Farid Ghadami: Literature is counter-cultural, inhuman and savage Interview by Irina Papancheva
Farid Ghadami (1986) is an Iranian writer, critic, university lecturer, and literary translator. He is best known in Iran for his humorous and critical novels with a radical counter-culture outlook, as well as his translations of controversial literature, including that of the Beat Generation. He is the first translator of the books Ulysses by James Joyce, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, The Dharma Bums and Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. So far, he has written five novels and five works of literary criticism and has completed over 35 translations of, amongst others, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Arthur Rimbaud, Mahmoud Darwish, William Butler Yeats, Ossip Mandelshtam, Antonin Artaud, and William Blake. He has written also four scientific books, including Advanced Applied Engineering Mathematics and Research Methods in Science and Engineering which are now taught at the universities in Iran.
Farid, your novel “The Commune of Dead or an Elegy to Sofia’s Bloody Shirt”, which is based on your experiences in Bulgaria, has been chosen as one of the top ten Persian novels published in 2020 by Sazandegi newspaper. Was its success surprising for you?
Not much, really. First of all, because I do not care much about these things, although such news is always good news. Because, after all, every magazine, newspaper, or literary award includes a certain number of journalists, critics, and writers, that such things actually represent only their thinking. However, these things always help to introduce the book to the people better. What really matters to me is that my novels can change the thinking and form of life of my audience. In the last five or six years, when social networks such as Instagram have become very popular in Iran, I've had the chance to receive many messages from my Iranian audience who say that a book of mine has had a great impact on them. It's more important than everything to me.
What brought you to Bulgaria?
It was by accident, really. A few years ago, I was translating the poem “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” by Mayakovsky and at the same time reading articles on the communist literature. In one of these articles I came across Nikola Vaptsarov that I had never heard of. By a simple Google search, I found an English translation of Vaptsarov's poems and I began to read them: How could I not have known such a great poet before? A wonderful poet, a poet with only one book of poetry, who was shot at the age of thirty-three, in a prison in Sofia. It was Vaptsarov’s poetry that absorbed me to Bulgarian literature and Bulgaria as a country, to poets, writers and journalists who, many of them, would later become my great friends, like you Irina, Velina Minkoff, Vladimir Mitev, Elka Stoyanova, and Julia Vladimirova, and many other friends. Anyway, after reading Vaptsarov, I decided to become more familiar with modern Bulgarian literature. I think in one or two weeks I read fifty or sixty stories from the contemporary Bulgarian writers, in English of course, and later on I found the Next Page Foundation by chance, and then I became a guest of their Literature and Translation House in Sofia for a month, and the director of the foundation, Yana Genova, really helped me a lot to get acquainted with the Bulgarian literature of today. This is an opportunity for me to acknowledge her kind support. In the novel “The Commune of the Dead” I’ve written about it: “Yes, now I’m here, in the house of the painter Nenko Balkansky, which was given to me by Next Page, with the invisible invitation sent to me by the Secret Society of the Dead Communists: Vaptsarov, Mayakovsky, Lenin, and Company.”
You are the author of five novels. Which are the main topics you explore in them? What usually provokes your writer’s interest and imagination?
I write as I think, as I live. I think my novels are all completely different, but you can find me in each of them. My first novel, published about 13 years ago, is the story of a football player who is murdered at his home, but at the same time it could be perceived as a sharp critique of the Iranian educational system, Lacanian - Freudian psychoanalysis, and fundamentalism. My second novel "Dominant" is about a pianist who wants to run over his wife and kill her on one of Tehran's highways. The entire plot takes place only in three minutes and eighteen seconds, when the pianist is driving and his wife is running in front of him. I think this novel made me famous in Iran. In my view, the novel is the only genre that can achieve free writing. In the novel you can be a philosopher, critic, storyteller, poet, economist and historian. Nothing can stop you. The novel is inherently a democratic genre, this is what fascinates Bakhtin. Our lives in the contemporary world are really complex, many factors are involved in shaping every moment of our lives, and if we want to present this life, to criticize it, so that we can lead a better life, better and freer forms of life, we find that nothing can help us as much as the novel. The novel is the most liberating thing in the world. Literature, and especially the novel, means freedom and a free life for me. Without literature we are nothing but miserable prisoners surrounded by many prison guards: prison guards of ideologies, prison guards of cultures, prison guards of powers and capital, prison guards of religions. I think we can create a more beautiful world inspired by literature, because literature, as Jacques Derrida has taught us, is “the most interesting thing in the world, maybe more interesting than the world.”
You compare writing to aimless and pointless strolling and further say “what the writing wants the writer to do is to not think about anything except to write”. Is this the approach your take to your own writing? What does your writing process look like?
Yes, exactly. Writing for me always starts with a few words, sentences, or images. I really do not know what is going to happen next. Writing itself is like thinking. As you write, you constantly engage with, dialogue with yourself, your surroundings, the sounds you hear, the texts you read, and you suddenly find yourself in a place you never imagined. Suddenly you write something that shakes you too. What very often happens to me is that while writing, I suddenly see that I am writing against myself as sharp and critical as I can. I write things that if someone else wrote about me, I would definitely give a very sharp answer. This can never be achieved with a planned process of writing. If what you have written is not shocking or terrifying to you, then what you have written is undoubtedly a cultural and worthless text, not literature. Literature is counter-cultural. What constitutes culture is a restriction on language, or in other words, a limited language; a language which does not have the right to cross its human boundaries, and, in particular, cannot let the animal language into itself. No other animal can be cultured and educated except the human being; who takes pride in this culture avoids anything that indicates his connection with the uncultured animal. What constitutes culture is this “avoidance”. The body is the most common human experience resembling an animal: the body that eats, sleeps and copulates. In culture, the lived experience is limited and everything that is considered to be strongly related to the flesh is considered an animal thing, and would be condemned to be eliminated or limited. The most important characteristic of a cultured man is his disregard for the body. The first cultural act of man is to hide his body and hide his obvious resemblance to the animal; he then pretends to no longer hear the animal's voice until he is already alien to the voice of an animal which is he himself. What constitutes culture is a restriction on language, or in other words, a limited language; a language which does not have the right to cross its human boundaries, and, in particular, cannot let the animal language into itself. No other animal can be cultured and educated except human being; who takes pride in this culture, which avoids anything that indicates his connection with the uncultured animal. What constitutes culture is this “avoidance”. Writing is the speech of the animal, or more precisely, the speech of man who has come to regard the becoming-animal as a transcendental becoming. The creation of the writing comes not out from the human being who strives for the denial of her animality to attain human status, not from the animal that cannot experience becoming an animal, since it is already an animal. Becoming an animal is a unique human experience: it is only he who can deny his animality and then be able to become an animal. An animal that is not human is not capable of becoming an animal. The animal that seeks to become human is also unable to create the writing because it is still an animal, unable to become an animal. Literature is counter-cultural, inhuman and savage.
You also say that “a writer, by negating the stereotypes of language, writes (walks) in ways other than pre-existing ways”. However, isn’t there a risk that by doing so the writer would fall into another trap – trying too hard to be original? How could this be avoided?
Well, we can never completely get rid of shackles, ideologies, stereotypes and cultures. There is no such thing as an original too. When one speaks of originality, purity, and the like, he should be considered really dangerous, because he can claim that many others deserve death, because they are not original or pure, just as the Nazis thought, or religious fundamentalists or racists think. Incidentally, literature is dirty and unoriginal, literature is polluted. In Henry Miller's brilliant novel, “Quiet Days in Clichy”, we see Henry Miller and his friend Carl who go to a little café in clean Luxembourg where a phrase is written on the owner's business card: “cafe-free-of-Jews”. A clean café that doesn't work if they have not left something dirty out: Jews! When Henry and Carl return to dirty Paris, they want to run a sexy orgy with French girls: Carl is worried that he has been infected by syphilis, that is, he is worried that he has become ‘dirty’, but Miller says: “Get a double dose and spread it abroad. Infect the whole continent! Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet. Now I know what makes the world civilised: it’s vice, disease, thievery, mendacity, lechery.” Incidentally, literary stereotypes are often based on imaginary purities, because culture has regulated them, a culture that tries to turn human beings into obedient and subordinate creatures in order to make things easier for those in power and capital. Negating stereotypes means trying to become more and more dirty and impure. James Joyce does this by infecting English language with Gallic, French, and Italian language, etc.; Jack Kerouac does this by not editing his works, by what he calls “spontaneous writing”; Henry Miller, George Bataille, and D. H. Lawrence do this by combining literature and obscenity; William Burroughs does this by cut-up technique and assembling.
The Iranian Translators Association ranked you as one of the best three Iranian literary translators in the last five years by popular vote in 2018. What makes a good translator? How do you select the books to translate?
For me, translation is part of writing, or more precisely writing means translation. You must be a translator in advance to be able to write. Literature comes from writing as translating. The Writing, as the result of writing as translating, first breaks the boundary between a writer and a translator, and then the boundaries between languages, cultures and nations-territories. The writing does not belong to any language, ethnicity, nation or territory. The writer needs at least two languages to write. I always translate texts that I love, that I feel they have taken me beyond myself, that I feel I'm inclined to get deeper into, because it can be said that translating a text is the best way to understand it. Of course, there are other factors as well: for example, I always translate texts that I know other translators will never go to work on, for example, more than half a century had passed since the publication of the novel “Naked Lunch” and it had not yet been translated into Persian. I knew I had to translate it myself or we would have to wait another century to have it translated into Persian. I always translate works that I know can affect the minds and lives of my audience, books that can make them sleepless, shock them, and make them think wildly. I think now my audience in Iran is aware of the same point, because even when I translate an unknown work into Persian, it will be welcomed by Iranians as soon as is published, because they can guess that again they would encounter a shocking text.
You started writing and translating already as a child. How come that you not only obtained a degree in mechanical engineering, but also became a professor in this subject and published a couple of study books which are now taught at the universities in Iran?
Honestly, I have never felt that there is a boundary between the genres of knowledge, as was not the case in ancient times. For example, Khayyam, the Iranian poet and mathematician, has always been one of the most beloved figures in my life; he was a great poet, a great philosopher, a great astronomer, and a great mathematician. Of course, I have always liked mathematics and engineering, but my love is literature, I can live without mathematics, but not without literature. But living conditions also played a role: when I was a teenager, my idea was that in order to have a comfortable life, to have a lot of free time for my literary work, I have to become an outstanding engineer. I got my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and entered the master's course. In this course, I was able to get acquainted with 3D manufacturing technology, and well, I became very interested in it, because it was at the frontiers of knowledge and was considered as high technology, and then I entered the doctoral program so that I could teach at the university. I was halfway through my master's degree, when I became a famous writer and translator in Iran, whose books were bestsellers, and I could now have a relatively comfortable life thanks to my books. But well, after years of teaching at the engineering department of the University and given the very good relationship with my students, it was really hard for me to leave them alone. On the other hand, I think my literary knowledge really distinguished me as an engineer, because it has given me a great power of expression and imagination, and as a writer and intellectual, my knowledge of engineering and mathematics has allowed me to see some issues from a point of view that it is almost impossible for others.
So these very different talents of yours co-exist in harmony? Don’t they compete for your time?
Haha! You have probably heard the joke that Slavoj Žižek says: Marx, Engels, and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have a wife or a mistress. Marx, who is a conservative man in private matters, answers, “A wife!” while Engels prefers a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says, “I’d like to have both! So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress and tell my mistress that I am going to my wife. And then I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!” I always joke about myself that my wife is engineering, and my mistress is philosophy. But I deceive both to have my time for writing and translating. The fact is, at least for the past twenty years, ninety-nine percent of my time has been spent on literature, and perhaps one percent on engineering and math. Even when I teach metallurgy at university, I do it more as a writer than as a professor of engineering sciences.
What is coming next for you?
Nobody knows in fact. I have decided to pursue my education for a PhD in English Literature, and I am currently working on my interdisciplinary proposal with this provisional title: “The Interaction between technology and democracy in the works of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka.” Since I have a master’s degree in engineering, there are academic problems that, if resolved, I hope to start working on my doctoral dissertation in English literature in September 2021. Anyway, at the moment I'm waiting to see what the future will bring for me, but well, I know what I'll bring for the future. I am writing a book in Persian entitled “Literary Communism” and a novel called “Do not count holes of my soul, O evil numbers!”
 Irina Papancheva is a Bulgarian fiction writer, www.ipapancheva.com
 The anthology “After Communism” with works by contemporary Bulgarian writers, selected and translated to Farsi by Farid Ghadami, came out in 2020.