A girl torn between her curiosity for a young maid and her need to maintain her higher social class; a sister torn between her love for her brother and her duty to herself and to a country that asks too much; a daughter pulled between the love of her quarreling and separated parents.
These are some of the dualities and contradictory loyalties that bilingual writer, poet, and scholar Nilofar Shidmehr explores in her 2019 collection of short stories Divided Loyalties, a powerful portrayal of the Iranian female experience in post-revolutionary Iran and the Iranian Canadian diaspora.
Iran through a female lens
The stories, set in Iran and Canada starting in 1978 and moving through the 1980s, the 1990s, and early 2000s, are unflinching in their study of the sacrifices Iranian women must make to remain loyal to their families, their history, and their culture, many times to the detriment of their values and desires.
“The main loyalty in the book is about family loyalty. That’s very important in Iranian culture,” Shidmehr explains.
She further defines the concept of family, illustrating some of the situations her characters find themselves in the stories of Divided Loyalties.
“But, you know, family can mean many different things: your family defines your social class, your status in society, the kind of role you need to play, your education, how you are brought up, what kind of values the family instills in you. So you are expected to conform and produce those kinds of values,” she adds.
Writing yourculture in English
Exophonic writers are defined as those who write creatively in a language other than their mother tongue. Though the practice is ancient, the term was only coined in the field of literary and cultural studies in 2007.
Shidmehr, who moved to Canada from Iran when she was 28, sees herself as an exophonic writer. This status involves not only what Shidmehr calls “a great deal of cultural translation” but also a constant breaking of expectations.
“If you are a second language [speaker], the general assumption is that I translate into English – it’s the biggest credit they can give you. And even if you tell them, ‘no’, in their mind, I think mostly the audience thinks ‘no, this woman is lying’ or ‘that’s not true, she writes in Farsi first and then translates into English,’” she explains.
But the implications of this type of questioning extend beyond innocent audience disbelief. It has meant that Shidmehr, a writer who has received widespread praise both for her English and Farsi literary work, still needs to continuously prove herself in certain writing circles.
“If people think that you translate, they don’t take you as seriously,” she says, adding that another layer of discrimination often comes from her unexpected accent: “When they see you, they see the book is great and you have a good publisher, but the moment you open your mouth and the accent comes out, the way that people treat you is different, even at literary festivals–it’s very difficult.”
If navigating the world as an exophonic writer is difficult, what North American readers gain are entire worlds previously unknown to them beautifully rendered to them in English. “I think that I offer some kind of authenticity and that’s very important about exophonic writers,” Shidmehr affirms about her writing about Iranian women. “Because I write about my own experiences, I have an insider’s knowledge of those lives and that culture and that language,” she concludes, with passion.
That cultural sensibility and insight are clear in Divided Loyalties, from which Shidmehr will be reading during North Vancouver City Library’s upcoming virtual event An Evening with the Persian Author and Poet Nilofar Shidmehr, Oct. 21, 2020.
Attendants can also expect readings in Farsi, and for Shidmehr to share more candid stories about her life as a bilingual writer in Canada.
For more information and to register visit