How is it possible to leave ones language and start over? When Jila Mossaed came to Sweden in 1986 she had published two novels and five collections of poetry in Farsi. In the following pages visAvis brings you her essay about writing in exile and deciding to change language. The essay was first published in the Swedish literary journal Kritiker Nr. 28/29.
by Jila Mossaed • 2015
The year was 1988.
I was new in Sweden, I was not good at Swedish nor did I want to talk.
I spoke English so that I could privately remind myself that this was a short trip – soon we would return to the conquered land.
Even though I knew that Sweden was the best choice, I began building up a wall to protect myself, and the most important thing to protect was my native language.
The powerlessness over my life and the future of my children turned me into a persistent protector of everything related to that which had vanished.
Already after three months I felt deeply colonized by the new culture, language and people’s way of seeing me as a foreigner.
All of the sudden I had developed a strong interest in my country’s faded history, forgotten myths and religions.
I was quite simply confused. My poetry collection in Farsi, admired in literary circles, seemed meaningless here. How does one abandon ones language and begin all over again as a thirty-eight year old? Why does one do that? A language which is conserved throughout history with the purpose of warming our souls, regardless of the regime ruling the country. It felt like being swallowed by a life violated by those in power. Not only did I build a wall up, I also dug a well for the bygone. I wanted to evoke a more truthful and clear picture of my situation in the world.
One day an acquaintance invited me to join her at the Gothenburg book-fair. She was a librarian, an intelligent and considerate woman.
I stayed the night and was intrigued by the whole experience. I heard one of my favourite authors, Joseph Brodsky. He read his poems in his native language, and I noticed how a foreign language can create interest and respect, how it can move you. Afterwards I had a brief conversation with him, and I asked him the biggest question of my life: ”What does it feel like to live in exile and be a poet?”
”You must not feel like a victim,” he said, ”I still write in my language and then I do my own translations.” His wise words were profoundly calming and gave me the courage to open up to the new language.
I spent many nights pondering upon the word (victim).
And in the end I realized that he was right.
I began to seriously study Swedish.
I bought books and read Södergran, Fröding, Dagerman, Lagerkvist and got curious about Swedish literature which was unfamiliar to me and seemed impossible to access.
I had read Lagerkvist, Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman in Iran, but I did not know more than that when it came to Swedish literature.
As time passed it became clear to me that the Iranian regime was not going to disappear as quickly as we had thought, and that I would need to settle here in the Nordic region.
I became motivated to express myself and to testify my historical and unexpected situation in the world to the people that would be curious in the future, to my grandchildren and those that flip through my books.
After some time I decided to change language. My goal was to become able to write my poems in Swedish. It seemed almost impossible. It felt as if my native language was a part of my skin. It protected me, embraced me and gave me an identity.
Changing language is not like changing shoes.
Language is a soft and delicate piece of cloth in which every mother wraps her child in the most intimate moments. It is almost impossible to take off.
Writing in exile is like being born without a mother. Motherless from the start. You have to get to know the labyrinths of the language on your own. Crawl onwards and figure out the meaning of every single word.
It was hard and painful to begin with. That the images were to be interpreted and written down from the left towards the right. A habit which had to be changed quickly. In the midst of my most inspired moments I had to guide my fingers in the right direction and write from left towards right.
I was not searching for words and I didn’t force myself to write in Swedish. I started by familiarizing myself with the world inside the language. I began travelling into every single word so that I could intimately get to know its contents. I was a stranger to the word and the word was a stranger to me. We had no common history.
It made the path all the more intriguing. It was not a pilgrimage with only one focus. On the contrary. I studied and listened to the echo of every word, as if I was strolling around in a beautiful and mysterious garden. Writing in Swedish and Farsi simultaneously was a choice that made me feel secure and gave me new adventures. It became my salvation.
When I left my country of origin, I brought with me my wounds, my dark memories and my pain. My melancholic self and a chronic inflammation which was the result of several years of oppression.
We have inherited our wounds from our ancestral mothers. They have not been created in exile. But it is not possible to keep our eyes closed to the situation in the post-colonial world, which has forced and still forces millions of people to leave their countries despite their sense of belonging and great love of that which they have left behind, their motherland.
Yet I contend that exile aids in opening up old wounds so that they are allowed to heal in peace as time passes. I felt just as much like a foreigner there as I do here. It is essentially my human self which struggles with its existence on earth. This feeling, and my world-view, will follow me all the way into paradise. Our unjust, violent and cruel world has not become more peaceful despite all its religions and ideologies. My pain was not created in exile. On the contrary. Here there is space to display and soothe the pain through the open language of poetry. To be seen, to breathe fresh air stimulates my desire to create. As time passes the lid opens and I dare to approach the ancient wounds which have shaped us women, generation after generation.
The great emptiness one carries from birth will not disappear. No place and no other human being can diminish the proportions of that void.
I try to describe the emptiness through dreams and images which are transformed into words. Dressing the truth in beauty is the best way of filling out the hole in my soul. But is it easy? We are surrounded by a market which transforms the truth and destroys beauty.
Exile leads you back to your origin, to a self that is political, religious and historical. It forces you to investigate your role in the world.
You must get to know your country and culture’s roots, history and language to discover a strong identity. This process is best done in exile.
This is why I began researching Mithraism and Zarathustra, and to read the Koran. I also read about gnosticism prior to Islam and the ancient humanist self-knowledge that elevates humanity’s potential for goodness and unites it with the concept of God. I visited the ocean from which Rumi, Hafez and many of the great ones have drunk and swum in. I camp by this ocean so that I can learn more.
I found out that my country is my language, and that the cultural mummies that have besieged my memory make me feel at home amongst the people of my homeland, but in no way free.
I realized that the myths which slumber within me, and which are anchored in my country of origin, help me become conscious about my mythological self and find my place in the world’s cultural landscape.
It is common to come across traces of Greek mythology in Western literature. In contrast, ancient Persian culture was prohibited and hidden by holders of religious power. It was not displayed and could not be discussed openly.
The war against our old philosophy and literature continues under the present regime in Iran. The joy which lay as the foundation of life was transformed into a crying culture of grief.
At the time when great thinkers, poets and philosophers such as Rumi and Hafez were forced to write their works in the languages of those in power, embellishing them with religious words, people did not have the internet nor the great access to books which we have today.
These poets were geniuses. They were wise enough to weave their work into mystery and write in a way that would come to protect their books. Those in power had no well-founded reason to arrest them and burn their books, even though their works express strong critiques of and resistance towards religious hypocrisy and the Sharia law.
Writers in Iran are in the same situation today as they were then. Books are rigidly censored and turned into paper dough by the regime’s machinery. All criticism of religion and politics is banned. Writing sensually about love is illegal. Poets and writers today face the same limitations as seven hundred years ago, during Hafez’ time. Back then the moral police-force would knock on people’s doors to smell their breath, checking if they had been drinking wine. People were whipped and arrested, just like now.
And yet the wine is celebrated in all of Hafez’ poems. When he passed away his body was not allowed a traditional Muslim burial rite.
Poets in exile have enormous opportunities to express themselves. They have access to the whole world’s literature through the internet and there are no forbidden topics, no punishments.
Now is the time to dare to criticize, reveal and smash all taboos and norms – why else did we leave our country?