I first met Shokoofeh Azar in Fremantle about 3 years ago after reading a story she had published in the Westerly. Within 5 minutes we were chatting as if we had shared a childhood and memories we both knew we hadn’t. At one stage we cried. She said she loved India and I said I was writing a novel in which Iran featured. Connections like this are rare and when they happen I need to ask why. Which is why, when I met Shokoofeh again in Fremantle, 3 years after that first meeting, I asked for permission to tell her story.
Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian born writer and artist. She arrived in Australia 6 years ago on a boat – and says that is the thing Australians find most interesting about her. As if surviving a boat journey defines a person for life. It is a loaded existence, charged with a larger-than-life meaning that she does not own. How I got here is not what I’m about, she says. I have stories I want to tell. I paint. I’m a mother. None of what she’s about has anything to do with how she came to be living in Perth.
She is a writer of fabulous magic realist tales and a talented artist. I know the power of her stories because that is what led me to her. In my humble stalker fashion, I tracked her down, sent her an email and asked to meet her. At the time I was writing my own novel of intersecting histories and wanted (desperately) to connect with an Iranian writer who could be a sounding board.
And in that first meeting, I tell her what I’m trying to do. She nods and tells me about travelling the Silk Road on the back of a truck. I speak of the lost boy from Abadan I knew when I was a girl. She likes Delhi, she says, with a look in her eyes that situates her there in an instant. I tell her of my desire to visit Tehran. She provides a cautionary tale about trees and blind men and women standing by street corners, but it is not a description – it is a fable. And the conversation continues in this fashion with neither of us questioning its intent. I leave with a sense of purpose and work on my novel with joy. She, meanwhile, discovers another way to tell her stories – she paints and sculpts and potters. The mythical birds and beasts she writes about are translated into paintings and bas-reliefs and visions of beauty.
When I next speak to Shokoofeh in the shadow of the asylum in Fremantle, a weak sun slants over the rooftops, and I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me. Shokoofeh’s language is steeped in the lore and myth of ‘other’ places. Her first language is Farsi; it sounds magical and lyrical to my untrained ears. When she speaks English she is translating ideas, thoughts and words that come to her from the language of Rumi and Firdaus, but also Marquez and Kundera. She reads copiously, in Farsi, and writes like a woman possessed, also in Farsi. Her first novel (The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree) is complete and waits for a publisher. She thinks it will be hard to find a publisher because it is not a story about surviving as a refugee; rather it is about surviving as a person, a political, magical, fabulous person. Her current project is about love, she says. She mentions Gilgamesh and Romeo, Shireen and Shakuntala and I remember again that this is how conversations used to happen in India, before I became Australian. Our myths breathe again, our stories resurface and our belongings straddle the cultural divide in the most unexpected conversations.