Before I began reading Jasmin Darznik’s Song of a Captive Bird, I read the inside flap to my dad. Having lived in the protagonist’s home city of Tehran for 17 years before the Islamic Revolution, he corrected my pronunciation of her name before beaming with the light of recognition. He was familiar with her poetry!
The fact that my dad was familiar with and fond of Farrokhzad’s poetry only became weirder as I read the book. He had always warned me against the evils of “extremist” feminists, yet the protagonist is famous for defying gender expectations in 1950s Iran. In creating a fictionalized version of true events from the late poet’s point of view, Darznik honors Farrokhzad’s feminism from the beginning to the end of her novel.
The story begins with a forced virginity test. Fighter that she is, even as a teenager, Forugh kicks and pushes against it, causing the test to go awry: she gets her purity certificate, but in the process of the test, her hymen is broken. Throughout the story, virginity testing is not the only sexist tradition against which Forugh fights. Despite not being allowed to do so as a girl, Forugh plays outside with the boys and goes so far as to join their urinating competition. To rebel against arranged marriage, Forugh locks herself in the basement and demands that her parents arrange for her to marry her love, Parviz.
As a married woman, the protagonist continues to rebel, publishing a poem in a literary magazine that scandalizes the city of Tehran by daring to portray, with honesty and shamelessness, female sexuality and “sin.” Although Forugh is unquestionably brave, the author takes meticulous care to show that she doubts herself like anyone else, wondering if she is good enough, if she will ever be good enough, if she is betraying her son. Ultimately, however, Forugh’s bravery and belief in herself are qualities that we should all strive to emulate.
With the same talent that the author flaunts in richly characterizing Forugh and the novel’s other characters, Darznik depicts the complexity of the city of Tehran. While examining many of the culture’s traditions, Darznik celebrates the beauty of this city of poets with a skill that pays homage to the woman whose voice she is speaking in. “I’d made my way through unfamiliar streets, had let the city’s chaos, danger, and promise become part of me,” says Forugh, as she reflects upon abandoning her husband and son to come to Tehran. “Writing had cost me so much, but it was also the thing that saved me, that allowed me to live. I wasn’t the woman I wanted to be yet, but I was beginning to resemble her now.”
Now especially, in a time when the western world considers Iran an enemy and vice-versa, Darznik’s novel provides an important portrait of the best and worst of the country’s culture and tradition, helping her reader understand the national sentiment and the historical circumstances leading to the Islamic Revolution a decade after Farrokhzad’s death. The shia regime currently in power misrepresents not only the characters in this book, but the people living in Iran today.
My surprise to learn that my father appreciates this feminist poet is not so different from the poet’s own surprise to hear her father recite the poetry of Hafez, as though he were not a military officer who demands that his children call him ghorban, “you to whom I sacrifice myself.” Our fathers’ appreciation speaks to the power of art to latch itself onto us and insist that we be the best versions of ourselves.
Lauren Hakimi is a freshman at Macaulay Honors at CUNY Hunter College in New York City, where she studies English, History, and Spanish and runs on the cross country and track teams. When she's not running or doing schoolwork, she's usually reading, writing, or eating pizza.
Psst , check out this award-winning visual art from Issue No. 50: What Sustains
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