One-Minute Book Reviews

February 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at www.fsgbooks.com.

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 2, 2008

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA www.nationalbook.org.

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.

 

Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”

 

Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.

 

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

 

Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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