A Hybrid Wonder: Niloufar Talebi’s Self-Portrait in Bloom
We have never met in real life, though I feel, having just finished your Self-Portrait in Bloom, that we have met many times and in many places before. I asked myself, “What’s more intimate than a self-portrait?” Perhaps the answer is nothing, or perhaps the answer is a letter.
There was a moment early on in your rapturous hybrid collection where you wrote, “During all the years I lived in Iran both before and after the revolution, I exchanged heaps of hand-written letters in English with pen pals all over the world.” How I wish I had been one of them! You continued:
There were readily available forms I cannot remember how or through whom to be filled out and sent away that resulted magically in pen pal matches […] Letters would arrive from faraway places in exotic or thin blue Par Avion envelopes bearing unfamiliar stamps and ink charting journeys through ports […] I don’t have copies of the letters I wrote, nor any trace of where, to whom, or how many were sent. So many lost Creation Stories.
I put down my copy of your book and drew a vast star in the margins there. Yes! I remember having pen pals, too! I think interested students were matched with pen pals through my school in the mid-1980s. Like you, I have nothing to show for the letters I wrote or received during that time and remember very little about the pen pals themselves. I vaguely recall a girl named Jamie who lived somewhere in the Midwest—Wisconsin, maybe? I remember writing to her about what it was like to grow up on the West Coast, in Seattle, where people assume it rains every day (it doesn’t) and the intense desire I felt to conjure for her a sense of myself and my life.
What you wrote about corresponding with pen pals as a child reminded me how much I treasured sending and receiving letters of any kind—a joy we shared then and still share, it seems. As I read deeper and deeper into your book, I found myself thinking of the whole project as one extraordinary epistle: part memoir, part poetry, part found artifact/imported text, part meta-meditation on the nature of language and the intricacies of translation between languages. What’s more: your book is also part literary biography of a poet, writer, and translator you knew personally, greatly admired, and whose work you came to translate into English—Ahmad Shamlou. Is it fair to say this book of your own blooming is also a testament/testimonial to the seeds he planted in you as an emerging artist and activist? Is it fair to call Self-Portrait in Bloom, among the many fitting names the book might answer to, a fan letter—admittedly the most sui generis fan letter I have ever read—to a literary hero?
I wrote fan letters all the time as a child! I wrote to TV personalities and movie stars who had portrayed characters I admired. In my own first published book, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, I attempted to recreate several of my fan letters to Mary Tyler Moore, and I felt the urge then, without having learned the term “hybrid,” to build a kind of multi-genre scrapbook around my childhood and coming of age. I had what I thought were competing impulses: to document (reproduce texts from the past) and create (emulate or riff on texts from the past). What was it like to grow up inside my particular family, within my particular neighborhood, city, state, part of the country, part of the world, and during that particular cultural moment? Is this how you felt writing Self-Portrait in Bloom—that deep longing to capture everything about yourself and your zeitgeist, knowing no single genre could suffice for such capacious intentions?
Niloufar, do you know precisely when I fell in love with your book—when I felt that special feeling I recognized from my youth of opening an envelope inscribed with my name—the thrill that someone had taken care to write and send a letter to me? It was the page before your Prologue and after your Contents. Another interstice, another mezzanine. Your book is full of glorious limbos. But here, three perfect sentences, italicized—a trifecta: “There are two books in this book. One portrait of me and one of Ahmad Shamlou. And they intersect.”
In grad school, I studied poetry, officially, though I also studied creative nonfiction, optionally, for my elective courses. My poetry thesis adviser, the brilliant and capacious Suzanne Paola (if you don’t know her work, please allow me to recommend her to you—I think you share a deep hybrid vigor in common), was guiding my production of a collection of poems, but simultaneously, and under a slightly different name—Susanne Antonetta—she was publishing her own first book of creative nonfiction, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir. The subtitle, even more than the title, astonished and riveted me. What was an “environmental memoir?” What could it be? And then in reading the book, I realized it was a portrait of the author’s coming of age but also of the environment in which she came of age. There were two books in that book, too—a portrait of Suzanne (Paola) and a portrait of Elizabeth (New Jersey). I think, Niloufar, if you asked me to put a subtitle to your book—which I know you haven’t! we haven’t even met! forgive these liberties!—I would call it an “intersectional memoir.”
There are of course the more explicit examples of intersecting and braiding the self with the mentor: your early chapters that alternate “Me,” “Shamlou,” and “Me” again. Then, “Aida: Muse, Wife, Assistant, Steward” adds another road to the intersection, another strand to the braid, as you begin to incorporate Shamlou’s spouse into the narrative as well. And is this book a narrative? Well, yes. But it’s also a lyric—another point of deep intersectionality. Prose meets poetry in your collection, autobiography meets biography in your collection, narrative meets lyric in your collection—and all roads lead to blossoming of a kind—to, what is the word I want precisely?—the documented and recreated inflorescence of your mind at work.
Already, Niloufar, I see how long this letter has grown! It’s a pen pal correspondence of a kind, hybrid writer to hybrid writer. It’s also a fan letter for you, for the power of your language and the courage of your storytelling. There is so much I wrote in the margins of my copy of your book that anticipate this letter—the things I wanted to tell you about how it feels to be a reader of your work. How could I write an ordinary (which is to say traditional) book review when you have not written an ordinary (which is to say traditional) book? I am in the habit of reviewing poetry projects, but yours is a poetry project plus; yours is a heterosis of so many literary forms and modes.
Permit me then a catalog of assorted impressions, knowing I cannot possibly say everything—though the desire is there, to document my reactions and to create something new in response to what you’ve written—
*The poetics of your early memories and your meditations upon them, as in:
A past ungraspable like the iridescence of an oil spill (I feel I will never forget this description; it will become an epigraph for something I write someday in the spirit of your work)
Perched at grandfather’s chest
Mommy’s doll is stuffed
Into white lacy tights that leave
On her Michelin Man legs (I see this doll and clutch her as if she were my own)
Packets of Pop Rocks arrived from America. The most memorable flavor: purple grape. […] Purely chemical tiny rocks unexpectedly thudding into the upper palate of my mouth. Almost violent. (I taste them now reading these lines as viscerally as I did when I was a child eating them.)
*Learning about Shamlou through you, craving your subjective experience of him, your interpretations of his life and work:
Shamlou considered the colloquial language he had been exposed to in his early years to be much richer and more expressive than the official language. He began to fuse high and low language together to create a new, multidimensional one. (Your hero is a hybridist; your tribute is a hybrid!)
*Your description of Iran that brings the country deeply alive in my mind and your ability to anticipate your reader’s need to see, to be connected to your story, in visual-topographical ways:
The land of Iran is in the shape of a sitting cat, bearing the Caspian Sea on its back, and perching in the south on the Persian Gulf. The Alborz mountain range would line up as the cat’s spinal cord…
*These insights, they transform your bildungsroman-qua-kunstlerroman into something beyond. I want to learn from other writers, not only by what they write, but by how they write what they write—and how they wrestle with what they write as they write it. You grant me that intimacy as a reader, these startling glimpses inside your own process:
“We hunger for significance. We impose narrative on patterns on the ongoing events of our lives. I have curated two incomplete portraits, one of myself and one of Shamlou, my amoo. I do not know what I would call him now if he were here […] I am no longer a wide-eyed girl. I am an adult, a creator. And so, how do I tell his story if I do not know who I am vis-à-vis him anymore?”
And later, lyrically, luminously:
I write to get under the surface of things. (Me too! I’m calling out from the margins of your page. Me too!)
*That the fulcrum of your book is a poem called “Emergence,” surrounded by prose on either side. That poem is an island, a lyric floating beautifully unhinged in the midst of an anchoring narrative:
How I want
myself into every speck of sky.
(I feel these lines reverberating in my chest as deeply as if you had struck a gong or banged a drum.)
*The fact that I am shadowing you through your emergence as a translator—“The translator is only visible when she has failed, when the reader wants to throw a book at the wall”—and then shadowing Shamlou’s vision and character as a poet through your translations of his poems—“I wish I were water, I tell myself—/ to raise a slight sapling to a strapping tree” (The layers, Niloufar! The layers!)
*Your incorporation of photographs throughout—how have I not mentioned these yet?—the way they never attempt to override the power of your language, only to supplement and augment, appearing when I least expect them and am most unconscious of my desire (though it is great) to receive them!
And then something happened, Niloufar. Your book entranced me, enveloped me (the way the finest epistle would). I lost track of time. I had turned more than two hundred pages, all in a row, all without stopping. There were only forty, maybe fifty, pages left to turn. I was grateful for the world of the book. I was thinking that there was nothing else your pages could offer me, nothing else I could seek or expect to find. That’s when “Chapter 16: Venom of Snake” appeared, and I was catapulted all the way back to your Prologue, to my first encounter with translation in this text:
“There is no exact equivalent in English for the Persian word zahre-mahr, at least none that I’ve thought up, but the literal translation is ‘venom of snake.’” Then, a deeper meditation on sounds, a memory of playing Snakes and Ladders with your brother (in my home, it was Chutes and Ladders, and I played with my parents…), and then these acts of translation:
Zahre-mahram shod = It was ruined for me.
Zahre-mahram kard = Someone ruined it for me.
To ruin something for someone.
I thought I understood your rumination of venom and snakes, then, in that early moment of the text, as purely existential—a rumination in two languages at once on our universal human condition.
Later, I thought, And she becomes a translator, too! See how her heart was always in translation, just as her mind, body, and spirit were always alive inside multiple languages, multiple places, multiple ways of knowing.
But then, more than two hundred pages deep, the snake strikes! The seed you planted on the first full page of your book has grown. It is now a monstrous flower, a heartbreaking flower, more of a Venus fly trap or a thorny vine than any sweet perennial in a garden. But perennial the snake’s betrayal remains.
I was reading your book on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore. I enjoyed the uninterrupted time, the opportunity for pure immersion. I had been reading and reading, sinking deeper and deeper into the nexus of you and Shamlou, and then without any warning (but much foreshadowing, I see now), I was bitten! The turn was so intense! Is it too melodramatic of me to call it a venomous volta? (Perhaps.) But the flight attendants were telling us we were free to move about the cabin, and I couldn’t move. I was reading about the colossal professional betrayal you experienced, the award you were granted that was then rescinded, the colleague who revealed herself to be a nemesis, a saboteur—a snake!
It was happening. The book was transforming again, this time into a narrative nonfiction thriller, a straightforward, linear, harrowing prose account of the past five years of your life—of your withering without hope of blooming again, and of your writing your way out of that withering:
WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED. My mouth contracted into a ring of wrinkles, a sea urchin… (This image will always stay with me.)
I’m walking slowly up the aisle of the plane. I’m clutching your book, reading as I drag my suitcase by my heels. I feel the urgency of the passengers behind me, but not as much as I feel your urgency, Niloufar, rising up from each page like heat from summer pavement, writing against the withering until you can say—and mean it:
There is wonder everywhere. Yes, all the beautiful things are still there. Wonder now is a honed practice.
This is how it is to emerge from grief, isn’t it? To return to the world of the living again. We have to practice wonder because it has ceased to come naturally to us.
At the very end of the book, I love how you tell me exactly where you are: typing in your car in California on a pleasant, mid-winter day. So I’ll tell you exactly where I was at the very end of your book: In baggage claim at BWI, passing the carousels, heading toward the exit doors. But I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put your book down, literally.
At the end, you are writing to the reader, and I am the reader. The letter I have always known the book to be becomes the letter it actually is: “I have erased and rewritten myself over and over,” you say, “and by the time you read this, I will be a phantom to you”
But you won’t! And you aren’t! I’m think-saying but maybe actually saying. I’m getting some pretty strange looks from the people around me, rushing to retrieve their bags, while I stand in the middle of that vast space, moved but unmoving.
Already I’m starting this letter, this non-traditional review in my mind. By the time you read this, Niloufar, I hope you’ve heard from us—all the readers whose lives you have entered and altered with your words. By the time you read this, Niloufar, I hope you are flourishing.
Yours in admiration and emulation,
Julie Marie Wade