A Photograph Unlocks Decades of Family Secrets
Jasmin Darznik is the daughter of an Iranian mother and European father. She grew up in California, knowing very little about her family's past in Iran.
That changed one day when Darznik found an old photograph of her mother, Lili, as a child bride. She was standing beside a groom who was not Darznik's father.
"I was absolutely stunned by the discovery of this picture," Darznik tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. Her book, The Good Daughter, chronicles her family's story. The book is featured in the closing conversation of Tell Me More's biography series for Women's History Month.
Darznik says the photograph and the research that followed challenged her thoughts about her family and its past. "It didn't square with anything I knew about my mother. It didn't square with anything I knew even about Iran."
At first, her mother Lili refused to discuss the matter. But weeks later, Darznik received the first of ten cassette tapes on which Lili would recount her life. It was in these tapes that Darznik heard about her mother's first marriage to a physically abusive man, and her mother's painful decision to seek a divorce and leave behind her first daughter, Sara.
Darznik's book is the result of a long and sometimes painful journey into her mother's past. In the book, she paints a picture of two different sides of Iranian society — one that's increasingly Westernized and shedding traditional gender roles — and another that's resentful of the change, and holding onto those traditions.
During this intense period of change, Darznik brings to life three generations of women in her family, describing in vivid detail, their constant struggle to survive and reinvent themselves.
Only after she completed the book, Darznik says she realized why her mother decided to tell her story.
"It was an amazing discovery to have made," says Darznik. "The entire endeavor was an attempt to relay to [her first daughter] Sara the impossibility of that life, and the utter necessity of leaving her first husband."
Darznik says that the book has brought her new insight about the lives and choices of the women in her family, and brought her a deeper understanding of her birth country of Iran.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away this week. March is Women's History Month and, all month long, TELL ME MORE has been diving into biographies of divas and dancers and leaders of nations and queens of fashion.
And for the last installment in our series, we take a look at a memoir of remarkable resilience about a family of women in pre-revolutionary Iran who managed to succeed against taboos, abuse and ignorance.
Jasmin Darznik, who left Iran as a child, is the daughter of an Iranian mother and a European father. She grew up in California, missing a key piece of her mother's past.
One day, she found an old photograph of her mother as a child bride, standing next to a groom who was not Jasmin's father. That startling discovery began the long journey she chronicles in her book, "The Good Daughter."
And Jasmin Darznik is with us in the studio now. Thank you for coming in to the program.
JASMIN DARZNIK: My pleasure. Thank you.
LYDEN: Jasmin, this project, which began this really stunning book, all began after your father's death with this photograph I just referenced falling out of a stack of letters. What was that moment like for you to see this picture?
DARZNIK: It was absolutely staggering. My father had just died, in fact, and I was grief stricken at that moment, but even so, I was absolutely stunned by the discovery of this picture. It didn't square with anything I knew about my mother. It didn't square with anything I knew even about Iran, so it was a moment, really, that upended much of what I believed in about my family's past.
LYDEN: And when you asked her about it, what did she say?
DARZNIK: She initially refused to say anything at all. She would often tell me when I was growing up, you don't know anything about Iran. You were too young. She said I wouldn't understand.
LYDEN: And didn't she sometimes say to you - I think there is where the title of your book comes from - if you don't behave, I'm going to go back to Iran and live with my...
DARZNIK: Good daughter. She would certainly say this as I was growing up and when I was little, I thought that she was just trying to scare me. I grew up and I dismissed it as just, you know, sort of my mother's strange Iranian ways of trying to keep me in line.
LYDEN: Now, after this happens, you go back to wherever you were living at the time and your mother starts to send you cassette tapes.
DARZNIK: That's right. She started to record, in her house, a series of cassette tapes. There'd be 10 of them in all at the end, and on these cassette tapes she would tell me for the first time the story of that marriage, the quite abusive marriage that she had endured. She'd been married for the first time at age 13.
She had also given birth to a child that I never knew I had as a sister and she would tell me the circumstances that occasioned her divorce from that first husband.
LYDEN: Now, one of the things that I really loved about this book is that it unrolls slowly like a carpet. Indeed, your grandfather made part of his fortune selling carpets. But this is really a story that I think focuses on the women, and I want to stay with that little girl for a while, your mom, Lili. Lili is only 11 years old when she's selected for this marriage. What happened?
DARZNIK: That's right. Well, this is a moment of remarkable change in Iran, a moment when girls were starting to go to school, when girls were appearing in the streets unveiled. But my mother was from quite a pious and a poor family and her family was terrified about sending her out into the world and it was really the elders of the family - the women of the family - who decided that it was safer for her to get married than for her to go out into the streets unveiled.
They orchestrated the marriage between my mother and a man several years older than her and they...
LYDEN: Ten years older.
DARZNIK: Over 10 years. About 15 years older than her. A man they really didn't know at all, but who seemed to them a safer bet than the kind of life that they imagined a girl might have unmarried in this moment. And so they wasted no time at all. My mother was engaged when she was 11 years old and she was married off on the eve of her 13th birthday.
LYDEN: This guy has enormous problems. I mean, he is a sadist.
DARZNIK: That's right. And, at the time, in Iran, they really didn't give titles or labels to mental disease, but her first husband almost certainly suffered some kind of mental disturbance and my mother only realized this too late - only after she was married - that he had a terrible proclivity for violence.
LYDEN: So, over and over again in this book, women get out of situations just when you think it would be impossible. What happens to your mom? She's 14. She's married to this man who's beating her. She has a newborn daughter. Then what?
DARZNIK: We'll the circumstances are so extraordinary that I think if I had written this as a novel you'd throw up your hands and say that couldn't have happened. But my mother does in fact manage to get a divorce. Women in Iran at that time had no legal right to seek a divorce. It was only my grandfather who could seek a divorce on my mother's behalf. But he saw that his daughter was suffering terribly, and he saw too that she was in danger of taking her life.
LYDEN: Read me a passage now, if you would please, about your grandmother. She's also redoubtable but she has an entirely different life story. Let's hear a little bit about Kobra.
DARZNIK: (Reading) When she named her ninth child, Pargol Amini indulged her own fancies at last. Kobra, she announced to the midwife and smiled from the bloodstained sheets. The great one. At this, the midwife looked up and considered her face. Pargol Amini had black eyes and cheeks so fair and flushed they were like snow blotted with blood, as was said back then. In a room that had grown warm anddamp with her exertions, she met the midwife's gaze with a heavy stare. Kobra, her mother Pargol said again, her voice softer but still sure. Even the newborn - a tiny raging bundle with a shock of black hair - was silent at that moment. The scent of cinnamon and cardamom rose from the kitchen and threaded its way through the house. The midwife took in a single sharp breath, bit her lip, and then resumed her task of dusting my great-grandmother's loins with ashes.
LYDEN: Jasmin Darznik, I just want to ask you as a writer, you have not been to Iran.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYDEN: You are often in these rooms and yet we have a heavy sense of what I would call old Iran - the rosewater, the cardamom, scents literally, S-C-E-N-T-S, as well, are drifting through the room. Do people talk about these kinds of things? I mean, you really bring this world alive and yet you haven't in person visited it.
DARZNIK: I haven't been since I was a child. But many of these scents, as you say, were familiar to me. Growing up in California, our world was very much an Iranian one, the one we recreated in California was an Iranian world.
But when I begin story it was really through those kinds of sensory details that I could enter the story. It was through the scent of cinnamon and cardamom that I could imagine that scene. Later on I go on to describe a scene in which my grandmother is sitting under a persimmon tree. And I would ask my mom when I was working on the book, tell me how that tree looked. Tell me about the flavor of those persimmon. And we began to talk it was almost as if that world became unveiled to me through those kinds of details.
LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the last installment in our Women's History Month biography series, and we're talking to Jasmin Darznik author of "The Good Daughter."
So let's spend a little time with your grandmother Kobra here. We just heard about her birth. She has a really hard row, especially as a very young woman.
DARZNIK: Absolutely. My grandmother hadn't had more than two or three years of schooling. She was from a lower class family in Tehran. And when she married, she married also quite young - at 14 - to a man who was really taken up by another woman at that time. In any case, my grandmother married a man who thought himself very Western and was ashamed of her. And my grandmother would be cast out again and again from that house. She would spend the early years of my mother's life shuffling between her own mother's house and her in-laws house. She had a peripheral place in the family and yet she had an abiding love for her children that would not be broken, even under those circumstances.
LYDEN: She becomes her children's protector. She cages coins from her husband's pants because she's basically become the housecleaner. She buys property. She reinvents herself, your grandmother, Kobra, again and again and again.
LYDEN: But one of the things that happens is that your mother, in order to procure a divorce and be able to keep going, has to leave behind the good daughter, Sara, this infant you never knew about, this little girl.
DARZNIK: Right. And this was very much in accordance with the law and also the custom of the time. Children belonged to their father in Iran. So when my mother does the already unthinkable, her father says to her: You can only divorce if you leave this child behind because there is no way you can build a new life for yourself if you maintain that connection. And so, she does what is undoubtedly a very painful thing, and that is to leave her first child behind.
LYDEN: But at one point this little girl, whose name is Sara, decides she's going to come and find your mother, her mother also, and your grandmother.
DARZNIK: That's right. Sara was brought up really to think my mom had left her of her own accord. She was told that my mom was a prostitute, in fact, and was just hiding out in the city. But my mother, at the first opportunity she could, tried to seek Sara out. And though they never quite were able to retain what we might call a normal mother-daughter relationship, they would seek each other out continually. As much as my mom had been maligned, Sara never gave up wanting to find her and wanting to have a connection with my mother.
LYDEN: There's a remarkable turning point here that comes for your mother, and that is when her father - your grandfather - decides that he's going to make of her something that hasn't been seen before. He's going to turn her into an educated woman.
DARZNIK: That's right. Her father makes a really unusual decision to send her abroad. This was not done at that time. Iranians were sending their sons abroad but certainly not their daughters. But he says the only way you can become somebody is to seek out an education. And my mom does this. She goes to Germany and she becomes a nurse midwife and she says always this was the only hope really of making anything of my daughter, was also the only hope of making anything for myself.
LYDEN: Eventually, your mother and her second husband, your father, another remarkable character in this book, they leave Iran in 1978 as political events are moving toward the revolution. And I'm curious to know, you grew up, you know, in this Iranian family in California. Did you growing up think I have learned such a lesson from these remarkable women, or did you kind of take it for granted at that point?
DARZNIK: I wanted nothing to do with that place that in those days was called Iran. I wanted to distance myself absolutely from the world of my mother, the world of my grandmother. Of course, I loved them, but as I was growing up these were also the years of the hostage crisis and it was quite difficult to be Iranian in those days. It was only later that I would come to any kind of understanding or any kind of compassion for the country that we had left behind.
LYDEN: Now that you have written this book, I'm curious to know if your mother and your half-sister in Iran, Sara, have read it.
DARZNIK: Well, my mother certainly has read it. She read it as we were working on the book. And the parts that she likes she claims to have written herself. The parts that she doesn't like she claims are entirely my fault. My sister Sara is living still in Iran. She's, well, I think she's in her 60s now, and to my knowledge she has not read the book. But I realized after the book came out that really this book was my mother's attempt to explain to Sara for the first time why she had had to give her up. And it was an amazing discovery to have made, to have written the book and discovered only afterwards that the entire endeavor was an attempt to relay to Sara the impossibility of that life and the utter necessity of leaving her first husband.
LYDEN: Jasmin Darznik is the author of "The Good Daughter." She's also a professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University. And she joined us in our NPR studios in Washington, D.C.
Jasmin Darznik, thank you.
DARZNIK: Thank you so much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.