In Spring 2017, International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay, Devon, began its programme of writer and artist residencies, continuing an extraordinary history of writers, artists and scientists that have visited, stayed and found inspiration in this quiet seaside resort town since the mid-nineteenth century: from Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Charles Darwin, Oliver Heaviside and Isadora Duncan. The area also holds a remarkable geological significance - and is a UNESCO Geopark - not least as it is the site of some of the earliest discovered remains of prehistoric humans. This presence of time and imagination within an extraordinary landscape is a rich and fertile ground for reflection and discovery. And it is the place where Agatha Christie was born and grew up and continued to return throughout her long writing life.
Fereshteh Ahmadi from Tehran, Iran was International Agatha Christie Festival’s first Writer-in-Residence. As part of her stay in Torquay, she also took part in events at the Plymouth Festival of Words, Torre Abbey in Torquay and the Free Word Centre in London. After her residency, festival director James Tyson, interviewed Fereshteh Ahmadi about her time in the UK.
During your visit, we talked about how a writer can be moved by certain spaces, and how that changes what one writes. What is the place that you write?
Place is always present even when we are, seemingly, paying no attention to it, even in the stories we generally refer to as being without time and place. I don't just mean a locale with certain geographical specifications but more importantly the history that surrounds that place and gives it its identity and colour. The regional, indigenous, linguistic, cultural... all these make the situation that we subsume under the name of a particular place. When writing my stories I assume that I am, most of the time, free of such considerations, and am merely concerned with developing and communicating the idea or feeling that has taken me. But in reality the place that I am in gives rise to that idea or feeling. Communications such as language are always within a certain geography and take their meaning from it.
However... to give a clearer and more specific example I can refer to particular places in some of my stories, where place... in a very purposeful way, takes on an important and pivotal role. The place of these stories is usually industrial suburban areas that do not have the aura of a city nor of a village. These are areas built near to factories and mines to house workers and that are usually left derelict after a few decades when the mine is exhausted. Living in these suburban areas is a strange experience that, in some of my stories, I have tried to explore and recreate.
Literature is limited and defined by language, which is more or less understood, learnt, adapted. In one of your talks in the UK you discussed the complexity of language and how it cannot merely become an image. What do you write from? For example do you write from an image, an experience, a memory, a question?
The rendering of an image in words or vice versa is a process that can sometimes be reductive and can also be augmentative. The important factor is not whether one or the other is the source of inspiration, but the effect they produce in the mind. An effect that, on occasion, forces one to begin writing immediately with no hesitation. This is when the source of inspiration has effected an impetus in the mind, produced ideas, and has forged them together so that the artist feels the sooner they begin the better. The artist guides the energy from that spark of inspiration onto the right path and often through this the final structure of the work can also be gleaned thus making the ensuing work easier to realise.
So as not to leave your question unanswered, I must say that for me, most often, images are the source of inspiration, especially when they bring certain memories to mind.
If I think of a writer such as Bessie Head, I think of a mind that wrote fiercely and passionately, who moved through life, found different homes, yet always was conversant with the people she was surrounded by, and her own recollections and the complexities of daily life. What is your relationship to ambiguity in your fiction?
I assume that with this example you mean to refer to a woman writer from a country like South Africa who has been able to tell her stories in a clear and yet powerful manner. Well... this is both owing to her style of writing as well as her endeavour to relate to people from diverse lands. She was free to make the attempt at communication. Part of the ambiguity in our stories is due to the fact that people outside Iran do not know us, our culture and our history.
It is also partly due to a certain practice much used in writing Farsi dialogue, as well as in our everyday social interaction, called speaking dopahloo (literally meaning double-sided, equivocal)- a practice that has become common because of taboos and restrictions. Our literature is full of stories that have an outer aspect and an inner one. The outer aspect tells a simple story but the inner aspect is more complex and usually one should look there for the real meaning of the stories.
Of course, this kind of double-entendre writing is found in the literature of every country and it is easier to get the various meanings of those stories if one has a familiarity with the social and cultural relations depicted. To talk about two - inner and outer - levels of the stories of an author doesn't seem such a difficult task. Yet if Raymond Carver had been an Afghan or Iraqi or Iranian writer most of his stories would become insoluble puzzles.
If one is not conversant with Farsi, it might be difficult to engage with the Iranian literary scene, of which I understand there are many prizes, critical traditions, modernisms, much influenced and developed in relation to other tendencies, translations and histories internationally. Is there a café, a bookshop, a magazine, a university, where one can find out what is happening..?
There are many sources for explorations into this country's past. Various histories have been written... but two points ought to be borne in mind. Firstly: that sufficient incentive for really wanting to know would require mutual relations with peoples of other countries. Meaning that in the first place a desire to explore this culture, to look at it and get to know it in various ways, needs to be engendered and the most natural way to engender that desire is an attention to the art and literature of the nation which in turn requires a familiarity with the historical and cultural background... which brings us back to square one!
Yes it is definitely a bi-directional route that requires acting concurrently and helping the other so the message from that nation and their art and literature can be discovered and understood. It is a long journey that becomes possible with help and support from governments, a continuous cross-society work, establishing mutual relations between artists and assistance in translating - as well as promoting the reading and understanding of their works. Of course the result of this approaching and increased understanding one another is a more humane world without wars and turmoil. Goethe says to know the poet you should go to their land.
Please come to our country.
Fereshteh Ahmadi is an award-winning writer and critic living in Tehran, widely recognised for her enigmatic and mysterious psychological fantasies. Born in 1972, she trained as an architect and graduated from Tehran University. Her first published work is a story called “Bi-Esm” [Nameless] and then in 2004, she published her first collection of stories, “Sara-ye Hame” [Everyman’s Sara]. She has published two novels, “Pari-e Faramooshi” [Amnesia Fairy] and “Jangal-e Panir” [Cheese Forest] in 2007 and 2008. Her second collection of stories, “Garmazadegi” [Heatstroke] published in 2013 and her latest novel “Haylahaye Khanegi” [Domestic Monsters] was published in 2016.
Fereshteh has also worked as a critic and juror for different publications and literary prizes. In her stories, she tries to understand human beings in spite of their gender and geographical location, focusing on their psychological and emotional aspects. Her stories are not about everyday situations, but they happen in an everyday setting. As a critic has said, “her stories are a refined representation of simple instants of life.”
International Agatha Christie Festival takes place in Torquay, Devon from 13-17 September. This year’s festival has the theme, “Come, tell me how you live”, following the title of Agatha Christie's “archaeological memoir” published in 1946. The book was based on Christie's travels with her husband Max Mallowan to Iraq and Syria in the 1930s for a series of archaeological digs at ancient Babylonian sites including Tel Brak and Chagar Bazar. Fereshteh Ahmadi’s residency at International Agatha Christie Festival was made possible through the support of Arts Council England, British Council and in association with Literature Works.
Translation from Farsi: Alireza Emrani
Fereshteh Ahmadi, Plymouth Festival of Words 2017 © Plymouth University
Read more about Fereshteh Ahmadi here.