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About this book
In her debut collection, Divided Loyalties, acclaimed poet Nilofar Shidmehr depicts the lives of Iranian women in post-revolutionary Iran and the contemporary diaspora in Canada — the expectations imposed on them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, and the struggle to shed their socially conditioned identities.
The collection ranges from Tehran in 1978, when some affluent girls play a simple Cinderella game with unexpected consequences, foreshadowing the Iranian Revolution and its violent aftermath; to 1980s Iran, as women help their husbands and brothers survive war and political upheaval throughout the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution; to the 1990s in Vancouver, where an alcoholic single-mother refugee is harassed by the men she meets through a telephone dating platform; to the present day, following Iranian-Canadians who travel back to Iran on their own personal journeys.
Shidmehr’s style is at once straightforward and nuanced and the depth of her insight into familial and romantic relationships is undeniable. She has a striking clarity of vision and the poise of a poet who has been compared to Dionne Brand and Pablo Neruda. Divided Loyalties presents dynamic stories of Iranian and Iranian-Canadian lives in all their dignity, intimacy, and enduring complexity.
From the story “Divided Loyalties”
We arrive at the Jahmeh Vanak Mosque for the afternoon memorial service forty-five minutes before it starts. To greet those who arrive, I stand with Mom at the women’s entrance, and Milaad stands with my uncle from Dad’s side at the men’s entrance. Then when the mullah comes and bows his turbaned head to us, we move inside. The women-only hall is large and the walls are decorated by black banners with inscriptions from the Koran and religious texts in white and green. There is a table in front with a few bouquets of white flowers Milaad has ordered. A photo of Dad taken by me at the Deep Cove, enlarged and in black and white, sits beside them.
Dad’s family sit together on the right side of the room and Mom’s family on the left. I sit beside Mom during the mullah’s speech at the men section, which is broadcast via the four loud speakers at the corners of the room. As the man rambles about what a nice, kind, and generous husband and father Dad was to Mom and us, women weep under their chadors or scarves pulled forward to cover their brow and eyes.
Once the mullah finishes his sermon, he starts reading the names of those my father has left behind. He says that Mom has been a faithful wife who remained at Dad’s side until his last breath. I fear somebody will say this is a lie but nobody does.
As he speaks about how much Mom and Dad cared about each other, I remember that particular story he told me in Paris and glance at Aunt Raazi from the corner of my eye. The only visible things about her are her hands which she constantly rubs against each other. Is it because, like me, she is recalling the same terrible story? Beside Milaad and me, Raazi is the only one who knows about what happened on the night, only eight months ago, when Dad and Mom came back from their pilgrimage to Dad’s birthplace in the holy city of Mashhad.
Dad told Raazi the story to convince her to search for a new wife for him. “This is the first time in my life my sister rejected me,” Dad complained, “Like you and everybody else, she is scared of your Mom and her penchant for making a scene. She told me I’d better not to involve anyone else and find a woman by myself.” By making a scene, Dad was referring to that night. They took a taxi from the terminal and Mom insisted that the cabbie should first drop Dad at his place while Dad wanted him to drive Mom home first. Mom wouldn’t give her address to the driver. This is when Dad got more aggressive, telling the man that Mom had a lover and was guilty of adultery. He called her a whore in front of the pedestrians when the driver pulled over to let Mom get off midway to Dad’s place. I heard the story from both Mom and Dad. Neither of them answered my question why the hell they travel together while they are separated. As usual, they could neither live together nor apart.
The Mullah ends his speech about Mom and moves on to talk about me. He says that I am an architect living in Canada but as a good daughter I have put my job and life on hold and come back to be present here today. I drop my head but still can feel everybody’s eyes on me. I wonder if they can tell I faked crying.
About the Author
NILOFAR SHIDMEHR is a poet, essayist, and scholar. She is the author of Between Lives and Shirin and Salt Man, a finalist for a B.C. Book Prize. Her short stories have been published in Room, The New Quarterly, and Ava-ye-Tabiid (The Voice of Exile). She has published several books in her mother tongue, including a Farsi translation (with Ali Azarang) of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, and a wide range of essays on women’s rights, migration and diaspora, and social and political issues in Iran. As a member of the Iranian women’s movement, she presented lectures at the Iranian Women Studies Foundation Conference and at the Iranian Women Activists’ Organizations annual seminars in Germany. She holds a B.A. (Double Honours) in Philosophy and Creative Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education. Dr. Shidmehr is one of the pioneers of poetic inquiry as a methodology of research and a specialist in literature and cinema of modern Iran. She teaches Liberal Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where she lives with her husband.
Awards and Praise
PRAISE FOR SHIRIN AND SALT MAN (collected poems)
Finalist, Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC Book Prizes)
PRAISE FOR NILOFAR SHIDMEHR AND BETWEEN LIVES (collected poems)
“These poems speak plainly of mothers, of daughters, of lovers, but always beneath each simple story is the pulse of an intelligent, sensuous desire. These poems are feminist, moist, fragrant! Each word bursts, ripe in the mouth, like pomegranate.” — Sonnet L’Abbé, author of Killarnoe and A Strange Relief
“Shidmehr’s direct voice and unflinching gaze put her among such great activist poets as Martín Espada, Dionne Brand, and Pablo Neruda. With a clear gaze and arresting imagery, Shidmehr brings to light the violence and injustice of women’s lives in Iran and in the diaspora. Fully wrought and deeply personal, this is a necessary book by an accomplished writer.” — Elizabeth Bachinsky, author of The Hottest Summer in Recorded History and I Don’t Feel So Good
“These poems are the untold stories of contemporary Persian women’s lives, lives portrayed with intimacy and lyricism, despite their subjugation. These are poetic meditations that only a poet simultaneously intimate with a place, and exiled from it, can offer.” — Rachel Rose, author of the award-winning collection Song & Spectacle