By Laura Barnett
Sahar Delijani was born on a warm day in Tehran in 1983. Her mother was a prisoner in the city’s notorious Evin jail. When her waters broke, she was blindfolded and travelling in the back of a van. She was held in a room for hours, interrogated, riding the waves of labour pains. When her baby was finally born, it would be hours before her mother was allowed to hold her for the first time.
These events are vividly recounted in fictionalised form in the opening chapter of Delijani’s first novel, Children of the Jacaranda Tree. It is a powerful evocation of real events that, Delijani says, have been all but forgotten by Iran’s younger generations: the imprisonment of thousands of political dissidents by the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; and the summary execution, in 1988, of thousands of these prisoners (Amnesty International puts the number at between 4,500 and 5,000, but Delijani believes it could be as many as 12,000).
”It’s not something that is well known,” Delijani tells me in her faintly accented, precise English, over coffee in a London hotel. She moved with her family to California at the age of 12 and now lives with her Italian husband in Turin. Her London visit is a brief one, a dizzying round of the meetings that accompany any hotly anticipated debut (her publishers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paid a six-figure sum for the book, and are comparing its potential impact to that of Khaled Hosseini’s Kabul-set bestseller, The Kite Runner).
”We still don’t even know how many people were killed,” she goes on, ”because they were all placed in mass graves. And because families were afraid of speaking, a lot of people didn’t even say if their daughter, son or husband was missing.”
Delijani’s uncle was killed by the regime. He had been arrested six years before, along with his two brothers, his wife and Delijani’s mother, but was the only one still in jail at the time of the executions. As with Delijani’s birth, her uncle’s death is present in the novel, which follows a number of connected characters – from the young political dissidents in prison; to the relatives left to care for their children; and the children themselves, growing up with unanswered questions about their parents. But she is at pains to emphasise that the book is a work of fiction, not a biography: ”I wanted to write my own story,” she says.
Her parents still live in California, along with most of her mother’s family. But political activism casts a long shadow in Iran, even after 30 years: her parents hope to return there one day, so Delijani has decided not to name them or her elder brother in connection with the novel.
The facts about her parents’ imprisonment were never kept from Delijani. As an infant, she was allowed to stay with her mother in her cell for 45 days and was then sent to live with her two-year-old brother and grandparents until her mother’s release, more than a year later. It would be another year before her father was set free.
She remembers little about this time, but has a bracelet her father made for her from date stones in prison. She thinks she remembers the day her father came home. ”He picked me up and I got scared, because I had never seen him before,” she recalls.
As a child, to have been born in prison felt like a badge of honour: ”I thought that was the coolest story ever,” Delijani says with a smile. She recalls her parents’ ”prison friends” – the people with whom they had shared cells and remained in touch after their release – as a warm, extended family. But she was not encouraged to discuss her parents’ dissident status with outsiders. ”Maybe it was paranoia, but it was something that we would never say to anyone – not even to my best friends at school. So that really created a gap between me and other people.”
Delijani has always been interested in writing: she wrote poetry until she was 19, studied comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has written three unpublished novels. She was inspired to draw on her family’s experiences after coming across the date-stone bracelet her father made. ”I asked my dad, ’What is the story behind this?'” she says. ”He told me and I wrote that story and another, and I realised every time I was writing, I was just going back to the same theme – the mass arrests of 1983, and the mass executions of 1988. I was becoming obsessed.”
Her parents were supportive from the start, she says, though her mother was a little hesitant, afraid to confront the painful memories that she had, through necessity, put to the back of her mind. ”I think being pregnant in prison is different than just being in prison,” Delijani says. ”It’s much more traumatic. My mother said that every time she talked [to me] about prison, at night she would have nightmares.”
But when Delijani told her how much she wanted to commit the story to paper, her mother began to open up. They spent several days talking. ”One of our conversations was on a flight to Toronto,” Delijani says, ”the seatbelt sign was on, so she couldn’t get away!” It was about what giving birth in prison had really been like. Delijani took notes, trying to maintain a degree of distance; looking for details – where her mother was taken, what she was wearing. After she wrote the chapter about her birth, she translated it into Farsi, and showed her mother. ”She loved it,” Delijani tells me, her relief palpable. ”She was like, ’I have so many more stories to tell!’ And I said, ’Good, OK!'”
One of the most painful scenes in the novel is when Maryam, the wife of the executed prisoner based on Delijani’s uncle, is told to come to Evin prison to collect her husband’s belongings: she will not be allowed to see the body and there will be no burial. At the jail, Maryam finds that the belongings are not even his.
The lack of information given out about the executions affects Delijani deeply. She hopes that writing about them may, even in a small way, help to stop history repeating. ”Even having written about these things,” she says, ”they are still, for me, overwhelming. There were protests [in Iran] in 2009, but what was happening with people in prison [then], [the] torture – a lot of people were shocked. But for me, it was like, it happened before. They killed so many people. If we don’t know that, we don’t know how to react the next time, so history continues to repeat itself.”
Delijani feels that writing the book has brought her family closer, helped her to understand what her parents, uncles and aunt sacrificed for their political convictions. ”We were already very close,” she says. ”But now I know how young they were, how difficult it was. When they came out, my dad couldn’t go back to university – he had lost his right [to an] education. The rest of their life was sacrificed for what happened. It will never really go away.”