Theses Doctoral

Disorderly Political Imaginations: Comparative Readings of Iranian and Caribbean Fiction and Poetry, 1960s-1980s

Akbari Shahmirzadi, Atefeh

The advent of Area Studies and Comparative Literature in US academia developed in response to (or, more aptly, as a result of) the Cold War in the 1960s, with locations such as the Middle East relegated to Area Studies due to the strategic importance that knowledge of its histories, cultures, and languages had for global (read: US) geopolitics. On the other hand, the discipline of Comparative Literature constituted the expansion of US literary studies due to the influx of European intellectual refugees, with scholars and practitioners formulating the field around texts in, primarily, German and Romance languages in conversation with Anglophone texts. Over the past two decades, this Eurocentric model of Comparative Literature has been challenged, and, to some extent, subverted. Yet more often than not, modern Persian Literature is consigned to the realm of Area Studies in general and a Middle Eastern discourse in particular.
My dissertation, “Disorderly Political Imaginations: Comparative Readings of Iranian and Caribbean Fiction and Poetry, 1960s-1980s,” addresses this gap by placing Iran and Persian literature front and center of a comparative project that includes canonical writers from the anglophone and francophone Caribbean. Additionally, “Disorderly Political Imaginations” considers intellectual figures and their literary productions that contributed to the liberation of individual and social consciousness. These figures created unique forms and languages of revolt that deviated from the prevailing definitions of committed, political, or national literature. In The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad sets a precedent for comparing Iran and the Caribbean in his chapter titled “Tehran,” by connecting Gharbzadegi (Westoxification or Occidentosis)—the cultural and socio-political manifesto of Jalal Al-e Ahmad—and Aimé Césaire’s négritude. On a broader, geopolitical level, he concomitantly connects imperial schemes in the “nominally independent” Iran and Caribbean region, along with the forms of resistance to them. Yet, for a chapter titled “Tehran,” the focus is mostly the contribution of other Third World projects to that of Iran’s.
Conversely, “Disorderly Political Imaginations” centers Iran as a comparable case meriting comprehensive analysis in Third World cultural and political projects. Furthermore, rather than study the works of Al-e Ahmad and Césaire as exemplary cultural projects of resistance, I choose to investigate alternative modes of political thought and writing that move beyond the framework of “resistance”—modes that are not always considered as contributing to the political landscape. The “disorderly” politics and the “disorderly” creations of the writers under study thus take to task the idea of political literature during the decades of global decolonization, motivated by Jean Paul Sartre’s littérature engagée (engaged literature).
In three chapters, I study Iranian literature of the mid to late 1960s in comparison to African diasporic literature from the Caribbean of the late 1970s to mid 1980s. The oft-overlooked issue of gender in national liberation projects of the time is addressed in my first chapter, “Scarecrows and Whores: Women in Savashoun and Hérémakhonon,” as I compare the two novels by Simin Daneshvar and Maryse Condé. The multilingual female protagonists in the novels of Condé and Daneshvar act as both literal and cultural interpreters and intermediaries in the narratives. I then extend my analysis of these protagonists’ precarious positions to the equally precarious intellectual positions of their creators in political discourses. By using Condé’s delineation of disorder in “Order, Disorder, Freedom and the West Indian Writer” as a necessary marker for freedom in both thought and creativity, central arguments of my dissertation about disorderly political imaginations are also presented.
In “Disrupted and Disruptive Genealogies in the Novels of Hushang Golshiri and Édouard Glissant,” I compare Golshiri’s Shazdeh Ehtejab (Prince Ehtejab) and Éduoard Glissant’s La case du commandeur (The Overseer’s Cabin). Building upon Michél Foucault’s concept of “subjugated knowledges,” I demonstrate how their protagonists’ insistence on finding answers to the political questions of the present in the historical past (of empire and slavery respectively) leads to their insanity, and how, concomitantly, the formal characteristics of these narratives (such as their in-betweenness in terms of genre, language, and mode of address) offer “noncoercive knowledge” (to use Edward Said’s phrasing from The World, the Text, and the Critic) in lieu of answers. While taking into consideration the world literary traditions these novelists are engaging with, my analysis moves beyond a poststructuralist critique; instead, I privilege these writers’ own historical, socio-political, and cultural contexts in literary analysis, both distinctively and in comparison with one another.
In “Poet-Travelers: The Poetic Geographies of Sohrab Sepehri and Derek Walcott,” I analyze how they both create a poetic language of revolt and liberation that, while affirming multiple literary and linguistic traditions, cannot be dismissed as derivative or unoriginal. In this comparative reading, I study their particular use of enjambments and anaphora, the combination of an autobiographical, monologic poetic voice with that of dramatic dialogues, a plethora of travel imagery and vocabulary that reflect the poets’ own multitudinous travels, the disparate religious, mythic, and folkloric traditions they draw from, and ultimately, the unique languages they create.
In comparing these texts, I consider the different and particular historical moments they were written in, which is a revolutionary moment for Iran, and for the Caribbean texts is a postcolonial moment. The political nuances of these different contexts thus effect the timbre of the texts, and these divergences in articulation are analyzed as well. “Disorderly Political Imaginations” thus does not create a homogenizing, globalized study of literary texts. In that same vein, my research demonstrates the valence that incorporating neglected subjects (in this case, Persian language and literary studies) into Comparative Literature can have in understanding the hegemonic structures of power at play in knowledge production, both locally and globally.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 26, 2019