Refugee Iranian writers struggle with identity

May 2008 -

What does it feel like for a writer to leave everything behind and to go on living and working in a different country, a different culture and a different language? This was the main topic of a debate between Kader Abdolah (the Netherlands), Shahrnush Parsipur (United States), Sudabeh Mohafez (Germany) and Esma’il Khoi (United Kingdom) during the International Literature Festival Amsterdam held on 25 April 2008.

To the audience that took up half the seats in the auditorium of the Amsterdam Public Library, it was clear that only Kader Abdolah had found his way in his new homeland, having mastered the Dutch language and culture. Abdolah's success must be music to the ears of the other three writers. During the debate, the difficulties they experience in their struggle to write successfully in a new language were clearly evident.

Parsipur has lived in the United States for a number of years but still feels like a stranger because she does not sufficiently understand the language and society. "Preferably, I write in Farsi, but for how long? Because language is constantly changing, some day I will also lose touch with my own native language." Khoi understands what his colleague means to a certain extent. It is also hard for him to understand the stiff-upper-lip mentality of the British. But he has mastered the language and advocates the advantages of being bilingual. Because they write from a double perspective, refugee writers are both initiates and outsiders, enabling them to be both critical and analytical.

Mohafez, who is half German, is struggling with a different problem. "I write about everyday things that happen in German society. But when people hear my name, they expect me to be an exotic foreigner and are surprised that I don't write fairy tales about Arabian knights."

And Abdolah? He kept to himself during the discussion, allowing his colleagues to take the stage. The only thing he wanted to say is that after three failed attempts to continue on from the Netherlands to the United States, it reminded him of a Persian saying: "if you fail at something for the third time, use a different language". He did, resulting in fifteen books in Dutch.

The International Literature Festival Amsterdam was part of the opening week of Amsterdam World Book Capital 2008-2009.