Jasmin Darznik,”Veiled Bestsellers”

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In this review essay, Darznik reviews:

Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, By Gillian Whitlock, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, 216 pp., $20.00, paperback, and Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been: New Writing By Women of the Iranian Diaspora, Edited by Persis M. Karim, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006, 428 pp., $24.95, paperback.

Here is an excerpt:

… Whitlock’s central question could be phrased thus: Who exactly is getting to speak autobiographically on behalf of the people of the Middle East? This question also permeates most readings of Iranian-American literature. The phenomenal success of Reading Lolita in Tehran, followed by a spate of bestsellers such as Funny in Farsi, Lipstick Jihad, and Persepolis, marks a period of unprecedented interest in writing by Iranian immigrant women. This writing has not been without its critics, some of the most vocal of whom have been Iranian-American academics who doubt the legitimacy of Western-educated Iranian immigrants to speak to the experience of”real”Iranians.

It all makes for a tendency to conflate a great number of memoirs and to judge them according to their political import and commercial success rather than according to their literary quality, which seems to have been abandoned as a meaningful category for scholarly inquiry. Ironically, such readings only tend to re-inscribe the importance already conferred by best-seller status. At this point, Azar Nafisi has so many virulent critics that you might get the impression she is the only Iranian woman writer in the world.

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been, Persis Karim’s anthology of writing by women of the Iranian diaspora, in many respects provides an answer to those who doubt the usefulness of autobiography or the relevance of Iranian immigrant literature. One of its chief values is its juxtaposition of Iranian-American blockbusters (she includes excerpts from Lipstick Jihad and other bestsellers) with writing by new and emerging Iranian women writers in the West. By including poetry and fiction, Karim also manages to present a more complex cross-section of Iranian American literature than the proliferation of Iranian memoirs in the last several years suggests. …

–Ann Bartow

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