An Iranian émigré to Amsterdam finds memory unlocked by new language.
You left Iran for Holland in 1989, a decade after the Islamic revolution. My Father's Notebook, which draws on your experiences with your deaf father and with emigration, has a surprising number of religious elements.
I come from a religious family, but I have never been a religious man myself. I never thought I would write about religion, but I had to explain what happened to me and how I came to live in Europe. Religion directly figures in the story.
You wrote the novel in Dutch. To whom did you feel you had to explain?
To my readers here in Holland [Abdolah has a weekly column in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant], and elsewhere too—and to myself. From this distance, I can better see the beauty in my old culture. Europe has changed, and writers need to find a language for it. As a writer I have a duty to listen to what the times are asking of me. I can't write only about myself, about my old loves; I have to try to give answers to the big questions.
Does writing in Dutch affect how the answers come out?
When you change the language you write in, you change the way you think. You get the chance to reinvent yourself, as a writer and as a person. When I switched to writing in Dutch, I felt like a prisoner who suddenly had a big yard to walk in, and I began to remember things I had forgotten. You discover new things in your old language and culture and at the same time you discover new things in the new language, and in the process you renew your youth, which is very important for a writer.
My Father's Notebook is the first of your novels to be translated into English, and there are no Persian translations of any of your novels. Do you have any hope that the book will be read in Iran?
I'm sure it will, but it will take time, maybe 50, or even 70 years. It's like a time capsule—except it's not hidden. The English translation is actually a big step toward reaching Iranians.
Will you write a novel in Persian?
Sadly, I am not able to write in Persian anymore—at least where literature is concerned.