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Things We Left Unsaid

Zoya Pirzad is a renowned Iranian-Armenian writer and novelist. She has written two novels and three collections of short stories, all of which have enjoyed international success. Things We Left Unsaid has been awarded multiple prizes, including the prestigious Houshang Golshiri award for Best Novel of the Year and her most recent collection of stories, The Bitter Taste of Persimmon, won the prize for Best Foreign Book of 2009 in France. She grew up in Abadan, where this novel is set, and now lives in Tehran.

About the Novel

A model wife and mother, Clarisse leads an unremarkable life. She has all she's ever wanted: a well-respected engineer husband and three children, tucked away in a wealthy, middle-class neighbourhood. But her tranquillity ends forever with the arrival of an enigmatic Armenian family across the street. The debonair widower, his beguiling tween daughter, and his mother, a domineering aristocrat with an exotic past, steal their way into Clarisse's home. Before she has time to understand what's happening, passions, politics, and a plague of locusts have whipped up emotions that she never knew she had. Suddenly, there are options, opinions, and desires, a wholly different life ready for the taking - but only if she can figure out what they are. Things We Left Unsaid is a humourous yet poignant insight into the hopes and aspirations of Iranians in the years that led to the Islamic Revolution.

Excerpt from Chapter 9

I went inside and locked the door behind me. In Abadan, nobody locked the door in the middle of the day; I only did so when I wanted to make sure I was alone. My penchant for self-criticism meant that I had challenged myself on this more than once: What does locking the door have to do with being alone? To which I always answered: I don’t know. I leaned up against the door and closed my eyes. After the bright light and heat outdoors, and the noise of the children, the cool, quiet chiaroscuro of the house was lovely. The only sound was the monotonous humming of the air conditioners, and the only smell, a hint of Artoush’s cologne hanging in the hallway. I felt like having a coffee.

I looked at the kitchen clock. It was just before ten. Mother and Alice would certainly turn up within half an hour. I’ll wait¸ I thought, so we can have coffee together, and took the pack of cigarettes out of the fridge. Where had I heard that cigarettes would not go stale if kept in the fridge? I didn’t smoke much, but when the house was empty, I liked to sit by the window in the green leather armchair, lean back, puff, and think. In these rare moments of solitude, I tried not to think about daily chores like fixing dinner, getting Armen to study, Artoush’s forgetfulness and indifference. I would reminisce about things I usually didn’t have time to think about. Like our house in Tehran – its little yard and big rooms, its long hallway that was dark even in the middle of the day. My father used to come home at noon, wash his hands and face, sit down at the table and eat a big lunch. He ate whatever Mother had prepared that day with great enthusiasm, listening attentively to her recount the morning’s events in minute detail: how the watermelon she had purchased proved pale and unripe once cut open. About the rising price of pinto beans. About the fights between me and Alice, which were a daily occurrence. Father would mutter things under his breath that we could not quite make out, or if we could, we would not remember. Then he would get up from the table, thank Mother for lunch, and head down to his room, at the end of the somber hallway. It was a small room with brown velvet curtains, always drawn, and cluttered with stuff that Mother would constantly complain about, saying, ‘Why do you keep this junk?!’

After the forty-day commemoration of his death, Mother went into Father’s room with Alice and me, and she cried. ‘God only knows why he kept all this junk.’ The floor-to-ceiling shelves were stuffed with books and newspaper clippings and magazines and half-finished crossword puzzles. There were letters from people none of us knew, not I, nor Mother, nor Alice. There were group pictures of my father with his friends when he was young – friends that none of us had ever seen. Alice choked up and Mother wept. ‘For all these years! Why did he hang on to all this junk?’ I opened the books and closed them. I examined the broken wristwatches, recalling, as I turned them over, how Mother always complained of Father’s lack of punctuality. In an old shoebox I saw rusty razor blades and in a wood crate, a whole assortment of empty aftershave bottles. As far back as I could remember, Father had a bushy beard and he never used aftershave.

In that little room at the end of the hallway Alice found nothing worth keeping. I took the books, and Mother dried her tears, opened the brown velvet curtains and threw out everything she could put her hands on. With the little room at the end of the hallway emptied, Mother felt her principal duty had been accomplished, and with an uncluttered mind, she sat down to mourn for Father. Since then, the phrase, ‘If your late father were alive…’ had become her litany. Little by little we forgot that nothing would have been any different, even if Father were still alive. Father would read his books, solve his crossword puzzles, and eat fatty foods. He would not share his opinion about anything, or, when he did, we would not hear it, or would not remember it. We would get on with our own lives. I would come to Abadan with Artoush and raise my children. Alice would go to England for a few years, ostensibly to study nursing, but secretly hoping to find an English husband. Mother would wash the kitchen floor twice a day, backbite about the sort of women who stored Persian melons and watermelons in the fridge without washing them first, and find some reason to worry every day.

With my head sunk deep in the green chair, I thought of the Simonians. The son’s elegant hands, the mother’s rhinestone embroidered shoes, and Emily, who had yet to speak a word to me. I thought about what kind of woman Emily’s mother must have been. Mother had said, ‘She went crazy and turned up in Namagerd.’ I wondered how old I had been the year we went to Namagerd. Eight? Maybe eleven? Or perhaps about the same age as my twins were now.

I heard the gate squeak and craned my neck to see Mother and Alice coming. In the sharp sunlight, with her flappy yellow dress, my sister looked like a big sunflower among the trees and the hedgerows. Mother, wearing a black dress, looked thin and hunched, like a stick of wood. Armen used to say, ‘When Aunt Alice and Nana walk side by side, they look like Laurel and Hardy.’ My sister was carrying a big cardboard box. I knew what it was without looking. Alice observed her Friday visits to the Mahtab Bakery to buy cream puffs more religiously than her Sunday visits to church.

Interview by Lucy Walton

What can our readers expect from you current novel Things We Left Unsaid?

The thoughts and feelings of a 30+ year-old woman living in the 1960s in a Southern city in Iran, who wants more from her life than being a perfect wife, mother and housewife; her relationship with her mother, sister, husband, children and friends; and the similarities of all these to the life and feelings of women nowadays, regardless of the part of the world in which they live.

Where did your inspiration come from for the novel?

I always wanted to write a story which took place in Abadan, the city where I was born. This novel is a sort of homage to my beloved birthplace. The inspiration for the story was a childhood memory of a beautiful blond lady (very Marilyn Monroe-ish!) who had come to Abadan from Tehran to visit one of our neighbours. In my 12-year-old eyes, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She takes the role of Violet in the novel, though neither her name, nor what happens to her has anything to do with reality.

How did you go about researching the 1960s in Abadan?

I spent my childhood in Abadan but because I believe one shouldn’t trust her memories I went back to Abadan three times: I visited the house in which I lived, my school, the Armenian Church and all the places I used to go as a child.  I talked to people who lived in Abadan to check details about places, events and names of trees and flowers. For the ‘locust’ scene, I corresponded with a locust research centre in Italy. I looked at numerous photos of Abadan from that era; photos confirm whether the details you’re writing about are accurate, which is very important. I also read newspapers and magazines from the 60s and visited the library of National Oil Company in order to read their Bulletins from that period.

How did it make you feel to win the Best Foreign Book in 2009 in France?

Being appreciated in any form is always enjoyable but apart from that, I was delighted to see that my French readers – among them the members of the jury of the magazine, Courrier International – not only liked my stories because they were about a rather unknown (or wrongly perceived!) people of an exotic country, but because they saw similarities between themselves and the characters in the stories. Once, on a flight from Paris to the city of Pau in France to promote one of my books, a 40ish charming flight attendant approached me with a piece of paper in her hand, “Are you Mme Pirzad?” she asked. Thinking that she was checking the passengers’ list, I nodded. Her eyes widened, “Zoya Pirzad, the author?” Now, it was my turn to widen my eyes. It turned out that she had read all the French translations of my books and loved one in particular (a novel about a divorced woman who lives with her mother and teenage daughter in Tehran, Iran). When I asked her why she liked that novel she said, “I am divorced, I live with my mother and teenage daughter in Paris, I share lots of things with your protagonist who lives in Tehran. I understand her.”  Thiswas my best prize!

How do you go about injecting humour into a book with a serious undercurrent?

I write about life and life is a combination of all sorts of things: sorrow, anger, dull moments, seemingly not important or important events andhumorous situations.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to write about a time before the Islamic Revolution?

It depends on whether the writer has lived in that period or not, and then her or his power of imagination and – of course, research, research, research!

What future projects do you have lined up in terms of your writing?

I am working on a novella and a novel simultaneously. The first takes place in Armenia and the second is the story of a bunch of Iranian immigrants in London… I will say no more!

What do you like to read?

Depending on my mood of the moment, I read all sorts of novels; classics, thrillers, bestsellers.
I like the works of Donna Tart, Penelope Lively, Anne Tyler and of course, the writer for all seasons, my beloved Jane Austen.

You write both collections of short stories as well as novels, do you have a preference?

Each story, somehow, decides and dictates its own length and form. I do not have a special preference.

Via  Female First and Iranian.com
Thanks for reading Things We Left Unsaid

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