In 2011 the writer Shokoofeh Azar found herself in a strange country, with a strange dilemma.
As a journalist in Iran, words and language had been her weapon of choice — a way to speak out about the injustices she saw around her. But suddenly she was a refugee in Australia, where she couldn’t speak more than a few words of English.
“When I came to Australia I felt that I didn’t have language … and the journalism that I loved,” Azar says.
“But then I said to myself, ‘OK, you don’t have language, but you have freedom of expression’. I had language in my country but I didn’t have the freedom to write whatever I wanted, without being arrested because of my writing.”
So, in her new home in Perth, Azar began writing a novel in her native Farsi language — a novel highly critical of Iran’s Islamic government.
That book, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, has now been shortlisted for the International Booker — the top writing prize for a book translated into English.
She’s the first-ever Iranian writer to make the list.
Shokoofeh Azar came to Australia by boat in 2011. She was seeking political asylum.
Back in Iran, she had been jailed multiple times for her journalism, which was critical of the theocratic Iranian Government, in power since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
After her most recent arrest, which included three months in isolation, Azar’s family had advised her to flee.
“After I came out of the jail my mother and my older sisters said ‘they will keep on arresting you, and next time it will be longer’,” Azar recalls.
The journey to Australia was difficult. Azar spent five nights on the ocean, on a boat with no roof, and by the time she arrived at the Christmas Island detention centre, she was having trouble breathing. She was sent to the mainland for treatment for suspected tuberculosis, and after being given the all-clear, was settled in Perth.
Far from her family and unable to speak a word of English, Azar says she was depressed and angry. But she eventually realised that distance gave her scope to write critically of Iran — without fearing prosecution.
In the foreword to her book, she pays tribute to her new home, and the freedom it gave her.
“I am profoundly grateful to the Australian people for accepting me into this safe and democratic country where I have the freedom to write this book, a liberty denied me in my homeland of Iran,” she wrote.
Demons and death
The Enlightenment of The Greenage Tree follows one family as they are caught up in the violence and fear of the years after the Islamic Revolution.
The book opens in 1988, when the matriarch of the family achieves enlightenment at the top of a plum tree — at the same moment that her only son is hanged without trial. It’s a shocking revelation that sets the tone for the rest of the book, which expertly weaves classical Persian storytelling techniques with clear-eyed accounts of atrocity.
Jinns (genie-like spirits), demons, ghosts and mermaids sit side-by-side with dictators and torturers.
It is a precarious balancing act between light and shade that took Azar long nights of writing to perfect.
The book is narrated by the teenage Bahar, another character whose past combines violence and mythology. Azar, who was born just seven years before the Islamic Revolution, says Bahar is a version of her own teenage self.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is one of six novels in contention for this year’s International Booker, an annual prize for a book translated into English, which is published in the UK or Ireland.
The shortlist is normally announced at a packed party in London, but this year, with the COVD-19 outbreak keeping everyone home, it was revealed in an online video.
At her home in Geelong, Shokoofeh Azar got an email from her UK publisher to tell her she’d made the shortlist. The first person she shared the news with was her 8-year-old daughter.
“And then I sent a message to my mother in Iran, my sisters in Iran and my best friends in Iran, so everyone was so thrilled and happy,” she says.
As the first-ever Iranian writer to be shortlisted for the prize, Azar says she’s getting a lot of support from home — despite the fact that her book has not been published there.
“It’s really feeling amazing that both Iranians and Australians are happy that I’ve been shortlisted,” she says.
Azar joins on this year’s shortlist an impressive line-up of authors, whose books have been translated from five different languages — Spanish, German, Japanese, Dutch and Farsi.
- The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Argentina), translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh
- Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany), translated by Ross Benjamin
- Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico), translated by Sophie Hughes
- The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japan), translated by Stephen Snyder
- The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Netherlands), translated by Michele Hutchison
The International Booker celebrates translators as well as authors, with the 50,000-pound ($98,000) prize split equally between author and translator. If Azar wins, she will share the prize with a translator who has chosen to stay anonymous for their own safety.
“They still go to Iran and back, and it would definitely be dangerous for them because my novel is all about critiquing Islam in Iran,” she says.
The winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize will be announced on May 19.
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is published in Australia by Wild Dingo Press.