the tight web of a religious community in mid-century Tehran, women became cruel, using men’s rules to subjugate and dominate other women, grasping for some semblance of power within their own limited realm.
These women were raised — and in turn raised their own daughters — to be highly conservative and deeply religious. Secular education was devalued. They resisted the liberal modernity imposed on them by the then government of Reza Shah, and, particularly, his controversial mandatory unveiling in 1936. They remained at home to avoid the risk of soldiers pulling off their chadors. They made their youthful daughters submit to virginity tests before giving them away in marriage. And, finally, they were the ones who willingly took away a grandchild, or a niece, to punish women who dared to divorce their sons or brothers in order to escape physical and emotional abuse. Yet in the face of all of this social oppression, each woman in Darznik’s story grows through disobedience, rebellion, or forgiveness.
Raised from the age of four in the United States, Darznik is somewhat removed from the world conjured by her mother’s cassettes. As an immigrant, Darznik faced her own set of struggles with assimilation, including the desire to be perceived as ‘normal.’ Beyond that, she spent most of her young life coping with an alcoholic father, and a mother who, despite her self-education and courageous break from old traditions, has never been really modern enough for Darznik, or for their new home.
From one tape to another, Lili’s weekly revelations remove Darznik from her own rigid perspective and inspire a sense of empathy which had previously eluded her. As readers, we too make this journey toward empathy, and except for a few forgivable stumbles — the most notable of which is the unfathomable disappearance of Lili’s mother from the account during her early adolescence — we are totally absorbed by the narrative, with these women, and by Darznik’s voice.
In recounting her mother’s story, Darznik’s The Good Daughter takes a firm step deeper into the dark and beguiling territory of the abroo-smashing genre.