Marina Nemat on The Next Chapter

Every year, the Canada Reads authors sit down with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers to discuss their life, writing and what it's like to have their book up for national debate. We will share all the interviews on the Canada Reads website. 

This week, we bring you Shelagh's conversation with Prisoner of Tehran author Marina Nemat. This interview originally aired on the January 9, 2012, episode of The Next Chapter.

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Marina Nemat emigrated to Canada 20 years ago from Iran. Soon after, she started to work at the Swiss Chalet and every day after her shift she would spend an hour or so writing. She was working on what would became her bestselling memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, which was published in 2007. It told of her imprisonment and torture as a teenager in one of Iran's most notorious prisons. She didn't tell anyone about what would be inside those covers — not even her husband. When she finally shared her story with the world, it changed her life.

Growing up in Tehran, Marina was a typical student. Bright, smart and hard-working, she enjoyed music, make-up and boys. She had "grown up listening to the Bee Gees and watching Little House on the Prairie and falling in love with Donny Osmond." All that changed after the Islamic Revolution. Immediately, the outspoken, independent girl who dreamed of being a doctor was silenced and expected to abide by the most rigid laws of Islam — even though she was Christian.

Marina became frustrated by the new regime, and eventually spoke out, in calculus class of all places. The new Iran "was downright boring" Marina says. Her education was replaced with religious propoganada. While she couldn't dress the way she wanted and talk to whoever she wanted, she wanted at least to learn what she was supposed to learn.

It was this move that would result in her arrest. At 16, she was taken to Evin Prison. And she wasn't the only one. "There were thousands of teenagers being arrested those days in Iran," Marina told Shelagh Rogers. Marina believes that 99 per cent of them were, like herself, tortured.

Marina spent two years, two months and 17 days in Evin, and it's a period of time that has changed her life forever. For years after her release, Marina did not talk about what happened to her. She didn't talk about the conditions or the torture. She didn't talk about her forced conversion to Islam or her forced marriage to an Evin prison guard. Instead, she kept it bottled up for over 20 years, just as she was expected to. "When I stepped out of Evin Prison, I entered a larger prison because nobody talked about anything," she explained. "They were always afraid someone was listening. You knew if you said it you would end up in Evin."

This was true for even her own family. "My family was like a brick wall," she said. "They made it very clear to me that what happened in Evin should not ever be discussed."

In 2007, Marina broke her silence. She finally felt that she had "the maturity and ability to put it together, to draw conclusions, to analyze anything, to decide, logically, what to do next."

She's now a passionate author, speaker and activist and does everything she can to draw attention to what she experienced in Evin. Why? Because in the 30 years since Marina was there, not much has changed.

"I wish I could use past tense when it comes to the situation in Evin Prison," she said. "Unfortunately, very unfortunately, I cannot."

Arlene Dickinson will defend Prisoner of Tehran in the Canada Reads 2012 debates. The debates will air at 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. in Nfld.) on CBC Radio One and will be livestreamed on CBC Books at 10 a.m. ET on February 6,7, 8 and 9.

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