Athena Farrokhzad

Sweden

Athena Farrokhzad was born in 1983 and lives in Stockholm. She is a poet, literary critic, translator, playwright and teacher of creative writing. After several years of collaborative poetry projects and international collaborations she published her first volume of poetry in 2013, Vitsvit (White Blight) at Albert Bonniers förlag. The book circles around the topic of revolution, war, migration and racism, and how these experiences condition the lives of different members of a family. Vitsvit has been translated to several languaged and turned into a play. The same year, her first play, Päron, premiered at Ung Scen /Öst.

Farrokhzad teaches creative writing at Biskops-Arnös författarskola, and has translated writes such as Marguerite Duras, Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig and Nicole Brossard to Swedish. In 2015, her second volume of poetry, *Trado*, written together with the Romanian poet Svetlana Carstean, will be published.


A place for struggle

 

In the afterword to Anttikeksiskväde the Swedish poet David Vikgren writes about how language can both be used as an instrument of power and as a potential liberator. Vikgren quotes Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (Partisan Review, 1990) who says that “when one enters language one is faced with a choice and this choice encompass the political history of language, the imperialistic reach of language and the fact that one has either been oppressed by language or been forced to conquer it. Therefore language is no place of retreat, no sanctuary, not a place where one can make decisions. It is a place where one fights”. These theories of Walcott and Vikgren regarding “language as both use of force as well as a tool of liberation” is actualized in my reading of Vit Svit (White Blight) by Athena Farrokhzad, her first book published in her own name. This collection of poems explore the dual nature of language. Just past the mid point of the collection I read: “My father said: Violence is a language in which the hand excels” and am reminded of the violence that language can be. The visual representation of the poems is that of printed strips from a Dymo machine with white letters on a black background. The family who “arrived here in a Marxist tradition” are surrounded by the new language and has to relate to it: “My mother let bleach run through her syntax / On the other side of punctuation her syllables became whiter / than a winter in Norrland”.

            The narrator hardly appears in White Blight but remains an important part through the whole collection. It is mainly the family of the narrator who speaks, a retelling through short reports. Their stories are characterized by both simplicity and a twisting and turning of familiar expressions. The collection explores questions of heritage, responsibility, truth and language and manages to create an unsettling sensation through the twisted expressions. The repetitive form and the emphasis on the stories told by the family members surrounds the implicit narrator. There is a seriousness resting heavy on the stories; they contain memories and reflections on violence and torture, and also “words of wisdom” and appeals to the narrator/poet. The narrator's presence becomes very clear and concrete but one never hears her speak. The narrator, as well as I, the reader, have to relate to the stories. The writer is the one listening to them and the poems put me in her shoes. The poems raise questions in me, questions about my own writing but also about all the stories in the world and I, as a reader, am held accountable. I become the writer and have to take responsibility for the story, “Who becomes a storage in a poem about treachery”?

            The narrator/poet have access to language but the poem is infiltrated by the family:

 

            My mother said: Write like this

            For my opportunities my mother sacrificed everything

            I must be worthy of her

            everything I write will be true

 

The position of the poet becomes loaded and the questions of heritage and truth gains their immediacy through the mother: “My mother said: All families have their stories / but to reveal them there has to be someone / with a particular wish to deface”. That quote brings to mind a similar but different wording by the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Lyn Hejinian: “Every family have their own collection of stories, but not all families have someone who can tell them” (from My Life). It is as if Farrokhzad creates a dialog with with that quote, a conversation about family, narrative and truth. The stories in White Blight echoes of this dialog, they contradict each other, give just in order to take back. In Farrokhzad's collection the poet (“the narrator”) becomes the defacer and questions about who can, or have the right to tell their story, what should be told and who is lying surfaces: “My mother said: Whose mother are you rendering / My brother said: Whose brother is being referred to”?

            Other people populate the collection. Besides Hejinian White Blight echoes other voices. The poems contain quotes and scrambled quotes by other poets like Paul Celan and Jila Mossaed, post-colonial thinkers like Édouard Glissant, but also references to the Bible. The questions of heritage and narrative becomes both deeper and wider through this literary heritage and the “family” of writers to whom the poet relates.

            During a conversation with Faranz Arbabi, director of the play version of White Blight, in the fall of 2015, Athena Farrokhzad emphasized the importance of her work with poetry being a collective engagement. She has collaborated with the poet Linn Hansén and the author Kristofer Folkhammar in the G=T=B=R=G poetry collective. She has also contributed to the initiation of two artistic collaborations between Swedish and Palestinian and Iranian poets. In 2013 the Swedish poets traveled to Teheran to meet with six young Iranian poets, among them Rosa Jamai, Roza Zarrin and Fateme Ekhtesari. This exchange eventually became a part of the Gothenburg Poetry Festival of 2013 headlined “Resistance from my desktop: Iranian poetry today” concerning questions about translation, freedom of speech and writing.

            As I said, poetry as resistance is central in White Blight. The problems surrounding language and its double nature run through the collection. The stories are pitted against each other, illuminating the complexity: “My brother said: We are nothing but the sum of the harm inflicted on us by language / The sum of the harm we inflict “. The stories point both inward to themselves - as a way of the collection to take responsibility for what it is – and outwards towards the world, “the reality”. The language is the essence, the problem, the violence, but there is also a tenderness towards it: “My mother said: Oxygen for the lifeless / vitamins for the listless / prostheses for the limbless / and a language for you ”. Poetry can be a language of liberation. Or as Walcott and Vikgren puts it: a strategy of resistance. In the end of the collection one senses a certain hopefulness: “My father said: You will articulate my faceless longing / There is a word that is the last to abandon humanity / Tomorrow I am one syllable closer ”
            White Blight is a place for struggle.

Pernilla Berglund