What We Owe, a novel by Swedish-Iranian writer Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, is a book I devoured in one sitting. The voice is fierce and direct and unapologetic. The story is about life and death: the loss of a mother to cancer and the subsequent birth of a daughter; the loss of one’s motherland and the replanting of roots on another continent. It’s one of the best books I’ve read about the psychological horror of being from post-revolutionary Iran. In this age of continuing dehumanization of Iranians in America, this book is a critical read for us all.
Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde was born in Iran in 1983 and fled with her parents to Sweden as a young child. She graduated from the Stockholm School of Economics and was named one of fifty Goldman Sachs Global Leaders. She is the founder and director of Inkludera Invest, a non-profit organization that backs entrepreneurs developing pragmatic solutions to social challenges. Hashemzadeh Bonde’s debut novel, She Is Not Me (Hon är inte jag), came out in 2012. What We Owe is her second novel.
Hashemzadeh Bonde and I discussed the grief of losing family members, the lingering trauma of the Iranian Revolution, the invention of literature, and the joys of shaping a life in another land and language. Gorgeous and vital, this story will haunt its readers.
The Rumpus: I received your novel with a bright orange Post-it on the cover that read: “Try to enjoy in one sitting if you can!” I trust the person who sent me the note, so I heeded the constraint and read it in one day, on a Sunday, reclined on my sofa in the waning fall light. By the end of the novel, I felt like I weighed five thousand pounds. I kept thinking that I know Nahid. She was my grandmother. Or my best friend’s mother who died of stage four cancer over the course of four devastating years, years that failed to transform her anger over the revolution into love, or tenderness, or reconciliation. She remained attached to her cruelty and perhaps even perfected it in the face of death. What was the process like of coming to terms with Nahid’s anger, and of being able to translate it onto the page so unapologetically? Was there discomfort or shame in the writing process that you had to confront, or perhaps, dissolve?
Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde: I appreciate that you actually did read the novel in one sitting. I sometimes feel that that was how I wrote it, in one feverish and tearful sitting. There is a sense of urgency in Nahid’s story, as if she wants to share her life with us before it is too late. Nahid’s anger was definitely what attracted me the most in the writing process. She came to me with her strong voice, and I felt that my gift to her was to just allow her to be her true self. She deserves her anger, and her story is meant to make us realize this. We cringe at her words while simultaneously feeling for her. So allowing this female character her anger really wasn’t a discomfort for me. It was more of a relief, a cathartic relief.
Rumpus: In a brief interview with Rachel Sugar for the Kirkus Review you talk about the trauma of the revolution living on in the body and eventually eroding that body at a young age. I’ve had several family members die in their fifties over the last few years and, those deaths, all of them sudden, have stirred up the unresolved pain of the revolution in those of us who have survived them. How have these losses opened up new windows through which to view twentieth-century Iranian history for you? Have those absences made certain psychological and emotional dynamics of Iranian history visible to you? And what has been the effect on your relationship to storytelling, including what you might wish to archive through literature?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: I am sorry to hear about your losses, and also amazed that this actually happens to so many of those in our parent’s generation of exile Iranians. My parents both died in their early fifties and I must say that I was not at all prepared for this to be the outcome of all of their struggles. For the trauma to be this significant and impossible to escape. I think about my parents and their lives, and I think: What if they had known? What if they had known that leaving is not the same as escaping? What if they had known that the revolution would haunt them forever? And even more, what if they had known that their fate would be this early death?
In The Economist’s review of What We Owe, they wrote that one in a hundred Swedes have Iranian heritage. This number was striking to me. As a writer, I have often felt that I should move beyond exploring all this issues that stem from being a refugee, or from being Iranian, or from being non-Swedish. That I should kind of move on and write stories that are closer to my Western identity. For multiple reasons really: to become a more relevant writer, but also with the kind of naive wish to move beyond my past, to focus on the present, or rather the future. But more and more, I feel that the past is in the present and in the future, not only for me as an individual, but also for Sweden as a nation and, well, for all nations in which dwell Iranian refugees or others who have left their countries because of political oppression or war. The trauma lives, perhaps not always in a way that hinders everyday life. Perhaps the pains of the past even fuel and give force to the struggles of today. But in some way, it is there. Inescapable.
Someone noted that our parents’ generation will soon be gone, and with them the many stories that have formed our lives and consequently the societies we live in. My urge to explore, document, and understand the implications of these stories is stronger than ever. I think of my children. They are half-Iranian, half-Swedish. They have no elders from the Iranian side to feed them that part of their past. It’s a blind spot really, but I’m certain that this past will still be a significant part of their identities. Traumas stick in our bodies, and they affect future generations. As a mother, I need to be equipped to make this heritage a source of strength and resilience for them. Writing is what can make this possible.
Rumpus: I love the spare, deceptively simple prose in What We Owe. There’s a great deal of silence in the novel. To the reader, Nahid confesses what she would like to offer her daughter Aram, but when she has the opportunity to communicate her truth to Aram, she either fails or returns to her withholding habits. Masood does not have a voice in the novel. We don’t have access to his interiority. We know that he grew to become violent toward Nahid, and that he died young, but we don’t get to know him in other ways. Aram never speaks back to her mother, never protests, or demands kindness or respect. Can you talk a little bit about these narrative choices? What are these silences protecting?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: It is funny how I really do not feel that I made any narrative choices in writing this novel. Nahid’s voice came to me, and so I wrote her story. While writing, I was truly in Nahid’s head. Everything is seen through her eyes and told with her voice. We get to know what she wants us to know, but most importantly what she herself wants to know, how she wants to view her life and the world.
Her husband, Masood, I don’t think he was truly important to Nahid. She fell in love reluctantly, not convinced that a husband would bring her any joy or advantages in life. Her feelings towards Masood are kind of mixed with her excitement about the revolution. And later, what she tells us about him is closely linked to her grief and disappointment about the outcome of their political struggle. When it comes to her daughter, I think Nahid’s need of protecting herself from the consequences of the harm that she is bringing to her child is one of her strongest driving forces. When I think about this, in light of your beautifully put question, I realize that if Aram were to protest or speak back then that would be a confirmation of Nahid’s unjust behavior. And Nahid does not want that confirmation.
Thus, essentially the silences are to protect Nahid.
Rumpus: The novel’s ending is stunning. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say much here. Did the ending arrive at the end? Or was it an image, a sensation, you began with and wrote toward?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: The ending was with me from even before starting on the novel. I just saw the image so clearly, and it made so much sense. For things to end this way, for life to function in this way. It is a painful image, but also one that gives so much solace.
I was halfway through the story when I felt that I just had to let the ending pour out of me to be able to focus on putting the totality together. So I did. I sat down at this bistro in central Stockholm, where I did much of the writing on this book. I remember it being a Saturday and people were having brunch and drinking wine and laughing. I sat there like this lone island in the flowing sea. I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I cried and people would look at me not really knowing whether this was appropriate brunch-time behavior. But to me, it was just wonderful. One of the best writing sessions I’ve ever had.
Rumpus: Who are some of the writers you read while working on the book? Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: This is an interesting question, as I really did not read much while writing this book. I didn’t do much at all. My mind was too occupied, and I was so focused on getting it out of me. Like a labor process. It really was written the way it is meant to be read: feverishly. What I did do though, was I listened to Persian music, constantly and hungrily. The writing was more an emotional act than an intellectual one, although the story is of course the consequences of years of thinking on the topics discussed. I think the music played an important role in how the language of the book is built. To me, there is a rhythm in the words, in the length of the sentences and how they build on each other, in the silences that you mentioned before. The rhythm is central to my writing, and I guess my inspiration for the rhythm is the Persian music I was raised with.
Rumpus: Googoosh comes up often in the novel. She is a symbol of femininity and power for our parents’ generation (we were both born in 1983). I grew up listening to her the way Aram grows up listening to her. Nahid is so proud of having given Aram music, while Masood has given her literature. Who are some of the literary figures whose voices she inherits via Masood? Did you make a conscious choice not to name some of the writers she would have discovered through him?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: The songs of the past play an important role in this story. The music is what Nahid has left from her roots, and the old songs are kind of keys to memories and familiar emotions. Her songs are also so easy to pass on to the next generation and it is comforting for Nahid that her daughter carries them with her. As if she is carrying part of Nahid and her past through the music.
Nahid truly is not interested in what Masood left behind. He is very peripheral to her, as are all things not concerned with her immediately. I guess that is why the writers aren’t named. And again, because the backdrop or soundtrack of this novel truly was Persian music.
Rumpus: I’m curious how this novel has impacted your relationship to language, identity, and literature. I’ve been thinking about the poetry of Solmaz Sharif, Kaveh Akbar, and the Swedish-Iranian poet Athena Farrokhzad while reading What We Owe. In particular, about a poem by Athena Farrokhzad titled “Letter to a Warrior” addressed to an unborn baby in which she writes, “I have no inheritance for you… for you belong to families that have abandoned everything / that have left with nothing.” Are you familiar with that particular poem of hers? If so, did it in any way keep you company as you envisioned the novel’s ending?
Hashemzadeh Bonde: I actually am not familiar with this particular poem, but I appreciate these phrases, thank you. It is so very interesting to me that writing this book actually shifted my view of the inheritance I have for my children. In the past, I grieved everything that was lost. With leaving Iran, with my parents being in so much pain. I feel now that my past and the struggle of my parents is just such richness. Painful, yes. Regrettable, in many ways, yes. But despite, or because of, their sacrifices, my mother and father lived so much. They created so much. They lived remarkable lives, and I will always be grateful for the multitude of perspectives that has given me. My past might not have been the easiest, or one you would wish for your children, but I am thankful for it and for the people who brought me here. My parents gave my children the greatest gift: the freedom they now take for granted and enjoy.
Photograph of Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde © Carl von Arbin Photography.