Q&A with Sheida Dayani

May 12, 2016
Sheida Dayani

Sheida Dayani is a Preceptor in Persian in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Her research is on modern theatre and playwriting in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Iran.

Sheida DayaniWhat does your current research focus on?

I work on Iranian theatre of the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. I look at cultural and political history to understand the transition of Iranian comedy from traditional spectacles to modern playwriting. My focus is on the relationship of Iranian theatre to translation, journalism, lawmaking, and civil rights movements. I am interested in how the correlation between text and performance in modern playwriting changes in relation to established theatrical traditions, and vis-à-vis the sociopolitical events of each period.

How and why did you start looking at Iranian theatre in this context?

Before this project, I was studying legal history of Iran, and I realized that during the Constitutional Revolution, a large number of politically active figures turned to modern playwriting to advocate for their values, and implement cultural change. Meanwhile, my earlier passion was in literature and theatre, and my undergraduate degree was in English literature with a focus on translation. I took on this research because theatre is a perfect conjunction of history and literature, so it accommodates my two interests, but also because Persian and Iranian studies have paid little to no attention to the field of theatre.

In addition to your scholarly work, you write and translate poetry. Do you write poetry in Persian, English, or both?

I I used to write in both languages, but now I stop myself from writing in English. About ten years ago, I vowed to myself to write in only one language. The vow has been broken at times, but I’m mostly faithful. There are certain things in every language that can be said only in that language. Once you really grasp what this means, and I mean experience it with your blood and flesh, then you understand that as a bilingual poet, you have a choice of either being a boring poet in two languages, or an original poet in one language. Exactly because there are things in every language that can be said in that language alone, we have poets in this world, whose first job is to think of those things in the most innovative way, and their second job is to write those thoughts in the most impossible way. So, the job of the poet is first to alienate, then to defamiliarize, and then to create the means for saying the impossible. Bilingual writers have this capability twice as much, but this capability is a double-edged sword. Either, they can practice saying the ordinary in ordinary ways in two languages, or they can master bringing out the impossibilities of one language; the latter they do by travailing in one language, and alienating and defamiliarizing with the help of the other language(s). Of course, every bilingual poet has moments when s/he does the impossible in the other language(s). It is not just inevitable but necessary; you need testing grounds to determine what is the right place for you. But in order to create a canon, there is no option but to choose one language, and “sweat white beads” over it. The job of a bilingual poet is twice what Aristotle assigns to the poet. He has famously said, “The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” The bilingual poet can either strive for saying the likely impossibilities twice better than a monolingual poet, or can fail twice miserably by saying the unlikely possibilities.

Now, we are left with which language to choose. It is a personal decision. I chose Persian over English, partly for reasons that I will not reveal here, and partly because living in an English-speaking environment gives me a critical distance from the Persian language, and this critical distance is to some extent what alienates and defamiliarizes me from Persian, and makes my poetics grotesque in the theatrical sense of the word. This grotesqueness of poetics is a curious animal; it is not just in diction, but in other aspects such as structure, rhythm, and subject matter; it works the same way that silence makes alchemy for music.

Do you translate your own poetry?

Answer, part one: I don’t usually translate my own poetry, unless I have a genuinely original way to say what I already said in the source language; or, unless I think there are impossibilities that can be delivered in the target language. Meaning that I only translate my poetry if I think that I am rewriting that poem in the target language. Answer, part two: I am constantly translating my poetry because every writer is a translator; translation does not just occur from language to language, but from color to language, sound to language, taste, touch, perception, cognition, thoughts and emotions, even from poetics to language, and from language itself to all of these things. But most importantly, translation is from the unconscious to the conscious mind, and vice versa. This is where the exile between language and thought lies. Bilingual poets are in a constant state of exile between what they think of writing and what they end up writing, i.e., “translating.” A bilingual poet is not one who writes in more than one language, but one who has access to more than one language; one who thinks and speaks in more than one language, and thus alienates, defamiliarizes, and translates in between. In the process, the poet too gets translated, alienated, and defamiliarized from him/herself. There is no home.

Is there a difference between translating poetry from Persian into English and writing in English to begin with (or vice versa)?

The difference is not in what languages you work with, but in the levels of the unconscious. If a poem has already been written in one way, and it is now being written in a new way in a new language, you are now more aware of your unconscious, and in reverse gear, you are focusing on taking the conscious back to the unconscious. Think of a meta-dream; it is similar to when you are dreaming, and in your sleep, you are aware that it’s a dream. Has that ever happened to you? That’s translation.

Have you written drama as well, and have any of your works been performed?

A few have been. A New York-based composer named Ramin Heydarbeygi recently wrote music on one of my poems in a song cycle called Ārāmesh. The concert was performed in February by Ensemble 365 in New York, and was ranked by the New York Times as a “highlight” of the Composers Now Festival. I write lyrics from time to time. Last year, I set one of my lyrics to a waltz for a band, and it was sung and distributed. I’m currently considering a few singers for the new lyrics that I have recently written and set to music. I have also written drama and fiction, but I haven’t published any.

You teach Persian courses ranging from Elementary to Advanced. How do you incorporate your particular areas of interest into the coursework, and are you able to do this at all levels of instruction?

My Advanced course is a survey of modern Persian literature. We read Ta’ziyehs, modern plays, folk literature, travelogues, poetry, short stories, novels, etc., from mid-nineteenth century until today in the original Persian. When there is not a technological barrier, we also read audio-visual material; feature films, documentaries, songs, etc. My Intermediate course is half language, half film; after every lesson, we watch a feature film or a documentary related to the material of the previous lesson to solidify the vocabulary, we discuss the film in class, and for their weekly assignments, students write film reviews. My Elementary courses are traditional language courses, but from the very first weeks, I bring dabs of Persian poetry to class; we start with modern and work our way into classical. For instance, this week, my Elementary students read excerpts of Shāmlu, Sepehri, Sa’di, and Khayyām, and each excerpt was directly related to their vocabulary and grammar lessons of this week. Also, I use the Elementary Persian textbook by Mehdi Khorrami, which begins the lessons with passages of a novel, and students tend to like that.

Official classes aside, last semester, a few of my students, including one undergraduate student, initiated a poetry group. At first, I thought it was more a matter of curiosity. I could not have been more wrong; they were not kidding. We still meet every week and read a text of their choosing, and our plan is to continue after the academic year ends for as long as we are in town. We started with modern texts, and we are now working on Rumi’s Masnavi. This has been an utterly rewarding experience; it puts our language class in perspective, and it gives me a chance to delve deeper into classical literature. Of course, many people like to learn, but these guys have been so genuine about laboring over this desire that they make me unlearn and relearn with them.

Students seem to appreciate your approach: In your first semester at Harvard you received two Certificates of Teaching Excellence, which are based on Q evaluation data submitted by students. Have you found that students are eager to engage in modern Persian literature in particular? Are there opportunities at the University for students to pursue modern Persian literature further?

I have had a simple approach: listen to what your students want. But there is a lack of modern Persian in academia. At Harvard, we do not have a tenure-track position in modern Persian literature, meaning literature of the nineteenth century onward. Our students want to learn it, they have the desire and the linguistic skills to learn it, and we want to teach it. If we are going to teach a language and culture, the first step is to think in that language and culture; because languages and cultures are incessantly changing and revising themselves. Modern is the fruit of the classics; if you ignore the fruit, you ignore the roots and the tree altogether. Unless you believe that modern Persian literature is bitter crop, and you’re after an ephemeral shade.

This issue does not just affect literary education, but historical, sociological, cultural, and political studies. Any narrative of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that does not analyze primary texts from Khusheh Poetry Nights, Goethe Institute Poetry Nights, or Shiraz Arts Festivals is a distorted account. Period. What we are (not) doing here has the same results as universities that either are ideologically banned from teaching certain material, or lack the means to do so because the system eliminates those who carry that knowledge. I’m not talking about occasional class discussions, but about the curriculum. Are the works of Hedāyat, Barāheni, Shamlu, or Forugh being taught at the University of Tehran? No. Are they being taught here? Barely. Are they bitter crop?

Does your experience teaching Persian language inform your research and writing as well, or do these two areas of work operate more or less independently?

Not so much my research, but it does impact my writing. When you are pushed to think about a language in very basic terms, of course your relationship to it is going to change. And by basic I don’t mean elementary, I mean elemental, and by elemental I also mean foundational. Being a poet and studying the language versus just being a poet has the difference between molecular biologists and biologists. When you teach a language, especially in the Elementary level, it is a challenge to speak that language in understandable terms while teaching it. So you’re constantly searching for new ways to express yourself. I find this a good practice for poetry; sometimes it’s humiliating, because there are so many better ways you can say something, but both in poetry and in Elementary language the challenge is to say it in the impossible way, which you would make possible if you succeed. You know, the ivory tower, whether you think of it as a beloved’s neck or a department is not as tall or as isolated as it might seem. Umberto Eco has a concept called “academic humility,” by which he means that the best ideas may not come from the greatest authors; so, anyone can teach you something. It is incredible how much I have learned about writing Persian from the very basic questions and comments by students who don’t speak the language yet.

What is the mask on your office door, and what does it represent? Does it bear a special relationship to your work?

This mask is from Guerrero Nahuatl speaking tribes in the West-Central Mountains of Mexico. It is used in The Day of the Dead, which consists of two consecutive holidays on November 1 and 2, the All Saints’ Day and the All Souls’ Day. People set up altars in graveyards, and tables at homes in order to feed the deceased according to age and taste. Today, the holiday is known as a popular Catholic festivity, and sadly, it has been commercialized. But in fact, it is a continuation of pre-Hispanic practices of the agrarian cults during maize harvest, and until well into the Middle Ages, the clergy resisted recognizing these pagan traditions in liturgical calendar. This particular mask represents the deceased who return to their loved ones. Why is it on my door. Several reasons. One being that in monotheist cultures, including today’s Iranian culture, the concept of death has been swathed in an aura of fear and aggressive mourning, as if immortality is the rule and death is the unexpected unnatural violation. Anyone who dies is automatically turned into a saint, as if they were never human. It never gets old. When people face the death of a loved-one, they usually turn into the Sad Shepherd of Yeats’s poem, who wanted to unburden his ancient sorrow by singing it to nature, and hearing his echo, but nature had its own sounds to listen to: “Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim; / But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone / Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan / Among her wildering whirls, forgetting him.” What I appreciate in the remainders of the pre-Columbian civilizations is the outlook on death as a part and parcel of nature, and the theatrical, and not just performative but theatrical culture around death, which makes it human without downgrading its sorrow or eliminating its metaphysical sense. Of course, these ceremonies are derived from ancestor worship, but you don’t have to believe in their supernatural aspects to appreciate how easily a culture finds humor in the nature of death and the deceased. It is part of life, and like life itself, it can be several things at the same time; it can be angelic and devilish and sad and humorous, and all together wicked. As a Mexican mask expert and preservation architect has explained to me, this mask with its hat represents the deceased who have become angels, but have returned to take part in the circus of those who live, and they are remembered in a comic joyful way. The significance of the hat is that you return to join the human circus. Why is it on my door. Two reasons. One is to be wary of our collective tendencies for ancestor worship that continue to haunt us and distort our judgments in facing life and literature. Second, to remind myself that every person who walks into this space, including myself, is simultaneously an angel, a devil, an elf, and a sad comic, and simultaneously dead and alive. The beauty of it all is that we walk in and out of each other’s worlds deceased in some aspects and alive in others, and you never know what’s under the hat. That, to me, is theatre.