Mapping Tehran: A Conversation with Poupeh Missaghi

February 6, 2020
A black and white photograph of Poupeh Missaghi
Photo by R. Romero © 2019

Poupeh Missaghi (@PoupehMissaghi) is a writer, educator, and a translator both into and out of Persian. She also serves as Iran’s editor at large for Asymptote. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Guernica, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. In February 2020 her first novel, trans(re)lating house one, was published by Coffee House Press. Here she discusses this new novel, set in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 elections and opening with a woman searching for statues disappearing from Tehran’s public spaces.

Yanara Friedland: We both deal, one way or another, with maps in our work, with the desire to find a different map, one that is hidden or requires a transgression, a burrowing below. How has Tehran, the city of your birth, changed for you since writing the book?

Poupeh Missaghi: In a literal sense, several years have passed since I started writing the book, so of course the city has changed throughout this time. And yet every time I visit, there is the strange sense that so much hasn’t changed at all, hasn’t disappeared or transformed. This I mostly relate to an emotional experience, that feeling of being at home and belonging. Meanwhile, I have mostly been living away from the city these past years, and this has shifted my relationship with it. On one hand, I mostly only get to be in contact with it indirectly—through news, Twitter, pictures, conversations with friends and family—and not really living it, breathing it. Sadly, I’m losing more and more of the intimate day-to-day experience of the changes, the deaths and the births; kind of becoming a stranger.

On the other hand, there is a more complex internal layer of change happening. I think the process of writing the book, engaging with the city on so many different levels—intellectual and emotional, conscious and unconscious, on an axis of past-present-future—as well as contemplating the after-writing impacts of it, has resulted in the city being ingrained in me in ways I never expected. I’ve always loved the city, have had a hard time staying away from it, as being in it has helped me feel oriented, grounded. But recently it seems to me the city has become engraved very deep within me and that I’ve become forever inseparable from it, no matter what. Perhaps this has always been the case, but now I’m just able to see it more clearly. It’s such an intense, unique feeling of love. There is a sense of empowerment and peace in that, though some sense of loss and grief as well.

Friedland: Was the archive a conceptual framework for this work? Who is this archive for?

Missaghi: Definitely. As it can be seen throughout the book, I’m obsessed with the archive and lack thereof. What does it mean to document and archive? What are the approaches to archiving, its purpose, and audience? I am invested in the paradox between the lack of archives and documentation in many spheres of Iranian life and the widespread obsession Iranians have with the past. Perhaps this obsession is the very result of this lack. The way, on an individual level, personal events and questions from the past live inside you and haunt you, in both positive and negative ways, until you can find documents of them, hear stories about them, speak about them, analyze them in different contexts, archive them. It is only when they are materialized that they leave you, opening space for new things to come reside in you. I feel a similar thing exists on a collective and national level, and thus the obsession with the past.

As to the “who”: I wrote this first and foremost as a personal attempt to understand the city and its events. The process of archiving helped me to go back and be in this time and place again, building a new relationship with it, trying to observe, understand, and feel anew, attempting to not let its memory and its expansive, strong impact fade or be forgotten. On the other hand, the archive is also for anyone for whom this place/time holds, even remotely, some meaning; it is both for the present and the future that has not lived this spatial, temporal reality but carries its memory unconsciously.

The process of archiving helped me to go back and be in this time and place again, building a new relationship with it, trying to observe, understand, and feel anew, attempting to not let its memory and its expansive, strong impact fade or be forgotten.

Friedland: The city bears prints, secrets, pathways. The book proposes a new citizenship of reading, listening, and listening to the city’s body. The erotics of its veins and heart chambers. Do you feel this is particular to Tehran, or is this a relationship you have with other cities as well?

Missaghi: This is such a beautiful reading of the representation of the city and one’s relationship to it. Thank you. My relationship with Tehran, and thus my approach to it, is unique for sure. It’s a particular dynamic, a form of being enamored with and curious about the emotional and corporeal truths of the place, about its soul, its secret core, the affects more than the facts, while also being a bit terrified and overwhelmed with the complexity and nakedness of humanity in it.

What you define, however, could also explain to a lesser degree my desire for and relationship with other big cities I’ve visited or lived in, for example, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Paris, and mainly New York City. They are all places where I’ve paused and surprised the Sagittarius wanderer in me by thinking, I could live here for a while. I’ve felt a potentiality for a sense of “home,” even if temporarily. Their overwhelming presence and energy, their rawness, harshness, and uncertainties, speak to how I feel in the world.

In smaller cities and towns where things seem clean and orderly, I feel a falseness, a sense of artificiality that hinders me to have the kind of relationship you describe here. Interestingly, I feel a similar affinity, though to a lesser degree, for the other extreme of the spectrum: with villages and very small towns. In them, too, I find myself practicing the kind of citizenship you describe, feeling that in them the truths of life and humanity are more accessible to me, though through different avenues. I’m sure that truths of life exist and can be found everywhere, and so can be the kind of dynamic and citizenry you mention, but I personally find myself disconnected in the middle of the spectrum.

Friedland: I need to ask about the illustration, the ball of words that is growing more pronounced as the reader moves through the book. How did you conceive this piece?

Missaghi: The ball of words comes out of my dream-journal entries from 2011 to 2014. I am not even sure why I started keeping a journal. I also did a tutorial with Eleni Sikelianos on dreams during my PhD. Both were perhaps early signs of my investment in psychoanalysis, a fascination with the unconscious, its storytelling techniques, and the role of memory in our relationship to it.

Later on, at some point in the process of writing trans(re)lating, I realized my dreams should also be part of this project. As I’ve noted in the manuscript, I see them as another layer of history that is usually not discussed as such. We often consider dreams in the context of the personal and private, and not that of the collective, shared history. But what if we created an archive of a people’s dreams over a period of time and analyzed them for similarities/differences, to see what the collective dreams reveal about the shared effects of historical moments on people’s unconscious and about the ways these moments are worked through in the dreamworld?

The text of my dreams, when typed, totaled more than a hundred pages, so it was in a way its own book. I was discussing this with Laird Hunt, my dissertation adviser, and he suggested that I try looking for repetitions and patterns. That completely made sense, because while typing the text up, I had already noticed them throughout. I ended up running the text through a word cloud–generating software and played around with the different output shapes and sizes. I knew I wanted thirteen forms to parallel the number of the bodies, which itself echoes the number of the stolen statues. Strangely, thirteen is also the date of my birthday in the Iranian solar calendar, and I recently learned that death is the thirteenth card in the tarot deck as well.

The word clouds, interestingly, also led me to my next project, the manuscript I am working on now, which digs into the stories of my childhood house.

Friedland: I know you are going to grow tired of this question, but the title is a riddle to me, which, similar to the maze of the city and its various characters, is accumulating without fully revealing itself. Are you willing to share some thoughts?

Missaghi: The words “house” and “one” come from the word clouds. “One” appears a lot in the dream diary as an indefinite subject, but appearing in the word clouds, I read it also as “house number one,” which reflects both the family house one is born into and one’s homeland, the country that is forever the first home, whose narration is at the heart of my book.

As to the translation aspect of “trans(re)lating”: The writing of the manuscript felt like a translation project in many ways. The city narrative is a translation in the sense that it tells stories of a time and place existing in Persian, a language other than that of the text. It also incorporates a lot of fictionalized documentation—for example, gallery shows, gatherings, heard stories, etc., which I see as a form of translation. The corpses layer is merely documentation through translation; it comes to life through a compilation and reconfiguration of all the information, mainly in Persian, I found online about each person. Lastly, there is the translation of dreams, from the unconscious to the conscious, from Persian to English in some cases, and later from text to visual forms.

The relation aspect of “trans(re)lating” reflects how writing the book was for me about relating anew, in the sense of reconnecting, to this time of my life and to the people appearing in all its layers, which made me realize how present they are in my psychic reality. The final manuscript, moreover, is relating, as in narrating, these (hi)stories to its readers.

The choice of using this coined word in its continuous verb format, “trans(re)lating,” instead of the noun “trans(re)lation,” was also intentional. I wanted to emphasize the process aspect—the continuation, this not being finite and done—as well as implying a subject with an agency who is doing this act and the presence of an audience on the other end to whom these (hi)stories are being related.

Friedland: How do you feel about publishing this work, especially the very real lives that live behind the corpse sections? What kind of relationship do you have to these dead? And what does it mean to make them known to a larger audience?

Missaghi: This was, and I guess still is, a complicated relationship. The information I present in the book is already out there online, so, in a way, I am not revealing anything that is not already public; not telling for the first time, but rather retelling in a new context. It is true that I don’t know any of these people personally, but having experienced 2009, I remember the feeling of unity and closeness in the streets with people who were strangers but didn’t feel like strangers in that context. Moreover, beyond 2009, many of us are still struggling and hoping for the same dreams. I also can’t stop thinking about the fact that I or my loved ones could’ve faced a similar fate had I/they been in the wrong place at the wrong time. These all create a sense of kinship.

Despite all these points, I still felt conflicted about creating these tombstones and providing encyclopedic information. That was why the writing and inclusion of the questions layer of the book were such a turning point for me and for the project. It helped me to be transparent about the concerns and doubts I carried within me, to discuss the sense of responsibility one feels and what one can do in the face of it.

As to your question about making them known to a larger audience: Well, I am more of a pessimist these days. Does it even matter if more people know or if more details are known? What has come out of the extensive documenting and reporting of all the atrocities happening right now around the world in front of our eyes? It is a bleak situation. And yet, I still do hope to make these lives and deaths, the injustices brought upon them and those around them, known to a larger audience. More importantly, though, I want to go beyond the immediate impact of providing knowledge and details. I rather hope that being in the space of this multilayered work could reveal to us something about the larger emotional and psychic experience of such historical moments. I hope it will guide us into asking questions, not just about the way things happen and the way we go through them, but also about the ways we document, archive, narrate, and respond, as well as our intentions and goals throughout.

What has come out of the extensive documenting and reporting of all the atrocities happening right now around the world in front of our eyes?

Friedland: Did you find yourself writing with a US American audience in mind, or was audience never really an important consideration? Along those lines, I am wondering if you have a sense of what this book may mean to Iranian readers?

Missaghi: In the beginning, the exploration of the topics in the book were for personal reasons, but since I write in English and work mainly in the American literary scene, I guess from the onset the implied audience was an English-speaking one. It wasn’t, however, like “Oh, I need to write this so that Americans know how we live our lives or what has been happening to us.” That has never been my intention, with this work or other works. For me, it is more a question of what I am able to do in/with the English language, what possibilities it offers me as a writer, and what I bring to it as a nonnative writer/speaker.

Having an English-speaking readership, actually, caused some ethical concerns for me. What did it mean to publish this work in a country whose imperialistic government policies in relation to my other country—and many others in the region—I find detrimental to the civil-society movements toward a better future? How could the work not be trapped within the limited, simplified, new-orientalist visions that a large part of the population and even the publishing market oftentimes have toward narratives from the Middle East, especially those written by women? So, yes, audience was definitely on my mind.

As to the Iranian audience, I can just wish for my work to be accepted as an offering into the larger collective literary landscape and the civic movement that is working toward a more lively and hopeful future.

September 2019

Yanara Friedland is a German American writer, translator, and teacher. She is the author of the novel Uncountry: A Mythology, the 2015 winner of the Noemi Fiction Prize. The digital chapbook Abraq ad Habra: I will create as I speak, is available from Essay Press.