10 for the Top 10: Marina Nemat

The panelists are in the process of deciding which book they want to bring into the ring for the February debates. We'll reveal who they are — and the titles they choose — on November 23 on CBC Radio's Q and right here on CBC Books.

In the meantime, we want to introduce you to the authors you voted onto the Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10 list.

Today, we put the spotlight on Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran.


Marina Nemat's internationally bestselling memoir Prisoner of Tehran was published in 26 countries and won Italy's prestigious Grinzane Cavour Prize. Her follow-up, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, is also a bestseller. The recipient of the inaugural Human Dignity Prize from the European Parliament, Marina was born in Iran and emigrated to Canada in 1991.

Q: In three lines or less, describe your book to Canada.

MN: My book is the story of my life in Iran. I spent two years as a political prisoner in Evin prison when I was a teenager. The book tells of how a girl who loved reading Jane Austen and dancing to the tunes of the Bee Gees ended up being tortured and witnessed her friends suffer and many of them die.

Q What inspired your book?

MN: I didn't write the book because I felt inspired; I wrote it out of desperation. When I was released from prison only days before my 19th birthday, I sat at the dinner table with my parents and watched them talk about the weather; no one wanted to know what had really happened to me behind bars. It was easier to look away. I wasn't ready to talk about it either, but it would have been nice if someone had said: "When you're ready to talk, we're here to listen." But such an offer never came. So I spent the next 16 years looking ahead and avoiding the past at any cost. I simply wanted to be normal. My efforts proved effective for a while, and I didn't show any psychological symptoms until March 2000 when my mother died, and, with her death, certain memories, issues and questions were resurrected. That was when I began having psychotic episodes, but everyone in my family continued to ignore that there was a problem, and I realized that I had to take the matter into my own hands. I decided that I had two options: one was to jump off a bridge, and the other was to write. I chose to write, looking for closure, and it took me a while to figure out that "closure" is the most ridiculous word in the English dictionary. One can learn to deal with a traumatic past by looking it straight in the eye and confronting it, but it is impossible to "close" traumatic experiences and neatly put them away. I have forgiven those who tortured and raped me, but one cannot forgive a system that creates torturers. The truth has to be told.

Q: What do you most enjoy about writing non-fiction? What are the biggest challenges?

MN: To be honest, I cannot say that I "enjoy" writing non-fiction. My books, articles, and essays deal with very difficult but crucially important issues like torture and mass murder. I believe that I am a witness and my life would become meaningless if I don't testify and tell the world what I saw with my own eyes and experienced on my skin. Many of my friends died in Evin, but I lived. It is my duty to make sure the world knows what happened to them and the terrible things that still happen to political prisoners in Iran. The biggest challenge for me when writing about my experiences is telling the truth the way I remember it while protecting the identity of my friends who still live in Iran. It is a fine and delicate balance.

Q: What makes you fall in love with a non-fiction book?

MN: I love good stories and good writing. Books were my companions when I was growing up in Iran. I had a very dysfunctional family, so books became my refuge. I love it when literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, succeeds in carrying the human experience. Good writing can happen only when the writer is brutally honest with her readers and herself. Honesty makes stories real and immediate, but it is not the only element needed to produce good literature. Like any other artist, a part of a writer's job is to create something beautiful out of raw material. Yet, it's important to remember that like goodness, beauty doesn't need to be complicated or overly decorated. It doesn't take much effort to create beauty from beauty, but it's a challenge to take dark, traumatic events and use them to create beautiful literature instead of slipping into melodrama.

Q: Describe where you write.

MN: Everywhere and anywhere I can! I have been travelling a lot, so I have been writing on planes, in airports and in hotels. I also write in coffee shops, on trains and at my desk in my bedroom. I wrote most of my second book After Tehran in the common room of Massey College, which has a lovely view of Massey's courtyard and is a very cozy and friendly place.

Q: What are your favourite places to read, at home or out in the world?

MN: Again, anywhere I can! But I love reading by bodies of water, especially by the sea or ocean. While travelling in Europe for the last few years to give talks, I have been so fortunate to go to a small island off the coast of Cannes called St. Honorat, which is owned by Cistercian monks and feels worlds away from the decadence of that region. It's a place of simplicity, prayer, and meditation. St. Honorat is my favourite place to read and write, because it's extremely beautiful and calm and gives me a tremendous sense of peace.

Q: Is there a non-fiction book that had a great influence on your writing?

MN: Before writing Prisoner of Tehran, I rarely read non-fiction, but it's now what I mostly read. I think the non-fiction book that has affected me most is Literature or Life by Jorge Semprun. He writes about his time in a concentration camp and also the traumatic experience of writing about it. Even though our perspectives are rather different, I find Mr. Semprun's writing masterly and thought provoking.

Q: What did you want to be growing up? Why?

MN: I wanted to become a medical doctor, because human biology fascinated me. As a child, I was a big fan of mysteries, and I loved challenges, so I thought it must be extremely satisfying to beat seemingly incurable diseases.

Q: What's your guilty pleasure when you take a break from writing?

MN: Watching movies and going to the theatre, which I don't get to do very often.

Q: If you could pick any Canadian personality to defend your book, who would it be and why?

MN: I think it would be Nazanin Afshin Jam. I have met Nazanin only twice and very briefly each time, but I have come to greatly respect her and her untiring dedication to human rights issues all over the world and especially in Iran. Like me, she was born in Tehran, Iran, and she is familiar with the serious human rights violations in the country of our birth, and we both love Iran, its beautiful culture, and its good but very unfortunate people who have been hostages of their own government for far too long.

Do you agree with Marina that human rights activist and former Miss World contestant Nazanin Afshin Jam is the ideal Canadian personality to defend her book? Enter our "perfect pairings" contest for a chance to win a complete set of the Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10!

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