I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: One of the many richnesses of your work is the way in which narratives, images, and concepts shift and deepen. This happens, for example, in the very title of your novel, trans(re)lating house one. With “tran(re)lating” you offer us “translating,” “relating” and “re-translating” as simultaneous parts of a larger process. This is mirrored by the structure of the book. The right-justified pages, written in the third person, are cinematic and relate the journey of a young woman through Tehran as she looks for missing statues in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 elections. Left-justified pages are first-person meditations on this woman’s quest, affirming and questioning the act of writing within and about trauma. Laced throughout are “corpse” sections, which provide statistics of individual deaths of those associated with the 2009 protests.
In an interview with Yanara Friedland in World Literature Today you eloquently propose that “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.” These thoughts resonate with the experience of reading trans(re)lating house one, and also speak to the work you do as translator both into and out of Persian and as Iran’s editor at large for the literature in translation journal Asymptote.
Your novel is generous and challenging as it draws out difficult questions surrounding art-making, trauma, and the many mediated forms of witness available in the twenty-first century. It is also rhythmic, imaginative, and cinematic—I couldn’t put it down. Do you align one of these poles—the intellectually challenging vs. the aesthetically absorptive—to different aspects of archival work? What role does the creative mind play in cultural memory?
Poupeh Missaghi: Karla, thank you for your readership and for such beautiful wording of my work.
As to your first question, I want to resist separating different aspects of archival work from one another and allocating them to one pole or another; at least not in the creative realm that I practice in. For me, an exploration of the archive demands a simultaneous co-existence of the intellectually challenging and the aesthetically absorptive. It’s their togetherness that sheds new light on the material of the archive and invites a more active open engagement with it, both by me and the audience.
This ties to the role of creativity in archival work and cultural memory. To move beyond mere consumption of the archive and the past, I believe the creative mind needs to play a key role in our approach, both for the writer/artist who dives into the archive to produce her work and for the reader/audience of that archive-based work. It is the creative mind that allows us to listen to the possibilities of the archive and to become participants in the making and shaping of cultural memories, rather than simply receiving them ready-made. It offers ways to connect these memories from the past to the present, understand what we are in the midst, and be enabled to imagine new possibilities for our future beyond the realities saved in the archives and carried within us through these cultural memories.
Regarding “Individual Collectivities”: Aren’t we all the collectives before and around and after us called forth into this one body that defines itself as “I” in this particular temporal and spatial vortex? Is there any way to extract the collective from the individual, the individual from the collective? Such a circular labyrinth, this “individual collectivities” you speak of. Let’s pause for a second and meet; if not here, there.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Poupeh Missaghi: I definitely have heard that call, from a variety of archival materials; and depending on context, my engagement with them has been different. To give one example: My childhood house, which itself can be considered an object, has fascinated me for many years, especially since it was sold.
This draw mainly presented itself through the architecture of the building and the objects (in the broad sense, both animate and inanimate) in the house, some of which survived my parents’ move to an apartment and others were either sold, donated, or just discarded. The objects, belonging to several generations, urged me to hold onto them in one sort of archive or another: at first I asked my mother to keep particular items for me when they moved; when I did not have enough space myself or noticed their deterioration over time, I photographed them before letting go of them. Eventually I started an experimental memoir about the house, using its architecture and the objects as the main focus and force of the narrative of the life lived in the house. For example, there are entries for jasmine pots, wallpapers, windows, curtains, oil lamps, artworks, the kitchen stove, the dining table, the basement and its cistern, the rooftop, my great uncle’s cigarette packs, my grandfather’s walking closet, and much more.
As to whether this response challenges established systems, my hope is that my multilayered approach to the memoir and the tone of the prose help complicate and expand the old modes of narrating family (hi)stories and holding on to objects with sentimental value.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Poupeh Missaghi: In trans(re)lating house one, I was partly trying to create an archive of the dead of the Iranian Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. Documented and echoed in limited scope, the voices of these bodies had mainly been either silenced or manipulated by different domestic and international forces. I made a point to use only online material, what I believed any curious citizen could find if they dug into the virtual maze. I reached far and wide, from Facebook to blogs, to survivor interviews archived on soundcloud to articles in different news media and human rights organizations. I started the project soon after the events, and this gave me access to information that later sometimes disappeared, even along with their platforms, websites they had appeared on. On the other hand, since the project took several years to complete, new information also gradually became available, sometimes supporting and other times questioning the previous ones. The process made me realize I would never resolve the uncertainties that kept surfacing and I decided to keep the contradictions as part of my text.
Meanwhile, I knew I wanted the narratives of the dead to be presented alongside the life of the city and that of the dreamworld. To bring in the life of the city, I started with my own life experiences in Tehran; for example, I included some of the artworks I had seen in an art show or wrote about a night of gathering at a friend’s, keeping parts as was and fictionalizing or imagining others. For the dreamworld, I turned to my dream journal, but reworked its mode of presentation, translating the text of the dreams to textual images of word clouds.
Despite the extensive research and the larger multilayered context provided, I still had ethical concerns about the archival work. That was why I decided to bring into the work a layer of critical conversation—composed of questions I had been struggling with all throughout my writing process along with voices of the literary and scholarly community I had become part of through reading. I invited my readers into this conversation in order to accompany me in my process; to investigate with me the role of writer as witness, limitations of language, and the collective and individual relationships we build with the sociopolitics of our lived and inherited (hi)stories. This gesture allowed me to arrive at an openness, uncertainty, and vulnerability that I had all along desired for my book as a creative container of this archive of life and death.
When it comes to cultural archival projects, especially those addressing the archives of the overlooked, I believe, as I mentioned earlier, that transparency and acknowledging one’s and one’s people’s role in that overlooking need to be at the core. The work, moreover, needs to enable readers to enter the linguistic representation of the archive as bodies with (hi)stories and to become participants, not just onlookers, as they engage with the material.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Poupeh Missaghi: I would create an archive of the sounds of the lamentations of all the mothers who have lost their children to atrocities committed under the name of the laws passed by patriarchal avaricious power holders—including but not limited to dictators, colonizers, war mongers, white supremacists, and the likes. I would have it highlight both the global interconnections and the intersectionality of this pain. It would be a nomadic archive managed by a rolling collective of mothers. It would be accessible and played in public arenas, continuously voicing this collective pain as it goes all around the world. I would keep it forever incomplete, fluid, and open to allow for more cries to be added to it as they are sure to come under old and new forms of oppression.
As to models that would ensure both the security and freedom of materials, I believe that transparency is key. Alongside with that, using collective, process-oriented, and non-patriarchal approaches can help steer us away from a centralization of power and as a result rehashing of old narratives and worldviews, personal and collective. This is what I believe open-source software aims for, providing accessibility and transparency. This is what community-based endeavors and collectives, such as mutual aid communities and presses such as Belladonna* Collaborative practice, moving away from hierarchies and profits, imagining new modes of being. This is what I aimed for with inviting my readers into my process in my own work trans(re)lating house one.
III: Exchange Question
Camille Guthrie: How does your writing and its relationship with the archive connect with your activism or your work on social justice?
Poupeh Missaghi: In most of my writing projects, particularly the longer ones, I find myself drawn to archival work and this oftentimes ties to some form of activism. I’m interested not only in exposing injustices but also in thinking through the process of exposing them on the page.
In trans(re)lating house one, my aim was to be witness to the unjust killing of my people by the Iranian government following the 2009 presidential election fraud while also contemplating what it means to be a writer/translator/witness.
In my current writing projects, some of the archival work I’m doing centers around topics such as embezzlement and socioeconomic disparities in Iran as well as methods of interrogation and torture throughout the last few decades. I am heavily invested in finding new creative modes that would invite a more participatory engagement with these issues, through which we could go beyond revisiting particular incidents and rethink the complex sociopolitical—personal, collective, domestic, and global—webs around them. I believe such an approach can potentially create more fertile ground for ongoing expansive involvement in the multifaceted social justice practices we all need to be part of, both as writers and citizens.
Poupeh Missaghi is a writer, a translator both into and out of Persian, Asymptote’s Iran editor-at-large, and an educator. She holds a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Denver, an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and an MA in translation studies. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the Department of Writing at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. Her debut novel, trans(re)lating house one, was published by Coffee House Press in February 2020.