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Interview: June 29, 2007

June 29, 2007

Anita Amirrezvani’s debut work of fiction, THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS, chronicles the hardships a young girl faces in 17th-century Persia as she attempts to make a better life for herself after the untimely death of her father.

In this interview with's Sarah Rachel Egelman, Amirrezvani discusses the many factors that prompted her to write this novel and describes how she structured its plot to resemble that of a traditional folk tale. She also explains why she chose to keep her protagonist unnamed, sheds light on the social climate for women during the time in which the book takes place and further elaborates on some of the cultural practices that figure greatly in the story. You worked on this novel for nine years. What was your inspiration for it? Did your vision of the story changeduring that time?

Anita Amirrezvani: Before I started to develop the plot, one of my main concerns was to provide a more nuanced view of Iran than we normally see in news headlines. For nearly 30 years, the United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations, which means that knowledge of each other at an ordinary, human level has steadily decreased. I wanted to show what life might look like from the perspective of a young woman who lived long ago, and to draw readers so completely into old Iran that they would be able to smell the rosewater and picture the deep indigos and crimsons of handmade carpets.

In terms of the story itself, THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS is deeply inspired by the engine of the traditional folk tale, in which it’s common for the protagonist to set out on a life-changing quest and slay dragons along the way. My heroine faces unexpected “dragons” after her father’s death and must forge a new path of her own. I found that the story of her life evolved very slowly over a period of about six years, and yes, it was constantly changing until I found the version that seemed just right.

BRC: Your protagonist, a young woman, is not named in the novel. Why don’t you give readers her name? How does leaving her unnamed help tell the story or create a particular tone?

AA: One morning, when I was looking around my living room at my Iranian rugs, embroidery and miniature paintings, it occurred to me that none of the work was signed. As in most parts of the world, the identity of the craftsperson was considered unimportant and went unrecognized. When I was writing my novel, my thoughts turned to the lives of such artists, and I began to imagine my way into their life stories. By not naming my heroine, I hoped to point out that no records exist of these craftswomen (and men) who lived, breathed and made beautiful things that we admire so deeply. In short, my goal was to acknowledge the labor of the "unnamed craftsperson" whose work has endured through the centuries.

BRC: THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS is both a coming-of-age story and a story of empowerment. Which do you think is the more important theme, or are they related?

AA: For most women, I think they are related. When a woman is young, she has a lot to learn before she can determine how to live a life that fits with her own values and before she can exert any control over her circumstances. For my heroine, empowerment encompasses the artistic, the moral and the sexual sides of life, and involves coming to terms with the difficult circumstances of her family environment.

BRC: Although the tale is set over 300 years ago, does it tell us anything about women in Iran today, or are the issues these female characters are struggling with relegated to history?

AA: Iranian women in the 17th century lived long before the rise of feminism anywhere in the world, of course. Iranian women in the 21st century have been adamant in fighting for their rights and have undoubtedly been influenced by the activism that emerged elsewhere in the 1960s. For example, in 1978, women were quite involved in the demonstrations that ended 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. Since 2006, they have organized an important effort called the Million Signatures Campaign, whose goal is to eliminate laws that discriminate against women.

BRC: In what ways is this story particular to its setting, and in what ways is it unique? In other words, could this story have been told in a different time or place?

AA: My goal was to create a timeless story. It’s possible that it could have been set in another period, but that would have involved taking away the special magic of Isfahan as a center of culture and artistry in the 17th century.

BRC: Do you consider this a “historical novel”?

AA: Yes and no. It’s historical in the sense that it’s set in a specific place and time, but the story doesn’t have anything to do with political events, and all of the main characters are fictional. To me, it’s more of a fable than a historical novel.

BRC: What kind of research did you do in order to write THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS? In the course of your research, did you try your hand at rug making?

AA: I went to Isfahan twice while I was writing the book to visit the locations that I describe and to absorb what it feels like to be there. I especially enjoyed the great Image of the World square, which has a beautiful palace, historically important mosques and an extensive bazaar. Beyond that, I spent many hours in my local libraries hunched over scholarly books about carpets, architecture, literature and history. As far as rug-making is concerned, I have observed it but have never tried it. Rug-makers’ fingers fly so fast over the knots that your eyes can’t even follow them. For those who are interested in seeing it for themselves, there’s a beautiful but sad Iranian movie called Daughters of the Sun that shows women knotters at work.

BRC: In the book there are female rug makers, but the male ones are better able to perfect their craft and make a living. Have Persian women historically been involved in rug making, or were your characters unique?

AA: It’s very likely that Iranian women have always made rugs, and this includes women in villages, in cities and among nomadic tribes. Women would have used them to furnish their own homes or to earn extra income, and they would have also knotted textiles such as pillow-covers, saddle-bags, tent decorations and so forth. I’m assuming, however, that the royal rug workshops would have been staffed by men, as these would have been the best jobs available in the field. Such artisans have created some of the world’s most celebrated carpets, but the tribal and village rugs knotted by a single individual can be equally beautiful in their own way.

BRC: The main character contracts a temporary marriage that is renewable every three months. She has high hopes it will turn into a permanent union. How common was the tradition of “sigheh,” and is it still practiced?

AA: The custom has been around for 1,500 years or more, and it seems to have emerged with the goal of fulfilling practical needs. Unmarried women who happened to have no family or who had fallen on hard times would naturally need money to support themselves, and sighehs allowed them to earn it at a time when women didn’t have many other options. A mandatory waiting period in between sighehs allowed for paternity to be established, and children born of these unions were considered legitimate. The time period of a sigheh is determined by the participants; it can last anywhere from an hour to 99 years.

According to the scholarship I’ve read, sighehs are mainly an urban phenomenon, and no one knows how widespread they are because a couple can contract a sigheh without telling anyone. The practice is currently legal in Iran and has undoubtedly evolved to address modern concerns. For example, I understand that young people who want to be together but are unable to afford all the costs of a wedding and a home may contract a sigheh.

BRC: In THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS, the protagonist gains some degree of power in her sigheh, by channeling her sexuality. Do you think there were many avenues of empowerment for women in 17th-century Iran?

AA: Probably not. In my book, I focus on the limited areas where women were likely to exert their power, such as in the home and in craft-related work like carpet-making. I also show how they might have wielded influence in their relationships with children, servants, friends, and of course, with men. As was true in other parts of the world, female power was undoubtedly very real, but limited to places out of the public eye.

BRC: What do you thinkyour book has in common with traditional Persian storytelling?

AA: Iran has always had a sophisticated oral culture. In the 17th century, when many Iranians were not literate, it would have been common for someone like my heroine’s mother to have committed traditional folk tales and long poems to memory. Both would have provided entertainment and guidance to listeners. One of the main challenges of writing my book was to make the main narrative, which is after all a novel in the Western tradition, blend in gracefully with the old Iranian stories.

BRC: Do you personally own a traditionally woven carpet? If so, what can you share with us about it?

AA: I have one that I’m extremely fond of. When I was 14, my father took me to a shop in Tehran and bought me my first wool rug. It is made in a typical design from Isfahan --- a central medallion surrounded by a garden of flowers --- and the main colors are deep blues and reds, with a bouquet of supporting colors including turquoise. I have displayed this carpet in every living space I’ve ever had, including in the entryway to my current apartment. When John Keats wrote “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” I think he could easily have been talking about rugs.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

AA: I have started a second book that will continue my explorations into women and Iranian history. I’m grateful that there are 2,500 years of Iranian history to enjoy and share, which I believe will provide me with a lifetime of material to explore. I only hope that I can write the new book more quickly than the last one!