“A brutally honest memoir of a life built by words, destroyed by words, rebuilt by words.”
In the aftermath of World War II, “a new dynamism” was taking shape in Persian poetry. Award-winning translator Niloufar Talebi explains how Iranian poets were increasingly instrumental in “freeing Persian poetry from the state of decline and stagnation.” Into this backdrop emerges the poet Ahmad Shamlou in this part-memoir, part-biography, and part-history of literature in Iran. “There are two books in this book, one portrait of me and one of Ahmad Shamlou. And they intersect,” Talebi writes of Self-Portrait in Bloom. Released in the 40th anniversary year of the Iranian revolution, it delves deep into culture, personal history, and pays homage to Tehran, the city of Talebi’s childhood. Told in fragments of prose, poetry, and photographs, this lyrical exploration reimagines the memoir form and in a dramatic climax sets free the details of a hurt that can no longer limit the blossoming of an artist.
“Self-Portrait in Bloom recounts the stories of poets, revolutions, women, and censorship. A celebration of the recreative power of memory and language, from the girl standing in front of her blue bedroom window watching snow, to the many lessons of silence—Talebi’s “animal with two faces.” It is a book of longing, haunted by history.”—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa
In Conversation with Niloufar Talebi
Q. Your memoir expands the conventional boundaries of the genre. You write in fragments of prose and poetry and include images. Did other writers or art forms inspire you?
Pushing boundaries beyond the prescribed has always been my practice. I search to find my own voice and discover the language around what I want to say and create rather than follow rules. As a result, my projects often fall out of and in between genres. But I would not have it any other way. I also pull from and connect material from many cultural sources, so the tapestry of the metaphors at my disposal that
Q. You write about “the identity politics of being female, immigrant, Iranian-American,” being for others and their practice of equity. What do you wish “others” understood about how you see yourself as an artist?
I don’t want to be measured by my gender, race, or anything other than my imagination and creative output. I have never seen myself as anything other than “artist,” and I wish others would too.
Q. Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000), the Avant-Garde Iranian poet of his time, was also a translator, which put him in “direct conversation” with a global knowledge base. You also describe his “complex relationship” with translation. How so?
Shamlou practiced translation in a creative way, with the goal to create a sublime text in the target language (Persian). He also expressed strong opinions about translation being done a certain way, which sometimes contradicted each other and best understood in the context in which they were made. Essentially, his definition and practice of “fidelity” was more about continuing the tone, innovations, and intention of the original text, and not so much about photocopying its syntax, which is how I approached translating him.
Q. In 2019, how would you describe Iran’s contribution to the world of literature?
Iranian literature is primarily celebrated for its classical poetic tradition, which has been translated into other languages for centuries. Contemporary “Iranian” literature, or literature by Iranians, is being written in Iran and all over the world and in different languages by its diaspora, but does not appear in widespread translation. The sanctions on Iran, the challenging diplomatic position Iran is in now, Iran’s brutal censoring of its artists and writers, and the fact that Iran is not a signatory of the Berne Copyright Convention all directly impact how little exchange with and access we have to literature from Iran. Hence, it is difficult to quantify that contribution when the world reads so little of this literature in translation.
Q. In the chapter, “Venom of Snake,” you write of an experience that was once impossible to discuss. In 2014, your fifth translation award, that one for translating Shamlou’s poetry, was rescinded. The Official Website of Ahmad Shamlou alleged you did not have official approval to translate Shamlou’s poetry. How has this affected your translation of Shamlou’s poetry?
Coming out of silence after such an act of needless silencing was a long process for me. I always knew that I would write about it, but it took time to find my way into and out of the story. It was only through writing about it and creating Self-Portrait in Bloom, and its related opera, Abraham in Flames, with generous and ingenious collaborators, that I have been able to survive the damage it inflicted upon me and the legacy of Shamlou. I remained just as committed, if not more, to translating Shamlou’s poetry. I was not going to be silenced, nor was I going to allow the actions of rogue agents to derail the project of introducing Shamlou to an international readership, which Shamlou’s work so merits.
Q. In the late
Memories of a very happy childhood, and then a spectacular coming of age in the four years (1980-1984) that I lived in Iran during the turbulent times after the revolution. Those years, when Ahmad Shamlou visited our home, were, in my opinion, the most defining years of my life. The “Tehran” chapter in my book is my love letter to the city I have not been able to see for
“A brutally honest memoir of a life built by words, destroyed by words, rebuilt by words.”—Firoozeh Dumas, New York Times best-selling author of Funny in Farsi and Laughing Without an Accent
“Niloufar Talebi’s superb translations of Shamlou’s poetry convey a deep mastery and love of the immortal poet’s texts, and are a major contribution in presenting Shamlou’s literary greatness for Western readers. These translations are a work of love.”—Nahid Mozaffari, editor, Strange Times My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature
“Niloufar Talebi has written an original and intriguing memoir. Dispensing with linearity, shuttling between her Iranian childhood and her American coming of age, she moves nimbly up and back along the space-time axis. A loving and contemplative spirit compels these pages forward.”—Sven Birkerts, author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
“Niloufar Talebi offers a lyrical evocation of an Iranian childhood, of a girl growing into complicated maturity as an artist while bringing to life the great Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, whose art became intertwined with her own. Step by step, she lures us into a profound meditation on the power of poetry, the politics of language, and the art of translation—and then into the shocking spectacle of an artist stifled. This memoir is not just poignant, it’s wrenching.”—Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York, and Games Without Rules
“A hybrid wonder.”— The Rumpus
“Brilliant writers can have brilliant debuts. Elegiac and deep diving into the mind of a genius existentialist, Niloufar Talebi’s memoir, Self-Portrait in Bloom, is reminiscent of Sebald. This original work feels true to continuous life and disjointed memory — separate yet forced to be connected. This is a compelling book by a true writer.— Amy Tan, author of Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir
“A passionate defense of the crucial role translation plays in connecting the world, Self-Portrait in Bloom also tells the story of Niloufar Talebi’s courage in overcoming profound obstacles to bring her expert translations of world-class Iranian poet, Ahamd Shamlou, to new readers. A brave and remarkable feat.”— Edith Grossman, author of Why Translation Matters
“Niloufar Talebi’s Self-Portrait in Bloom is not only a personal portrait that presents her marvelous translations of the poetry of the great Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou, a friend of the Talebi family, but it contains her hymn to and of Tehran in a brilliant prose-poem that makes that city memorable.”— Jack Hirschman, Emeritus Poet Laureate of San Francisco
Niloufar Talebi is a writer, award-winning translator, and creator. Her work has been featured at the Kennedy Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and she has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Her projects include Belonging, Epiphany, The Persian Rite of Spring, ICARUS/RISE, and Abraham in Flames opera. Her work has been published in World Literature Today, PBS Frontline, Rattapallax, and
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