What literary invention can reveal about the reality of the Iranian Revolution.
Thirty-seven years ago on February 11, 1979, on my eighth birthday, Iran, my country, went through a radical shift. My family left Iran a year after the Revolution, and I have been trying either to understand what happened or to explain it ever since. My latest attempt is Last Scene Underground, an ethnographic novel of life in contemporary Iran.
What’s real? They want to know where the boundary lies (literally “lies” in a non-truth-telling sense) between fiction and non-fiction.
If the Q&A at book readings is anything to go by, when you’ve written a book that’s both a novel and an ethnography, the question on most people’s minds is: What’s real? They want to know where the boundary lies (literally “lies” in a non-truth-telling sense) between fiction and non-fiction. Ethnography and literature have in common a very fluid boundary between the real and the fictive. Even in science fiction, a writer creates a work of fiction based on his or her own understanding of human relations, impulses, and desires from lived experiences and factual knowledge that feeds the imagination.
If an anthropologist were to set-up a camera and begin to record a “scene” of life somewhere, the very decision of where to place the camera frames the scene with a subjective and therefore not fully honest view. This does not mean that what was recorded is not real or the “truth,” but in excluding major parts of the scene, it skews and changes “reality.” If I focused my camera on one section of students in a lecture where only men are sitting, one may have the mistaken impression that only men take my anthropology class. The camera recorded “reality,” but it was not an honest representation of the class. When we social scientists translate and write about an “objective world” through our subjective positions, we may be factual but not necessarily honest about all the ways in which we are creating a new meaning or a fiction, possibly even a fantasy.
To this end, fiction, which may not be a hundred percent factual, can be more honest. For me, fiction, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world. Fiction is more than an aesthetic and political choice of genre. It can do things that ethnography cannot. It can transport us, and place us in worlds we could never get to on our own—which was what anthropology was meant to do in the beginning: making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
Fiction, which may not be a hundred percent factual, can be more honest.
Writing guru Anne Lamott advises writers to ask a gardener whether a particular plant blooms in the season that a fictional character is contemplating its wonder. Research, a desire for “authenticity,” and the effort to keep things real drives good fiction and is the part of anthropology that I love most. But when writing, showing the theory, laying facts bare, explaining the magic, I found ethnography killed the world of Iranian underground theater and the players who had so much at stake in it. And so I took my research and moved slowly and eagerly in the direction of fiction.
I’ve been asked a lot lately to give an example of how my latest book is ethnographic and not just fiction. For me, as an anthropologist writing ethnography, I feel that I have less leeway with the imaginal, or at least, I have given myself more responsibility to “represent” what I think would have happened, or could have possibly happened. I’ve felt this even to the detriment of my own desire for a character to make a different choice—or the possibility of “selling the book” to an audience. In the interest of preserving this ethnographic authenticity, I was unwilling to change the ending of Last Scene Underground even as trade presses tried to persuade me that the book wouldn’t “sell.” (My editor at Stanford thankfully had more faith in the research and imagination!)
My six year-old would let you know based on his bedtime story experiences that without research I wouldn’t have a story to tell. I’m just not any good at making them up or at refraining from analyzing and educating alongside narrating. And in the case of Last Scene Underground, I couldn’t bear not to throw in my analysis and theorize. I originally set out to write pure fiction but finally broke down after six years of writing and explicitly added the ethnographic element back through the addition of a “director’s notebook”—a running journal kept by one of the principle characters, not unlike an anthropologist’s field notes. In the end I simply stopped trying to choose between a novel and ethnography and embraced the in-between: an ethnographic novel.
The resulting book may be about young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and attempt, in spite of censorship and other forms of social resistance, to put on a play. Or maybe it’s about an anthropologist who attempts, in spite of censorship, social and political, and other forms of academic resistance, to write a book that defies genre. However you read it, one thing remains constant: The book grapples with a revolution, the fallout of which forever changed the lived realities of my generation and others that came both before and after, and has felt ever-since both real and imagined.
On questions of access, authenticity, and authority in ethnographic research.
Better US-Iranian relations could usher in more diverse portrayals of Iran—in popular literature and scholarship.
On the intellectual merits of fiction and the debut novel of Redwood Press.
Using fiction to realize a new mental architecture.