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

Do We Need ‘Black Box’ Warnings for Toxic Memoirs?

Some readers may fume about Ishmael Beah’s book, but the publisher appears indifferent to the controvesy

You know that “black box” warning that the Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to put on the labels of some medications? The one that means that a drug may carry a significant risk of causing serious harm or even death?

Lately I’ve been wondering if we need a similar label for books. A label that means: Warning! This book makes claims nobody can verify. Reading it may cause serious harm or even death to your faith in the author’s credibility. The publisher’s response to questions about the book may cause nausea.

For several weeks the newspaper the Australian has been publishing articles that cast serious doubt on many of the statements that Ishmael Beah makses in his A Long Way Gone, including his assertion that he was a child in Sierra Leone for two years – the foundation of his book, billed as a “memoir.” Beah and his publisher, the Sarah Crichton Books imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), have responded to these articles in ways that are startlingly cavalier or, as one news service put it, “blasé.” Asked if the firm planned to answer one report by the Australian, a senior vice president of FSG joked to the New York Observer that he was “responding with an ulcer.” How funny will this be to people who bought the book in good faith that they would be reading the true story of someone who spent years as a child soldier?

The insensitive responses may tarnish the reputation of FSG, widely regarded as one of the two most prestigious publishers in the U.S. along with Alfred A. Knopf at Random House. They also show a lack of respect for readers, who deserve a better explanation for what is and isn’t true in A Long Way Gone. The “blasé” attitude means, in part, that you need to approach with caution any FSG memoirs, particularly those from first-time authors or others who lack established reputations.

How should critics respond to the indifference by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Some may stop reviewing FSG books for a while. This would penalize authors and others who are blameless in this fiasco. So I’m going to the adapt the FDA’s idea: Put the equivalent of a “black box” warning on each FSG memoir that is reviewed on this site until the responses by the firm reflect the gravity of the situation.

If you’re not a professional critic, you have another option – return your copy of A Long Way Gone to your bookstore, Starbucks or other vendor. Even if you no longer have your receipt, the circumstances are unusual enough to warrant a refund without it. FSG has sold more than 600,000 copes of A Long Way Gone. How long do you think it would take the company to start providing better answers if just one percent of those readers showed up at bookstores tomorrow and asked for their money back?

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

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