Born to Iranian parents in London, the Iranian-American artist Niloufar Talebi has been devoting her career to the promotion of Persian arts and literature, the results of which have brought her a number of fellowships, residencies, and awards including a PEN American Center/New York State Council on the Arts anthology prize, the International Center for Writing and Translation award, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and an American Literary Translators Association fellowship. Her translations of Ahmad Shamlou’s poetry were selected for a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship. Talebi holds a BA degree in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. She has also studied Performance Art at UCI, and Method Acting at the Shelton Studios. Among her recent Iran-themed publications are: Self-Portrait in Bloom [containing 30 of Shamlou’s poems translated to English, l’Aleph. 2019], “Memory of a Phoenix Feather: Iranian Storytelling Traditions and Contemporary Theater” [World Literature Today 83 (4): 49–53, 2009], Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World [North Atlantic Books, 2008], and contribution as a translator to The Book of Tehran [ed. Fereshteh Ahmadi, Comma Press, 2019]. Her most recent multidisciplinary project is an opera, Abraham in Flames, inspired by the life and work of the late Iranian poet Shamlou.
We asked Niloufar Talebi to contribute to Parsagon’s 2020 edition of Top 7×7 reads, which she generously accepted. Here is a list of her top reads and recommendations:
PARSAGON: Which works of world literature/arts would you mark as the most influential on your life and career? How have they moved you?
There are too many to list, but aside from the obvious early influences of Iranian literary figures such as Forough Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlou, Sohrab Sepehri, and Simin Daneshvar, to name a few are:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Persian and translation first, given to me by Ahmad Shamlou when I was a teenager in post-revolution Iran, and then in Gregory Rabassa’s English translation.
- Cafe Müller by Pina Bausch, a staggering early tanztheater piece by this iconoclast who broke barriers to create an emotionally intelligent form of live performance beyond definition.
- Andrei Rublev by Andre Tarkovsky. The film’s last sequence with the young bell-maker was life-changing and encapsulated the struggle of any artist or risk-taker.
- The poetry of Li-Young Lee, one poem in particular: “Persimmons.”
- Kein Ort. Nirgends (Nowhere on Earth) by Christa Wolf, to whom I wrote an impassioned letter after reading her books in the 1990’s and received a generous response.
- The Waves by Virginia Woolf, and really anything else by her showed me the possibilities of language and of what most other writing neglects to capture.
- The music of J. S. Bach. It’s timeless and spiritual. The saying goes that if we were to choose one work by humanity to send to space as our mark to extra-terrestrials, it would be boasting to send his complete works. And I’m continually being wowed by new works, most recently by All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy.
2. In your opinion, which literary/artistic texts from Iran should the world read or see?
This is a difficult question because I am mostly unfamiliar with literature produced in Iran in the past few decades, so my choices will inevitably center on canonical works or broad categories. Thankfully, I won’t need to list Forough Farrokhzad here because her works appear in translation, as fiction, and in film here in the West, so the project of bridging her to the West is well under way.
- I authored a book on Ahmad Shamlou’s life and legacy that includes translations of 30+ of his poems (called Self-Portrait in Bloom). More translation of his poetry and prose are necessary.
- Children’s stories in the Persian language(s) (including Dari, Pashto, Tajik etc.) and in other languages spoken in Iran (Azeri, Kurdish, Gilaki, Baluchi etc.)
- Folkloric stories in the Persian language(s) (including Dari, Pashto, Tajik etc.) and in other languages spoken in Iran (Azeri, Kurdish, Gilaki, Baluchi etc.)
- The writings of female writers and poets of all eras that have been suppressed and ignored.
- New writings that experiment with form and aesthetics;
- Farsi is Shekar (Persian is Sugar) by Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh
- Keleydar by Dowlatabadi
In all these cases, two other elements beyond the translations themselves would be ideal: context to better invite and engage their new readers, and derivative works in other media to broaden their audience, which is what I have dedicated my career to.
3. What do you think literature can do (or should do) in times of global crises, such as the pandemics?
In a time of sheltering in place and keeping close to home, literature, reading, and reflecting can get people closer to the source, to the soul, allow them the space to delve deeper into silence, become more imaginative, even creative. In general, any means by which people can communicate directly, without the intermediary of institutions, the possibility of oneness is closer to hand. The manufacturing of faultiness between people only advances agendas of hierarchy and war.