Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh (guest editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 3 2016: Persian Passages
As soon as I finished reading this issue of Southerly I bought a second copy as a gift for a young Iranian friend who has recently got his permanent residency in Australia. I’ve yet to hear how he fared with the complex language, but I hope the dialogue between Australian and Persian cultures in these pages gives him at least some of the joy it has given me.
The title of the first item (if you don’t count the editorial – I’m sorry, I have an aversion to editorials and haven’t read this one) could be a subtitle for the whole journal: ‘This Is Not a Conversation about Asylum Seekers’. Adele Dumont and Mehdi Habibi met when he attended a writing class she taught in a detention centre for people seeking asylum. True to its title, the article is a dialogue about his writing (and we get to read his ‘Odd Sock’ later in the journal). The rest of the journal likewise focuses, not on the Iran of the Ayatollahs, producer of refugees and Manus or Nauru detainees, stuff of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, but on the rich Persian literary culture and the long and various history of Persians in Australia (whether from Iran, Afghanistan or other places covered by that term)
Zarlasht Sarwari’s ‘Afghan Australian Identities’, Sanaz Fotouhi’s ‘Writing the Present: Unpacking the Suitcase of the Past’ and Kim Lateef’s ‘Where Are You From?’ each tell stories of diaspora and exile without conforming to the well established forms of such stories. The reader gets to hear these stories fresh and personal.
For me, the heart of the journal is a sustained, complex conversation about the ghazal and the great fourteenth-century poet Hafiz, master of that form (also spelled Hafez and Häfez in this issue – Southerly doesn’t impose narrowly consistent spelling or punctuation).
Paul Smith has been a key translator of Hafiz’s ghazals for decades. In ‘A Life with Hafiz’ he gives some insight into the devotion he has brought to the work. He lays out the formal requirements of the ghazal: a series of couplets, in which the second line end with the same rhyme word throughout the poem; and the poet’s name appears in the final couplet. His article incorporates several of his translations. Given the way poets writing ghazals in English have departed in many ways from these requirements, in ways that are discussed approvingly later in this journal, I was grateful to have them spelled out so clearly.
Setayesh Nooraninejad’s ‘Poetic Bridges – Spanning Literary Traditions, Politics and Cultures’, an interview with Zahra Taheri (Convenor of the Persian Studies Program at the ANU), again refers to Hafez (her spelling) as a great overarching genius of Persian culture.
What brought the conversation home for me was Darius Sepehri’s ‘Judith Wright’s The Shadow of Fire: Making the Ghazal Appropriate in Australia’. The Shadow of Fire is Judith Wright’s last book , and it consists of ghazals. Sepehri argues that Wright had been reading Häfez (sic) seriously for decades (her short poem ‘To Hafiz of Shiraz’ dates from 1960), and that his ecstatic songs were crucial to the direction taken by her poetry towards the end of her life. Though Wright’s ghazals don’t rhyme, and don’t deal in great metaphysical abstractions in the manner of Häfez, Sepehri makes a subtle, and to me beautifully compelling, argument that they are successful adaptations of the form to the Australian environment, both physical and cultural, in a way that is analogous to the way people in modern Iran will quote lines from Häfez in different contexts so that they take on new meanings.
The article bristles with insights into Judith Wright’s and Häfez’s poetry and into the place of Häfez in Persian culture. It sent me off to Judith Wright’s 1996 Collected Poems to read her work from 1974 (which is when the Collected Poems I own was published). In the last decades of her life, as she focused on activism on Aboriginal issues and the environment, her poetry generally became grimly pessimistic, at times seeming to indicate that she had lost faith in the idea of poetry itself. Towards the end, she writes that she has indeed lost faith in rhyme, and now would focus on haiku, almost letting things speak for themselves. But there are no haiku in the Collected. Instead, at the end, there is this handful of exultant, wonderful ghazals. I can imagine no better introduction to them than Sepehri’s article.
There’s plenty more, not all of it on theme:
- a number of memorable short stories including Carmel Bird’s ‘The Dead Aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate’, a possibly autobiographical tale of confused identities, and Claudine Jacques’ ‘Life Sentence’ translated by Patricia Worth, about leprosy in New Caledonia.
- excellent poems, including eight by contemporary Iranian poet Yadollah Royaee, translated by the journal’s editors
- reviews – by Evelyn Araluen Corr of Liz Conor’s Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women and Simeon Kronenberg of Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses.
This Southerly is nominally the third issue for 2016. It would be churlish to complain that it arrived six months late – literary journals aren’t buses, after all, and they take readers to destinations that transcend schedules.