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.