Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 13th 2018
Remember its flight, for the bird is mortal.
I was looking forward to learning about a time and culture, far away from my own, but I never thought I’d be so thoroughly seduced by Jasmin Darznik’s debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird. It is a fictionalized account of Forugh Farrokhzhad, the first woman in Iran to defy her country’s cultural bias and repressive practices against women writers. She refused the diminishing label “poetess”, did not use a male pseudonym, and wrote on forbidden subjects such as women’s sexuality. Darznik portrays Forugh, born in 1935, from her childhood to her death at 32, showing that even in such a short time she lived through experiences far beyond her years.
As one of seven children, with a brutal, military father, she knew at a young age
A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.
This self-knowledge, coupled with a love of words and books, means she chafes against the restrictions on education and the isolation imposed on women. She sneaks into her father’s vast library to read books on every subject, but especially the poems of Persia’s greats—Rumi, Hafez, and Khayyam. She has no interest in the life of domesticity expected of her, like the one her mother lives, separated from men and removed from the outside world
It was a house that turned from the world and cast its gaze inward, a house whose women believed the very walls listened for sin, a house where we whispered the truth or didn’t speak it at all.
Until, at sixteen, she falls in love with an older, educated boy and foolishly spends time with him unchaperoned. This means they must marry and what seemed to be love turns into resentment as she finds herself living in a small village, away from her family, and, soon, pregnant. In the moments she has alone she continues to write her poetry. Her need to be heard is so great she rushes headlong into choices made by her heart, not her head: lying to her husband, going back to Tehran, having an affair. She is published, but her first poem is then used against her, leading to divorce and the loss of her child. Finally, when her poems and actions become public enough to shame her father, she is locked up in a clinic for the insane, where they literally try and erase her thoughts from her mind. Still, she finds a way to words until a wealthy, highly-connected friend buys her freedom.
These extraordinary experiences are just a portion of Forugh’s life in Song of a Captive Bird. She achieves even more artistically, but always against a backdrop of media and government vitriol for violating Iran’s religious norms. A country that, in Forugh’s lifetime, was moving to center stage in the world because of its oil, but did not welcome outside influences into its culture.
Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we put ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture.
In 1963, the Ayatollah Khomeini made his first appearance and violence against secularism became the norm
Every death was telling some part of our story, which was Iran’s story, but no one could tell how the story would end. We were driven by forces we didn’t understand, moving towards a destination we couldn’t see.
Darznik beautifully captures Forugh’s inner self juxtaposed against the outer landscape of Iran. She does this with such intimacy that the novel reads like a journal, with prose that is lyrical and soulful. It is a two-for-one win for readers—Darznik’s words are interspersed with Forugh’s poems and both mesmerize. They release a multitude of emotions, sending them soaring with a freedom that penetrates heart and mind. And while her life was cut short, Song of a Captive Bird lives as an ode to the power of one woman who would not stay silent.
And this is me
a woman alone
on the threshold of a cold season
on the verge of understanding
the earth’s polluted existence
and the simple sadness of the sky
and the weakness of these hands.