“I’m telling these stories for an audience, but I also want to digest this experience for myself”: An Interview with Poupeh Missaghi

side by side series of the cover of trans(re)lating house one

Poupeh Missaghi is well-known for her career as a Persian translator. Her work has included translations into Persian of Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth, Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There, and Sam Savage’s Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife and The Crying of the Sloth. Her translations into English from Persian, meanwhile, have aimed to show a more complex image of Persian literary work. To Missaghi, a native Persian speaker who started writing in English after completing a master’s degree in translation studies in Tehran, “language has always been truly this expansion of the world.”

Missaghi has also published a wealth of her own fiction and nonfiction, in places like Catapult, Entropy, World Literature Today, and Asymptote, where she is the Iran’s editor-at-large (she is also the co-editor for a new feminist critical journal, Matters of Feminist Practice). All of her work is written with an eye to probing human experience, cracking open the English language, and portraying life in the U.S. and Iran with a crisp honesty.

Now, Missaghi, who holds an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Denver, is also a published novelist. Her debut, trans(re)lating house one, out from Coffee House Press this week, follows a protagonist obsessed with finding out why Tehran’s statues are disappearing. It’s an experimental hybrid work that combines a traditional novel narrative with quotes from theorists and writers, dossier-style notes on people who have been made to disappear after death, and poetry. The unnamed protagonist’s journey through Tehran—its teahouses, gardens of private homes, and streets—takes the reader along on her quest. Her life floats into the narrative between dreams, quotes from writers and academics, and descriptions of Iranian citizens whose deaths are covered up by the government and their families’ subsequent reactions. A tally of corpses appearing in poetry grows as the book progresses. The narrative is also peppered with pages of questions—questions like, Structurally, the novel is a departure from Missaghi’s earlier narrative work, though the sections of trans(re)lating house one that are more traditional in narrative form are told in her familiar deft, minimalist prose.

In exploring the deaths and disappearances of various prominent figures as well as ordinary people, the book successfully explains that in a place like Iran, where merely being in a place or situation at the wrong time can mean that you are seen as against the government, the personal is political—and that the stakes for the curious or those seeking the truth are quite high. trans(re)lating house one is not a novel that allows the reader to sink into the narrative; instead, it brings attention to its construction on every page. In doing so, Missaghi forces the reader to confront their own assumptions about the world, as she has written literature is meant to do, particularly in difficult times. Just as the characters in trans(re)lating house one realize they cannot escape the political, so too does the novel suggest that if we are awake enough, we will see the ways in which our own lives are affected by politics.

Shortly before trans(re)lating house one’s publication, Missaghi and I spoke about narrative consciousness, the right to tell a story, and attitudes towards death across cultures.

Maria Eliades: trans(re)lating house one is a book that brings attention to itself constantly—it’s always questioning itself and questioning the audience. It basically breaks the fourth wall, as we say in theater. When you were writing, was creating a novel conscious of itself a conscious decision?

Poupeh Missaghi: If you’re referring to the questions, to the meta part, that actually came kind of late into the process. I had the city narrative, I had the corpses, and I had the dreams. But then, this was my PhD dissertation—so then, maybe two months before my defense when I had to submit this, I constantly struggled with what I was doing. I had some ethical issues about the premise of the writing and I was questioning what I was doing.

I imagined all these questions would be asked of the work and I would like those questions to be part of the conversation [during and after the defense]. Then I realized, why don’t I just include those questions in the book? That’s when I just started writing the questions. They came pretty fast. I wrote them maybe in two or three days. Then I felt more at peace with the work because I wasn’t pretending that everything is fine.

ME: What were the ethical concerns you had?

PM: Some of the questions I raised in the book: Am I allowed to tell these stories? Who should tell these stories? Is this the best way to tell these stories? Stuff like that. Is this the best time frame? Or, what does it mean to tell these stories in this other language that brings with it so much political context?

ME: Right now, we’re asking, “Who has the right to tell a story?” a lot. But in this case, if not you, who is going to tell it?

PM: That’s true. But then, if you get a step closer to it, maybe the families should tell these stories. Maybe a closer community should tell these stories. Yes, this was my experience, but I was also a step removed from it.

I’m telling these stories for an audience, but I also want to digest this experience for myself because I was feeling it as my own but also [was] not able to express it yet before writing it. I guess each of us has different rights to stories of our times.

ME: The novel has typically asserted itself as authoritative, even after we’ve gotten away from having one narrative. There could be an authoritative voice that says, This is how the world is, but the author still has been given this power, right? I don’t know how many writers struggle with the question of, Do I have the right to tell this story, even if it is a story of my own group of people?, but the question divides itself even further perhaps into, What is my group of people exactly?

PM: There definitely is—no matter how much you question that authority you are still performing that authority because you are writing even the questions. But I’m always more interested in constantly exposing those questions, never being done with, Oh, I have a certain position with regard to this. With different time frames and different contexts and under different narratives you have to constantly revisit the questions.

ME: How do you keep that from being paralyzing?

PM: [laughing] If I was certain about, Oh this is way things need to be done, or, This is the certain way to tell the story, I would completely panic. Because I know in a sense that’s not true, even if I want it to be.

ME: How about the position of English? Perhaps you’re more conscious of the baggage of English than even a writer whose native language is English who thinks consciously about the language, but doesn’t think necessarily about the implications of words.

PM: Again, that was one of the reasons I wanted the questions to be part of the conversation. But it was also a very practical reason. I don’t know how to write stories in Persian. I’ve translated it, but I’ve never written it. Maybe short essays or stuff for journals, but those are more limited and they also came later in my English writing.

I’ve been trained in English but not in my first language. I think that distance also helps me to dig into stuff that I’m going through. If I was thinking about this in Persian, it gets very emotional. But the moment I step away into another language—it still is a kind of translation. So maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to manage it, and it’s also a more interesting challenge for me. I don’t have a native speaker’s control over the language, so I feel like I can be more playful with it.

In Persian I’m constantly worried that this is not good enough. I keep comparing myself to what exists out there. In English I’m like, this is my second language. Whatever I do is fine. It takes away from the feeling that I’m competing against someone or something. It’s liberating in that sense.

ME: I think there’s a lot of timelessness to some of the questions in your novel, especially with death. Some of the questions you pose are, “Why do narratives of the dead cast a shadow over narratives of those who survived? Why this obsession with stories of the dead?” This is all of history. It’s memoir. It’s people going after genealogies. It’s a really relevant ur-question. Like, why do we continue to be obsessed with the dead instead of focusing on what’s going on, what’s coming? 

The protagonist of trans(re)lating house one is obsessed with finding the dead and trying to find all of these things that keep going missing out of nowhere and also with tallying up all of these people, and she’s like us in that way: We are, generally, obsessed in our stories with the dead, not the living. That can be made political, as your novel says, regarding talking about who is a martyr and who is not a martyr. The dead are political.

PM: Even in a non-political context, that’s so true. We also get more and more obsessed with it because we have more access to more information as we go on in history. The way we compile archives now is much more expansive so our access to the dead is also expanding. In a sense also, there’s so much information, so which information do we need to go to? Or why this person instead of that dead person? Even in the sense of finding your ancestors. That’s such a fascination.

ME: But I don’t think that fascination is about identity in your novel. It seems to be about the broader question of these individuals who may or may not have been involved politically at all but have gotten wrapped up or erased because of the political context that has been put on them.

PM: Before this, I worked on a novella for my master’s thesis, Ghost Nation. I feel like I went from that ghost space to facing the dead. So going from thinking from how life is happening in a ghost mood. With that one, I was writing about the living, but it felt like they were just ghosts. With this one, it feels like you can’t separate the living from the dead. You have to face it.

ME: That directly brings to mind the end of the James Joyce story “The Dead.” The wife suddenly remembers this guy who I think was her first love, who had died, and it spoils the moment for the husband who has been narrating the whole thing. That instant quiets everything. It’s an interesting point of how we handle death between different cultures. And in that particular context that obliterates everything—I mean maybe it’s insecurity on the part of the husband—

PM: He’s competing with a dead guy.

ME: And you can’t compete with a dead guy. [laughing] But she doesn’t mean a thing by it.

PM: But for him it kills the moment.

ME: Exactly. But that’s not your novel’s attitude to the dead. Could you talk a bit about the context of death in Persian culture?

PM: It’s been said that Persians are obsessed with death and death rituals. It’s also [the case] with the Islamic regime—it has also been used for a lot of political intentions. The culture of celebrating the death of the prophets and Islamic figures more than their birthdays. It’s very present in the society. But it’s a very collective experience. If somebody dies, the family isn’t left alone for forty days. You keep being around them. There are certain rituals carried out. It feels very collective.

There is a good side to it, but sometimes it also feels suffocating. You want that alone moment to be able to face this thing, and then when it comes to deaths that mean more, they don’t belong to the families anymore. So they become more of a social thing. At the same time there are more attempts to erase more public deaths from the social landscape. These kind of tensions become a part of the Persian culture and [spark] the question of, How do we decide who to celebrate and who not to celebrate?

Personally, I have been so much obsessed with death after the death of my grandfather, which changed me drastically. There’s always a death that makes you relate to life in a different way. His was the one that made that shift to me. My mom also mentioned this the other day, that I’m like him in my concern with the politics of the country or my love for the nation. A person goes away but you want to hold onto them in this unconscious way, so you have to continue to live the life that has gone. But that’s again the personal side of the story.

With the cultural side it’s so much more present in the collective space than in the West. It’s not just that the close family goes through the death. It’s the extended family. And again, rituals of death are so present in this space.

ME: What comes to mind to me when you mention your grandfather and his love for his nation is one of the last deaths in the book, when a woman gets crushed by a police vehicle. She was just out running errands when this happens and, because of that—and I read it coming from living in Turkey—there is the shame construct that makes the state make her disappear. So because the police can’t be put in that position, her death can’t be acknowledged. But the mother of this woman says that her daughter was such a patriot, such a nationalist, that there’s no one who loved her country more than this woman did. The dead end up becoming these fragments of themselves that we pull on. The novel points out that that’s what we’re left with.

PM: Fragments of their lives, right? I feel like an important aspect of this, which also applies to the U.S. context to an extent, is that government is separate from the country. So how do you navigate that dynamic? Like how do you not hate the country if the country and whoever has run it has just crushed your life? Because in a way a country is an abstract idea. It’s the governments, the people that give it meaning. But I feel that for some of us, we still hold on to a meaning beyond that.

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