EB: I assume that means your father and you didn’t get along.
NW: There were strains between us. We were quarreling. Quite a lot, which was a novelty for him. He wasn’t accustomed to being talked back to, certainly not by women. We had rows over what I wore, where I went, what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. I had turned bold and adventurous, and he even more ascetic and emotionally austere. We had become natural opponents.
She chuckles, and tightens the bandanna’s knot at the back of her head.
NW: And then I took to falling in love. Often, desperately, and, to my father’s horror, with the wrong sort. A housekeeper’s son once, another time a low-level civil servant who handled some business affairs for my father. Foolhardy, wayward passions, all of them doomed from the start. I arranged clandestine rendezvous and slipped away from home, and, of course, someone would inform my father that I’d been spotted on the streets somewhere. They would tell him that I was cavorting—they always put it like that—I was “cavorting.” Or else they would say I was “parading” myself. My father would have to send a search party to bring me back. He would lock me up. For days. He would say from the other side of the door, You humiliate me. Why do you humiliate me so? What will I do about you? And sometimes he answered that question with his belt, or a closed fist. He’d chase me around the room. I suppose he thought he could terrorize me into submission. I wrote a great deal at that time, long, scandalous poems dripping with adolescent passion. Rather melodramatic and histrionic as well, I fear. Caged birds and shackled lovers, that sort of thing. I am not proud of them.
I sense that false modesty is not her suit and therefore can assume only that this is her honest assessment of these early writings. If so, it is a brutally unforgiving one. Her poems from this period are stunning in fact, even in translation, especially considering her young age when she wrote them. They are moving, rich with imagery, emotion, insight, and telling grace. They speak beautifully of loneliness and uncontainable sorrow. They chronicle her disappointments, the crests and troughs of young love in all its radiance and promises and trappings. And there is often a sense of transcendent claustrophobia, of a shortening horizon, and always a sense of struggle against the tyranny of circumstance—often depicted as a never named sinister male figure who looms. A not so-opaque allusion to her father, one would gather. I tell her all this.
EB: And you break in these poems from the rhythm, rhyme, and meter that I understand to be integral to classic Farsi poetry. You make use of free-flowing imagery. You heighten random, mundane details. This was quite groundbreaking, I understand. Would it be fair to say that if you’d been born in a wealthier nation—say, Iran—that you would almost certainly be known now as a literary pioneer?
She smiles wryly.
EB: Still, I am quite struck by what you said earlier. That you weren’t proud of those poems. Are you pleased with any of your work?
NW: A thorny question, that one. I suppose I would answer in the affirmative, if only I could keep them apart from the creative process itself.
EB: You mean separate the end from the means.
NW: I see the creative process as a necessarily thievish undertaking. Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing, Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor. Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly.
EB: And you were very good at it.
NW: I did it not for the sake of some high and lofty notion about art but because I had no choice. The compulsion was far too powerful. If I did not surrender to it, I would have lost my mind. You ask if I am proud. I find it hard to flaunt something obtained through what I know to be morally questionable means. I leave the decision to tout or not to others.
She empties her glass of wine and refills it with what remains in the bottle.
NW: What I can tell you, however, is that no one was touting me in Kabul. No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my father. He said my writings were the ramblings of a whore. He used that word precisely. He said I’d damaged his family name beyond repair. He said I had betrayed him. He kept asking why I found it so hard to be respectable.
EB: How did you respond?
NW: I told him I did not care for his notion of respectable. I told him I had no desire to slip the leash around my own neck.
EB: I suppose that only displeased him more.
I hesitate to say this next.
EB: But I do understand his anger.
She cocks an eyebrow.
EB: He was a patriarch, was he not? And you were a direct challenge to all he knew, all that he held dear. Arguing, in a way, through both your life and your writing, for new boundaries for women, for women to have a say in their own status, to arrive at legitimate selfhood. You were defying the monopoly that men like him had held for ages. You were saying what could not be said. You were conducting a small, one-woman revolution, one could say.
NW: And all this time, I thought I was writing about sex.
EB: But that’s part of it, isn’t it?
I flip through my notes and mention a few of the overtly erotic poems—“Thorns,” “But for the Waiting,” “The Pillow.” I also confess to her that they are not among my favorites. I remark that they lack nuance and ambiguity. They read as though they have been crafted with the sole aim of shocking and scandalizing. They strike me as polemical, as angry indictments of Afghan gender roles.
NW: Well, I was angry. I was angry about the attitude that I had to be protected from sex. That I had to be protected from my own body. Because I was a woman. And women, don’t you know, are emotionally, morally, and intellectually immature. They lack self-control, you see, they’re vulnerable to physical temptation. They’re hypersexual beings who must be restrained lest they jump into bed with every Ahmad and Mahmood.
EB: But—forgive me for saying this—you did just that, no?
NW: Only as a protest against that very notion.
She has a delightful laugh, full of mischief and cunning intelligence. She asks if I want lunch. She says her daughter has recently restocked her refrigerator and proceeds to make what turns out to be an excellent jambon fumé sandwich. She makes only one. For herself, she uncorks a new bottle of wine and lights another cigarette. She sits down.
NW: Do you agree, for the sake of this chat, that we should remain on good terms, Monsieur Boustouler?
I tell her I do.
NW: Then do me two favors. Eat your sandwich and quit looking at my glass.
Needless to say, this preemptively quells any impulse I may have had to ask about the drinking.
EB: What happened next?
NW: I fell ill in 1948, when I was nearly nineteen. It was serious, and I will leave it at that. My father took me to Delhi for treatment. He stayed with me for six weeks while doctors tended to me. I was told I could have died. Perhaps I should have. Dying can be quite the career move for a young poet. When we returned, I was frail and withdrawn. I couldn’t be bothered with writing. I had little interest in food or conversation or entertainment. I was averse to visitors. I just wanted to pull the curtains and sleep all day every day. Which was what I did mostly. Eventually, I got out of bed and slowly resumed my daily routines, by which I mean the stringent essentials a person must tend to in order to remain functional and nominally civil. But I felt diminished. Like I had left something vital of myself behind in India.
EB: Was your father concerned?
NW: Quite the contrary. He was encouraged. He thought that my encounter with mortality had shaken me out of my immaturity and waywardness. He didn’t understand that I felt lost. I’ve read, Monsieur Boustouler, that if an avalanche buries you and you’re lying there underneath all that snow, you can’t tell which way is up or down. You want to dig yourself out but pick the wrong way, and you dig yourself to your own demise. That was how I felt, disoriented, suspended in confusion, stripped of my compass. Unspeakably depressed as well. And, in that state, you are vulnerable. Which is likely why I said yes the following year, in 1949, when Suleiman Wahdati asked my father for my hand.
EB: You were twenty.
NW: He was not.
She offers me another sandwich, which I decline, and a cup of coffee, which I accept. As she sets water on to boil, she asks if I am married. I tell her I am not and that I doubt I ever will be. She looks at me over her shoulder, her gaze lingering, and grins.
NW: Ah. I can usually tell.
NW: Maybe it’s the concussion.
She points to the bandanna.
NW: This isn’t a fashion statement. I slipped and fell a couple of days ago, tore my forehead open. Still, I should have known. About you, I mean. In my experience, men who understand women as well as you seem to rarely want to have anything to do with them.
She gives me the coffee, lights a cigarette, and takes a seat.
NW: I have a theory about marriage, Monsieur Boustouler. And it’s that nearly always you will know within two weeks if it’s going to work. It’s astonishing how many people remain shackled for years, decades even, in a protracted and mutual state of self-delusion and false hope when in fact they had their answer in those first two weeks. Me, I didn’t even need that long. My husband was a decent man. But he was much too serious, aloof, and uninteresting. Also, he was in love with the chauffeur.
EB: Ah. That must have come as a shock.
NW: Well, it did thicken the proverbial plot.
She smiles a little sadly.
NW: I felt sorry for him, mostly. He could not have chosen a worse time or worse place to be born the way he was.
He died of a stroke when our daughter was six. At that point, I could have stayed in Kabul. I had the house and my husband’s wealth. There was a gardener and the aforementioned chauffeur. It would have been a comfortable life. But I packed our bags and moved us, Pari and me, to France.
EB: Which, as you indicated earlier, you did for her benefit.
NW: Everything I’ve done, Monsieur Boustouler, I’ve done for my daughter. Not that she understands, or appreciates, the full measure of what I’ve done for her. She can be breathtakingly thoughtless, my daughter. If she knew the life she would have had to endure, if not for me …
EB: Is your daughter a disappointment to you?
NW: Monsieur Boustouler, I’ve come to believe she’s my punishment.
One day in 1975, Pari comes home to her new apartment and finds a small package on her bed. It is a year after she fetched her mother from the emergency room and nine months since she left Julien. Pari is living now with a nursing student named Zahia, a young Algerian woman with curly brown hair and green eyes. She is a competent girl, with a cheerful, unfrazzled disposition, and they have lived together easily, though Zahia is now engaged to her boyfriend, Sami, and moving in with him at the end of the semester.
There is a folded sheet of paper next to the package. This came for you. I’m spending the night at Sami’s. See you tomorrow. Je t’embrasse. Zahia.
Pari rips the package open. Inside is a magazine and, clipped to it, another note, this one written in a familiar, almost femininely graceful script. This was sent to Nila and then to the couple who live in Collette’s old apartment and now it is forwarded to me. You should update your forwarding address. Read this at your own peril. Neither of us fares very well, I’m afraid. Julien.
Pari drops the journal on the bed and makes herself a spinach salad and some couscous. She changes into pajamas and eats by the TV, a small black-and-white rental. Absently, she watches images of airlifted South Vietnamese refugees arriving in Guam. She thinks of Collette, who had protested the American war in Vietnam in the streets. Collette, who had brought a wreath of dahlias and daisies to Maman’s memorial, who had held and kissed Pari, who had delivered a beautiful recitation of one of Maman’s poems at the podium.