The Globe book club tackled Prisoner of Tehran for our second selection. Every day, Sandra Martin asked pithy questions for discussion. Here they are, along with selected responses:
Opening the book in Canada, seems almost like gathering readers together in a comfort zone before she transports us to a horrific situation that most of us can only imagine in our worst nightmares. Does it work as a literary device?
From Robin: Because it is a memoir and the author is looking back at her past from where she is today. Because she sought to remove the story's beginning from the violence of her youth, and to paint the picture of the successful person she is today. Because Nemat is now a Canadian and a mother, different from the youth she was when she entered Evin
From Pollyanna: She needs to engage us first, and identify with her as a normal, rebellious teen living in unusual circumstances, so that we can try to understand the unspeakable events that follow.
Why do you think Nemat's parents refused to ask what had happened to her after she is released from Evin Prison? Was it because they didn't care? Or were they also traumatized and afraid to know the horrors she had experienced?
From VSmith: Nemat's parents were the products of a dictatorship and probably from their childhood intrinsically feared the consequences from asking political questions and learned silence was the only response under such terrifying circumstances. It is unknown what their childhood was like but I suspect that their life experiences totally numbed their ability to love.
From Gabriel: If Ms. Nemat was half as powerful a communicator as a kid as she is now, her parent's must have been at wit's end how to deal with her intellectually - let's call it an intellectual inferiority complex. If you are "on edge" in a situation like that, you just may not know how to broach this hot potato.
What puzzles me more is Andre's reluctance for years after to question Marina about her ordeal, painful as the answers might be. Was his love for her encumbered with the same kind of emotional baggage?
From Andre (the author's husband) I knew about her torture, the lashing on the sole of her feet, her interrogations, the blindfolds, the room she was in, sleeping on the floor with no room to move around, the girl who was found hanging, the line-ups for the bath, the birthday cakes, the conversion to Islam, and many other details. I rushed to go to the church when she came for a visit, and I knew that she had come to say goodbye, just a gut feeling or sixth sense. I knew she was there to say goodbye to her past, to her religion.
I even went to Evin once to visit her. I did have a feeling that having converted to Islam, she would have to marry the son of one of those in charge at Evin, unbeknown to me that it had already happened and ended.
Two of the things I never asked about was Ali and her marriage, and her close execution. In order to ask a question, you must have a frame of reference. We all knew that people who were taken to Evin were tortured, so I asked her "did they torture you?". Actually the word I used was not the word torture, but an Arabic word that has entered into the Persian language: "taazir", the best I can describe as "punished so that you repent". And then along the lines of the answer to this question, we did talk in our privacy, just the two of us, about the rest of the things.
As for the execution and the marriage, it never occurred to me to ask questions about them. It was just not in my frame of reference. Yes we had heard about temporary marriages in Evin, but never thought it could happen to us, that it could happen to Marina, to a kid, so I did not ask. We knew that people were being executed, but did not know that people could come close to execution and then be spared, I did not have a reference to ask.
Then we got so busy with everyday life that I thought it was all behind us and we could move on. Later came our leaving Iran with all its uncertainties and stresses, whether we will make it to Canada, establishing a life here, working late hours, raising the kids, making money to survive, and that sense of always being busy which is so typical of North American lifestyle, that we never had time to look back and talk.
How much room is there for creativity in non-fiction?
From Julette: It is a memoir and so will be coloured by her views and opinions and I think that is exactly what makes it good. We see it through her eyes, through her opinions and if a few things had to be "created" to convey the meaning of the events or feelings of the times I believe that is simply good story telling... It makes it a more engaging story without taking away from the facts of what happened. Her experience is the story.
From Sorrybut: There's no room. either a story is fiction (not true) or it's the best representation possible of the facts. Nemat could call this historical fiction, if she's admitting that it's not true?
From TruWolf: Try agreeing with your partner or friends on what was said last night, let alone years and years ago. We can't demand complete accuracy, just the author's best, honest efforts.
From Tangled: I don't believe Marina wrote her books for the fame. Nor do I believe she used creative license in her recall of the events. It was imperative that her story be told. We need to be aware of what goes on in the world. I fully understand why she could not name names or recite conversations word for word. Those still imprisoned need her protection
From Steven11A If the book is to hold anyone's attention, it must have a vivid and immediate narrative style; part of such a style is dialogue, but, again, without documentation, she could not have preserved the dialogue verbatim and so is forced to some degree to make up words here and there.
Kim Echin: What history teaches is that a well-written and moving story endures, and gives us insight into historical periods that we might otherwise lose. Prisoner of Tehran, because it is a story, well and beautifully told, acts as a door into a world we can now begin to imagine, helping our consciousness to hold what we once might have called unimaginable.
Marina Nemat has been called a traitor for marrying Ali, her jailer. Should she have refused, even though she would probably have been executed and her family arrested and imprisoned in Evin? What would you have done in her place?
From Pollyanna: Fortunately most of us will never be confronted over our entire life span with the horrendous decisions Marina Nemat was forced to make while still essentially a child, in a very adult version of Hell.. I hope I would have had the courage and wits to opt for survival – as she did – and suffer the consequences, as she has. Not sure at all that I can claim that, though. And who will ever know?
From Faith Fireader: The matter of choice doesn't seem to actually be operating at all. Marina was incarcerated unjustly and supposedly given an option between marrying her captor or condemning her family to the same fate she was enduring. That is not a real choice, since both options were morally repugnant.
Let's talk about Ali. Is Marina's interrogator/husband a monster?
From Pollyanna: Definitely not a monster, though he has been involved – or not intervened anyway – when monstrous things have happened. And maybe that just makes him an ordinary person who lacks the will or courage to act heroically.
From Gabriel: Ali was no more or less a monster than most of us (men). He is a classical case of a paradigm shift. Let's be real. Many of us could be Ali's at the right time and in the right environment. I include myself. Violence is part of human nature. Are the Germans (or Canadians) of today fundamentally "better people" than the Germans of the Nazi era? Hardly. They have different paradigms. They have been conditioned to think along humanistic lines for 70 years now. This was not the flick of a switch. It was a slow process of evolution over three generations.
From Steven11A: Definitely he seems basically like a villain to me. He uses and abuses other human beings. He is willing to torture a sixteen-year-old girl because it is expected of him professionally, and he essentially forces her to marry him, which means that he uses her emotionally. As he plays an important role in taking her political freedom, he also, had he not died young, might have taken her emotional freedom for the rest of her life. In a way, he strikes me as a fitting embodiment of the regime.