Farangi Girl is the remarkable memoir of Goldsmiths creative writing graduate, Ashley Dartnell. In short scenes, intense as any page turning novel, Dartnell charts her extraordinary, chaotic childhood in Iran and Florida. She talks here about writing as pearl diving, shaping memories into a story and how reading saved her life
AD: In my head and heart? When I was about ten years old. In ‘real life’ I began taking writing courses at lunchtime in about 2004 with the wonderful writer and teacher, Martina Evans, at City Lit where I wrote some of the episodes (including the opening chapter when we drive down from the Caspian). I continued to write bits and pieces while I was doing my MA at Goldsmiths, particularly in Blake Morrison’s Life Writing course.
AD: It was a many-staged process. Initially I wrote episodically—often stimulated by memories of tangible objects. For example, the scene I referred to above, wending our way down from the Caspian on the Chaloos Road, derived from a writing exercise Martina gave us where we read a poem by Seamus Heaney, 'A Sofa in the Forties' where he and his brothers and sisters turned an old couch into a rollicking old steam train. After hearing the poem, I instantaneously thought of my father’s old gray Rover with its cracked leather seats and that fateful journey down the mountain impeded by dozens of watermelons on the road.
During this phase of the writing, I was accessing memories from some deeply subconscious place. The American poet John Ashbery talks about writing poetry ‘by lowering a bucket down into a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind--a stream of continuously flowing poetry.’ In my case, I felt as if I were diving into a sea of memories and every day I would plunge in, never knowing who or what I would find. I would write furiously for hours, almost in a trance. At the end of the day I would often not remember what I had written.
PJ: So, you had no sense of structure at that point?
AD: I felt like one of the pearl divers in the Indian Ocean who plummet deep into the ocean to gather a ton of oysters for just one precious pearl. I collected countless memories and wrote them all down—almost 200,000 words worth. But many of these memories, although important to me personally and often quite interesting on an individual basis, didn’t actually ‘tell my story.’ This led to the next phase of the process when I shucked a great deal and crafted a (still unwieldy) manuscript, that focussed on the essential mother-daughter story that flows through the book.
After that – much editing, moving from the past tense to the present and then back again, adding the adult voice in separate sections and then reintegrating it, adding political and cultural information about Iran and then removing it, all the while focusing the episodes ever more precisely on the central story.
PJ: As well as your own memories you say you had letters, photos and the testimony of others who were around at the time. Did those sources provide incidents that you couldn’t initially remember, or did you use them to back up your memories?
AD: Essentially, I used the archaeological evidence to verify the story. It was crucially important to me that every single incident in the book be factually correct. There were a few things I was unable to confirm that I dropped, but luckily I was able to validate almost everything. As it was, some minor things slipped through—I have one incident slightly out of order chronologically and my uncle recently told me that my grandfather worked in a paper mill not a sawmill. One of my best sources of not only verification, but also inspiration, was my godmother, the woman called Yosy, who plays a big role in the book and in my life. I was back and forth with her throughout the writing and then she came and stayed with me part of a summer and we went through the manuscript literally word by word to ensure it was as truthful as possible.
PJ: There's a lot of dialogue in the book. Can you tell us about writing that and staying truthful?
AD: In terms of the dialogue, because obviously I made that up (unlike Frank McCourt who claimed he actually remembered every line of dialog in Angela’s Ashes, I make no such claim!) I felt what was important was to stay true to the person’s voice. Both my parents had extremely distinct (and very different) speech patterns, so I was able to capture their voices relatively easily. In fact, when I was writing scenes in which they were speaking, I felt as if they were sitting on my shoulders, little homunculi, whispering, chatting, yelling, singing directly into my ears.
PJ: Without giving too much of the story away - I’m thinking of the hairbrush incident - you were very forgiving! The book is a testament to a child’s unconditional love for its parent.
AD: Ah, interesting that you think it was a testament to a child’s unconditional love—I would say that my brothers’ and my resilience in the face of a pretty chaotic upbringing had to do with the fact that we all felt that our parents loved us more than anything. That is not to say they were not flawed, that they didn’t have complicated lives, that at times they didn’t treat us in a way we (and probably they also, in retrospect) wish they hadn’t, but the fact is, our parents loved us heart and soul.
Ashley, brothers and mother in Iran
AD: With what came up in the writing process I was quite surprised, actually quite shocked. When I started writing the book, I thought it would be a romantic adventure story—more Gerald Durrell than Jeannette Walls. What emerged during those intense pearl harvesting sessions was, however, as Graham Greene writes in The End of the Affair ‘...the bitterness leaks again out of my pen...’ So much pain, so many sad memories—at times it felt unbearable. I couldn’t believe that we had endured it all. And yet we had, and survived and thrived. And that, I believe is down to that bedrock knowledge that our parents, particularly our mother, loved us as vehemently as a wild animal loves and protects its young. Plus, I had an added life preserver and that was my passion for books and reading. It’s not an understatement to say that reading saved my life. From books, I escaped the realities of our life, I learned how to live, and I made lifelong friends. Francie Nolan, the young girl in Betty Smith’s Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Doris Lessing’s protagonist Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook, Evie Taylor, the mixed up girl in Anne Tyler’s A Slipping Down Life, the steadfast wife, O-Lan, in Peal S Buck’s The Good Earth—these characters are part of me forever. Reading can provide inestimable comfort during difficult times.
PJ: At one point we learn that your mother tried to publish her life story but a New York publisher thought no one would believe that so much had happened to one person – did you have any such response to your manuscript?
AD: I don’t think so—remember that when my mother did that outline in the seventies, the whole memoir genre had yet to be established. It is only in quite recent times that memoir and autobiography evolved from being the jurisdiction of great men (think St. Augustine, Montaigne, Benjamin Franklin) to encompassing people with no special accomplishment other than simply having lived (or survived) a fascinating or difficult life. There are so many misery memoirs out now that deal with such truly unbelievable and traumatic material that I think my story, while compelling, hardly seems unbelievable.
PJ: Which memoirs or works of life writing sustained you as you wrote Farangi Girl?
AD: Anais Nin’s journals were the first works of life writing I recall and I gobbled them down. Of course, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and The Children of Violence series, which although they are fiction, are heavily autobiographical.
While I was writing Farangi Girl, I read many contemporary memoirs and analysed them microscopically: Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood; Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss; Aminetta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water; Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle; Mary Kerr’s The Liar’s Club; Philip Roth’s Patrimony; Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; Blake Morrison’s And When Was the Last Time You Saw Your Father. In addition to studying the genre generally, I also read memoirs by Iranians such as Daughter of Persia by Sattareh Farman Farmaian; Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat and Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi. Literally, I read dozens of memoirs.
PJ: The scenes read like vivid fiction – always a dramatic incident, the main players on stage with lively dialogue – did you ever think of making this material into a novel? Would you like to tackle a novel?
AD: Thank you—I am so pleased you thought so—I worked hard to write the book so that the sights and sounds of Iran were vivid and the characters as alive and colourful as they actually were. Yes, I did think about fictionalising it, largely because I wanted to protect my parents’ memory and those people who are still alive who may be upset by the revelation of the many secrets. In the end, I realised that the people I wanted to protect all knew the story and that fictionalising would hardly shield them. I felt strongly that the best way to be true to the material was by writing it as just what it was—my life story. Also, I thought the amazing photographs added so much to the story and they are clearly part of a memoir as opposed to fiction. A smaller consideration was that I felt it was extremely difficult to publish literary fiction, whereas there seemed to be a market for literary memoir, particularly if Iran, which is such a controversial place, was part of the story.
And yes, I am really keen to get started on my next book which is fiction. Right now I am pretty engrossed in the marketing of Farangi Girl, but I am trying to get the research underway as I do a lot of background reading and research to prepare for my writing.
PJ: So it’s definitely fiction next?
AD: I’m doing research for a book set in Iran in the middle of the twentieth century—fiction and maybe suspense. Stay tuned!
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
AD: Just finished the breathtaking Samarkand by Amin Maalouf. I’m at the beginning of the exciting phase of reading scores of books to prepare for my next one. I love to read, so this part of the journey is pure pleasure.
PJ: What would you say to someone about to embark on a life-writing project?
AD: BE PREPARED! It’s a much more emotional journey than you expect (even if you expect that!) Negotiating the material so you don’t unduly hurt the ones you love while being truthful is like navigating a class six rapid on a balsawood raft. On the other hand, the emotional journey can actually lead to great personal growth.
Once the book is published, the imbalance of information is quite daunting—every talk or book group I do, everyone knows everything about me and I know nothing about them. Given that I am not a Katie Price ‘bare all’ kinda gal, this has been challenging for me. On the positive side, however, I have had the most extraordinary reaction to the book—letters have flowed in from all over the globe telling me how moved people are by the story and I’ve heard from people who knew my parents when they were young as well as old friends and acquaintances of my own—that aspect of it has been by far the most gratifying.
More on Ashley Dartnell and Farangi Girl, here.