EB: I assume that means your father and you didn’t get along.
NW: There were strains between us. We were quarreling. Quite a lot, which was a novelty for him. He wasn’t accustomed to being talked back to, certainly not by women. We had rows over what I wore, where I went, what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. I had turned bold and adventurous, and he even more ascetic and emotionally austere. We had become natural opponents.
She chuckles, and tightens the bandanna’s knot at the back of her head.
NW: And then I took to falling in love. Often, desperately, and, to my father’s horror, with the wrong sort. A housekeeper’s son once, another time a low-level civil servant who handled some business affairs for my father. Foolhardy, wayward passions, all of them doomed from the start. I arranged clandestine rendezvous and slipped away from home, and, of course, someone would inform my father that I’d been spotted on the streets somewhere. They would tell him that I was cavorting—they always put it like that—I was “cavorting.” Or else they would say I was “parading” myself. My father would have to send a search party to bring me back. He would lock me up. For days. He would say from the other side of the door, You humiliate me. Why do you humiliate me so? What will I do about you? And sometimes he answered that question with his belt, or a closed fist. He’d chase me around the room. I suppose he thought he could terrorize me into submission. I wrote a great deal at that time, long, scandalous poems dripping with adolescent passion. Rather melodramatic and histrionic as well, I fear. Caged birds and shackled lovers, that sort of thing. I am not proud of them.
I sense that false modesty is not her suit and therefore can assume only that this is her honest assessment of these early writings. If so, it is a brutally unforgiving one. Her poems from this period are stunning in fact, even in translation, especially considering her young age when she wrote them. They are moving, rich with imagery, emotion, insight, and telling grace. They speak beautifully of loneliness and uncontainable sorrow. They chronicle her disappointments, the crests and troughs of young love in all its radiance and promises and trappings. And there is often a sense of transcendent claustrophobia, of a shortening horizon, and always a sense of struggle against the tyranny of circumstance—often depicted as a never named sinister male figure who looms. A not so-opaque allusion to her father, one would gather. I tell her all this.
EB: And you break in these poems from the rhythm, rhyme, and meter that I understand to be integral to classic Farsi poetry. You make use of free-flowing imagery. You heighten random, mundane details. This was quite groundbreaking, I understand. Would it be fair to say that if you’d been born in a wealthier nation—say, Iran—that you would almost certainly be known now as a literary pioneer?
She smiles wryly.
EB: Still, I am quite struck by what you said earlier. That you weren’t proud of those poems. Are you pleased with any of your work?
NW: A thorny question, that one. I suppose I would answer in the affirmative, if only I could keep them apart from the creative process itself.
EB: You mean separate the end from the means.
NW: I see the creative process as a necessarily thievish undertaking. Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing, Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor. Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly.
EB: And you were very good at it.
NW: I did it not for the sake of some high and lofty notion about art but because I had no choice. The compulsion was far too powerful. If I did not surrender to it, I would have lost my mind. You ask if I am proud. I find it hard to flaunt something obtained through what I know to be morally questionable means. I leave the decision to tout or not to others.
She empties her glass of wine and refills it with what remains in the bottle.
NW: What I can tell you, however, is that no one was touting me in Kabul. No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my father. He said my writings were the ramblings of a whore. He used that word precisely. He said I’d damaged his family name beyond repair. He said I had betrayed him. He kept asking why I found it so hard to be respectable.
EB: How did you respond?
NW: I told him I did not care for his notion of respectable. I told him I had no desire to slip the leash around my own neck.
EB: I suppose that only displeased him more.
I hesitate to say this next.
EB: But I do understand his anger.
She cocks an eyebrow.
EB: He was a patriarch, was he not? And you were a direct challenge to all he knew, all that he held dear. Arguing, in a way, through both your life and your writing, for new boundaries for women, for women to have a say in their own status, to arrive at legitimate selfhood. You were defying the monopoly that men like him had held for ages. You were saying what could not be said. You were conducting a small, one-woman revolution, one could say.
NW: And all this time, I thought I was writing about sex.
EB: But that’s part of it, isn’t it?
I flip through my notes and mention a few of the overtly erotic poems—“Thorns,” “But for the Waiting,” “The Pillow.” I also confess to her that they are not among my favorites. I remark that they lack nuance and ambiguity. They read as though they have been crafted with the sole aim of shocking and scandalizing. They strike me as polemical, as angry indictments of Afghan gender roles.
NW: Well, I was angry. I was angry about the attitude that I had to be protected from sex. That I had to be protected from my own body. Because I was a woman. And women, don’t you know, are emotionally, morally, and intellectually immature. They lack self-control, you see, they’re vulnerable to physical temptation. They’re hypersexual beings who must be restrained lest they jump into bed with every Ahmad and Mahmood.
EB: But—forgive me for saying this—you did just that, no?
NW: Only as a protest against that very notion.