Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

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Translated by Tina A Kover

Review by Marina Sofia


With a blurb promising a story of growing up in exile and even the title cleverly playing on words ‘disoriented’ and a sense of ‘disassociating’ oneself from ‘oriental’, this was always going to be a book that appealed to me. However, even if you are not as fascinated with literature in exile as I am, it touches sufficiently upon other literary genres to appeal to quite a wide audience. You will also find elements of a family saga stretched across multiple generations and several countries, a personal history of youth rebellion, coming out as gay and undergoing IVF treatment, and a nuanced account of recent Iranian history and politics. This might make it sound like a conceptual and stylistic mess, but it manages to pull off the feat of cross-genre appeal through a method of what one might call ‘circling storytelling’. What do I mean by that? The narrator revisits themes and stories started earlier in the book, but adding new interpretations and layers to it each time, so that the story becomes denser, richer, warmer, like a painter adding texture and new shades to a painting we had previously thought complete.

This is the story of Kimia Sadr, daughter of politically engaged Iranians, who had to flee her home country at a young age and settle in Paris. As she sits in the waiting room of a fertility clinic, waiting to find out if she will be approved for artificial insemination, she starts remembering what family means to her and how much she longed to escape it for a while. As a teenager growing up in a new world, she rebelled against her parents, the wider extended family ‘back home in Iran’ and her inherited culture. She desperately wanted to fit into her new world, but ironically attempted to do so by opting for punk rock, living in squats and taking drugs – in essence, living like an outsider in her adopted society too. That is maybe her way of denouncing both worlds.

As she looks back on her flamboyant family, with its many eccentric characters, she realises that there were many nonconformists throughout her childhood, but that she either wasn’t aware of it at the time, or else they didn’t opt for open rebellion. Her own parents were very much engaged politically, and through their own gradual process of disillusionment with their country’s politics, we as readers realise just how simplistic our Western assumptions about Iran are. In retrospect, after the long years of harsh fundamentalist rule of the Ayatollahs, it is tempting to see the Shah’s regime as secular and liberal, but this book makes clear that it was not as kind or munificent as we are led to believe. In fact, Kimia’s parents initially welcomed the Ayatollahs, until they realised that one form of dictatorship had replaced another.

There are many other stories in the book, however, not just the parents’ story: a formidable grandfather with a harem of 52 wives, Uncles Number 1, 2 and 3 and their various degrees of interference in family life, blue-eyed grandmother Nour and her line of blue-eyed descendants and so much more. Kimia is so determined to create a life in France on her own terms, that she had previously dismissed her links to the family’s past, to all the lost sheep and homosexual uncles, resilient women and acts of rebellion with much more serious, even fatal consequences. As she muses on what she already knew and what she discovers about her family, she reaches that necessary distance to be able to reconcile with her parents and her past, and both her countries.

I am not sure to what extent the author has relied on autobiographical detail to write this, her debut novel. In many ways, I don’t need to know to just what extent this is autobiographical, as it seems to be the story of an entire generation of children who fled to the West and experienced that sense of displacement. Just like the narrator is poised between two cultures, so is the author’s style. It’s not just the structure of the novel that is reminiscent of 1001 Nights, going from one apparently unrelated story to another story, leaving them unfinished and then going back to link them. There are also passages that drip in sumptuous detail, conveying the noise, excitement and frustration of communal living, which feels very similar to the languorous yet agitated style of storytelling we see across the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. It’s not lyrical description that makes these passages stand out (unlike in the work of Orhan Pahmuk), but lively, humorous dialogue. Although decalogue, perhaps, might be the more accurate description, as there are often so many voices chiming in, correcting, adding, disagreeing, agreeing – a cacophony of voices. There are so many funny anecdotes; one of my favourites is the discussion about the introduction of the term ‘vagina’ in Iran and how it was misunderstood by some of the men.

By way of contrast, we have cool analytical passages, usually comparing Persian and Western cultures, passages which rationally dissect and examine ideas and cultures in the spirit of Descartes.

“Things like democracy and social justice, the ability to rely on a government to take care of your problems, undoubtedly play a part in the fact that the French don’t feel the need to get close to each other and communicate and cast their nets beyond their usual patch of sea… I act like that myself… The talkative, sociable child I used to be has turned into a Parisian adult with a face that closes off whenever I leave the house. I have become – as I’m sure everyone does who has left his or her country – someone else. Someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes. Firstly in order to survive, and then to go beyond survival and forge a future for myself.”

This book is a wonderful example of what diversity can bring to a country’s literature – written in French, by someone who straddles two cultures, it gives us an often amusing, occasionally painful and shocking, but always thought-provoking look at cultural integration and cross-cultural communication. It educates as it entertains, without didacticism, without judgement. Can we please have more such stories, both in translation and written in English?

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Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write

Négar Djavadi, Disoriental (Europa Editions, 2018) ISBN 9781609454517, flapped paperback, 338 pages.

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