Once on top of a London double-decker bus, amidst civilised whispering voices punctuated with crisp rustles of newspapers, I heard a little girl’s voice asking, “Mummy is our cat a she-cat or a he-cat?”
Whispers and rustles subsided just enough for the mother’s answer to be audible: “A he-cat dear.” The tone was firm and final that announced the end of the conversation.
The little girl thought otherwise. “How can you tell Mummy?”
This time the silence was all embracing, except for the tiny cracks of ears stretching out. The mother did not fidget or falter, as may have been expected; she did not even prolong the agony of the audience, and said composedly, “He has got whiskers, hasn’t he darling?”
The upper deck came back to life with a couple of soft giggles, coughs of satisfaction, before plunging back to its lulling rhythm of whispers, and rustles.
The next stop was a “request” one, and mine. I had already rung the bell, and the driver was pulling aside to evacuate me, when I heard the little girl’s voice again. “But Mom, she-cats have whiskers too!”
I got off the bus chuckling and thinking to myself how on earth ‘Mom’ is going to wriggle out of that one.
Now, years after this long-forgotten episode, I find myself almost in that child’s shoes. I have been asked to introduce this “she-book”, that with or without whiskers, resembles a “he-book” as far as I am concerned. I somehow regret not having stayed on that bus a bit longer to hear the reply of that little girl’s mother. She might have provided me with a neat satisfactory formula for drawing the dividing line between “male” and “female” without sounding cheerfully vulgar or clinically anatomical.
The truth is, that I find no difference between the creative works of men and women, and what is more I am not even after finding any. The sex of the author definitely does not figure among my criteria for choosing a book. Therefore the division of literature on the basis of the writer’s gender appears to me extremely arbitrary, and to be frank quite silly, as silly as trying to classify literary works into “originally hand-written” and “typed”, or produced by “ambidextrous” and “left-handed” authors. These divisions and subdivisions, which can go on eternally, do not interest me in the least.
Certain circumstances, however, could justify such an undertaking, and I believe that the present book, and its being exhaustively feminine, is an example of the exceptions I make. This anthology is being printed at a time when women in my country have been vociferously condemned to silence. Those determined not to submit deserve attention and, I dare say, admiration.
An anthology does not call for an overall analysis, as each story speaks for itself and finds its proper place. As in any such collections, stories here do not all have the same merits. I personally found “The Rabbit and the Tomatoes”, a short fable by Nikzad, a writer until now unknown to me, quite exquisite. On the other hand, “Gowhar” by Khanlari and “A Visit with the Children in the Upper Village” by Natiq fell short of my expectations. The other capacities of these two, no doubt, overshadow their artistic talents, as Khanlari and Natiq are both better known in other domains: the former, in the field of research, and the latter in history.
Reading “The Story of a Street” by Danishvar (a reputed Iranian writer), I was vividly reminded of my first experience of “Metro Montparnasse” and its “Tapis Roulant” in Paris. The French like giving fancy names to their dishes, attire and machinery, particularly if they are a bit off their expected functions — to food when not quite edible; to dress when not quite fitting; and to tools when not quite working. “Tapis Roulant” is not a carpet nor does it roll. It is simply a long stretch of plastic gangway, creeping through the corridor from one end of Montparnasse Underground Station to the other, with the speed of a sleepy snail, while the world of pedestrians rushes by at a vertiginous pace on both sides, leaving the commuter stuck on that “Tapis Roulant” with a sharp feeling of frustration that the end will never be reached, and a deep conviction that even if reached, the last train would already have left with the whole world on board.
To read “Haj Barekallah” by Bahrami, which I had read in Persian before, was a joy. I also came across a unique case in this anthology that concerns the translator rather than the writer: I found Farrokh’s translation of “The Great Lady of My Soul”, far better than Taraqi’s original in Persian.
There is a tendency to handle women writers from the third world by kid glove. Belonging to that part of the world myself, I have too much respect for them not to cant or whine while talking about their stories. In this mercilessly competitive career, one has to strive to be very good before one could hope to be considered an author.
To provide opportunities, such as the present book, for the women writers to show their talents, is a great encouragement to all, to read the stories with a critical eye, an invaluable service to those who take authorship seriously.
If the purpose of writing a foreword is to go starry eyed and velvety tongued about the contents of the book, then I have failed miserably, I am afraid. What is the purpose of it, by the way? How is one to write a foreword to a she-book?
If only I had stayed on that bus long enough …!
1This text was first written as a foreword to an anthology entitled “A Walnut Sapling on Masih’s Grave” (Heinemann, Portsmouth, 1993), at the request of one of the editors. Before the publication of this anthology, however, a teacher of Persian language, whose “approach is unabashedly gender oriented”, asked to reproduce it in a book, apparently on literature, but came out with a sentence or two and summed the whole thing up by saying: “… Mahshid Amirshahy … finds it even ‘silly’ to classify literary works on the basis of the gender.” As this foreword, for some reason or other, finally did not appear in “A Walnut …» we thought it best to print the full text here for the benefit of those who would like to know what exactly Mahshid Amirshahy has said.